It is exactly fifteen years since that unforgettably nightmarish moment when I answered the phone at my home in
Losing a father is a shattering moment that thrusts the utter loneliness of the universe coldly into the depths of every man’s soul. I tore a long gash in the left lapel of my suit jacket as the Torah describes and with eyes that seemed to have an inexhaustible reservoir of tears, flew to
As ancient Jewish tradition dictates, your funeral, Dad, followed very quickly. Before I could even begin to relate to my new fatherless reality we were laying your body to rest in
It was a gentle healing time. There was no hysteria and no moments of uncontrollable grief. It was a week of bitter sweet memories and of profound discovery. We laughed quite a lot and discovered many things about you, Dad, that we never knew. During that week friends and relatives from all over the world came to pay their respects and stayed to talk of the remarkable man they remembered.
For instance, I discovered that early in your rabbinic career, soon after World War II, you established for the South African Jewish community, an office of Jewish-Christian relations. Only six months before you moved to the World of Truth, I laid out for you my plans for an American organization for Jews and Christians to jointly restore traditional values. I think I know why you never mentioned to me that this eerily echoed something you had done forty years earlier. I think I’ll keep that to myself.
I discovered the truth behind something you had once taught me. You had said that contrary to what one might expect, someone who had a wonderful marriage finds it a little easier to bear the loss of a spouse. One might think that when a person is delivered from a dreadful marriage by the death of a spouse, the bereavement is particularly easy to endure. The truth is quite the opposite.
For the survivor of a horrible marriage, there is nothing but desolate isolation. Since there never was much of a spiritual bond in that marriage to begin with, the physical departure of one spouse leaves the remaining partner with absolutely nothing.
However, in the case of a marvelous marriage, the spiritual connection is so strong that it even out shadows the physical. Thus when the physical bond is broken by death, the remaining spiritual bond still embraces the survivor. I saw this in the case of your marriage to Mom.
Dad, you must have known how your face lit up each time Mom walked into the room. I never tired of noting the change in your mood and expression whenever Mom returned to your presence. You went from solemn and introverted to effervescent and joyful. It was a wonder to behold and gave proof to that spiritual bond.
Susan often mentions that she spotted the same thing the first time she met you both and it powerfully reassured her in her decision to cast her lot in with me, so thanks for that.
The reason that Mom was able to function after you rejoined our Father in Heaven was that in many important ways, you were still with her. I am quite sure that she continued speaking to you because even I did that. The only difference is that I know Mom heard your responses each time she spoke whereas I only heard them on the important communal issues that I continued to discuss with you.
In the tractate of Berachot, ancient Jewish wisdom declares that the truly righteous, even after their physical death, are regarded as living. I now understood that. Had the entire essence of our relationship been tossing around a basketball each weekend, your absence would have been intolerable. However the essence of our relationship was you teaching me how the world really works. It was you introducing me to every subtle nuance of our covenant with God. It was you drilling me in meticulous review of hundreds, if not thousands of pages of Torah both oral and written. Well, none of that has ended. You’re almost as present in my life as you were fifteen years and a day ago. Something is of course different but it is the less important part of our relationship.
We weren’t much for tossing around the basketball, but we did love our
regular family visits to the
Today they toss around the phrase ‘renaissance man.’ I don’t even know what it means any more. But you were moved by the music of Bach and Beethoven. The principal violinist of the South African Broadcasting Corporation Symphony Orchestra considered herself your friend. Shakespeare spoke to you and the rolling cadences of Winston Churchill’s speeches thrilled you as they did when you first heard him live in
I am so grateful that all my children knew you. I grew up in your home. My children only have the second-hand benefit of growing up in the home of someone who grew up in your home, but they did know you and do remember you. They don’t remember you well enough to know how like you I have become. Many sons dread the moment they discover they are becoming their fathers. I longed for that moment.
Remember the time I damaged that fine British car you owned and loved? I was fourteen years-old and strictly speaking, shouldn’t really have been driving it in the first place. But then fortunately, you were always more concerned about my soul than about my body, letting me take physical risks but never spiritual ones. When I wrapped the fender around a telephone pole I don’t know whether I feared your anger or your sadness more. You exhibited neither. In total and perfect control of your emotions, you made me get behind the wheel and drive all that day with you alongside of me in the front passenger seat. It was quite a day.
You know what I am most nostalgic about? Today people feel a need to ostentatiously parade their piety with obtrusive displays of religious rigor. The permanently stern and unsmiling countenances; making sure all know of one’s absurdly restrictive rules; pompous renunciation of life’s pleasures; dark and gloomy theological theories; and yes, endless belittling of all one considers so very inferior. Your relationship with God was bright and beautiful. It made you respect everyone and it somehow made everyone love you. You were tough on yourself but easy and loving towards others. Most rabbis today are the opposite. They are remarkably easy on themselves and perhaps love themselves altogether too well. At the same time they ride roughly over the ordinary folks they encounter.
Just two recollections: I needed your help to carry the Torah teaching load in the
In 1957 you took the entire family on sabbatical to the
I don’t mind telling you that as a young boy, I was kind of hoping you’d whisper it quietly. My goodness, there must have been seven hundred people in that dining saloon and we were pretty much the only Jews. I suspected that you were going to say the Kiddush as loudly as you did at home and I quaked. I mean, did we really need to draw attention to ourselves?
You stood up straight and my eyes were glued to your erect figure. Mom sat next to you and the rest of us kids were arrayed around the table. You started the evocative phrases softly. So softly that with the noisy dining room hubbub of serving waiters, crockery clashing, and talking passengers, I could hardly hear you.
Then a strange thing happened. The waiters slowly stopped their serv
ing. The tables fell silent and seven hundred people rose to their feet and gazed respectfully in our direction. Your voice rose slightly as you brought the benediction to a conclusion. The family responded Amen which was immediately echoed softly by hundreds of lips around the room. Your warmth and dignity radiated through the dining room and from then onwards for the remaining two weeks of the voyage, you seemed to have seven hundred best friends on board ship.
Times are changing. Fifteen years have gone by. You used to tell me that there is no way I could comprehend the greatness of your teachers in pre-World War II Europe. Now I tell my students that there is no way they can fully comprehend the human greatness of the teachers I was privileged to have. Among them all, nobody stands taller than you. I do hope that you are as proud of being my father as I am of being your son.