“Etz chayim he..l’machazikim ba….” I sing these words in Heberw each week as the Torah is returned to the ark. Without fail the English translation — its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace — echoes in my mind, sung by Sara Ochs, the president of my youth group back in high school. I see her nod, the gesture an exclamation point that still says to me, “Davka! Emet!” (Exactly! True!) Week after week, a girl I haven’t seen in over thirty-five years appears in my mind’s eye, her sweetness inextricably linked to the final moments of the Torah service.
I suppose a learning specialist would call me an aural learner. Languages come easily to me; I have always heard certain phrases in the voice of the person who taught them to me. Sentence fragments hang out in some corner of my brain popping up like hand puppets in the form of one person or another from my past. Because of this idiosyncrasy each week invisible loved ones pray alongside me.
“May the words and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to You my Rock and My Redeemer.” Seven years old and bored bored bored I heard this sentence as the signal that services would soon be over. How could my mother do it? Sit and read the prayers, and find joy in them no less! And what was up with the Rock and Redeemer? God as a stone?
I didn’t hear its melody again until I was in my mid to late thirties. It had been a standard in the Reform services of my youth and then absent from the service for much of my adulthood, until our cantor chose to sing it one Shabbat. “May the words” no longer signaled the end of the service but instantly brought my mother to my side. No longer a confusing jumble to the ears of a bored second grader, May the words now acts as a mystical incantation returning me to The Temple in Atlanta, transporting me back to that immense and beautiful sanctuary with its enormous chandelier sparkling like a thousand stars. (If you saw Driving Miss Daisy then you have seen my childhood synagogue and the rabbi who ushered me through my teens.) I remember how I studied my mother’s hands. Her nails were unpolished but always smoothly filed and just long enough to inspire the little-girl longing that one day I might have “grown up” nails. Never did manage the nail thing but I do understand the hope that one’s prayers are heard and accepted.
“V’taher libenu….” Can’t help but hear these two words in the voice of Miriam Berry Seagle. One Shabbos morning we sat together in shul. Still struggling to learn my way through the siddur, I must have successfully navigated to that page and paragraph just as the prayer was recited. I know my way around the prayerbook now. Mimi and I belong to different shuls. But “purify our hearts…” will forever belong to her. For some the magic key is a father’s tallis strings or the curious items in a grandmother’s pocketbook. For me it’s the voices. Always the voices.
“Mah rabu ma’asaecha Ado-shem…How manifold are your works, Ado-shem…” Now it is my son’s turn to join the chorus, his voice high and sweet as it was the morning of his Bar Mitzvah. There he is in my memory, smooth cheeked, in his grown up suit. In the photographs, his head just reached my shoulder. Nowadays he is so tall I can stand beneath his outstretched arm. The growth and power of the leap from thirteen to twenty four testify to God’s manifold works of creation. The bridge back to that magnificent day is a mere four words long; how delightful to cross it each week!
“Ki tetze l’ milchama al oyvechea.” The bridge to my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah day is longer, the cobblestone of its words a heavy lesson. This was a serious portion for a young girl; its first sentence sets out the rules for taking a female captive in war. She must trim her nails; cut (some say shave) her hair; be allowed a month to mourn her parents. Capture, defile and abandon were forbidden as part of the post-battle plan. Torah acknowledged the inevitability of war and the taking of women captives but insisted on humane treatment of female war prisoners. Three years younger than her brother, my daughter was shy, scared and woeful that she’d never “be as good as [her brother].” I hear in ki tetze l’milchama, the soft staccato of determination in my daughter’s voice on her special day.
It’s not just family but cantors, too, who accompany me on Shabbat; each has a song. Cantor Hirschenfang’s Shalom Rav by Ben Steinberg soars to the heavens; Cantor Hastings bluesy Sim Shalom still has me swaying in my seat. Retze is forever layered with sadness. Cantor Dubov sang this with such feeling that his notes reached straight into my heart, notes that were silenced way too soon when death claimed him suddenly on a summer morning. His voice sailed beyond Death’s reach and so his gift is there for me week after week.
Each week these invisible loved ones take their seats beside me in the pew. They are the chorus tracing my spiritual journey from bored child to engaged teen, from young adult seeking greater observance to proud button-bursting Bar and Bat Mitzvah Mom. I love the presence of these voices as they follow me in the prayer book, making my path sweet, pleasant and graced with peace.
© Debra Darvick 2008. Debra Darvick’s most recent work is This Jewish Life: Stories of Discovery, Connection and Joy. The book may be ordered on amazon.com or by calling the publisher at 800.880.8642. To read personal reflections, musing on the writing life, excerpts from her novel and book reviews, check out Debra’s new blog at debradarvick.wordpress.com
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.