Studying With my Father, 18 Years Dead

Will we ever be free of enumerating what we have, what we need, what will be enough, what will ensure our security, who will inherit, how much we can afford to give, who’s most needy or most worthy - all with a sense that there’s not enough to go around?

My father died on the tenth day of the Omer. The last time I saw him was at Seder in April of 2000, when he enjoyed my leadership of the ritual for the first time, sitting with his back to the table, lest we see the blood in his mouth. I miss him always, but particularly now, as I begin to imagine this year’s Seder conversation about what enslaves us and how we might attain freedom.

When I miss my dad, I sometimes immerse in music and books he loved, imagining us sharing the enrichment. Sometimes I feel that he speaks to me, offering an insight I know is not born of my capacity, but, rather, a surprise arising from his sensibility.

He wrote on Hassidic literature, and amongst his books is one I am rereading now, on Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (d.1810).

In writing on this week’s portion, Pekudei, Levi Yitzchak dwells on the Torah’s elaborate list of the materiality and measurements of the components that went into building the Tabernacle, the wood, the indigo, crimson, and purple embroidery, the linen, and the precious metals made into hooks and bands and sockets and gates and pegs and tapestries and basins… donated by 603,550 members of the community.

Levi Yitzchak wonders why so many verses are devoted to inventory and calculation when we know, from the Talmud that there is no blessing to be had in what we count out; nothing good comes of the amassing of wealth or the power wealth ensures.

And isn’t that the root slavery we have such difficulty emancipating ourselves from? Will we ever be free of enumerating what we have, what we need, what will be enough, what will ensure our security, who will inherit, how much we can afford to give, who’s most needy or most worthy – all with a sense that there’s not enough to go around?

What if we imagined, as Levy Yitzchak does, that through the lens of our task in creating sanctuary, all that we enumerate ultimately merges into an undifferentiated whole as we begin to see our contributions coalesce into the world we are striving to create, and as we begin to see our repaired world filling with Spirit.

Then, as we read in the Song of Songs – our epic poem of love between body and soul: “[our] eyes [will be] like the pools in Heshbon.Heshbon is a place, the name of which means “measurement,” and a pool is a “berecha,” etymologically related to “baruch” – “blessed.” When we begin to experience the effect of our carefully counted pennies and carefully accounted-for hours of service, we’ll see things differently. Gratified to have contributed to the repair of our world, all that we had separated into mine, and yours, and theirs will appear as a seamless stream of blessing, flowing in abundance and without measure.

As I study Levy Yitzchak’s text, I ask: When will humankind let go of the fiction of ownership that enslaves us? But I hear my father whisper: Human beings are born to connect the dots and mend the brokenness, Hannah, be patient; the reward of good work is a good world, so build the sanctuary.

And in my magical thinking, he added that my eyes are like deep pools (a thing he used to say.)

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