New texts layer life with meaning

Two years ago, on Erev Shavuot, my grandmother, Bea Papo, died at 98. In a column I wrote about her afterward, I focused on the arc of her last journey, the 40 days between Passover and Shavuot. At that seder she announced that she was about to make her final trip, saying, “In the last few days I have been trying to imagine how an old woman might feel and act when forced to leave behind her roots and her whole life.”

Referencing both herself and those who were about to leave Egypt, she advised the next generation to no longer follow her lead, but to leave her in the desert and continue on their own. Their charge? “To tell the alien world about the Lord who is the ruler of the universe” through stories and commentaries. “And so it has been ever since, with every new generation making its own interpretation. Thus keeping the Torah alive.”

At last year’s seder I read aloud Bea’s final teaching, the specter of the Prophet Elijah even more pregnant with sad possibility. But at this year’s seder I included the text as part of the haggadah itself. I did it reflexively, out of longing and respect, not understanding its larger significance until Lag B’Omer. And it was on this holiday of bonfires and mystical reflection, wedged between Passover and Shavuot, that I realized I had stumbled onto an insight about the need to create texts to accompany us on our Jewish journeys.

Traditionally, the core Jewish texts were received by the Jewish people via God and Moses. The closer we got to our era, the further those texts were from the divine source, and the more we allowed ourselves to see the human hand at play.

For most Jews today, however, a text’s emergence onto our ritual or liturgical stage might happen almost instantaneously — the same way our family added my grandmother’s reflection to our haggadah. And our need to create those texts is multifaceted, allowing them to stand in for a departed teacher, a generation that has passed or a journey we cannot join.

On one hand, the traditional Jewish substitution of a text for a person, a land, even the presence of God is utterly wanting; how can words stand in for these other, more substantial, dimensions? On the other, what else has Jewish culture been about? Our texts are not specimens to collect, inspect and categorize, like butterflies pinned to a board, but dynamic processes that evolve over time, dying and being reborn as each generations breathes new life in them.

Perhaps this is why the tradition views texts as being organic and alive, with the mystics viewing the letters of the Torah not as ink on parchment, but as “black fire on white fire,” their meaning lighting up our minds, but without being consumed or consuming us.

The conflation of texts and new life is a vibrant one, with both universal and Jewish resonances. Biologists describe DNA as being composed of “letters” that are remixed in every child to create a new, living text. And people of all faiths assign a text — we call it a name — to newborns, which their personalities will hopefully fill and fulfill.

As in many Jewish families, my wife and I named our children after those who have died, and whose spirits circulate within them like letters on a page. Our new daughter, Elia Bea, is named after my grandmother, a process that started with our oldest son Aviv.

I consulted with my grandmother before we named Aviv, as the alef in his name was designed to evoke the alef from my grandmother’s father, Avram. She appreciated the logic of our approach, which was to pass down the alef as the primary, canonical text while adding new letters that would stretch out toward his future.

On Lag B’Omer a fire blazes forth, making visible what is born in Exodus but not yet spoken at Sinai. In each generation we turn our lives into a text, consciously or unconsciously. The question is whether we make of this text a jeweled icon or a light unto ourselves. As my grandmother said of her choice, on her final journey: “Instead of taking her jewels as the other women did, she took the candlesticks.”

Dan Schifrin is a Berkeley-based writer and a frequent contributor to J. This column first appeared in the New York Jewish Week.

Dan Schifrin
Dan Schifrin

Daniel Schifrin, a local teacher and writer, is writing a play about medieval Jewish Spain as a LABA Fellow at the JCC East Bay.