This morning, I read from the Torah. It’s something I do every so often, and while it takes some work to prepare, I ultimately enjoy doing it. Nowadays, preparing a Torah part mostly means using an app on my phone that lets me switch between the fully marked up text (including vowels, punctuation and cantillation marks) and the Torah version of the text (which lacks these three things)*. But since I generally read from the Torah on Shabbat (Sabbath) morning, my last review of the aliyah** I am reading happens at a time when I can’t use electronic devices. Instead of using the app, I go to my bookcase and pull out my tikkun***.
This Friday night, when I opened my tikkun, I noticed once again how it’s beginning to tear along the seams. It’s no surprise. I’ve had it for a pretty long time. I took a moment to glance at the very first page, and the message written there. On the left side, there’s a note written by my parents; on the right side, there’s a card that I pasted in.
The note on the left says:
May you have many opportunities to use this תיקון [tikkun]. We look forward to hearing you read Torah for many years to come. May you go from strength to strength.
Above the note, there are two dates: the secular date, April 8, 1997 and the Jewish date, כ״ט אדר ב׳ תשנ״ז: the 29th of Adar II, 5757.
The year, 1997, jumped out at me. It suddenly occurred to me that I’ve owned this tikkun for nearly two decades.
I sat there for a moment, remembering the weekend when I’d first gotten this tikkun. That weekend, I ran for board in my USY**** region. On Friday, we gathered together for our annual spring convention, and I stood up there in front of my peers and in front of my family and gave my election speech for the position of religion/education vice president. Minutes later, the votes were cast, and I lost the election by a wide margin.
I spent much of that weekend in tears. I’d run, and I’d lost, and I’d wanted to win so badly. I’d wanted to be able to stand up there and lead my peers. I’d wanted to set up new educational programs for my fellow USYers. I’d wanted to be in charge of the regional tikkun, to make photocopies from it to send to those who volunteered to read from the Torah at our regional conventions. I’d wanted to win that election. Again and again, throughout the weekend, I burst into tears. I cried in front of my peers, the staff, my parents. I took that loss hard.
Then, on Sunday, my father announced that he’d be leaving early. After all, why stay for the installation of the new officers when I wasn’t being installed? I thought nothing of it until I got home.
I walked in the door, and there, waiting for me, was a wrapped gift.
I opened the card first. My parents had written that this was a gift in honor of my having run for office, and that the important part was that I tried my best. I looked up partway through reading the card and said, “It’s a tikkun, isn’t it.” And it was.
To this day, I can’t say why, but that tikkun really made my day. My father could not have chosen a more perfect gift for me at that moment.
And I can also say that now, when I look back on that weekend, it brings a smile to my face. I remember that I lost, and I remember that I cried, but I also remember that I still had an amazing weekend. I spent hours upon hours with close friends who I didn’t get to see very often, talking and laughing and just plain hanging out. It might have been the best regional USY convention I attended.
And that was a lesson I drew from that weekend, a lesson that still holds true for me today: It’s possible to feel like the world has betrayed you and still be having a wonderful time. It’s possible to feel two contradictory emotions at once. It happens, and it’s okay.
Looking back at the Jewish date in the message, I also noticed something else significant. That would have been the Shabbat when, in anticipation of the upcoming holiday of Pesach (Passover), we add a special aliyah to the end of the Torah reading. That weekend, I read a part of that aliyah from the Torah.
This Shabbat, we read Parshat Bo, the Torah portion from which that aliyah is taken. The aliyah I read today is the one from contains the words I read from the Torah for the first time that weekend. Almost twenty years later, I’ve read those same words from the Torah multiple times, and they are as familiar to me as old friends.
The aliyah includes the first commandment given to the Israelites as they prepare to make the transition from slavery to freedom: .החדש הזה לכם ראש חדשים “This month shall be unto you the beginning of months.” This first commandment is about measuring time. The message implicit in this commandment is that our time is our own now, and we are responsible for using it well.
And so, as I slide the tikkun back onto my shelf, I carry both of those messages with me: Now is the time to consider our time and how we are using it; now is the time to figure out how we can use that time to make the world just a little bit better. And if we fail, so be it. Not everyone gets to win. The important part is that we try and keep trying. And when we do fail, it’s important to remember that there can be moments of celebration even in defeat, and that it really is possible to smile through our tears.
*In Hebrew, most vowels are marks above and below the consonants, and most Hebrew writing that isn’t either a religious text for study or a text written for children is missing these vowels. Hebrew grammar is such that it’s easy to know which vowels go where in most cases. Modern Hebrew, however, is written with punctuation.
**On Shabbat, the weekly Torah reading is broken into seven chunks. For each chunk, someone else is called up to the Torah to recite a blessing. Being called up in this way is referred to as having an aliyah. The chunk of Torah read for each person is also referred to by the same name. So, for example, I might say I read the fourth aliyah of this week’s Parsha (Torah portion).
***A book with the entire Torah in it, two columns per page: on the right, the marked up text, on the left, the Torah scroll version.
****USY is United Synagogue Youth, the youth group of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.