When I was in my early 20s, I went through a period of several years when I set Judaism aside. I had been raised with the best Jewish upbringing you can imagine: My father was a Conservative rabbi; our family was shomer Shabbat and our home was kosher; I had attended a Jewish day school through high school. Yet for several years, I experimented with living as if I’d had none of this Jewish influence. This period of my life coincided with a lot of personal soul searching on my part. I was unsure of my direction, especially what career I wanted to pursue. Even after I entered rabbinical school, I was far from clear on what I would do when I completed my training.
Shortly after I entered rabbinical school, my father gave me a copy of Elie Wiesel’s “Messengers of God.” The inscription my father addressed to me on the inside cover has often come back as an example of the power of words of Torah to impact us in a very personal way. The inscription began with the words of Moses to God. When God sent Moses to rescue the Jewish people from slavery, the first reaction of our people was excitement. But then Pharoah increased the already-crushing burden on the Jewish slaves and anticipation quickly turned to despair and anger. The Jewish people complained to Moses that it would have been better if God had never sent him in the first place. Their lives are even more miserable because of his interference.
When the Jewish people cry out to Moses, Moses in turn cries out to God: “Lama harei’ota la’am ha’zeh. Lama zeh shlachtani?” “Why have you brought suffering on this people? Why did you send me?”
These were the opening words of my father’s inscription, followed by God’s somewhat cryptic response, “Vayomer adonai…ani adonai” “And God said…I am the Lord,” and then Rashi’s interpretation: “V’lo l’chinam shelachticha” “And I have not sent you in vain.”
My father was a gifted writer. He knew a thing or two about words. Yet, my father chose to speak to me in a deeply personal way in words that were not his own. They were words of Torah. What was my father saying to me? He was reassuring me that everything was going to be all right.
“Look at Moses,” he was telling me. “Can you imagine a more meaningful and successful life than his? Yet, as a young man, Moses had profound doubts about himself and his mission in life. If even Moses had his moments of uncertainty, the rest of us are entitled to our own period of confusion. It worked out for Moses. It will work out for you, too.”
Of course, there was more. The words “v’lo l’chinam shelachticha” were the words Rashi imagined God speaking to Moses. Now my father was speaking them to me. He was telling me he had not sent me into this world in vain. I had a purpose, my life had a meaning. I hadn’t found it yet, but in time I would.
Looking back over the years, I’m still amazed by how deeply affecting a message my father was able to convey to me in words he did not compose. He let me know he had faith in me. He dignified my own confusion by anchoring it in the history of our people. He showed me that the lessons of our Jewish path could speak to the most personal issues of our own lives.
Not least of all, my father was responding to my questions about Judaism itself. Years of Jewish learning had given both my father and I a language of communication: The language of Torah. If we can learn to speak it, this language can connect us intimately to Jewish history, yet at the same time it can enable us to express something absolutely personal. The words my father wrote to me were meant for me and me alone. No one but my father would have used those words the way he did. Yet in speaking to my heart in Rashi’s words, my father was reminding me of how much we are connected to each other, and how our lives can mean so much more if we can find in them an echo of the lives that came before us.
There was a time I believed that to be myself, I had to define myself in contrast to my family, my community and my heritage. With three simple words, my father showed me that the deeper our connections to others, the richer are our tools for self-expression.