A powerful story, a favorite of my father’s, tells of a grandfather and a grandson. The grandfather, a traditional Jew, is on his deathbed and makes a final request of his grandson. The grandson is prepared to create a Yeshiva, give charity - anything his grandfather asks. So when the grandfather asks him to become a scuba diver, the grandson is shocked. He stammers his confusion to his grandfather, who explains,
"When I was on the boat coming over from the Old Country, I remember one picture very clearly: When we all saw the Statue of Liberty come into view, many of those on the decks of the boat threw their tefillin (prayer phylacteries) overboard. I want you to become a scuba diver so that you can rescue those pairs of tefillin."
As it turns out, this story has made the rounds of oral traditions from early Jewish American immigrants to Shoah survivors. It is immortalized within the poetry of early 20th century American Yiddish Poet Jacob Glattstein, and later in the modern novel In the Image, by Dara Horn. They story’s historicity is simply overwhelmed by its meanings. What could those who threw their tefillin overboard have been thinking? They had suffered and survived the constriction of their religious freedoms, only to abandon the symbols of their tradition into the waters of America!
My own family's history includes a related vignette. My father recalls that his grandma Nechama (for whom I was named) gave her Shabbat candlesticks to the American scrap-metal drives of World War I. Years later, when a celebration in my family brought Nechama to shul with my father, he heard her sing along with the Lecha Dodi along with the congregation. He couldn't understand how someone so familiar with Jewish tradition could have abandoned those cherished Jewish heirlooms. These questions resonate with our contemporary spiritual deep-sea expeditions, where so many of us - old and young - find ourselves sorting through discarded objects and forgotten pasts, in search of possibilities for faith. We live in an age of awakening quests. As Dara Horn herself once wrote,
When I was in college I started noticing the phenomenon of people my age deciding to become more religious than their parents. And I found this to be a fascinating choice, because if you think about it, if you choose to become more religious than your parents, that means that someone in your family, however many generations back, had made the opposite choice, deciding to become less religious than their parents. What someone in your family once decided to jettison, you decide to retrieve.
What feels new and fresh, postmodern even, is actually an ancient dynamic with roots in the bible.
Torah commentator Aviva Zornberg points out, the Hebrew word Mitzrayim, the biblical term for Egypt, can also be read as May-Tzarim, or 'narrow places.' Pharaoh is the ruler of a culture of constricted vision. So constricting, in fact, that we find the Israelites unable to even hear Moses' liberating call due to their 'kotzer ru'ach,' their shortness of breath (Ex. 6:9), which might very well be the internalization of slavery, as if to say,
I am a slave, and that is my eternal lot. My soul is not meant to expand beyond this role to which I’ve become accustomed. I cannot see past that which is before me.
The Israelites’ past inexperience with unlimited potential renders them unable to embrace an unknown future. I wonder if those mythic tefillin-throwers, my great-grandmother, and the enslaved Israelites each suffered from their own versions of kotzer ru'ach, of learned shortened breathing, of attenuated souls. Perhaps constricting past experiences led them to be closed to the unexplored potential of an undiscovered future. Or perhaps, in the face of a new set of unfettered circumstances, they forgot the struggle for religious freedom that accompanied them to those very moments of encounter.
Asked differently, can a person remember, and be informed by, the challenges of the past in order to face difficult choices? In the Talmud Rabbi Yosef tells a relevant parable of
...a man who was traveling on the road when he encountered a wolf and escaped from it, and he told the story of the wolf as he continued on his way. He then encountered a lion and escaped from it, and he told the story of the lion as he continued on his way. . He then encountered a snake and escaped from it, whereupon he forgot the two previous incidents and went along relating only the affair of the snake. So it is with Israel: Later troubles make them forget earlier ones. (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 13a)
Can sudden openness make the collected, hard-won knowledge of a journeyed path more distant? If the Israelites had been able to feel their ancestors' pre-slavery relationships with God, might they have been more able to hear Moses' message of redemption? If my great-grandmother had known the Jewish passion her family would one day develop (three rabbis in two generations, and a bevy of proud Jewish great-grandchildren!), would she have parted with her Shabbes candlesticks? If those on the boats could have seen the emerging renaissance of 21st-century Jewish life, would their tefilin-decisions have been the same?
We must be willing to imagine what comes next, inspired (importantly, not controlled) by the struggles of the past. This is threatening to the stability of a status quo. As Israeli poet Amos Oz teaches, "Every one who changes is often a traitor in the eyes of those who can never change." I pray that our communities are not exclusively driven by a need for stability, that bravery and pride in the unfolding of life itself might define the living spirit of places of worship, of nations, of the world itself. Emerging paradigms must both revere and see beyond inherited truths into liberating sacred horizons.
Yes, we are scuba divers, searching the depths for our roots and the heights for the light. And our search need not be lonely nor predetermined. We can explore together for the treasures that await.
Who knows what might happen when we stretch our arms beyond the four cubits we already know?