To Hear and to Hold

May 1, 2012
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April Peters

I might never have fallen in love with Torah if I hadn’t been the very youngest in my family. In a constellation of elderly grandparents, starting-to-gray parents, and two teenage brothers, I was always the baby, surrounded by elders with much to share. My grandfather, an orphan, stressed self-sufficiency; he even taught me how to change the oil in his old Volkswagen Beetle. My father taught me the subtle rhythm of kneading bread when we made seeded rye. My mother quietly taught us to treat everyone with kindness and compassion, and my brothers offered advice on matters educational (algebra is important) and cultural (listen to Joni Mitchell rather than the BeeGees). Most compelling, though, were my family’s stories of our history: All that I know about my great-great grandparents came from my grandmother, who learned the importance of remembering from caring for her father as he struggled with dementia.

It was too much to absorb when I was young, and years later, I wasn’t interested; I wanted to craft my life on my terms, not everyone else’s. At some point, though, I learned to hear — really hear. Not because I had to listen, but because my family’s words represented their sorrows and joys, their hard-won understanding of their place in the world, and their distant memories filtered through more immediate experiences. I would have been a fool not to listen.

Their voices inform me still, though some of them are now silent. As a rabbinical student in New York (something my family would never have imagined), I hear the voices calling to me from the Torah every day — relatives from my larger family helping me understand where we have been, how we act, what we hope for, and why we mourn. The Torah’s words rest in my heart, encircle my arm, dangle before my eyes, barely within sight. Torah shapes and challenges me, as real and immediate as the stories I heard at my grandmother’s knee.

My duty is to hear words of Torah and teach them, to hold them inside myself and bring them forth, not as an ancient epic but as the story of our family, our people.  I seek the wisdom of Torah, but I also wonder how much its stories can inform my life in this different time. I want to follow its traditions in the same way I wanted to please my grandmother or make my parents proud. But it’s not always possible to live their story and, if I had, I would not be studying Torah now. My obligation is to hear Torah and to hold it; to wrestle with it and to pass on that struggle. In that way, I am faithful to the Torah’s past and to its future.

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April Peters, who grew up in Iowa and resided in Rhode Island for many years, currently lives and studies in New York. She is a second-year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion.

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