| Calligraphy |

High Note

Yerachmiel’s forehead creases as he thinks. “Is there a mitzvah in the Torah to be a baal korei? To write a sefer Torah, yes. But to learn how to lein? I don’t recall”

 

Bereishis: In the Beginning

 

Shlomo cradles an imaginary megaphone in both hands, then brings it up to his lips. “Gather round, gather round, today is a momentous occasion as, just three months shy of his thirteenth birthday, Yerachmiel has his very… drumroll… first… trumpet fanfare… bar mitzvah lesson.”

Shlomo looks around and nods, gratified, to the overwhelming applause of little Chani and Sara.

“And in honor of this occasion, Mommy and I… Mommy! Where are you? Ah, here you are… would like to present you with your very own Tikkun.”

With a bow and a flourish, Shlomo stretches out his hand to give the brand-new Tikkun to Yerachmiel. He gives his son a one-armed hug. “Ready?”

Yerachmiel nods.

“Then let us begin the solemn occasion of passing on the family heritage.”

They sit down together and Yerachmiel turns his little face up to him, small as a nine-year-old, thin, with a tuft of brown hair that goes the wrong way.

“This is your heritage. Your inheritance. Your yerushah.”

Yerachmiel raises his green eyes. “An inheritance connotes a monetary transaction.”

“Ding! Right you are. Just the other week I heard of a family in Bnei Brak — couldn’t afford a day trip to an amusement park, imagine that — who inherited a million dollars. But this is more than money, this is more than bills and coins.” He brings his face close to his son and whispers theatrically. “It’s a spiritual inheritance.”

Yerachmiel’s forehead creases as he thinks. “Is there a mitzvah in the Torah to be a baal korei? To write a sefer Torah, yes. But to learn how to lein? I don’t recall.”

Chaya always tells him that the more it hurts, the more desperate his jokes get. The lines fly through his head, but he swallows them down.

“Let’s put that to the side. What I mean to say, Yerachmiel” — he opens the cover of the Tikkun, closes it, flips it back and forth — “I mean to say that this means a lot to me, to lein every week. Here.” He points to his heart, “Ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom. And I got that from Zeidy and he got it from his father and on and on through cities and shtetls and who knows where. They probably practiced as they rode to the market on a horse and cart, for all I know.”

Yerachmiel’s eyebrows zoom down in the middle and his mouth is pinched. Lost him.

“Okay. Let’s back up. What I’m trying to say is that it means a lot to me — in here — that you’re beginning to learn how to lein.”

Yerachmiel opens his mouth. Here it comes, another objection. But then he closes his mouth. Relief. For now.

A week later, the lessons are not going well.

“Explain to me, Chaya,” Shlomo says, exasperated. “Explain how he can stand in shul each week and follow the leining like a hawk, correcting me, or the bar mitzvah boy, G-d help the poor soul, before anyone else. On the word, the trop, dagesh or no, he knows the right tune, can produce it perfectly. But when he tries it himself, he’s a mess.”

Chaya just shrugs her shoulders. “Maybe he’s just picking up something from you. Some anxiety?”

He brushes away her words, he’s not finished. “It’s like, he’s got the words. He’s got the trop. But when he puts the two together, all of a sudden it’s an… unholy mess. He’s halfway down the line with the tune, but on the previous column with the words of the pesukim. It’s like this split.” He shakes his head.

Chaya takes a long sip of coffee, which annoys him more, because she drinks too much coffee, it can’t be good for her, and she drinks it at eleven o’clock at night, claiming it does nothing to her. And she does fall asleep, but he wouldn’t, couldn’t, can’t at the best of times.

“Maybe it’s the pressure.”

Yerachmiel is allergic to pressure. Chaya had told him to start the whole leining thing a year ago, on his twelfth birthday, the way his own father had done with him. By the time he was up to his bar mitzvah, he had learned the entire Sefer Shemos, not just his parshah of Mishpatim.

But Shlomo had waved off her concern. This was Yerachmiel that they were talking about. Yerachmiel, who, from when he had come to shul at the age of five, had insisted on standing right up there, at the bimah, a Chumash in his hand. At first they had thought it was cute — the kid could barely read. But then Shlomo had tripped up, said a beis with a dagesh instead of without, and Yerachmiel had corrected him, right there, in shul, in front of everyone, at the age of what, six.

Amazing how precocious becomes uncomfortable and uncomfortable becomes embarrassing. When he was ten and loudly corrected bar mitzvah boys, it wasn’t so much fun. Shlomo had asked Yerachmiel to stop, but his son, for once, was indignant. “But it’s wrong. And the Torah has to be read right.”

He had stumbled for words to explain, but only ended up making a mess of things. Which was even worse than not saying anything at all, because now each correction wasn’t just about the word or the trop, it was about showing his father that he believed in living up to his principles. At least, that was how Shlomo took it. Chaya said he read too much into it.

“He knows this stuff, Chaya. He knows it with his eyes closed. He’s grown up with it on my knee.”

“Pressure for the bar mitzvah, then.”

He pushes back his chair, stands up, and yawns.

“Well, there’s not too much we can do about that. A bar mitzvah is a bar mitzvah.”

“How’s Naftoli?” she asks suddenly.

“Not so great. He spends too much time in the wheelchair, it’s not good for his lungs. But the PT can’t manage more than twice a week.”

She clucks. “I’ll call your mother tomorrow.”

The next day at supper, his mother calls. Naftoli is in the hospital again, pneumonia as usual, one day it’s going to kill him, but not today, for today — or tonight — he’s stable. He puts his mother on loudspeaker, so Chaya can hear, but it gives him a headache to concentrate on his mother’s disguised panic and Chaya’s exaggerated whisper thing — You go, it’s okay, I’ll be fine.

Shlomo nods. Whenever Naftoli’s ill, he does the night shift; maybe because his mother thinks that because he finds it hard to sleep, he doesn’t need sleep, period. Whatever. He’s practiced at throwing together a bag, and Chaya hands him a pillow and blanket so he can doze in the armchair.

At the hospital, Naftoli is on his usual ward: a large, earthenware pot of pale petunias at the entrance, the smell of mashed potato and disinfectant. An oxygen mask covers his face, an IV snakes up from his arm. Shlomo checks it; just fluids, and plenty of time before it needs to be changed. His brother’s eyes are closed, but still, Shlomo leans over him. “Naftoli? It’s me, Shlomo. I’m right here, and I’ll be with you all night. So if you need something, you just let me know.”

Shlomo gently squeezes his brother’s hand — his skin is dry, a little flaky, Shlomo makes a mental note to ask Mommy to send some moisturizer. He feels Naftoli’s forehead: hot, and damp with perspiration. Shlomo finds a small washcloth. He wets it in the bathroom sink, wrings out the water, and places it on Naftoli’s forehead. Naftoli whimpers.

Shlomo sits down and sticks the pillow behind his head, adjusting it to his neck, then abandoning it. Naftoli lets out another whimper.

“Hey, big bro. It’s okay. It’s all going to be fine.”

But as the night marches on, Naftoli grows more restless, until he is thrashing around on his bed, and the nurse calls her senior who messages the doctor who checks and says, “There’s really nothing much the matter. Can’t you just calm him down?”

All eyes are on Shlomo. He wouldn’t mind usually, but now they all think he has some magic touch. “You want me to calm him down?” he says.

The doctor pats him on the shoulder. “Just give it a try.”

He nods. “Give me a few minutes.”

Shlomo perches on the side of the bed, and gently holds Naftol’s arms still against the white sheet. “Shush, shush, shush.”

Naftoli’s arms can no longer move, but his shoulders twist and turn.

He doesn’t know quite why he does it, but the words come out of his mouth. “Bereishis bara Elokim…”

Slowly, clearly, not too quiet — not quiet enough for the ward, that’s for sure — he chants: munach, pashto, sof pasuk… “Vayikra Elokim l’ohr yom…”

Slowly, Naftoli stills. His breathing calms. Shlomo replaces his brother’s oxygen mask and adjusts the pillow under his brother’s head, all the while singing the words from memory.

“Vayomer… naaseh adam…”

Naftoli is calm. Quickly, Shlomo reaches into his bag for the Tikkun he carries everywhere and opens to Bereishis, his finger working down the page as he finds the place. He picks up from where he left off, leining the words of Bereishis while Naftoli’s breath gradually slows. When Shlomo finally takes a pause and reaches over to his brother, Naftoli’s hand is relaxed. It gently curls around his own.

 

The next lesson will be different, Shlomo plans. They’ll do it in shul. It’s quiet there around sevenish, suppertime. And it’s cool, and the atmosphere is calming. If he’s calm, maybe Yerachmiel won’t be so anxious. That evening, Tikkuns in hand, they find a place in shul. There are just a couple of people there, learning quietly. He feels himself relax. This was a good idea.

Parshas Vayeilech.

When Yerachmiel was born, Katz, his neighbor, had slapped him on the shoulder. “You did good,” he told him. “Shortest parshah in the Torah.”

Shlomo had laughed. “That’s so not going to be his problem.” Right then, Chaya was freaking about the timing: a bris on time, a bris not on time, Yom Tov… He’d already told her that they had thirteen years to plan for a bar mitzvah, which had only elicited a new bout of tears and he had stood there, not knowing what to do as she wept.

As for the leining, this was his son. This was his father’s grandson, and on and on through the cloud cover to who knew when. He could have had a double parshah and that would have been just fine. He could have had a whole sefer and done it with his eyes closed. He had asked Katz, “What, you had Acharei Mos–Kedoshim?”

“Vayakhel–Pekudei. Can’t forget it.”

Now, Yerachmiel looks around the shul. “Why aren’t we in our regular places?”

Shlomo shrugs. “The whole place is empty. Why not change things up a little? Be a little…” he reaches for the magic word. “Flexible.”

“Ah. Flexible. Right.”

The word clicks into place and does its job.

“If we’re anyway here in shul, then can I lein from a sefer Torah?”

“A sefer Torah?”

Yerachmiel nods.

Shlomo plants his elbow down on the chestnut wood of the shtender and forces himself not to bury his head in it. “But… we’d have to roll it. It wouldn’t be in the right place.”

“It would be the best way for me to learn.”

Shlomo takes a deep breath. Okay, Shlomo, he tells himself, just cut this right down to size. Like Yerachmiel said, it’s probably not even a mitzvah. He should look into that sometime. Maybe for the pshetl he was thinking about asking Daddy to write.

“Come on, then.” Together, they go to the aron kodesh, tug the paroches to the side. But the padlock is firmly set on the door. “It’s locked.”

Yerachmiel examines the lock carefully. He takes off his glasses, closing one eye and looking at the combination.

“Don’t even try, son.”

Yerachmiel looks up at him, pained. “Why do they lock away the sefer Torah?”

“Lions and tigers and bears, oh my.”

Yerachmiel shakes his head. “I don’t understand.”

“Thieves. Burglars. Tricksters. Rogues.”

Yerachmiel looks shocked and Shlomo knows he shouldn’t, but his tension is rising. “Mafia intrigues, conspiracy plots—” Could they just have a normal lesson? “Iranian spies, loan sharks.” Couldn’t they just pretend that they were just father and son, just normal, having a normal lesson, normal, normal? “Collusion. Treachery.”

Yerachmiel will cry. He will cry and he will run home to his mother and he will dive into bed and pull his covers over his head for the next three months at least, which means that he will miss his very own bar mitzvah, his own bechor will spend his bar mitzvah in bed and it will be his own fault for terrorizing his son.

Yerachmiel’s hands grip the shtender. His knuckles are white.

“Are you joking?” he whispers.

Shlomo hates himself. He despises himself.

He puts an arm around his son and says quietly. “I was joking, Yerachmiel. But they do lock the aron kodesh for security reasons. A sefer Torah is worth a lot of money and they don’t want it to be stolen.”

He looks at his watch. “Come, let’s go. I don’t have so much time.”

“I know. Naftoli came home today and you need to check how he’s doing. I heard you tell Mommy.” Yerachmiel takes one deep breath and another. “I can come with you if you like.”

 

Shemos: And these are the names

Naftoli’s face is always a little waxy, but his hands feel a little cold and the first thing Shlomo does is tuck a blanket carefully around his brother and maneuver his wheelchair outside where the last rays of the sun lend an orange glow to the cream paving stones. Shlomo parks him under an oak tree and kneels in front of him. “Well, bruv, your beard is looking rather… rabbinic.”

He reaches out and straightens his brother’s glasses, then slips them off him to clean them. “It’s good to see you here. Better food as well, no?”

The wooden bench is built in a hexagon around the oak, and Shlomo sits back and closes his eyes.

Yerachmiel suddenly speaks. “Did Naftoli have a bar mitzvah?”

Shlomo looks down at his son. If there wasn’t something so innocent on his face, he would think that he did all this on purpose to hurt him.

“No, Yerachmiel. Naftoli never had a bar mitzvah.”

“You told me that he likes the leining.”

The bark is slightly soft and it is pleasant to rub his back against it. Maybe he was a brown bear in a previous gilgul. “Wanna lein for him?”

Yerachmiel flinches. Or maybe it’s just his imagination. “No.”

Naftoli sits quietly, less animated than usual. Maybe it’s the antibiotic cocktail he’s still on. Shlomo leans forward. “You want me to continue leining?”

Those nights in the hospital, they had reached parshas Vayigash. “Maybe we’ll make it to Shemos.”

He takes out his Tikkun. Naftoli swings his arms. He begins. “Vayigash eilav…”

The hands continue swinging, back and forth. Something warm settles on Naftoli’s face.

Shlomo gets to shishi, then breaks for a swig of water. It’s a warm evening. Naftoli thrusts himself forward in his wheelchair.

“Hey, it’s okay. I didn’t stop. I’m right here.”

He sings through Vayigash and on to Vayechi. Naftoli’s arms are still now, but his shoulders gently rock. Yaakov’s twelve sons gathering around his bedside, the brachos, the tochachah. Straight talk. For a moment, he is back in the airlessness of his father’s study, singing the words slowly in the hope his father would space out and not notice how he was fudging his way through. Ha. Wishful thinking.

Vayenacheim…. And he comforted them and he spoke unto their hearts…. And Yosef died….

Chazak.

He closes the Tikkun and kisses it gently.

“What do you say, Tuls? We finished Sefer Bereishis.”

“Yasher koyach, Daddy,” Yerachmiel says.

Naftoli makes a sound. Shlomo takes both his brothers’ hands into his own. “Maybe you were right, Yerachmiel. Maybe Naftoli will have a bar mitvah, after all. We could get the whole way through the Chumash together.”

He leans over and rubs the tops of Naftoli’s arms, just the way he likes. “Next time, we’ll start Shemos.”

Vayikra. Sacrifices

Shlomo comes home from work to find all the kids on unicycles in the front room. The music is blaring and they’re weaving in and out of each other’s paths. His face breaks out in a grin and applauds. “Way to go!”

He walks over to Shuli’s unicycle and gently steadies her. “You okay there, pal?”

Shuli has just lost her two front teeth; for the occasion, he bought her a ridiculous straw because it would fit right in the gap. She nods. “We’re doing it for Yerachmiel. For his bar mitzvah.”

She jumps off the unicycle into his arms. “And I’m going to do my hair like thi- th—” she grabs handfuls of her dark hair and piles it onto the top of her head — “maybe with diamonds in it, too, and I’m going to juggle with fire, so it will be good that my hair is out of the way.”

He holds her gently and spins until they’re both laughing and he collapses onto the couch.

He looks up to see Yerachmiel in the doorway. “I’m not having any of that,” he says. His face is pale but composed, but Shlomo notices that his knuckles are clenched. “No fire juggling. No unicycles. Okay? Okay?”

Shlomo swallows. And the words are like things of lead as he tries to formulate them, gift them. “Okay, son. Your call.”

Later, Chaya says that it’s too hot for a walk, but they go anyway, because he can’t talk without walking, and Chaya always says it makes her dizzy to watch him pacing the living room like that cheetah in the zoo — who got his chicken spiked with Prozac because it was pacing up and down all day.

“So,” she says as they hit the corner and turn right toward the park. “We need to rethink this.”

Rethink what? Fatherhood? If a son is growing up, does that mean that the father has to grow up, too? When does that happen? If you shoulder the responsibility of the family, which means carefully tending the money trees in the yard, does that mean that you’re all grown up? Do your parents have to be dead? Do you need to be clinically depressed or anxious? Is that what growing up is all about?

He should buy a silver cane, AliExpress’s finest; okay, not silver, silver plate, or just metal, or just that spray paint as long as it doesn’t come off on his palm on a hot, sweaty day. Return home and tell Chaya, very pleased to meet you, your husband has grown up at last.

He pushes his palm against his forehead. Shh, he says. Mind, I pray, be still.

In the park in the dark. It’s a line from Dr. Seuss. There they find all kinds of odd creatures.

Chaya perches on a swing. With the tip of her shoes, she rocks gently.

“That’s not why you go on a swing,” he says. “You go on a swing to see how high you can get. So that your feet touch the clouds.”

“Ain’t no clouds,” she says.

“The stars, then.”

They’re quiet for a few moments and then he says, “You know, I’ve been leining so many years that I almost don’t remember how it all started.”

“How did it start?”

“Honest? It all just started as a place where Naftoli wasn’t allowed in.”

It was the time, the only time he would sit next to his father and it was just the two of them, a web woven around them by the words, the chant, the rhythm, the tune. There was no school, no homework, no Naftoli. Just him and the words and the challenge of getting every cantillation note just so — and when it was just so, opening his throat just a little more so that something sonorous entered the words.

Her face is in shadow and maybe that’s what gives him the courage to continue. “We didn’t have a photographer at my bar mitzvah.”

“Mmmm.”

He lurches upward, straightening his legs as he arcs toward the sky. As he jolts down, he says, “I told my parents to leave Naftoli at home with an aide instead of bringing him to the hall. And Ma said, ‘But what about the pictures?’

“ ‘Cancel the pictures,’ I told her.”

He swings, up and down, and at the highest point, jumps, so he flies through the air and lands like a cat. He turns to face Chaya.

“And Ma said, ‘Why, you’re ashamed of him. You, who has so much. You can walk and talk and think and speak. You’re ashamed of your brother.’ So then of course, I was ashamed of being ashamed, which only made things worse. And Naftoli came to the bar mitzvah, but as a punishment of sorts, or maybe it was nothing, maybe it just wasn’t in the budget, we didn’t have a photographer.”

Chaya’s not a big talker, she never was, and right now it’s a good thing because it gives him the space to find the words.

“So what does it matter, a photograph is just a memory aid, right? But maybe it’s also something from the outside that bears witness, and we all need that, something to look at and say, hey, even if I’m not disabled and in a wheelchair, I still exist.” He swallows. “I mean, isn’t that why everyone takes selfies, just to prove to themselves that they’re real?”

Chaya ignores that last comment. “Was that why you didn’t want him there, so that it would be your night?”

“I guess. So now what does that say about me and Yerachmiel? It’s his night, right? It’s his bar mitzvah. And it’s not that I don’t love him….”

“Honey, of course.”

Just beside the swing set, a streetlight flickers. A breeze rustles the trees and the night is suddenly cold. What kind of father is he? What kind of brother? He thinks of Naftoli, of leining Bereishis beside him in the hospital. Vayitzar es ha’adam b’tzalmo.

This whole bar mitzvah thing: It’s not that he doesn’t love his son. It’s just that the love would be less painful if his son was made in his own image.

 

Bamidbar — In the Desert

Chaya walks into the house, a big box in her arms. “Ta-da!” she announces. “Come see!”

They all run over and Chaya opens the box: two hundred squares of cream cards, that weird kind of pattern that she chose for the border, and in the middle, in teal, the star of the show. Yerachmiel.

Chaya almost hums as she looks at it. “People tell me that the great thing about making a bar mitzvah is that there’s no other side. It’s your simchah. At a bris, you’re out of it. At a wedding, there’s the mechutanim. At a bar mitzvah, it’s just the way you want.”

“Hence teal and aquamarine invitations.”

“Exactly.”

Before they know what has hit them, a little human cannonball with a heart-shaped face barrels into them. “I won’t. I won’t. I won’t have a bar mitzvah. I don’t want one and I won’t have one.” They look at each other, and then Yerachmiel has darted into the kitchen. He runs back with a bottle of oil in his hand, and holds it over the box of invitations and pours. Shlomo watches the oil soak into the cards, staining the cream darker, dripping down over the teal lettering: You are invited.

And instead of reacting, something perverse comes into his head. You can ruin the invitations, but that doesn’t take away the reality of the event. The hall is booked. The relatives are flying in. The printed words may not be there, but time goes on ticking by, and no bottle of oil and no wishes and no tears will stop that.

Shlomo gets up and walks away, away from the bar mitzvah invitations and away from Yerachmiel, who is half-laughing, half-sobbing, empty bottle of oil still in his hand.

Before he leaves to Naftoli, he picks up the ruined box of invitations and dumps it into the garbage.

It’s raining, just a light mist, really, that makes everything look like it’s in slow motion, but Naftoli can’t go outside. They sit in the lobby together and on the piano, someone’s relative plays, “You Are My Sunshine.”

This time, he doesn’t take out the Tikkun. “Hey there, Naftoli,” he says, taking his brother’s hands. “We’re all in a dither here because of Yerachmiel’s bar mitzvah. What is it about bar mitzvahs that tears you apart inside?” He bangs his chest and Naftoli’s eyes open wide. “This whole becoming-a-man thing, when they’re really just a boy, and not even like a twelve-year-old , maybe seven, maybe five, maybe two.”

A nurse walks by, black fingernails and earrings in some strange pattern around the top of her ears instead of the lobes. “He’s doing good. And you’ve got a real connection there,” she says.

He should find it condescending but it’s heartwarming. “Thanks.”

For some reason he thinks of his mother. His mother is like Chaya, doesn’t talk much. But there were times when he’d arrived at the hospital to take over and instead of rushing out, his mother had lingered. She had sat with her coat on, handbag around her wrist, and just let the words out. “I was thinking,” she always began. And then out came the torrent. “One of the hardest things about putting Naftoli into a home was the finality of it. You know, with a regular child, you have this kind of rhythm going. It’s like there’s a rope stretched between the pair of you, and sometimes it’s real loose and sometimes you pull in the slack and hold the kid close. It’s always changing. There’s this dynamic, the rope is always thrumming and you’re always tugging or loosening until, slowly, it’s more loosening than tugging, aside from when they need you badly. But it’s that quiver that keeps you in mind, I’m a mother, I’m a mother and he’s my boy, and there’s something alive in it.”

She had barely paused for breath before continuing. “But with Naftoli it was something else entirely. It was like, I was his everything. I was his food, his clothing, his exercise, his movement, all of it. And then, when he moved into the home, I was nothing. Maybe that’s what it feels like to lose a child. But I hadn’t lost him, and when we went to visit — at first it was every day, I’m still there four times a week — he knows me, I know that he knows me, and he grunts and snorts and moves his arms a little and his eyes flicker, too, maybe.”

Shlomo rubs his hands against his forehead. His head pounds. Maybe it’s the sleep debt. At the piano, the woman shifts into “Somewhere over the Rainbow.”

He thinks of Yerachmiel’s question, a few months back, when they had stepped into the home. The small, heart-shaped face looking up at him. “Why don’t people like to come here? The other kids don’t like to visit, do they? And I don’t think Mommy does, either.”

“I think it makes people feel uncomfortable. Maybe it scares them,” he had answered.

He rubs his hands over Naftoli’s: Why are they always cold? He knows what Yerachmiel means — it’s that fear: There but for the grace of G-d go I. What, really, separates him from his brother in the wheelchair, without speech, without the ability to walk? The doctors would call it an accident of birth. Oxygen. Umbilical cord. We call it Hashgachah: This was the journey that the neshamah called Naftoli has to go through.

Something feels like it’s stuck in his throat and he swallows, but it stays there. Maybe this whole bar mitzvah thing is his way of convincing himself that Yerachmiel is just like any other kid. When he’s not. And if Naftoli is a special neshamah, then isn’t also Yerachmiel? And if Yerachmiel is a special neshamah, then isn’t he, Shlomo, also a beloved child of Hashem, given a son who is meant to change him, do something to him, take him on some journey, no matter how hard?

He leans over and gives Naftoli an awkward hug. “I’ll be right back.”

He doesn’t even stop in the driveway, just idles on the street, trusting that Chaya will work her magic and persuade Yerachmiel to drop what he’s up to and jump into the car.

A few minutes later, Yerachmiel’s sitting beside him, silent.

“Come.”

At the home, they maneuver Naftoli into the shul, and click open the aron kodesh.

“It’s not locked here,” Yerachmiel says.

“Right.” His throat is thick. Will he even be able to lein? Chaya would say this is therapy. Mommy would say that it’s recompense. Daddy would say that he’s wasting his time. But he gathers the sefer Torah in his arms, and lays it gently down on the bimah. He kisses it and Yerachmiel kisses it too and they roll it to the end of Bamidbar, where they are holding.

And they journeyed… and they journeyed… and they journeyed…

Naftoli rocks gently in his wheelchair.

And they journeyed…

And suddenly he stops. The fan whirs gently overhead.

It must have been hot there in the desert. And if they hadn’t done Cheit Ha’eigel, they wouldn’t have had all these wanderings, from place to place to place. Each time, something else required of them. They could have been home and dry. They could have been stepping into Eretz Yisrael, the children growing fat on milk and licking date honey from their fingertips.

And they journeyed…

Vayisu mikdash…

He stumbles over the words. Yerachmiel corrects him. Not mikdash, mi’Kadesh.

From Kadesh. From that place.

A hand touches his shoulder. “Daddy? Are you tired?”

But he plows on, because this is where he is, wandering, sorrowful, going from place to place longing for something different, when you have to just go on and do the work that is in front of you, that is here, in this sand, under this sky. You can think how things might have been and how they should be and how they could be, but then you’re not anywhere. Not in the desert and not in the promised land. Just in the land of your delusions.

 

Devarim: Words

Another pat on his shoulder. “Daddy, have a drink of water.”

Shlomo’s hand trembles as he takes the water and he gulps it down although he’s not thirsty. He stumbles away from the bimah, finds a chair and sits, head in his hand.

“You okay, Daddy?”

He nods, then forces himself to look up. “Yeah. Just a bit tired.”

In the wheelchair beside him, Naftoli has fallen asleep. Above them, the fan whirs, but the room is still warm. The summer’s day is beginning to fade and shafts of sunlight color the walls.

“Daddy?”

He sighs. Was this a good idea?

“Daddy, maybe I could lein?”

He reaches out his hand and Yerachmiel grabs it in both of his and tugs. He hauls himself up. Together, they roll the sefer Torah, and then Yerachmiel stands on tiptoes, bends over the scroll, and begins. “Vayeilech Moshe…”

And Moshe went.

His voice is high-pitched, but in this small space, it’s not swallowed into nothingness. It returns with a warmth. And his voice is pure, and every note is true.

“Chizku v’imtzu…”

Be strong and brave. Do not fear…. For Hashem your G-d goes with you.

His hands rest on his son’s shoulders. Grief, his mother once told him, is the purest form of love. But it’s not, he realizes, as he stands between his brother and his son, watching Naftoli’s chest rise and fall gently in sleep, hearing Yerachmiel’s chant. Maybe this is love: grief, yes, but also pride, the wonder and the heartache, the wanting and the accepting, the drawing close and letting go all in a single moment.

(Originally featured in Calligraphy, Issue 781)

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