Loved ones teach us more about Torah than books ever can

A woman named Sadie travels to a remote village in the Himalayas and asks to see the guru. The leader says, “Our guru doesn’t see anyone without an appointment. Is he expecting you?”

“No.”

“What’s your name?”

“Sadie Schwartz.”

So the leader says, “I’ll try, but don’t be disappointed if he says no.”

An hour later the leader comes back and announces with some surprise, “The guru will see you. But remember: In his presence, you may speak only three words. Is that clear?”

Sadie agrees. She is brought before the guru, looks deep into his dark, penetrating gaze and speaks her three words: “Sheldon, come home.”

We can understand the Sadies of this world, puzzled by their sons and daughters who have gone elsewhere searching for what they need: to Buddhism or Christianity or into the neutral space of secular society, their Judaism only a vestigial attachment, the place from which they came.

We know what Sadie means when she asks Sheldon to come home — not just literally, back to family dinners, but metaphorically. She wants him to come home to his roots and his people, to live and identify as a Jew again.

Why did Sheldon take off for the Himalayas? Why did his cousin Steve become a Mormon, or decide to raise his children as Catholics? Why does his cousin Sheila have a good job, a fine education, but no connection to the Jewish community?

We ask these kinds of questions all the time — sometimes in the abstract, wondering about Jews who break their ties or drift away, and sometimes in very personal ways, wondering what’s happened in our own family to make things turn out so differently than we imagined.

What makes Judaism take hold in one child and not in another? What makes Judaism “stick” in one soul and slide off like so much useless baggage from another? These are the kinds of questions that keep parents, grandparents and rabbis awake at night.

When I ask congregants why they join a synagogue, the answer, more often than not, is “because of my children.” But when I ask them why they are Jewish today, the answer is likely to be: because of my mother. Because of my father. Because of my bubbe or zayde. Because something they did left an imprint on my life.

The most powerful teaching — the teaching that stays in our heart — doesn’t come from books. It comes from a person we love and respect who shares with us something they hold precious. A dad who speaks honestly about his struggle to live with Jewish integrity in the real world. A grandma who sings to us, puts quarters in a pushke and delivers food to people with AIDS — because that’s what it means to be a Jew. Someone beloved and important in our life who conveys the joy of Jewish learning, the power of Jewish living.

The teaching they give us, transmitted through their voice, passed on in the touch of their hands, filtered through their unique and irreplaceable personalities, can never be forgotten.

This week’s portion is remarkable for one thing. Although it’s all about the building of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, Moses’ great building project, the name of Moses isn’t mentioned. It’s the only portion that takes place during the lifetime of Moses in which his name doesn’t appear. This portion is often read near the date traditionally regarded as Moses’ yahrzeit, the 7th of Adar. What a strange way to observe a yahrzeit — by not mentioning the person’s name!

But maybe it’s the right way to honor Moses, whose greatest achievement as a teacher was to prepare his people for a world in which he would not exist. Moses knew he wouldn’t live forever, but he left behind a Torah, a teaching that has sustained us ever since.

And so it is that true teachers give us the strength to live without them. As the Torah of Moses survived his death, the Torah we learn from the people we love lives on after they have left us. We can’t forget it. It’s inscribed on our souls. It tugs on our hearts. And sooner or later, I believe, it calls us to come home.

Rabbi Janet Marder is the spiritual leader at Reform Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.