How to "Restring Your Beads" When Your Narrative Changes
We Jews have never been much into beads. Although we may have used them and similar objects at times for counting or marking time, we generally have stayed away from them as a ritual object for prayer. Nonetheless, some people may see parallels between beads, used for religious or spiritual purposes in Africa as long ago as 10,000 B.C.E., and the tallit (Jewish prayer shawl), whose design specifications are detailed in Numbers and Deuteronomy, texts written more than 8,000 years later. While some see similarities, I see differences.
On a tallit, the prescribed tassels, knots and separating threads are always the same – in number, location, and order – reminding us of the fixed and never-changing nature of God’s commandments. In contrast, beads on a string are as varied as the individuals who string them. In some cultures, beads represent experiences and history, and are strung together to tell a personal or collective story.
However, unlike the exact and fixed features of a tallit, one or more beads may later be rearranged or even removed to reflect a narrative that has changed course or emphasis over time. While we may define ourselves in our youth based on athletic or academic accomplishments, for example, as we age, we may wish to “restring our beads” to focus on less rigorous activities or help us face physical or other limitations.
I first learned about stringing and restringing our beads from Michael Eselun, a high school classmate with whom I reconnected about a decade ago when he came to speak at my then synagogue, Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek, CA. An inspirational speaker and the chaplain for the Simms-Mann/UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology, Michael gave a presentation entitled “Restringing the Beads of Our Own Stories,” which was eye-opening, challenging, and relevant.
His words prompted me to see my relationship with Torah – study, interpretation, and adherence to its commandments – as an ongoing, nonlinear process in which I have been guided by the “usual suspects,” rabbis, cantors, teachers, and camp counselors. Integral to this relationship, too, is my wife Trish, who not only continues to lead me toward a clearer understanding of what being Jewish and seeking holiness truly mean and require, but also has, for more than 45 years, been central to crafting the beads in my life and helping me string them into the necklace that tells my story.
I learned from Michael, too, that there are times in people’s lives – for example, when undergoing a crisis or when facing the end of life – when they may need to restring their beads to achieve a desired peace, acceptance, or understanding. Through his work, he guides people on their own spiritual journeys, knowing that it is not for him to decide how others’ beads are to be strung or restrung.
So, I continue to wear my tallit and endeavor to obey the commandments in which it wraps me. I also continue to gather my beads as they appear and, with Michael’s lessons close at hand, will restring them as my circumstances and those of my family change over time.
Visit Michael Eselun’s website to learn more about him and his work.