Tuesday, September 11, 2012

And It Looks Like The Old Man's Getting On (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia "Brown Eyed Women")

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to visit with my grandfather. He is 96 years old. Our family recently moved him from the assisted living part of the Jewish Home to the actual Jewish home. He has a room, he has some pictures of his family, and he has the 24 hour care that he now requires. Until he turned 96, he certainly did not act his age, now as my wife lovingly reminds me, “You have a 96 year old grandfather.” Even though for last ten or so years, it was always in the back of my mind that something may happen to my grandfather:  severe dementia, Alzheimer’s, some debilitating disease and death.  However, having such thoughts in the back of one’s mind is substantially different than the cold stark reality of my grandfather’s dementia and residing in the Jewish Home in Rochester. Seeing him now, is very different than visiting with him even a couple of years ago.  Now, when I visit or call, I tell him my name and who I am. Our conversations are generally the same. I know that when I hang up with him or when my visit concludes, he will put me and memory of me away deep in the recesses of his mind. Yet, even now, I recall conversations with my grandfather, not all that many years ago. One conversation strikes me as particularly poignant given this week’s parsha and the fact that Rosh Hashanah begins less than a week from now. He complimented me on my family: my wife, three daughters and son. He reminded me to take care of myself and “take good care of that family of yours.” I joked and told him that they were his family too. He laughed and said that is why he was reminding me to take care of them. Then he said that he has truly been blessed, children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. He continued by saying even though his wife passed away several years before, he has no regrets in his life. He finished by saying that he could die tomorrow completely at peace and satisfied with his life, and the blessings that he received.  That was last meaningful conversation that he and I have had. It probably occurred a year ago.

            This week’s Parsha is the Parsha Nitzavim. According the Aggadah, this is the recounting of Moshe Rabeinu’s last day of life. Unafraid of his imminent death, he gathers his family: Rosheichem, Shivteichem, Zikneichem, v’Shotreichem, Kol Ish Yisroel, Topchem N’Sheichem V’Geircha Asher B’Kerev Machanecha Meichotev Eitzecha Ad Sho’eiv MeimechaThe heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Yisroel; your children, your women, and the stranger who is in the midst of our camp, from the woodchopper to the one who draws water (Deut. 29:9-10). Moshe imparts his last vestiges of wisdom to his children, his people. Moshe wants to make sure that everything is in order when he dies and Joshua takes over. Moshe truly has been blessed. He has had the blessing of old age, and here God has granted him the gift of saying goodbye in perhaps the most wonderful fashion. God has commanded Moshe to say his goodbyes and impart the final vestiges of wisdom.
            We are taught that death is a part of life. Yet many of us are afraid of death. Many of us believe that we should shield our children from death, sadness and loss. However when we read Parsha Nitzavim, we learn that while impending death is sad, death in the manner of Moshe’s can take on an aura of holiness – of Kedusha. It is in holiness that we attain the highest level of life, a life that is directly connected to God. When death comes like this, from God, with an opportunity to say Goodbye- with an opportunity to impart wisdom to one’s children, death is not mundane; death is not ordinary, but rather holy and part of life, the final expression of holiness in a very physical endeavor.

            When we talk of strength, we unfortunately think of the person who lifts a lot of weight. We think of the person who doesn’t cry, who remains stoic if he/she is all torn up inside. At this time of year, from Elul through Succot, when we recite the 27th Psalm and conclude with the words Chazak v’Ya’Ameitz Libecha, v’Kavei El AdoshemStrengthen yourself, and he will give you courage; and hope to HaShem! We now understand what it means to strengthen oneself.  Moshe had that kind of strength. To be aware of the end of life, to prepare for it, to draw loved ones toward and tell them how we feel is the epitome of courage. Not having the opportunity to say goodbye, not having a chance to speak ones final words to people who matter most is far more tragic.

            Now, I realize the significance of the conversation that transpired between me and my grandfather a year ago. Somewhere deep down, he understood what was happening to him and what would eventually result. So before his condition worsened, before his memory was diminished and he became far less than what he ever was even a short time ago; he needed to say goodbye to me, and so he did. It’s just that I have to accept and learn that I said goodbye to my grandfather during that conversation as well.  With each phone call and visit over the past year and especially now that he is in the Jewish Home; that last conversation in my car is what I hear. I hear the courage in his voice, the acceptance of his reality, the understanding that his life has truly been blessed, and the happiness of no regrets.  On this Shabbat, the Shabbat before Rosh HaShanah, before Yom HaDin (Judgement Day), let us all have the courage to impart our wisdom to our loved ones every day, and be able to understand and accept our blessings.

Peace & Shanah Tova,

Rav Yitz

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