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Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson

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High Holidays and the Gifts One Generation Gives The Next

Posted: 10/03/11 01:06 PM ET

During this sacred season, Jews around the world will focus on Rosh Ha-Shanah, the renewed year, and Yom Kippur, a day of introspection. These ancient holidays celebrate the planet and its capacity to sustain, and our interiority and its capacity to renew. These gifts are not ours as solitary individuals, but as part of an endless flow of humanity, those who have gone before us, and those who will come after us. And I want to start with you if I may, by being personal, not because my stories are so different than yours, but because, I imagine, we all have stories similar to these.

The first is the story about my maternal great-grandfather, David Friedman. David came to North America as a young man to a country full of promise, and also, full of great challenges. It was a time where there was extensive bigotry and great economic hardship. He settled in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where at the time there was no thriving Jewish community. His first venture was to return to Manhattan, and procure a Sefer Torah, a Torah scroll for the princely sum of $100.00. He brought that Torah scroll home, and for some twenty five years in the wilds of Connecticut, he created a minyan -- a Jewish community -- in his living room. In time, he gave to that Scroll to my great aunt Ruth, who moved to Los Angeles. Her Conservative congregation continues to use David's scroll. His decision touched the future.

A second tale: My paternal great-grandmother, Rebecca, came from Russia. And she brought with her only one thing, she brought with her two silver candlesticks for only connection to the world that she had left. Those candlesticks went into the possession of my great aunt, who was very involved in a Jewish community in Miami. And on her deathbed, knowing of my love for Judaism, she bequeath those candlesticks to me. And we now, bring in every single Shabbat and every Yom Tov with my great-grandmother's candlesticks.

And the most inspiring of the three: Throughout my childhood in San Francisco I was an atheist. I did not celebrate the Jewish Holidays regularly, certainly not in any traditional way. On Yom Kippur I went to school, ate the non-kosher food in the school cafeteria and ended the day by "breaking the fast" in my aunt's house. Having grown in an elegant Reform congregation, prayer was for me a matter of majesty and decorousness, which is to say from my perspective, boring. In college, for the first time, I encountered more traditional ways of being Jewish (and I was older, hence more open). A close friend's mother died, and he needed someone to join him to recite the Kaddish prayer for her. Having never attended a morning Minyan so you can imagine the shock of a secular kid from San Francisco for the first time to walk into a room in which the men and women were separated, and the men were wrapping leather boxes and straps around their arms. My friend, Lee, explained that these these boxes, tefillin, contain verses of Torah and that the men wrapped themselves in these boxes as a way of saying how much they love God and Torah, physically binding these words to their bodies. I was so astonished and moved that when I returned home for winter break, I told my grandmother about these quaint leather boxes and how beautiful that tradition seemed. She left the room, went into her hallway closet and started rummaging (Grandmothers have the most magical closets in the world!) On the top shelf she found a paper bag with her father's Tefillin, Tefillin that hadn't been used since he had died some fifty years ago. She brought me those precious old Tefillin. A few year's ago, a close friend brought them to Jerusalem to a scribe who specializes in making old Tefillin kosher for use. Now, every morning that isn't Sabbath or Festival, I bind myself to words of Torah with exact same Tefillin that my great-grandfather cherished.

I tell you these stories of a Torah scroll, of candlesticks, and Tefillin, because, I believe that I am the recipient of a recurrent miracle: someone two, three, four generations ago, cradled something precious and they lobbed it across the generations to me and I caught it. Some day I will bequeath it to my children and they to theirs. But this gift miraculously across the generations is but the physical symbol of just how much we have been given by those who have gone before us. Think of the beauty and the wisdom of Jewish (and other) traditions. A Torah that asserts the sanctity of life, the dignity of human beings, the beauty of the world and teaches us through stories, and precepts how to elevate our lives and to re-engage the world. Think of the people who have brought you to this day, how they sacrificed so that you could receive an education. Think of what a value education has been for our people -- and humanity -- across the millennium, and the sacrifices your ancestors made to provide your education. Think of the wonderful stories, of parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles; think of how much those stories shape your identity, the places and people you've never met who are part of your breath. Most precious of all, think of how most of us grew up with the sense of being loved and of being lovable, and of people who embraced us, who held us when we cried in the night, who fed us when we were hungry. Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, great medieval Bible commentator, notes that "... a person who has a family is like a branch that is attached to its source." We are, all of us -- mishpakha -- family.