On The Path, Not "Off The Derech"

"Are these sleeves too short for shul (synagogue)?" asked my daughter. "Because this feels very comfortable for me. Very me."

"Well according to Orthodox Judaism they would be," I responded, "because they're not to the elbow. But I think you look fine."

"It's very me, right?" she pressed.

"Yes, it's very you," I said.

"Well, according to my standards, what do you think?"

"Well they're your standards, so I can't really speak for you."

She went into her room and emerged a few minutes later with one of those light mini-sweaters on. She still looked good. Now her sleeves extended to the wrist.

"OK, now I feel better," she said. 

"It didn't feel right before, did it?" I asked. "That's why you were coming to me."

"No," she said. "It didn't."

We were both quiet for a minute.

"Well I'm going to go now," she said.


She walked out and the door made a nice soft reassuring clicking sound. It always makes that sound. I like it.

I worried for a minute that she was walking down the steps in the stairwell. On Shabbos (the Jewish Sabbath) she does not use electricity at all, and I worried that a young woman shouldn't go in the stairwell alone.

You have to let her go, I reminded myself. 

The rest of us took the elevator down and headed over to the new synagogue. What a beautiful structure. Whoever designed it, designed it with eyes of love. 

And the inside of it. The columns. The lights. The colors. The silver encasement on the Torahs. The spacious seating. The roundness of it.

I wanted to be Instagramming it. Instinctively I reached for the cell phone I had brought with me in my blazer pocket. But I had it turned off, it was deliberately turned off. 

It shouldn't even be there, I knew. But if it was going to be there for emergency purposes, it definitely shouldn't be used.

My other daughter pulled out a siddur (prayer book) from behind the seat in front of us. Thoughtfully, each seat had its own custom shelf into which the books were inserted.

"I don't understand why G-d needs us to pray to Him," she said. "G-d is G-d."

"G-d doesn't need our prayers," I said. "We do. To remind us that we're not G-d."

She turned to one of the pages.

"I don't even understand what these prayers mean."

The English translation was right there, on the left-hand side of each page. But she wasn't asking about the translation. 

My daughter wanted to know why we had to be confronted with such a sea of repetitive text. What the meaning was of that.

I started to tell her the answer they taught me as a child. That the words have meaning even if we don't understand them. That mouthing them is worth something even without comprehension.

And then I stopped, because she's too smart for that and I felt it beneath her intelligence to give that kind of an answer.

"I don't believe you have to say every word," I said to my daughter.

"I think the point is to find one thing that means something to you," I said, meaning one prayer or one element of the service or even the synagogue environment. "And then focus on that."

They finished reading from the Torah right about then. There were two Torahs out today, actually. 

The men gathered around and gingerly rolled up each scroll. Put them back in their elaborately crafted silver encasements. 

I could almost hear it. That gentle click.

Then two men picked up the Torahs, one each, and started the traditional procession around the synagogue and back to the Aron (the Ark in the back of the synagogue, where they are stored).

Part of the procession is that they stop in front of the women's section.

When I grew up the women stuck a few fingers out to touch the Torah case and then kissed the finger that had touched it. This, a gesture of respect and love.

Later, at a shul I attended in New York there was a disagreement about whether women should touch the Torah directly or with a prayer book. The logic being, some among the congregation would inevitably be ritually impure. And so they should avoid direct contact.

My father-in-law, I loved him so much and may he rest in peace, was vehemently in favor of the women kissing the Torah with the prayer book. I disagreed. We had so many arguments about this.

Today I extended my prayer book to the Torah when the men passed by. I hadn't said any of the prayers nor had I followed the service. But whenI kissed the prayer book as it returned to my lips, I started to cry profusely. And had to walk out and get a tissue.

We ought not tell other people where they are on their paths in life. We ought not sit there in judgment.


Note: All opinions are my own and don't represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. Photo by Josh Cowan Photography via Flickr.

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