Dear Rabbi Stern:
I will never forget the last words you spoke to me, about two weeks ago. Like most of the things in your life, our conversation must be kept confidential. But, the last thing you said was how proud you were of me. I wondered, at the time, if you remembered the very first thing you said to me. It was about thirty-eight years ago. Most of the other grown-ups in town had written me and my friends off as miscreants. Not quite ne’er-do-wells. We weren’t bad kids by any measure. Just loud. And insensitive. Maybe a little misguided. It was easier to ignore us. But you wouldn’t. In your quiet, dignified way, you encouraged us to get involved in our community. To give back. You singularly reminded us of all the gifts and advantages we received simply because we were growing up in Teaneck, America. You didn’t make us feel bad. Or that we were bad. To the contrary. You made us feel like each of us mattered. Your love for every Jew, every human being, big and small, was an earth-shattering revolution. None of our parents or teachers could reach us in the way that you did. And, looking back I realize that you did it without trying. You didn’t strategize. Or play games. You did it simply and without pretense. As a ten year old, I wanted to be a better person because I wanted you to be proud of me.
This week, I listened to your son eulogize you. I remember him as a baby. Big cheeks, huge smile, and a giggle that was infectious. I haven’t seen him in thirty years. He is a man now. You probably knew that. Most of what he said about you, I already knew. Frankly, everyone knew. But, I didn’t know how much he loved you. That sounds silly. Every child loves their father and everyone loved you. But, he made a case for your legacy that surprised me. Yes, you learned Torah all day and night. Yes, you had a jewelry business. You started Project Ezrah and devoted every waking minute to helping the mal-affected find jobs, pay bills, and get back on their feet. I just assumed you did all of this at the expense of your family. After all, we are taught that Moshe Rabbenu’s family life suffered because of his service to Am Yisroel. So, I think you’d get a pass if you couldn’t attend your child’s siddur play. Or parent teacher conferences. If you were too tired listening to communal maladies to listen to familial problems. But, once again, I underestimated you. Listening to your son describe your life together – - business trips, chavrutot, quality time, and some laughs thrown in along the way – - listening to how unconditionally, without reservation, he loved and respected you, was yet another lesson you taught me. Lots of people contribute. They donate time, money, energy. There are activists and leaders and role models. You have undoubtedly read about them in the newspapers Or on their blogs. They are heroes. But, dear Rabbi Stern, you didn’t want attention. Or respect. You didn’t want anything. Your every breath was motivated by love. Nothing more. You loved your community. You loved people. Jewish, and not so Jewish. You loved your wife and children. And, yes, you loved the young trouble makers who constituted the earliest generation of a nascent Jewish community. When you are motivated by love, life is good. Even when it’s not. Ironically, your heart was larger than its walls could hold. Your love just couldn’t fit. I suppose it was inevitable. The human heart is just not made to hold as much emotion, as much benevolence, as much kindness as you dispensed on a daily basis.
I spent decades chasing your approval. Two weeks ago, it seemed in hand. But, I reject it. I am not worthy of your pride. You are a giant and I constantly struggle with my inner and outer good. But, you deserve credit for yet another soul. And I pledge mine to your memory. Every day, I will endeavor to perform an act of love and kindness. Not in your memory or in your honor. You would hate that. But, simply because I should know better. Thanks to you.
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