June 16, 2018 / 3 Tammuz 5778
Ten years ago, I was helping my grandmother to clean out her closets when we came across a tiny black velvet bag embroidered with birds and Hebrew lettering. “Oh,” my grandma said, “those are my father’s tefillin.” She gave them to me that day and told me what she always told us when we got something new, “use them in good health.”
I loved those tefillin. At first, I didn’t know how to put them on, but I would open the bag and run my hands over the tiny boxes, feeling the leather which, after a lifetime of use, was soft like the smoothest fabric. And in that tiny beautiful bag, there was another treasure: a tiny pocket siddur printed in the late 1800’s. It was so small, you might overlook it—only about two inches by three inches tall, written entirely in Hebrew, except for a few introductory pages in Russian. I dreamed of the day when I would know enough to be able to pray from that siddur.
A decade later, I took those tefillin to a sofer, a ritual scribe, for repairs. He looked them over with a careful eye and then turned to the mini-siddur. He flipped through the pages, stopping here and there until he turned to me with a big smile. “Your great-grandfather was a davenner. Did you notice?”
He pointed—there, on the margins, were two circular thumbprints, just where my great-grandfather would have held the siddur as prayed. On the pages containing the bedtime shema, the thumbprints not just shadows on the page, but completely translucent spots. The sofer explained that the oil from my great-grandfather’s hands filled the paper so fully that it transformed. He probably recited those words every night before bed.
I never knew my great-grandfather. My mother never knew him either; he died before she was born. But somehow, through the magic of time, I received his davenning tool kit. I can see the words that touched his heart every day, and I can now put my fingers where his once stood.
Flipping through the pages of that siddur, you can see so clearly where his hands hovered; the texts which occupied his heart. But holding onto these prayers I start to wonder: 100 years from now, where will our descendants find our fingerprints? Where are the marks we are leaving behind?
On the coffee pot in the kitchen? At your place at the breakfast table where you sit every morning to read the paper and drink your coffee as the day is starting?
On your school bags and books? On the pencils you use to write out your math homework and the notebooks you use to organize your notes?
On your steering wheel, where you rest your hands as you listen to podcasts and drive through traffic into work and where you grip while listening to cheerful children making jokes during carpool?
On your cell phone, where you type out rapid-fire text messages to loved ones, read your email, and scroll through Facebook?
Today we live in a different world—our ancestors spent their days working and raising children, writing messages to friends and loved ones and reading articles and books. But as they flipped through books and wrote messages, our ancestors left marks behind. Today, we can wander to the bookshelf and pick up the books they once loved to read. We can hold up their messages of love and touch the quotes that they pasted to their journal. But the things we touch are largely intangible. When we send a text, our fingers trace a message of love but there is no mark left behind. When we read our favorite book on kindle, our hearts are moved, but there’s nothing lying on a shelf for a curious grandchild to read. The things we touch don’t always tell our story.
How many of us leave our fingerprints in a siddur? What drew my great-grandfather to words inscribed in those prayers?
When I called my mother and aunt with this question, they both told me the same story. My great-grandfather Hyman worked as a dentist in Denver, Colorado during the Great Depression. It was not an easy time by any means. It was hard to make a living. Very few families had the means to pay for anything, let alone dentistry. Hyman used to take whatever people could pay—a chicken, an egg, a promise—and did his best to continue helping others even as he wondered what would happen to his family should the markets continue to crash.
And amidst all this uncertainty, Hyman was a religious man. He davened every day and used to walk to the synagogue every Shabbos for morning services. But he was also an opera lover and a man who followed his heart. So, after kiddush, he would walk to his office, where he would close the door and turn on the radio to listen to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast. Every night, he would close out the day by opening his siddur and praying to God—יהי רצון מלפניך…שתשכיבני לשלום ותעמידני לשלום God, please help me to lie down in peace and wake up in peace. We do not know what will be, or what will happen, but I put my faith in you and pray that you will surround me with your light and your blessing. שמע ישראל ה’ אלוקינו, ה’ אחד
Those words brought him comfort and helped him to weather the storms of life. More than sixty years after his passing, we don’t know how my great-grandfather liked to spend his free time or what his favorite opera was. We don’t know what his favorite foods were or what brought him to Denver. But, we do know what anchored his heart. We do know that he spent time every day connecting with God and with his faith in a better world.
On this Shabbat of Father’s Day weekend do you have words or prayers that have guided you? Places you go to find comfort? Where are you leaving your fingerprints?