Tag Archives: mom

Finding Relevance in Eikev

Robin Williams’ untimely passing touched the hearts of many of us.  He touched our hearts because we had a personal connection.  His gifts of comedy and acting his brilliant artistry found a way into each of us.  And now we lament his passing on a personal level.

My father died about the time that Debbie Friedman passed away. Debbie was an iconic figure. Her passing created a tragic sense of personal loss in the Jewish community.  And as deeply as I cared for Debbie, I was more focused on the loss of my dad.  It was then that I noticed how we routinely find some losses to deeply affect us and others devolve from a human connection to a mere statistic.  

This approach to death is a coping mechanism;  If each death affected us deeply, we would be overwhelmed by the emotions and paralyzed.  The mind and heart do what they need to do in order for us to move on about our lives.  But beneath this, for those who are lost, what do they leave behind?  

This is the question I find myself asking about Moses in the Torah portion Eikev.  Moses is the iconic humble servant.  And yet, in this portion, Moses repeats several times that it was because of what he did that saved the people from oblivion.  Moses’ humility moves to the background as the need to be relevant takes over.  

Might Moses be scared?  He is the last of his generation, the generation that was to completely perish before the people would enter the Promised Land.  Might Moses be scared that he would fade into oblivion, and be a simple footnote to history?  The extraordinary experiences of creating a nation over the past 40 years might be obscured while the people are so focused on moving forward into the promise that the future holds.  

History and our entire tradition holds Moses up as the great leader and teacher.  We still recall Moshe Rabeinu with awe as we retell the stories of his life inextricably bound to the unfolding of our people’s destiny. But Moses did not know that at the time.  In this, his second discourse, Moses knows the end is drawing near.  In the remaining time left to him, Moses struggles to share the highlights of forging of a rag-tag group of slaves into B’nei Israel, about to enter and conquer the Land.  He can hope that his entire life’s work means something to those he has shepherded.  But it is only his hope that they will remember him, embraced his teachings and teach the generations to come; that they will become the people who God has offered as possible.  Yes Moses, we did hear and we did learn and we are still struggling to achieve the vision set before us.  

For our elders, this might explain the strident moments in your conversations with your children.  For our children, this might offer insight into the motivations of your parents.    Knowing this might help us to better understand the personal connection between parent and child.  We will feel the loss when our parents are gone.  But we can share and appreciate the wisdom of our elders now, while they are present in our lives.

Remembering- Seders past and Yizkor

Yizkor Pesach 2014

The Seder Table at my grandparent’s houses was one of those interesting affairs.  The table started in the dining room, made its way past the wall into the living room and hung a right turn into the foyer.  This was unlike my great-aunt on my father’s side, where the table started in the living room, ran through the dining room and into the kitchen, where the kids sat.  Now I realize why the two families never got along; I always thought it was because one was Galitziana and the other Litvak…

At Nanny and Grandpop’s house, my mom’s parents, the table seemed to groan under the weight of the Seder Plates and bowls of salt water and bottles of wine and the platters upon platters of food. The table was laden with a stuffed breast of veal and brisket, homemade gefilte fish and chicken soup with dill and soft matzoh balls that my father mocked because they were not hard enough.  My mom made them like rocks, which according to my father who actually loved them, could be used by the Israeli army as provisions to be eaten or if necessary as a weapon to be thrown.  I recall my hand being slapped by my grandfather as I tried to take the Afikomen a bit too early in the affair.  I eventually would get it, but only after an appropriate amount of time and tries had elapsed according to his calculations.  I recall the mixing of English and Hebrew, the raucous noise of talking, singing, laughing and of course arguing, and sharing the story from the Hagaddah. The three major denominations of Judaism were all represented and all joined together to celebrate this mix of religion and family at the festive table.

I can trace my life through my movement along that table.  I moved from the kids table, where I once chanted the “four questions,” to the main table where I chant the Kiddush, and ultimately now to sit at the head of the table to help lead the Seder.  And there I sat this year, with my wife’s family.

They have their own interesting rituals and traditions, as does each family.  But one is particularly worth noting.  At the conclusion of the Seder, my mother-in-law plugs in the cassette player with a very special recording.  They recorded her mother on one of her last Seders at the table, telling stories sharing recollections of times past and a poem.  My mother-in-law sits transfixed, the voice carries her someplace else as she listens to her mother re-tell the telling of the Exodus.  She drinks in her mother’s words and for those brief moments, Rose Mandel comes alive for her.  That is truly the high point of the Seder.  And why we need to commemorate those we loved this Yizkor.

For Yizkor is our time to remember.  It is our time to reflect back on those we loved.  This is our time to recognize how much they continue to mean to us.  Often they fade into the background.  We are so caught up in the day-to-day things that fill our time.  Kids, food, shopping, the house, the spouse and our own selves, just to name the short list.  But now is our time to remember them.  Those we loved, those who we have lost, often too soon.  Oh to have a few more moments of them.  For when we remember them, we remember the blessings they brought to our lives.  The richness that is ours because of them, the history that is uniquely our individual own because of the way they shaped and influenced our lives.  We remember to offer gratitude for their being in our lives.  We remember their best as a means to help propel us to be our best.  And therefore we remember them as we strive to create the memories for those who come after us as the legacy we leave to them in an unbroken chain of loving and caring.

Presence is an active not passive activity

 We think of “being present” for the other as being available to hear them and be with them.  We say we reach out to them but often we are really offering to wait for them to come to us.  I have learned that is not enough.  Offering to be there is a far cry from going to where they are.   And I have also learned that when someone needs another, they rarely have the presence of mind to reach out to someone else, instead they are trapped, caught in a place of aloneness.

 A friend recently lost a son, a tragedy that words cannot adequately describe.  He was loved by many, as was his mother, my friend.  People packed both the funeral and the Shiva minyanim, expressing their love and support.  At one minyan, I approached my friend and I said in earnest, “Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you.” She responded, “Thanks, you’re the third rabbi who has made that offer tonight.”  She was appreciative, but her  matter-of-fact response was very instructive.

 Two weeks later I called her.  She had heard that I weaved the story of her son into a sermon and was overflowing with gratitude that I had remembered her and him.  The simple act of making a phone call, reaching out to her, rather than sitting waiting for her to call me, was received as a profound gesture of caring.  In those few minutes I truly did something important and meaningful.  I went to her and provided comfort.  Realistically, she never would have called me, and it was unrealistic for me to think otherwise. She was unable to reach out to me.  Whether we are providing pastoral care or being a friend, it is what we do that makes the difference in the lives of others.

Remembering- Mom and Jean Nate

Our Jewish calendar provides us with time to remember those we have loved.  On their Yarzheits, or anniversary of passing, our thoughts turn to our mothers or fathers, our sisters or brothers, our husbands or wives, and for some of us, our children.

We struggle to remember, their presence remains powerful, but sometimes we struggle conjuring up memories that seem to fade a bit more in our everyday.  Often, people who were seemingly ever-present in our past become wistful moments in our present. A smile comes to our face and a tear to our eyes.  We are warmed by their reappearance, but our memories can fade if we do not try to remember specific things that link their presence to us.

As a small boy, it was hard for me to buy presents for either Mother’s day or Father’s day.  Many of us remember the days before the Internet, this extraordinary “point, click and automatic delivery to the door” of today’s reality.  Back then, Mr. Dykstra would let me call him and he would deliver flowers to the house and I would be there waiting with the money I had saved clutched safely in my hand, nervously counting and re-counting to make sure I really did have enough.

Sometimes many times, I could go with my mom shopping.  And there in the Drug Store, I found my “go to” gifts for both mom and dad.  Jean Nate Body Splash for mom and Pierre Cardin aftershave for dad.  Mom and dad always smelled good- distinctively like my mom and dad with the citrus scent that was at the heart of the respective fragrances.

Mom said she liked Jean Nate.  I remember the bottle- frosted glass with a round black cap containing the yellow colored “Friction pour le bain” as the bottle said.  I never knew what “Friction pour le bain” meant,  “Friction” seemed a strange word, but it was all appropriately exotic enough, being in French, even though I pronounced it JEAN like my mom’s first name.

Dad similarly always smelled like that sharp lemony odor contained in the modern glass bottle with shiny silver half circle cap, which reminded me of an old-fashioned keyhole on a lock.   I remember when I tried some of it, pouring some into my hand and they splashing or slapping it against my cheeks and neck.  It seemed to kind of sting and yet be cool at the same time.  But that was dad’s smell.

I do not know what it says about one’s fashion sense when you let your small child select your fragrance.  But it certainly says that the love you have for your child is infinitely more important.  Those smells still linger and are powerful memories that come rushing forth from the recesses of my mind.  And suddenly there is my mom as I remembered her with long dark hair and soothing voice.  There is my dad- for some reason in a wide-lapelled suit coat – I don’t know how he got stuck in the 70s, but at least it was not a leisure suit! But he was dressed and on his way to his business.  I was transported back in time, to a simpler time, a beautiful and uncomplicated time.  It washes over me as though it were yesterday.

I also remember the distinct smell of my grandfather and his cigars, and the room in my grandparent’s house in which my grandmother permitted him to smoke them.  I remember my grandmother’s kitchen, the smells of her chicken soup made with dill that was uniquely hers.  I remember the fragrance of Macaroni and cheese casserole wafting through my other grandma’s apartment and my grandpa’s cheek soft and smooth, scented with his shaving soap.

The smell of the food, the fragrance of the soap or eau de toilet, the remnant of the cigar- these are the memories of those whose lives have touched us directly.  We remember them vividly in these moments because we shared moments and life together.

But now, all that we have are the memories of that time together.  These recollections are bittersweet, bringing a smile to our lips and tears to our eyes. What we might give to have them with us now.  Just a bit more time together we wish, just one more memory to hold in our heart.  Husband or wife, mother or father, sister or brother, the memories of those whose lives were so intimately intertwined with ours remain.  And even though time passes and we try our best to move forward, the loss remains profound.

As we recall our loved ones though, it is amazing to notice how their hard edges have faded, the sharp lines are blurred.  In our honest moments, we know that there were times of stress.  Tension existed, tempers could flare and egos could get in the way. Each of us could fall victim to the thing called being a human being.   But here in this place, we remember with warmth and love the good things, the uplifting things, the godly things that make these departed loved ones cherished parts of our lives.  If only it was always so.

But we have the chance to do precisely this.  Yizkor is the opportunity for us to remember those who are departed.  It is a time for reflection.  We look inside and examine ourselves, not only confronting who we are, but also, whom we wish to be.  We take this special time and carve it out from this day and reflect on those who have touched us, shaped us and nurtured us.  For we have been forever changed by their presence in our lives.

Yizkor is our chance to remember them.  Zichronom Livracha, may their lives be a blessing.  As we remember their finer qualities and the beautiful memories, their memories become an inspiration.  The best they had to offer is what we remember.  And by keeping that in our hearts and minds they move us to live in better even more special ways.

When we remember that special thing about them that brings a smile to us, we remember.  But when we do that special thing for another person, not only do we make someone else smile, but our loved one comes alive in our hearts, whether it is cooking for someone you love or accepting the sincere gifts of another with grace and gratitude rather than judgment, as my mom and dad did with their son.

May we live fulfilling those aspirations and through this, honor those we have lost and keep them alive in our hearts.