My father’s tallit


by Rabbi Steven C. Wernick

For working parents of school-age children, the logistical relay race that constitutes our daily lives often makes us feel like we are contestants in a Beat the Clock-style game show.

Between overseeing our children’s schoolwork, physical, spiritual and emotional well-being and extra-curricular lives; making deadlines, meetings, planes and trains; charting our own professional achievement; paying bills and attending to relationships, there is scarcely a minute to spare – especially within the instant-response culture created by smart phones and the Internet.

Add to this mix the caretaking responsibilities that go along with aging parents and it is easy to see why members of my generation are especially vulnerable to mental, physical and spiritual burnout.

Being a rabbi – or member of the clergy – sometimes increases that sense of burnout exponentially.

I was recently surprised, therefore, by the outpouring of love and nurturing that came my way from my father – courtesy of his Jewish ritual prayer shawl, known in Hebrew as a tallit.

And the remarkable thing is that my father had no idea of the gift he had given me.

On a Monday morning in June, I found myself rushing to the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, N.J., to attend the tallit ceremony of Alana, my youngest daughter. Consumed with work matters, I had arrived at her school, a Jewish day school, without my tallit, forgetting that the day began with the recitation of Shacharit — the morning prayers.

As I was pulling into the parking lot of the school, I suddenly remembered that my father, also a rabbi, worked at the school teaching advanced rabbinics and I could therefore borrow his prayer shawl – however, this presented a conflict as he would obviously wish to wear his tallit at morning services.

Yet as I entered the school, I remembered that my father would not be in attendance due to a funeral that he had to officiate that same day. I was promptly directed to the area where his prayer shawl was stored.

And here is when the tallit worked its magic on me.

Removing the woolen garment from its case, I was overwhelmed by the fact that the tallit’s scent was just like my father’s.

Draping it over my head to recite the blessing, then moving it to my shoulders, I morphed momentarily from an overcommitted adult to a boy once again, protected and enveloped by his all-knowing, all-powerful father.

In a flash, I was once again 11 years old, standing in synagogue with my father on a Shabbat morning and it was time for the priestly blessing – birkat kohanim. I was standing close enough to my father to feel his heart beating. With one mighty swoop, he draped his tallit over the two of us and we were invincible – a father and his son – in the cradle of God’s love.

On that Monday morning in June I stood, draped in my father’s tallit, feeling love and sorrow flow through me. Things have not always been easy between my father and me. We both lost a wife and mother – twice.

I have been critical of decisions he has made. I have felt alone and abandoned, compelled to create my own invincible family to repair what was shattered for me.

Memories of my life with my father washed over me as I inhaled his long-ago scent, imprinted upon the tallit. I remembered the good as well as the sad. I realized that my father imbued me with a love for going to shul and being an active member of USY. He made me feel part of the great fellowship of the Jewish people. He gave me a place in the community and inspired me to become a rabbi myself.

And then I realized that he gave me one of the greatest gifts of all – the insight that the tactile rituals of Judaism are not merely actions, but rich repositories of memories and teaching and embedded meaning.

Had I never stood with my father under his tallit as a child, the experience would not resonate so deeply for me now, in my fatherhood, through a sensory portal.

But I realized something more, and that is, that the act of recalling my father’s influence upon me was the fulfillment of the great Jewish mitzvah of “kibood av v’em,” respect for one’s father and mother.

The realization of what he has given me led to gratitude and then respect. I knew at that moment that my father continues to influence me in ways I had not previously fathomed.

Respect gave way to a new compassion. Life was grueling for the man who twice lost the woman he loved, who was expected to function as a spiritual beacon because he himself was a rabbi, who was supposed to function as a father but felt orphaned instead.

Nor was it easy for me to love and lose my two mothers and even to lose my father for a while as he sorted out his grief.

But love returned to me, manifold.

I am greatly blessed by the love of my wife and three daughters and many dear friends. And I am blessed to be born a Jew, whose tradition is a tactile one – with the challah we taste, spices we inhale, fringes we touch, shofar blasts we hear, the beauty of the world that we behold with wonder and appreciation.

Approaching Father’s Day 2013, I think back to that morning at the Och Academy, to the moment that I recited the blessing, l’hitatef b’tzizit – which means, quite literally, to wrap oneself in the holy garment of the tallit.

I was reciting the blessing by memory. And then, the memories conjured by my father’s tallit blessed me once again.

Rabbi Steven C. Wernick is CEO, The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

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