Monday, February 09, 2009

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Tefilin and Teacher

I was running several minutes behind.

I feared I was going to miss the Rabbinical Kaddish for my dad who had passed away several weeks before. In my rush to be on time, I made a mental note to take my Parkinson’s meds before I ran out the door. I had begun to slow down, my movements were becoming labored and I sensed a slight increase in what I call my "trembling index" which, should it exceed a certain level without additional medicine-makes it virtually impossible for me to put my tefillin on.

"Oh no! 6:03!" I glanced at the time on my cell phone. Brochos had begun promptly at 6:00.If there were already a minyan, I had approximately four minutes before it reached the Rabbinical Kaddish. If I cut through the alley, I could be in shul in less than a minute. I rushed over and down the hallway to the beis medrash."Al Yisroel v'al rabbonam …” I tried to catch up, but my heart was pounding, my legs and left hand trembling rather noticeably.

This wasn’t the first time this had happened. The worst part is not the temporary physical incapacity but the self-consciousness I feel. I don’t want anyone’s pity or assistance although Rabbi Louis has helped me to rewind my tefilin and fold my tallis on more than several occasions.“Calm down a bit,” I muttered to myself, only then realizing I had forgotten my meds.

Minyan was crowded that morning. Two new fellows had shown up to my right. Ordinarily a table of three, we had grown to five. I felt cramped. “This is not going to work,” I thought, clumsily trying to unfold my talis. My fingers were stiff and uncooperative. I gathered up my stuff. “I need lots more room,” I thought while opening the door to the main sanctuary. I could hear the chazzan …"Yishtabach shimcha ..." “I’ve got to get back in there before “Shema” I thought, managing finally to get my talis and tefilin on after ten minutes.On such mornings, the privacy does help.“Borechu es …”I checked my Rosh quickly and reentered the beis medrash in plenty of time for Shema. “…ukshartam l’os al yadecha v’hayu letotafos bein einecha …” I felt better. I had really earned it.

Find Thyself A Teacher

Actually, it was he who found me when I wandered one evening into the traditional minyan where he served as gabbai. The only thing I knew about yiddishkeit was that I didn’t know anything about yiddishkeit. I do not know why Mr. Irwin Parker took a personal interest in me but I am thankful he did. Perhaps I reminded him of someone he had lost in his first life.

An apothecary by training in pre-war Poland, who later survived Mauthausen, Reb Isser, as I affectionately came to call him, stooped forward, a result of the beatings the kapos had inflicted. The same perpetrators broke his nose repeatedly. Never reset properly, it became permanently misshapen, its tip misaligned with a crushed bridge. Other beatings damaged his eyesight, causing his left eye to float.

One afternoon he took out a small blue velvet bag from inside the portable bima.“Roll up your sleeve,” he nodded toward my left arm. “Slip your arm through this loop and slide it up to your bicep.”“Like this?’ I wondered, my legs shaking.“No, no. You see this knot? It has to be on the inside facing your heart.”“Oh, okay. I got it.”We tightened the slip knot to my bicep and wound the black leather strap seven times around my forearm.“Nu?” he waited. “Mach a brocho …”
“ … al mitzvas tefilin?” I asked reluctantly.“No no!”“ … le haniach tefilin, right?”
“Yes. Now the Rosh. Remember? Bein einecha.”“Okay, got it. How’s this?” hopeful I had gotten it right. “Ach, a yiddishe man!’ he kvelled. I felt like such a kid. Being shown the ways of our fathers by a righteous man who had survived their worst travails was a humbling experience.

Reb Isser bore the moral authority of one whose quiet tenacity to overcome permanent injuries provided indisputable proof that a new pharaoh had, in fact, arisen to destroy us a generation of years before. Being with and learning from older men had never been a problem for me. As a boy, I had been taught to rise up before the hoary head.

What struck me though at first about Reb Isser was his uncanny resemblance to my grandpa Harry Austin (Astrinsky). I invited him home one afternoon for a cup of tea. When I showed him a photo of my Grandpa Harry, he was nearly speechless, but it wasn’t his likeness alone that attracted me. Exactly as I had seen my grandpa do years before, Reb Isser put a sugar cube between his lower lip and gum before he sipped his tea. More than merely a quaint custom, I knew it represented nothing less than a sweet fragment of an old world.

Reb Isser once likened the tefilin shel yad to a telephone hand set and the shel rosh to itsreceiver. Our tefilos, extending the metaphor, are long distance calls which, he hastened to emphasize, become less costly if dialed frequently-a divine telephone service package if you like. Whether one views the mitzvah of tefilin as did Reb Isser or as a bridge that joins us through avodas Ha Shem to the Exodus and forward to today’s tomorrow, Reb Isser was the handiwork of The One Above, one of His original prototypes of which there have been few copies.

Alan D. Busch

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