This week’s Torah portion, Vayelech, begins with the words, “Vayelech Moshe vayidabeir—Moses went and spoke (Deut 31:1).” Some anonymous (anonymous to me, anyway) sage noticed that this language is unique in the Torah. Why “Moses went and spoke?” Why not just, “Moses spoke?” Well, the word vayelech(he went) is from the same root as the word halacha (literally, “the way,” but meaning Jewish Law). This sage says that the text is referring to the idea (written in the Talmud, Berachot 31a) that when leaving a friend, one should always share a word of halacha, a word of Jewish law, to be remembered by. On your way out the door, just drop a little Jewish knowledge on your friend.
Why? Why halacha in particular? Why not some other area of Jewish knowledge? Well, I first learned of this idea (leaving your friend with a parting shot of halacha) from Rabbi Nehemia Polen, and I can’t remember if was my insight, or his, or someone else in that group’s, but we realized that one of the reasons for this focus on halacha is the practical, applicable nature of halacha. It’s not some esoteric idea or philosophical thought. It’s a to do. It’s specific. And, what’s so beautiful about that is that now, whenever your friend does that little bit of halacha, he or she might think of you.
When we learned this text, it immediately reminded me of a moment from when I was in rabbinical school. I grew up at a synagogue with a rabbi, Rabbi Jerome Malino (z”l), who was a legendary sermonizer. Not just at our synagogue – he actually taught advanced homiletics (sermon writing) at my school. He was just an extraordinary speaker, one of the best I’ve ever had the privilege to hear. Well, a few times while I was in school, I had the honor of leading services at that synagogue, and for at least one of them, Rabbi Malino was present. Now, if you ever lead a service, give a sermon, or do pretty much anything vaguely rabbinical at your childhood synagogue, you are almost guaranteed to get an effusively positive reaction from everyone. I mean, they remember you from when you were a kid, so everything you do seems spectacular. So, after the service, everyone was coming up to me telling me how great I was. I took it with a grain of salt, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it.
Then, Rabbi Malino asked me to sit with him. I sat down, looking forward to some praise, and some (hopefully gentle) suggestions about how to improve my sermon. Instead, he criticized my Hebrew. During the kiddush (the prayer over wine) I had said, “Ki hu yom teHEEla.” He told me that he had been trying for years to get people to realize that the accent was on the last syllable: “Ki hu yom teheeLA.” At that moment, I was a bit…nonplussed. I mean, I had just led a full service, given a sermon of which I was (rightly, dammit!) proud, and his only comment was about the emphasis I put on a single syllable in a prayer? It seemed—odd, at best.
But, here’s the thing. I say kiddush every Shabbat. And, every time I do, every single time, when I get to that word, I say it carefully, I notice that no one else gets that emphasis right, and—this is the important part—I think of Rabbi Malino. Sometimes just for a split second, sometimes for longer. But, it is essentially guaranteed that I will think of my Rabbi every Shabbat, and I absolutely love that moment. I treasure it.
In that moment of oddly specific instruction, Rabbi Malino bound his memory to a single syllable in my brain, and I’m absolutely sure that it will remain there, forever. This prayer over wine, along with being a prayer, is a trigger for a loving memory. It is such a gift he gave me that night.
The world is filled with ways to remember people. I’ll think of Rabbi Malino during every kiddush. I’ll think of my father every time I see a Heineken*. I think of Hillary every time I hear Abba (along with a million other triggers), and my sister Jill every time I hear “Puttin’ On The Ritz” (or a million other Mel Brooks’ moments). My friends Mike every time I see SnowCaps and Missy every time I see a manatee. I could go on and on, but I’m sure you could, too. The world is like a video game with hidden treasures – hit the right spot, and suddenly a bonus, a memory pops up. I don’t think I’m grateful enough for the ways that some very special people have made intensely specific connections in my brain. The world is just a delight, sometimes.
* both Dad and Rabbi Malino would love that contrast