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Chaya Sarah: Tattoos

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Samech Vov Unplugged

Last week’s article, The True You, was an attempt to present the plugged-in version of the running mystical discourse known as Hemshech Samech Vov. This week we will take a stab at an unplugged version, via a moving story which demonstrates the power and dignity of the human supra-conscious spirit.

Let me know what you think; which do you prefer: the plugged or unplugged rendition.

Around 15 years ago I was invited to serve as the guest speaker at a weekend Shabbaton in a small city in the United States (names and details have been omitted to “protect the innocent”).

As is the custom in such weekends, the local Rabbi hosted a Friday night dinner and Saturday afternoon lunch. During the meals various volunteers helped set up and serve. Among them I noticed one well built man who was being particularly helpful. With a congenial smile and no airs about him he was doing everything possible to make all the guests comfortable.

During my talks I observed that this gentleman (we’ll call him David) was extremely attentive, absorbing every word. And when discussions ensued after the talks his engaged curiosity was extraordinary. At every possible opportunity David would approach me with more inquisitive questions. His insatiable thirst for knowledge, his sincerity and innocence of heart touched me deeply.

Someone very pure was clearly in our midst. To satisfy my curiosity I quietly asked the host Rabbi about David.

His story goes like this. David was a Viet Nam veteran. After being discharged from the US Navy, where he served several years, he began a search for his Jewish roots. He visited different synagogues, attended various classes, and finally ended up in this particular synagogue. David grew up in a completely secular home, with absolutely no Jewish education. Now he embraced his heritage and began observing Torah and mitzvot. The Rabbi tells me that David has unquenchable thirst for study, doing everything possible to compensate for his years of no Jewish education.

Then came the punch line. Nonchalantly the Rebbe whispers to me, “You should know that David is a tzaddik nistar,” a hidden righteous person (tzaddik nistar is an expression used to describe hidden tzaddikim that exist in the world. The concept originates from the thirty-six hidden tzaddikim). “You see,” the Rabbi continues, “when David was in the navy he had his body tattooed, as many sailors and marines do in the navy. From head to toe, his body was covered with tattoos. When David began becoming observant he had some procedures done to remove his many tattoos. Besides for the fact that David now learned about the Torah’s prohibition of mutilating or scarring the body, including the etching of tattoos, he also felt that his tattoos were not in the spirit of where he wanted to be.

“But some tattoos were simply impossible to get rid of. One tattoo in particular irked David. It was a tattoo that was etched on his left bicep, where a right handed individual places his Tefillin on the arm. This particular tattoo was – how shall we say it? – not exactly the Star of David. It therefore deeply disturbed David that this tattoo stared him in the face every morning as he donned his Tefillin.

“He presented the question to a Rabbi. Besides the problem of ‘chatzizah,’ an obstruction between the Tefillin and the arm, the tattoo was also a distraction and contrary to the entire spirit and kavanah (intention) of Tefillin, which is about binding your heart and mind in service the Divine. An authoritative Rabbi told David that since he did not know better when he had himself tattooed and being that the tattoo was irreversible, he shouldn’t worry about it and just put on Tefillin and ignore the tattoo.”

The Rabbi then added: “After becoming observant five years ago, David immerses himself in a mikveh (a ritual bath) every morning [a custom embraced by many males]. Because he doesn’t want anyone to see his remaining tattoos, David wakes up each morning at 5AM and goes to the mikveh before anyone else arrives…”

“What do you think G-d is feeling,” the Rabbi innocently asks me, “when He sees the holy mikveh waters spilling over and covering the tattooed body of this Viet Nam veteran each morning?”

I sat stunned. In awe. I looked at David pleasantly going about his way helping everyone in sight, considering himself a simple person, asking questions as though he was inadequate due to his lack of Torah education – with no clue of the sheer power and beauty of his deep connection to G-d, a connection that transcended his tattoos.

I was deeply moved. There is nothing as powerful as witnessing the human triumph over a handicap. And I said to myself, “This is the power of Judaism, which celebrates the ultimate majesty of life: We don’t escape our scars and tattoos; but we can immerse them in deeper experiences, and thus transcend them.”

The Torah teaches and trains us all to look at the inner core of human beings. Never to be distracted by the outer tattoos, scars and other superimposed states. No matter how deeply etched they are, no matter if they may even be naturally irreversible, the fact remains that the inner essence of a person is beautiful and can prevail over any difficulty.

We all have our tattoos – physical or metaphorical – the scars, wounds and bruises we carry, some from the abuse of a dysfunctional childhood, others from errors of judgment, ignorance or inexperience. Some of these tattoos may be irreversible. Once we have lost our innocence, by imposition or by choice, and tasted from the “forbidden fruit,” we can’t always turn the clock back.

But that doesn’t mean that things are lost. It means that we have to dig deeper. Even if our tattoos are etched into our skins and beings, even when our wells get clogged, we have the power to burrow beneath them and discover deeper reserves.

This is the unplugged rendition of last week’s Samech Vov theme: At the core of human unconsciousness, or “supra-consciousness,” lies a deep-seated reservoir of profound calm and pleasure – an innate sense of belonging and indispensability.

In today’s society we have been programmed to think that we are dysfunctional “damaged goods,” most of us living lives of “quiet desperation” (as Thoreau put it). As we project this desperate attitude (quiet or loud) it then becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy of doom, and any scars we assume just feed our resignation, with temporary bouts of respite.

Judaism teaches us – and this is perhaps its single greatest message and contribution – that this attitude is categorically wrong. At the heart and soul of the human being lies a supra-conscious state which transcends the common laws of society and the limited resources of our conscious faculties. The only way to free ourselves from the psyche of our desperate universe is to access this dimension within ourselves, and align our conscious lives with our supra-conscious identity, so that our daily activities are infused with the vision and clarity of our inner selves.

Left to our own, without this Torah perspective, the default state of social attitudes is a negative one, if for no other reason than simple empirical observation. Perspective defines everything. If we see man as inherently greedy and selfish, ready to do anything to survive, then our scars only feed into this depressing view of ourselves. We can work around our tattoos but we can’t ever transcend them.

Freud, Darwin and other contemporary thinkers saw man this way. Essentially animalistic by nature – Freud’s id – with superimposed moral laws to keep society from falling apart.

If however we see man as inherently Divine in nature – created in the “Divine Image” and carrying at the core a higher “supra-conscious,” than any scars or wounds only affect the outer layers, not our essential state. This perspective challenges us to submerge our tattooed “outsides” in pure waters and bind them with “Tefillin” like commitments, which allows us to transcend the tattoos.

In context of this week’s Torah portion, one can say that it comes down to how you see your mother and parental influences in general:

Freud must have seen his mother a certain way, and thus was born a psychological model that defines to this very day social attitudes to parents and their influence on children, the Oedipus complex and all the other modern day maladies. These childhood influences of course shape how we develop our own distorted relationships – we choose mates that are either like our mothers or the exact opposite. Basically, parents are at the root of our distortions.

By contrast, Isaac saw his mother Sarah as a role model that guided him to recognize what refined features to look for in a spouse. Thus, Isaac brings his potential bride, Rebecca, into the tent of his mother and sees that she has similar dignified features as his mother did.

How many of us can say the same about our mothers and fathers?

Back to the story. What does G-d think when he sees the purified waters of the mikveh spill over a tattooed body, or the donning of Tefillin on a tattooed arm?

Or for that matter, innocent Jews with numbers tattooed on their arms marching to the gas chambers singing Ani Maamin (I believe with complete faith)?

Says the Talmud (Berochot 6a), that G-d also dons Tefillin. What does it say in G-d’s Tefillin?

“Who is like your nation Israel, one unique people on Earth.”

In our Tefillin we are reminded that G-d is one. In G-d’s Tefillin He is reminded that Israel is one and that they reveal the Divine Unity on earth.

In certain ways we humans were given a power that even G-d chooses to depend upon – the power to transcend our scars and tattoos. G-d created a universe governed by laws of nature. According to these laws certain wounds are irreversible. Animals could never change their destinies. Yet, man has the unique ability to transcend – and thus change – even unchangeable tattoos.

The Viet Nam veteran’s story is the story of a walking example of possibility – how each of us can access places that are beyond even the deepest scars.

Possibility – that is the ultimate message of empowerment that Torah offers the human race.

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Mark Pulver

Dear Rabbi, Thank you so much for these words of wisdom. They cut through so much societal noise and reach right into the heart. Thank you. Mark Pulver

Yochanan Gordon

A very moving story with a timeless lesson. But most of all it is a translation style of a work so sublime and in certain ways intangible that sort of brings a connection between heaven and earth – consciousness and unconsciousness. As you know the mitteler Rebbe had a Russian kappelya at his side playing music that would prevent him from losing consciousness during times of intense meditation. On a diferent level, some people can better digest the wisdom of chassidus through daily occurrances as opposed to reading directly from the words of the Rebbe Rashab in a very esoteric… Read more »

Marc Lerner

I have been working with Vietnam combat veterans for 20 years, helping them to consciously deal with post traumatic stress disorder PTSD. When a veteran was in the intense moment of combat, nothing was more important than his life. No thought in his mind could replace the connection they had with their life. There is an expression that says “we trust what is important to us” and most people trust what they think, even if it quotes the Torah it is still a creation of the mind. In combat, veterans placed importance in their life, which is naturally connected to… Read more »

By Barukh Shalev

The world of the Schustermans is that of constant and profound spiritual reiteration. They view daily occurrences as willed by God.By Barukh Shalev Sholom Schusterman is wrapping Tefillin around my heavily tattooed arm. Tefillin is a Jewish thing–two long black straps with two black boxes attached. The straps tie tightly around your arm and one box goes on your forehead and the other on your arm. Jewish men wrap the Tefillin tightly around their arms and pray. Some Jews do this almost every day, but many others do not. Sometimes when they wrap the tefillin straps, they wear tallit, which… Read more »

Daniel Zachriah

BHI found your piece Tattoos very moving and very inspiring. It is so similar to my own that all one needs to do is replace Davids name with my own. The only dissimilar aspect was that David came from a Jewish family and was returning to them after his Naval Service. In my case, I have Jewish ancestors, (a Rabbi Joseph who passed away in the 1940s is the 1st one who comes to mind) who converted to Catholicism prior to and during the Holocaust. I am the 1st one to bring it back to my bloodline by converting in… Read more »

Joseph A. Cleary

Rabbi:
I understand people of the Vie-Nam war era, as I too went and came from that place. Even though Im not marked as that one was and is. I do understand how they felt.

Emanuel

Greetings Rabbi. You write, This perspective challenges us to submerge our tattooed outsides in pure waters and bind them with Tefillin like commitments, which allows us to transcend the tattoos. Is this a metaphor or solution? If a metaphor, what is pure waters and what is tefillin? If a solution, please explain. Thank you. -Emanuel Dear Emanuel, Both metaphor and solution: As metaphor — pure waters are the spiritual waters of Torah study which cleanses and purifies the mind, and bind then with Tefillin like commitments is the commitment to mitzvot, to bind yourself in total commitment to virtue and… Read more »

I just read your unplugged version and found it most inspirational. Here you have a man by the name of David who comes from a secular background and discovers himself as a Jew, as a loving and purposeful human being. I am touched by his simplicity and am moved and inspired by his choices in life. He is clearly making a difference by being a model to other sojourners. I know after some 60 years of my own life, I recognize a piece of David in myself. I am not religious but do consider myself traditional. I know I have… Read more »

Chabad of Antwerp

Rabbi Goldvicht relayed the following story: He was once in a mikvah in Yerushalayim where he noticed a Jew with a dignified and respectable face walking around with a towel slung over his left shoulder. Rabbi Goldvicht automatically assumed that there was something wrong with this mans shoulder and due to the intense pain wasnt able to remove the towel. But behold when the man was about to enter the mikvah to immerse he removed the towel and was able to hold onto the railing. And then the reason for the towel became quite clear – this man had a… Read more »

Bettie Elghanian

I have read this article and I had to write to let you know that I struggle with my own tattoos everyday. This article made a huge difference for me because it reminded me that– yes you can transcend all self imposed limitations and those imposed by others. Often we are trapped in prisons we are not even aware we built and it is by identification with anothers struggle and a longing for hope and faith that we can even contemplate and muster up the courage to trascend such a mindset. Thank you for this beautiful teaching as recently I… Read more »

Avyitz and Noah Rosenberg

Last night, when i was discussing with my 11-year-old son Noah the pains suffered by his 92-year-old bubie (who lives with us), i wondered aloud how our rebbes and our tzadikim coped emotionally with the pain and travails inherent in aging. This morning, as I read this unplugged commentary and story of the tatooed hidden tzaddik, the answer seemed clear. Living within that supra-conscious perspective, our rebbes and tzadikim would experience a sense of peace. That peace would be their reality. Or so it would seem. However, not having experienced many such–or any such– people first-hand, my son and I… Read more »

Hadassah Aber

I liked the article about the Vietnam sergeant. You asked if we liked this version better unplugged. I think it is easier to read.

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