A Seat at the Table

I love the feel of the Torah.  The parchment that I’m not supposed to touch, but always seems to call to me with its black letters and hard skin.  I recently opened up one of our storied scrolls for a religious school class.  The moment those two sticks of wood, clothed in the words of our people, were opened and the sacred writ peaked out through the parchment the entire room changed.  As if a gentle light was let go from its trappings and settled on our shoulders, igniting our minds and warming our hearts.  I always have the overwhelming desire to run my hands over the letters.  The firm and soft invisible fuzz in the spaces between the columns and words, the hard lettering of our ancient language that feels like it could break off if you push too hard, as if it were made of some tight soil that you could brush off the page, collect in your hand, and place in your pocket. I will admit, I’ve accidentally slipped once or twice, and felt the crude paper, the text itself.  Like the blue arc of electricity charged from a wall outlet to my hand on a dry day, the effect of my contact with the Torah is always unexpected, speedy, and touches my core.  Doubtless, countless other people have read not only the same words, but the same exact Torah, any time I have the opportunity to open one of our sacred record books I can’t help but wonder about the history of it, about all the other hands that have touched and been touched by it.  How many Bar and Bat Mitzvahs have sweated over the same text, running their silver yad under the same dark words and their sisters before them, their parents and grandparents on their same day.  We draw invisible lines under our favorite stories in our text that grow deeper and deeper, year after year from the heavy hands that draw the groves.  When I read from the same text I join my hands with theirs in our holy ritual, the telling of our story.

One of the Torahs in our ark, the tall one in the middle, hails from the town of Dub-zeesh, a shtetl that added its page to our history with the same tears that sealed lamentations and our memories of the crusades.  The scroll itself was wrenched from the hands of the community, like a newborn child during the fires of the Holocaust, and we share her presence today only because of the odd coincidences of history that seem to pattern our past.  Today when we read from this Torah, her skin is pockmarked, with holes throughout the scroll patched up, the original text fallen away and dissolved into the wide forgotten margins of history.  The new words present themselves now with emphasis, as if they were outlined the way you might draw a circle around a favorite picture in a shadowbox or diorama.  The cratered landscape of the parchment mirroring the violence of that bygone era, one that reminds us of its presence every time roll open our text.

I have learned from Rabbi Krichiver, who learned from one of his teachers, that one of the marks of something holy is that is remains standing no matter what you throw at it, regardless of what challenges contest it and push against its firm or shoddy foundation.  The stories of our Torah have lived for thousands of years, throughout every hole and tear we discover in its fabric, regardless of persecution from within and without of the Jewish community, irrespective of the science that has continually weakened and strengthened the great content and information in these books.  Our Torah remains and insists on its holiness in the face of intellectual adversity, or perhaps even because of it.

And one of the most powerful moments in our Torah takes place this week in our reading.  Before this moment Jacob has lived a life as a con man of sorts.  He tricks his father into giving him the blessing and inheritance that belongs to his brother, in a rage Esau drives Jacob away from their home and the two don’t speak again.  That is, they don’t speak again until the morning after this fateful night.  Everyone has a complicated past.  We all have things we wish we had not done, things we could have left unsaid.  Jacob is living this.  I can picture him that night.  So far, all he knows is that Esau is coming to meet him.  It is unclear what Esau will do when he meets his little brother again, now adults.  Will he kill Jacob?  Jacob has planned for this, hedging his bets he sends most of his livestock and servants away in case of armed conflict.  The night before they meet Jacob can’t sleep.  He lies awake tossing and turning.  I can picture him lying there, wide awake, staring at the canvas roof of his tent, that under the full moonlight appears like a shade cover in broad daylight.  The bright glow of the moon spread evenly across the inside fabric of the tent.  Wide like the expanse of his mind and the thoughts that run across it, like the small and large lizards and snakes that scurry quickly across the yellow sand in search of the nearest shelter.  Some thoughts stand out, burning in the light of his mind, how will my brother receive me tomorrow?

Finally the dawn breaks and the pinks and oranges of the sunrise change the color of the tent canvas.  There is no slowing down or speeding up the sun, and the time that Jacob has been agonizing over, the moment when he will go out to meet his brother, arrives with the same unstoppable hours.  Jacob gently throws off the blankets of his bed and lets the cold air wrap his body.  Standing up on slender legs he steps into his well worn leather sandals and puts on his better robe.  The first thing he notices as he leaves his tent are the mountains in the distance, that look like paper in the morning light.  Esau is like a fortress on a hill, there would be no opposing him if he decided to attack, he for sure has the upper hand.

Flanked by a small reserve of his servants and caravans Jacob makes his way toward Esau’s encampment, when they reach the halfway point, Jacob tells his people to wait and makes the final steps alone to show that he means no violence toward his brother, they are not an army.  At first Jacob doesn’t recognize him.  The years have been generous to him, he has aged well and is still as handsome as he was in their young adult years.  But there is more experience under those eyes.  The skin is a darker red, and his hair has faded from bright orange to a rich crimson.  Jacob is paralyzed, his brother, the man who has run through his dreams for countless years now stood quietly walking toward him.  Slowly but deliberately.  And in the silence the red man steps forward and embraces his brother.  Va’yeev’koo, and the two began to weep.

We have all been in this position.  Wondering how our family will receive us because any number of the things that come up in a long life together has caused a rift in your relationship.  There is something especially powerful about family, about the people with whom we make up our house, our home and our community.  These are the ones we people our lives with, and the ones that we lay our burdens on.  When conflict arises among us, it sits heavily in our hearts.

What we learn from this story is that the same things that make our Torah holy, that we can challenge it, rise up against it, throw at it all the many challenges that come with any life, are the same things that make family holy.  At the end of many years our family remains our family, and as we gather together this Thanksgiving holiday, amidst all of the trials and challenges that have torn our families apart and put them back together again, I hope that we can all revel and indulge in the things that make our lives holy, the things that weather the violence of our lives and at the end of the day, still join us at the table.