Torah: Two generations connect in light of eternal memory

For decades, my father wrote a column on the Torah portion of the week for the Orthodox Yiddish press, pounding out his thoughts with two fingers on an old manual at one end of the dining room table. Luckily, he was hard of hearing, and so mostly unbothered by the kid-generated chaos that roiled around him.

I have a collection of some of the earliest columns, published in 1966. My father seems to have been uninterested in the haberdashery of Parashat Tetzaveh, the elaborate vestments of the High Priest, encrusted with chrysolytes, jacinths and beryls (whatever those are), just as he barely noticed that his own socks often sported different colors. What called to him were the very first verses:

“First,” he begins, in characteristic shorthand, “the eternality of light, which must illuminate the Temple and the destruction of the Temple.” The interpretation came from the usual rabbinic methods: The Torah speaks of eternity twice here, once in the commandment of the ner tamid, eternal light, and then again in the commandment to remember this eternal light for all generations, hukat olam ledorotam. Would not one of these be sufficient?

But my father’s response to this difficulty was not only exegesis, it was also obsession.

“Why the double eternity?” my father asks. And answers: “The light burning in the Temple must never go out. But the law continues for generations, even after the light has gone out, even after the destruction of the Temple. The light that illuminated the Temple must also illuminate the ruins. The law is the memory of the light that has gone out, and that memory is eternal.”

My father is talking, as always, about the destruction he witnessed in Poland, a destruction of the eternal light of European Jews, which (he is not shy to say) “was greater than the destruction of the Temple.” The repetition in this Torah portion, a double eternity, is not produced by the timelessness of its eternal truths or the inextinguishable light that symbolizes these truths. On the contrary: The Torah repeats itself like an overanxious parent because it has to. Flames go out, and people let them go out or violently extinguish them. And then they forget to light them again. And without this light, and the memory of the light, even the darkness is invisible.

And now this parashah has faithfully rolled around again. Now it’s my father’s daughter working in her quieter dining room, on a softer keyboard, a continent and decades away from that grief, and fear, and loss. In the cruel-kind trajectory of loss and forgetting, mortality and healing, Parashat Tetzaveh gives us, although we are no wiser, a chance to try and crack the nut again.

What I hear now is not my father’s chiaroscuro of light and darkness, the Temple and its destruction, but rather the generative, endangered, frail structure on which it rests: “the generations of Israel.” This is what reaches out, beyond the frame of precious stones and ephods, to grab me. Is it me that’s meant? How hopeful, for the writers of these oddly specific instructions for an ancient tabernacle, to push beyond that world to what lay far in the future, at the mercy not only of the bulldozers of history but also of the frail connections that tie one generation to the next.

We think of these connections as the transmission of instruction, the kinship of shared meals, the restless child squirming on her father’s lap in shul. But they also span abysses. The Torah also speaks, that is, to distracted middle-aged orphans, with stubborn and fading memories of urgent, unwelcome messages, uncertain how or why to send them along to the children who will — they fervently hope — outlive them.

My father is gone. He died in 1995 after a fall down the stairs, the envelopes with his articles to mail to the printer in one hand. The columns came out for weeks afterward. But then they stopped, and the collected columns sit on my shelf, opened less often than they should. My father’s obsessions are not mine, which is to say, I haven’t always remembered not to forget. So what do I have to offer, alongside and after my father’s vision of the flame that illuminates its own disappearance?

Naomi Seidman is the Koret Professor of Jewish Culture and director of the Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. She can be reached at [email protected]