I’ve known Lil for almost 14 years, a minuscule portion of her quite long life. Still, I have grown quite fond of her as our paths crossed and recrossed through vicissitudes of life: celebrations of B’nai Mitzvah, visits to her during a near death hospital stay, holy day services and the more mundane moments in between.
I remember being touched that she was the inspiration that led three of her great grandchildren (and her adult daughter) to become B’nai Mitzvah, and being inspired by her finesse at helping them craft each d’var Torah (speech). I am prepared each High Holy Day morning to find “Nana”, right after services, to give her a kiss and a few words of blessing.
So when I was asked if I had time to visit Nana at the Convalescent Home, I just tossed a date out and recorded it in my iPhone. Who knew that the request to visit a congregant’s 103 year old mother would turn out to be one of the most meaningful, spiritual moments of the week?
Sightless but Insightful
Lil was waiting for me in the Sun Room at the end of the hallway. I approached; she offered me a seat. We held hands; I gave her a kiss.
Lil may not be able to see, but she is very insightful. We talked about her grandkids (who call almost every day) and her family, about the convalescent home and her upcoming 104th birthday (not a big deal to her). Our conversations delved into the joys of family and the sometimes incomprehensible depression that temporarily descends (perhaps the result of being old?).
Well Before its Time, A Girl Advocates for the Chance to Study Torah
Lil reminisced about her own Jewish upbringing. Hers was a very religious family; two older brothers were taught by a tutor – Mr. Yunefsky? – who came by every day. Although girls generally were not taught Torah and Hebrew back then, Lil very much wanted to learn. With the help of her brother, she convinced her father to let her learn. “Why don’t you have a teacher for me? Because I’m a girl?” Her dad responded, “Is that what you’d like?” She responded “Yes, because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I don’t want to learn.” So she started to absorb everything that the teacher would teach: Hebrew, Torah, and Bible.
Time and again Lil explained about how important it was that the next generations (her grandchildren) love being Jewish and are involved in the synagogue. Hers are! Her youngest is a Madricha (teaching assistant) in our schools and a leader on our LoMPTY youth group board; the two boys regularly stop by to visit me (their rabbi) when they are in town from school. Lil takes great pride in the fact that they are members of Congregation Or Ami and are bonded with Judaism.
Learning Torah Together
During a lull in the conversation, I asked her if I could read her this week’s parasha
(Torah portion). She lit up. Opening the Tanach for All
(Bible) app on my iPhone, I proceeded to read the portion in Hebrew; Lil surprised me by translating the words. Back and forth we went. Hebrew then English; me then she. I was moved in this moment. Separated by three generations, we nevertheless shared Torah, something that transcended the generations.
I needed to drash (interpret) the parasha for that Shabbat. So I asked her how to best interpret these words for our congregation. 103-year-old Nana was full of suggestions. I wondered just what was really happening here. To the casual observer, it might appear that I – the Rabbi – was teaching Torah to this older woman; in truth, Lil was passing the wisdom onto me.
A Moment when Blessings Overflowed
Today I learned Torah from a 103-year-old woman. Her wisdom filled my soul; her love overflowed into my heart. On reflection, I keep coming back to the blessing one says upon seeing a Torah scholar (found in my iPhone CCAR Daily Blessings app
Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu melech haolam, shchalak meichochmato lirei’av.Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe: You share Your wisdom with those who revere You.
Yes, 103-year-old Lil was my Torah teacher. Thank you God, for this moment of wisdom in the midst of everyday life.