Wednesday, June 8, 2011
Shavuot: The day I received Torah from my ancestors
A few weeks ago, my grandmother called me. "Ketzelah" (Yiddish for "kitten" - my grandmother's nickname for me), she said. "Have you received a package yet?" "No," I replied. "Well, our family historian, the one who had the Chanukkiah that our family carried all the way from Russia and you received a few years ago...she has another treat for you. It's a prayerbook, from Vienna in the 1840's. Her aunt's brother-in-law was traveling during World War I and he found this prayerbook with an inscription on it to the same name as their last name. He brought it home with him and cared for it. Now, she wants you to have it." "Really?" I said. "That's incredible. I'm so honored. But, what am I supposed to do with it?" "Well, you can use it, and care for it, and perhaps one day pass it on, as well."
Today is Shavuot. Today marks the end of the counting of the Omer - the time between redemption (from Exodus) and revelation when we were giving the Torah from God. And Torah is our sacred gift - the special gift of the Jews. We receive Torah every Shavuot as if we were standing on Mt. Sinai - and it is our responsibility to pass it from generation to generation - to transmit that sacred gift for future generations.
When I got home this afternoon, a box was sitting waiting for me. It was so highly packaged that it took me ten minutes to even get into it. And for good reason. When I opened the padded box and unwrapped the acid-free paper, there was the most beautiful prayerbook I'd ever seen. The back and spine, covered in ivory. The front, ornately decorated. And right in the middle of the cover are the tablets of the Ten Commandments. This is no coincidence.
I undid the clasp and carefully turned the pages, worn with time and use. On the front was an inscription in Yiddish (with a translation):
I wish you my dear child that you should in the ______ of the far west have good luck.
From me your loved mother who wishes you luck and good mazel.
I began to weep. Certainly, I am not worthy of such a gift of Torah. This prayerbook, which was born in Vienna in 1847, has traveled through time and space to end up in my little apartment in Queens. It has been through wars, through homes, through hands, spoken by my relatives lips, as they uttered the prayers of our ancient people. No, I am not worthy.
And then it hit me. Today is Shavuot. Today is the day upon which we receive Torah - the transmission of gifts of wisdom and Judaism from our ancestors. Today, we all stand at Mt. Sinai, trembling, feeling doubt and scared and unworthy to receive these gifts, these blessings which we are given. It took 164 years for this prayerbook to reach me, but now it has found it's home - in my home and in my heart, and in the continued tradition of my family.
It is my responsibility to accept this piece of Torah, this piece of wisdom, to care for it and to love it and to make sure that future generations know its worth and its beauty.
Ken Y'hi Ratzon - May this be God's will.