Part of a yearlong series about resilience in Jewish spiritual life.
A famed microbiologist, Stanley Falkow, died this month. Falkow’s work was described as writing the operating manual for how bacteria cause disease. While his accomplishments were monumental, it was the description of his parents in the obituary that drew my attention and called to mind a lesson from Torah this week.
Falkow’s father was from Kiev, Ukraine and worked as a shoe salesman in Albany, NY. His mother from Poland rented rooms and later opened a corset shop. Neither parent is named in the obituary. As the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, I imagine that Stanley Falkow’s brilliance came from the genetic legacy of two brave, working class parents who sustained a family with ordinary labor. Torah tells us that this work was holy in its necessity and sacred in its normality.
In reading parshat Naso, we get great detail about the role of three priestly Levite families assigned the mundane tasks of schlepping, assembling, and disassembling the mishkan, the portable tabernacle where God’s presence lodged among the people in the desert. While portage and construction tasks might seem ordinary, the tasks were holy service needed for the deployment of a hallowed structure to make God manifest among the people. And Torah makes certain that we do not forget their names. They are the Gershonites, Merarites and Kohathites.
Perhaps some of these Levites didn’t enjoy toting the dolphin skins and hanging the draperies as a profession. Perhaps they were intelligent enough to be leaders, skilled artisans or physicians. Yet, the work was necessary and the task was sacred. How similar they are to the vast generation of immigrants to this country who took jobs far below their skills or without intellectual challenge because they were engaged in the sacred task of supporting families they had brought to safety in America. Their dedication, resilience, and strength made it possible that their children were well educated, and made manifest in this world God's gifts such as enabling immunologists to block disease causing bacteria.
We have the opportunity to take lesson of the story of the Levite families from Torah then, and apply it to the stories of that followed. How can we understand that the priestly families were the porters and maintenance men of the traveling tabernacle? This is not merely a commentary on individual acceptance of God’s employment plan for us. Rather, I see this as a demonstration of faith in a story greater than one’s work history.
We don't quite have the Kohenic caste system anymore, but we do have the lesson that schlepping can be holy. It makes possible the "v'shochanti b'tocham" lesson of Torah, that God still dwells among us, no longer in the mishkan, but within each of us. That Godliness is demonstrated by our commitment to a better future built on the hard work of past generations.
Few of us will ever win a Nobel Prize for discovering a cure for disease. But none of us stand alone in our accomplishments. Rather we are the legacy of generations of people who have preceded us, eking out a living and dedicating themselves to the holy endeavor of enabling future generations to dream, discover and design a better future for the world. In their stories we find a legacy of resilience that stands as testament to their faith in the future and God. Let’s tell their holy stories in the Torah of our lives and not let future generations forget their names. And don't ever forget who you are really working for.
R’ Evan J. Krame