Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Jewish Re-cycling

Part of the secret of Judaism’s longevity is that key aspects of the religion get renewed every year. In the past week, my synagogue (and others around the world) ended the two-week High Holiday season in a joyful (but not too raucous) celebration, called Simchat Torah, that included circling the synagogue with all of our Torahs and even dancing a little with the holy scrolls, completing the reading of the last book of the Torah, and then beginning the reading of the first book just minutes later. We took only a brief break after chanting about the death of Moses and praising our strength in finishing that story before turning our focus to the tale of Creation and the emergence of people in the world.
There are special ceremonies that accompany this Torah recycling process, just as there are special ceremonies involved in most religious practices—Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and others. And even if our faith (or at least MY faith) doesn’t always get renewed by these ceremonies, our memories do. Some of my strongest memories growing up are connected to the High Holiday ceremonies, and especially Simchat Torah. Marching and dancing around the synagogue, receiving candy from adults on each circuit, and, years later, enjoying several tastes of schnapps after being called up to the Torah to hear the last or first words read aloud. Imagine that…the first time I ever got tipsy was in shul! But it was a gentle drunk, filled with what I’d like to think was spiritualism. As I remember it, when I walked home from the synagogue that day, I wove a little from side to side, or maybe I just floated.

I felt a greater sense of renewal last Sunday, just five days after Simchat Torah, when I joined as a mentor to our 12-year-old students who are preparing for their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs in the coming year. We held the first of a series of Sunday services in which the students learn how to put on key religious garments—the prayer shawl (tallit) and phylacteries (tefillin). The items are of ancient origin, and they have made Jews stand out for many centuries, even when standing out was not always a good thing. There are stories of religious martyrs walking to their deaths wrapped in these garments. But we were certainly not focusing on martyrs last Sunday morning. We were passing along ancient practices that had been passed to us by our elders. And it struck me that I was now an “elder.” At least, I’m sure that the students considered me pretty old.

All of the students were very cooperative as, for the first time, they said the special blessings and went through the unusual rituals involved in donning the religious items. And they do seem pretty strange at first, particularly those involving the phylacteries. You start by placing the box part of one of the phylacteries on your bicep and then wrapping the long leather strap attached to the box around your arm seven times. The wrapping has to be tight; too much slack will cause the box to dangle off your arm. Then you have to start over. We veterans joked that the strap should leave marks on your arm that might be apparent for several hours. So the kids bravely wound the leather tightly, so tightly that two young arms began turning purple. That was quickly remedied. Jews often talk and teach about suffering, but that should not come from the religious ceremonies—except perhaps circumcision, which is another matter altogether.

Once they placed a second box containing parchment scrolls with ancient prayers on their foreheads and completed another ritual involved in wrapping the leather arm strap around their hands, they were finally ready to begin the morning prayers, which I’m sure seemed pretty anticlimactic. Was all of this ritual necessary? The students certainly could have learned about the traditions virtually; there are literally dozens of You Tube videos showing how to put on tefillin. Here is a link to the one created by my rabbi and posted on our synagogue’s website:

Or they could have forgone the rituals, as most Jews do. But here were fathers sharing the experience hands-on with their children. (Fathers, because so few women of my generation were allowed to experience the rituals. Maybe in the next generation mothers will also become mentors in this area, too.) Will most of the students ever repeat these rituals after they complete this special "growing up" year? I have my doubts. And that disturbs me somewhat. The important thing is that they have had the experience and learned a little more about the traditions of a religion that was, in effect, foisted upon them at birth. In the coming years, they can make their own choices about what to keep in their practices and in their memories and what they will pass along to their children. We elders just want to help them make more educated choices.

So you see it really is a cycle. Nature renews in the spring; Judaism and school systems renew in the fall. It is all part of recognizing that we will reap only what we sow.

1 comment:

  1. Michael,
    Thank you for a heartfelt look at helping our students put on tallit & tefillin for the first time. It was a great feeling to work with the students as a group so they could giggle a little with each other, fumble with loose straps, and hopefully come away feeling a little more connected.