There is something special about sitting on the lap of a grandparent. It’s even more special when that grandparent begins to rub or scratch your back.
I have nostalgic memories sitting on my grandmother’s lap at Shabbat tables while she warmly scratched my back. It would continue until she blurted out, “All right, my back is hurting!” The key was to try to make sure she was engaged in conversation and was distracted to get a longer back-scratching session.
Even when I was too old to sit on her lap, I would nonchalantly sit next to her, hoping that she would pick up on the hint. The real challenge was when another sibling sat on her other side for the same reason.
One summer, when I was working in a camp office, one of the heads of the camp walked into the office and began rubbing his back against the protruding corner of the wall in the office. When I laughed at the unusual scene, he explained that it was obvious that it might have made more sense to make it more circular. He felt that the only plausible reason why it was constructed as a corner was to give people a way to scratch the itch on their back.
There does seem to be some logic to his assertion. After all, when someone has an itch anywhere on his body, he can easily scratch it to relieve the discomfort. But when a person has an itch on his back, it can be maddening trying to relive the itch, especially when it’s just out of reach.
One of the greatest gifts I ever received was a cheap, flat wooden stick with bent finger-like protrusions at the end. That little backscratcher is one of the greatest inventions ever created. Modern technology at its best!
There is a famous expression: “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” I once read that the origin of the expression is from the English Navy during the 17th century. At the time, soldiers who were absent, drunk, or disobedient were tied to the ship’s mast and flogged with lashes by a fellow crew member. Crew members struck deals between themselves that they would deliver only light lashes with the whip (i.e., just “scratching” the offender’s back) to ensure they were treated the same if they were on the receiving end at some future time.
Generally, it is understood to mean: If you help me, I’ll help you. There are those who feel that this is the idea of friendship: You help me, and I help you.
In Megillat Esther, when King Achashveirosh could not fall asleep, he asks that he be read to from his book of chronicles. He assumed that someone must have done him a favor that he didn’t repay, and therefore no one wanted to help him. In other words, someone had scratched his back and he hadn’t reciprocated. When he found out that indeed Mordechai had saved his life and he hadn’t done anything in return, he immediately instructed Haman to rectify the situation.
Although that may be common courtesy, it’s a far cry from true friendship.
The Jewish People are instructed to not only perform acts of chesed, but to love chesed.
Perhaps part of the reason why we are unable to properly scratch our own backs is so that we can help someone else. Loving chesed entails that we don’t scratch someone else’s back solely so that he will scratch our back, too. Rather, we do so because it’s an opportunity to help another feel more comfortable. Everyone needs someone else to comfortably scratch his back.
On a metaphoric level, every Jew needs to feel an itch in his back. One’s back symbolizes his history. That itch reminds him that he descends from greatness and has a mission to continue the legacy of his people. That is an itch that should never cease to be felt, because it energizes him to stay the course of his sacred mission.
My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, often quotes the Gemara (Eiruvin 13b) that Rabbeinu HaKadosh was once asked how he became the great Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi? His terse response was, “I once saw Rabbi Meir from the back.”
Rabbi Meir was a talmid of Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Akiva was a talmid of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkanus and Rabbi Yehoshua, who themselves were talmidim of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai had seen Hillel. Rabbeinu HaKadosh felt his greatness was the result of having seen Rabbi Meir and thereby having a minimal connection to previous generations. Rabbeinu HaKadosh then added, “And if I had seen him from the front, I would have been even sharper.”
This week, on 27 Cheshvan, my family marks the yahrzeit of my beloved grandfather, Rabbi Yaakov Meir Kohn. Although my grandmother was the best physical back scratcher, I learned from all my grandparents to feel the metaphoric itch in my back that reminds me to look back and recognize the greatness I descend from. Now, my task is to “pay it forward” – to try to help my progeny recognize the greatness behind them so that they can continue to pass it on, as well.
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