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Vayigash and Scattered Books

The following commentary was distributed to rabbis and Jewish leaders throughout the country by the Jewish Federations of North America.

Eight years after his brother’s tragic death, the unparalleled medieval Jewish thinker, Moses Maimonides, wrote a letter to a friend, speaking about his recent struggle with mourning and loss: “Now my joy has been changed into darkness: he has gone to his eternal home, and has left me prostrated in a strange land. Whenever I come across his handwriting or one of his books, my heart grows faint within me, and my grief reawakens.” This letter was discovered among the hundreds of thousands of documents uncovered in Cairo’s Ben Ezra synagogue in what is now called the Cairo Genizah. There, hidden away for centuries, were prayerbooks and Bibles, Talmuds and commentaries, holy books scattered among seemingly incidental letters and writings.

Several weeks ago I arrived at the synagogue to discover a box of old books. The caretaker informed me that this happens from time to time. Worn siddurim and chumashim, along with crumpled yarmulkes, were left at the door. I wonder if these were the remnants of a parent’s library. Not long ago the mourners perhaps gathered in the home in which they grew up, now they returned to close up the house, pack away keepsakes and donate useful items. What might they do with these books?

One can imagine the discussion: Can we throw them out? They appeared to answer: leave them at the nearest synagogue. And so in the middle of the night they placed the books by our synagogue’s door. I wandered through the books. Some had to be placed in our genizah, destined to be buried. Some were added to our congregation’s book collection. A few were intriguing: an unfamiliar translation of the psalms, an obscure edition of the Passover haggadah. One book caught my eye. Between the prayerbooks and Bibles I found a hundred year old book: Audels Automobile Guide with Questions, Answers and Illustrations, 1915. This manual offered answers to questions such as “How should the throttle be operated on an open or country road?” Here was a discarded book, detailing forgotten questions, hidden among abandoned holy books.

I wondered how many of our Jewish books are becoming increasingly forgotten. Is it because the questions of prior generations no longer appear relevant? Who drives a car with a handle throttle lever anymore? “From what time may one recite the Shema?” the Talmud asks. Or is it perhaps because our parents’ books cause us pain, discomfort, unease? Do our hearts grow faint when we see the books revered by prior generations?

For millennia our most treasured possessions were books. So revered were these works that even their tattered pages were never discarded. They were instead buried.

Two books in particular have guaranteed our survival: the Siddur, prayerbook and the Torah, Bible. We have carried these books from place to place, from country to country. Wherever we have lived we have grasped these in our hands. We have reinterpreted their verses and rewritten their words. They have defined us. These books have ensured that the Jewish future would be connected to past generations. We might be different than our parents and grandparents, but the books we hold in our hands would always be familiar. The written word remains eternal.

And yet we live in an age when words appear cheapened. They are quantified and measured; they are applauded by likes. How can a generation where words are as a fleeting as a Snapchat ensure that a people will remain devoted to words? In an age of the abbreviated text message how might we continue to clutch the heft of words in our hands? Is it even possible to bequeath gigabytes to our children?

I write notes scattered in the margins of my books.

Jacob, who became known as Israel, is nearing the end of his life. He travels to Egypt to join his son Joseph. There they grasp possessions. (Genesis 47:27) Is it at this moment that Israel takes hold of the books that will forever define us?

Jacob begins his life by taking hold of his brother’s heel. (Genesis 25:26) It is then that he earns his first name. We begin our lives holding on to others; we grow in wisdom by holding on to our most treasured possessions. We leave these books for future generations to pore over and reinterpret. We read the notes left by parents and grandparents. They give us strength—if we but grasp them. It is then that we become Israel.

I worry. Will books continue to be left at synagogue’s doors, abandoned and discarded, or will they be clutched in our hands and carried through these doors, to be read and pored over, chanted and sung? Will it continue to be said of Israel that words animate us? My heart grows faint within me.

My heart is stirred by the scattering of notes and letters.