Saturday, October 13, 2012

My grandmother

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I've been debating whether to post the eulogy I gave at my grandmother's funeral. I've felt reticent, but many people have asked about my grandmother and I do want them to know something about her, and I have found it difficult to discuss my feelings in conversation, so I have decided to publish it here. [You might also go back to this post related to my grandmother, and to this older post about her.]

We generally avoid full-blown eulogies and crying on the day after Yom Tov, so I will try to structure my thoughts more as a dvar torah.

A Jewish woman of more than 3000 years ago, Chanah, wanted nothing more than to birth a child. Living in a society that prized children and viewed procreation as the first Divine directive, surrounded in her house by the children of her rival, she knew daily misery. She trekked to the Temple every year and prayed for a child, while enduring mockery from those around her. Finally, finally, she birthed a son, Shemuel, and she sang a song to Gd; the song is recorded in the book of Shemuel.

Chanah's song is strange, though; a poem of ten sentences, it never mentions her son. Only the opening line even mentions that Gd has done anything for her, at all; she says עלץ לבי בד', "I rejoice in Your salvation." But the rest of the poem, instead of focussing on Chanah's experience, declares that Gd raises the fallen and lowers the mighty, enriches the indigent and reduces the grand to poverty, causes death and brings life. Is this really a song about the birth of her son?

Many have been puzzled by this poem; some have labelled it not a song of thanks, but a prophetic message. Others have taken it as a lesson in Jewish philosophy. Still others see her praise of Divine might as mere prologue to a request that Gd protect her son, Shemuel.

But אין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו, the text must also be understood in its most literal form. On some level, Chanah was absolutely singing a song of thanks. It was not a parochial, "Thank You for Your hand in helping me." Rather, it was a broad declaration, "I recognize Your hand in everything."

It would have been normal, natural, for Chanah to have seen Shemuel's birth as a product of her own efforts; after all, she prayed and lived righteously for years without a Divine response. She was the one who carried the baby to term, then birthed, nursed and mothered him. But she saw a Divine hand in it; she credited this to Gd, she credited everything to Gd. This was her song: "Gd, I see You everywhere."

"Gd, I see You everywhere" was Grandma's song, too, whenever she spoke to me. Maybe she said it more to me, because I was a Rabbi, but it seems to me that in my adult life, almost every conversation with Grandma included a mention of how grateful she was to Gd for giving her her three daughters, her grandchildren, and then her great-grandchildren. "G-d has given me so much," she would say to me, even in these last several months, when so much that enjoyed became difficult and was taken from her.

Her faith was not unchallenged or naive; Grandma knew misfortune, and she didn't play it down. What Grandma lost in Europe was never far from her mind; she told us about Joncha, and about Uncle Leo, about her life before the war and about those who had died. And Grandma talked about Grandpa, who passed away almost forty years ago. But with all that she had suffered and lost, Grandma still credited her gifts to Gd, and with powerful emunah saw Gd's hand all around her. And וצדיק באמונתו יחיה, in that faith she lived.

Maybe seeing Gd's hand in the world was what enabled Grandma to choose life, building a new world here in America, becoming active at OZ as well as various tzedakah organizations, reading for the blind, volunteering for Family Court, and making friends wherever she went. When we were in Israel studying after high school, and Grandma came to Israel for Succos, she would invite us to the King David for their Shabbos lunch buffet, and she would tell us to bring friends – who quickly became Grandma fans for life.

Maybe seeing Gd's hand in the world was what enabled Grandma to build new, loving relationships, falling in love with her grandchildren, their spouses, and eventually her great-grandchildren. All of us remember Grandma cheering for our New York sports teams, teaching us to play her card games, leaving us long messages on our answering machines, participating in our triumphs and talking with us about our woes. And Grandma never missed an opportunity to tell us how proud she was of all of us.

Maybe seeing Gd's hand in the world was what enabled Grandma to enjoy life – eating chocolate, listening to music, playing cards. I still remember the violin concert Grandma took me to, although it must be over 25 years since that night.

To me, this was Grandma's song- עלץ לבי בד', I exult in Gd. Gd, I see You everywhere.

Yesterday, in shul, we read about the death of Moshe, the great leader who fled his birthplace and made a new life elsewhere, who formed a great nation but was stopped just short of realizing his dream of entering Israel.

Grandma, you have two up on Moshe. First, you made it into your beloved Israel, many times. And second, you made it to your own Promised Land. After so much destruction, you lived to see three wonderful daughters, who took care of you in truly rare fashion, right up until you entered the עולם האמת. You saw ten grandchildren succeed in the fields of education, medicine, law, and the arts. And you played with so many great-grandchildren, the seeds of an ever-brighter future. All of it, out of the עלץ לבי בד' faith which saw Gd's Hand everywhere.

As I was sitting in the succah two days ago, wondering what was happening with you, I noticed a part of the succah where we had employed the principle of lavud. Without going into great detail, lavud means that we view two bodies which are almost in contact, as though they were in actual contact.

Grandma, you aren't in contact anymore. You have gone to another world, and I can't hear you or see you. But you are close, and you will always be close, and lavud will have to fill the gap the rest of the way.

We love you, and owe you so much. May we live up to your legacy.

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