My words today are inspired by the work of our friend and member, Andy Stark. Andy is also good friend of our Bar Mitzvah, Sammy.
Andy did a magnificent needlepoint tallit bag for Sammy, and Sammy can show you, but there is something more than the labor of love that a needle pointed tallis bag represents. It’s connected to a few deeply significant ideas that come from our tradition. And this has to do NOT with what’s visible – the outside of the tallit bag – but rather what’s not visible.
Let me share this from our tradition.
The first is that later in the Torah when our people were commanded to build the mishkan, the place where the tablets of God dwelt, they were told to overlay the mishkan with gold…Outside and in. Gold was to be placed where it could not be seen. B’bayit u’bichutz…
And the metaphor is obvious – to be truly meaningful, to be truly valuable, we need more then external bling, more then what’s seen. We need our beauty to be found inside and out. On a superficial level, we know what a beautiful lining in a coat means to the one who wears it. I remember my Bar Mitzvah suit. And I remember that the lining was silk and had a beautiful pattern…funny what we remember.
But the meaning is more than that. The meaning is in reference to the human personality. Who knows people who superficially are so kind and caring, even deeply involved in communal needs, but in the recesses of their homes and their most intimate relations, that kindness is not there?
We know people who express great faith and attachment to religion, but in the places of privacy, they certainly don’t reflect that. I saw a picture in the New York Times this week that was deeply disturbing. It was in a court room with two attorneys and their clients. Their clients had beards and peyus and black kippot and they were convicted of fraud and other criminal acts in their attempts to push renters out of their real estate in order to create greater fortunes for themselves. They went so far as to brick the entrance to the doorway of a needy mother so she would not return to her apartment.
These men looked pious on the outside, but their piety was only on the outside.
No, the Torah tells us. Mi bayit u’michutz.
Outside and inside – the gold covered the ark.
So when we think of an adorned tallit bag, we think that the inside is plain. But Andy did something so worthy of note. And it will be Sammy’s prized possession, God-willing, for life…and if he is really careful, for future generations.
She didn’t needlepoint the inside. Rather she crochet into the white fabric inside the tallit bag a list of Sammy ancestors, going back about six generations.
I know there are people with family bibles, and I think, most likely, these are people who have resided in the same country for generations that have the names of past generations. This is the first time I have seen this in a tallit bag. How beautiful.
And I’m not sure about this, but the fact that Sammy’s Bar Mitzvah is on Parshat Toledot makes it even more meaningful.
Toledot. It’s an interesting word in the Hebrew lexicon. You know that I have told you before that in Hebrew there is no distinct word for history. If you pick up a history book it is most likely to be called Historia shel…
But toledot, the name of this week’s parshah, is also used. It means generations.
History is written by the powerful. History is, in fact, subjective and interpretive. But toledot is kept alive by the family and the people in the tribe. These are the ANCESTORS, THESE ARE OUR ANCESTORS…and these are our stories.
And so the story of our people begins with Abraham and then continues with Yitzchak, Isaac. And for Isaac to know who he was and to know about his destiny, he had to connect to his ancestor.
Sammy, you are the next in the line of those ancestors listed in your tallit bag. And I would say, that you should take on the responsibility of knowing as much as you can about those people – where they came from, why they left, who were they were and what was their story. They ultimately lead to wonderful grandparents, and yes, your parents. These are your inherited, your received stones, and they shaped you in ways you don’t even know…
Today, there is a great move towards discovering ancestry. We see there are websites to discover family trees and kits to uncover our genetic backgrounds.
For the truth is, we are so very disconnected from our pasts, and when we are disconnected we lose something; it has to do with identity and personality and experience and certainly values.
You know there was a time when all this was much more natural. We lived where our ancestors lived, often for generations. We were born where, they were born and we were buried where they were buried. In this way we see that even burial places can be living places when they connect us to generations, and we feel the past as alive.
The connection to toledot gives us a much greater understanding of who we are, how we are identified, how we are connected. It’s a religious thing, a soulful, spiritual thing, it’s a part of memory. Their stories were our stories.
Contemporary culture has worked against this. We’ve moved away; modernity wants us to forget and technology allows us to delete.
But we as Jews remain connected to Avraham, Yitzchak v’Yaakov, to Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, v’Leah. It is important, for identity and meaning. And we give them life. We say mechayeh meitim…that’s not about physical resurrection. That’s about giving the dead life, living with them!
And we see that it’s not about the idealization of these characters. No, this parshah of Toledot, generations, shows a very troubling and even deceitful ancestry, but one which is part of us. A story that we confront and examine and evaluate and grow from. There’s beauty in this, and it is real. If it were an idolization of a story, it wouldn’t be helpful. But because of the many lessons to be learned in the struggles and imperfections, it is very useful.
You know, I have come to realize that those names in the tallit, like all the people we recall from our past, may be dead, but the dead live amongst us. They teach, they correct us, and they inspire.
L’Dor VaDor is much more than a slogan, and it shouldn’t be used to be quaint…look, the kids singing what zeide sang…it’s much deeper and more profound. And I think it is essential to the human experience. But if it’s lost, we lose the anchor that grounds us.
Sammy – you will learn about those who came before. You will learn it from your study of Torah and Toldot Yisrael, you will learn from history and you will learn from your parents. And this will enrichen your life’s plan. It’s where we need to be in this world of materialism and forgetfulness, this world that doesn’t pay reverence and respect to our elderly, that runs away from the meaning of dying and death…and forgets history.
Veileh toledot – these are the generations. I realize that it’s like the tallis bag – not just about the past, but also the future.
It may be that the best way to reclaim our future is to honor the past.
Shabbat Shalom, everyone.