Today 91-year-old Deana Rosenthal came to visit me. She thought she was coming to me to find some comfort and solace a year and a half after her beloved husband Alvin died. Turns out, she spent more time teaching me Torat Chayim (the Torah of Life). In the process, she lifted both of us a little higher on the ladder of holiness.
Theirs was a love affair, the kind people yearn for. He was handsome; she fell for him quickly. He served his country. He provided for his family. He became her everything. Two sons, two grandsons later, they were still each other’s everything.
Now after 67 years together, he’s gone.
Finding Comfort After a Loved One is Gone
Deana and I agreed: better that our beloveds should go before us, so that they don’t have to live with the pain of being alone. Even though she made this wish while Alvin was ailing, still, she confessed to me, “It was so much more difficult to be without Alvin, even after a year and a half, than I ever imagined.”
We talked for a while. She alternated between airing her encompassing broken-heartedness and dismissing any expectation that comfort and consolation was really possible. Two realities held in tension. I wondered: Could there be any wisdom that might alleviate even 1/60 of her pain (Talmud Nedarim 39a)?
Turning to Torah
I asked Deana to help me roll Torah for some upcoming service. Cane in one hand, the other hooked in the crook of my proffered arm, she hobbled into the sanctuary. When she stopped at the foot of the bimah, wondering what she should do next, I guided her to lead me up the steps.
We opened the ark doors. Deana tentatively undressed the Torah, following my instructions. Together we placed the scroll on the podium and I placed her in between the atzei chayim (wooden rollers holding the parchment). She held on tightly to each wooden roller.
I marveled at what I was witnessing. Was Deana holding up the scroll to make sure it didn’t roll off the table? Or was Torah holding her up, giving her an aliyah (spiritual ascent) from the depths of her physical and emotional shakiness? We took a photo.
Deana said she never really became a Bat Mitzvah, although Rabbi Edgar Magnin, Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s towering rabbi, once gave a group of them a Bat Mitzvah experience. Today’s experience seemed to be unique.
Deana Drashes the Torah Portion
The Torah opened itself to Terumah (Exodus 25:1ff), calling out darsheini (interpret me). I asked Deanna to help me prepare for an upcoming sermon. With the yad in hand, Deana followed my lead, pointing to each word and repeating aloud it after me. I translated.
I asked, “Beyond the gold and silver, what is the terumah (gift) we bring to God?” Deana quickly responded, “Our love, our caring.” These clearly are as precious as fine metals and beautiful linen, we agreed.
“How are these gifts to God?” as the Hebrew word li (“to Me”) implies?” “Because what else would God want from us if not to care for God’s creations?” Her answer reminded me of that rabbinic commentary explaining that the way to love God bechol levavcha uvechol nafshecha uvechol me’odecha (“with all our heart, soul, and might,” from the V’ahavta prayer, Deuteronomy 6:5) is to love and care for God’s creations.
We read that the Israelites should use zahav tahur (pure gold) to overlay the table. After contemplating what might be especially pure about our gifts, Deana proposed, “When love and caring is offered with sincerity, it is especially pure.”
We talked about overlaying the table in pure gold, set before God and before our people. Surely all the love and caring Deana shared with her Alvin and her family have been on display before the Holy One, strengthening our people, satisfying God.
We stood in silence. Then Deana gave me her terumah: A smile. The first I had seen.
We dressed the Torah together. Sitting her on the bimah chair, I placed the Torah in her arms and feigned a reason to walk away.
A precious terumah.
A Shehecheyanu Moment
We put the Torah back in the ark. Such a special experience, I explained, is called a Shehecheyanu moment. It called out for a blessing.
She repeated each Hebrew word after me: Baruch Atah Adonai… shehecheyanu v’keeimanu v’higeeanu…
We recited the translation – Blessed are You, Eternal our God … who gives us life, who keeps us in life and…. When I spoke “lazman hazeh – this special moment”, Deana leaned over and gave me a kiss. She was beaming.
Deana came in to kvetch, cry and find consolation. She went away smiling with a shehecheyanu. She thanked me for this gift.
L’dor Vador: From Generation to Generation
In our book, Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness (Jewish Lights Publishing), my wife/co-author Michelle and I reflect on how grandparents and other older adults uniquely can pass Jewish values on l’dor vador (from generation to generation).
Deana had pulled me away from the administratrivia of my day to show me the intersection of life’s tribulations and Torah’s ability to bring wholeness and healing. She taught me about the poignancy of Talmud Torah (Torah study) and its unique power to bring comfort and wholeness.
There is a blessing we say whenever we meet a revered scholar. Reflecting back on my time with Deana, I recited it to myself:
Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, sheh-chalak mei-chochmato lirei-av.
Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe: You share Your wisdom with those who revere You.
And I floated on air for the rest of the day.