“Don’t stack the dirty dishes,” Donna taught, “There is no reason to have to clean both sides.”
I looked over to my wife and smiled. This was one of those mini-arguments we’ve been having all our marriage, and now, an 88-year-old woman took my side.
One couldn’t easily ignore the wisdom of Donna. She was a persuasive type of person, who successfully became a court mediator in her 70’s, and entered law school in her 80’s (for the intellectual stimulation). Donna was an impressive woman – energetic, colorful and very intelligent. Oh, and as of late last week, she was very much dead.
We gathered, a few of us, at Eden Cemetery, recounting Donna’s timeless wisdom. My wife sat in the pews; I was officiating as rabbi. Donna, who lay peacefully in a plain pine box, was being eulogized beautifully by her cousin, her rabbi and her granddaughter. They remembered her as one who would do anything for family. They recalled her insistance that problems be addressed head-on instead of being swept under the rug.
More Wisdom from an Older Sage
I was thinking about Donna’s wisdom later that evening as we gathered for Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a late night study session in preparation for the holiday of Shavuot. We were preparing for the day Jewish tradition teaches Moses received the gift of Torah at Mt. Sinai. We were talking about the values that Torah brings into our lives. And we were talking about the four insights of Ben Zoma, a Jewish sage who died in the second century BCE.
Ben Zoma’s perspectives on wisdom, strength, wealth and honor (Pirkei Avot 4:1) inverted commonly held perceptions.
- V’eizeh hu chacham? Who is wise? Ha-lomeid mikol adam – the one who learns from every person. Wisdom is more than book-smarts; it is found in life experience.
- V’eizeh hu gibur? Who is mighty? Ha-koveish et yitzro. The one who controls his passions. Strength is more than physical prowess; the ability to control oneself brings forth all kinds of confidence and power.
- V’eizeh hu asher? Who is rich? Ha-samay-ach b’cheklo. The one who is content with her portion. In a world where there is always “more,” true wealth is held by those who recognize that they really have “enough.”
- V’eizeh hu mechubad? Who is honored? Ha-m’chabeid et habriot. The one who honors others. Honor comes from within, but is shared with everyone else.
Eventually We are All Gonna Die
If you gotta die – and eventually we all do – it is much more pleasant when you rest with the knowledge that you will be remembered fondly for the person you were, the wisdom you acquired and the love you shared. Some say that is how we attain immortality – by living honorable lives and by teaching our loved ones the lesson we learned.
Well, Ben Zoma is long gone. Now Donna lies at rest beside her beloved Danny. But their wisdom – about strength and contentment, about reconciliation and family – lives on in their names. May their memories be for a blessing (and may we say “Amen”).