Sunday, January 25, 2009

Reb Sholom Herman, a"h

This is the eulogy I gave for my wife's grandfather today, Reb Sholom ben Yitzchak Zev Herman ע"ה:

The Gemara (Mo’ed Katan 25a) says that כל הבוכה ומתאבל על אדם כשר מוחלין לו על כל עונותיו – whoever cries and mourns for a “kosher Jew” is forgiven for his sins. When I first learned this Gemara I had a lot of problems with it. The definition of an אדם כשר, a kosher Jew, is that he fulfills the mitzvos and avoids aveiros. How hard can that be? Doesn’t just about everyone fit into this? That’s the kind of question only someone young can ask. The truth is that life poses so many challenges that it’s remarkable that anyone comes out completely religious.

Click here to read moreWhen we talk about challenges, we have to be careful what we say. Today a challenge means losing money in the stock market or losing your job. Those are serious things but they are nothing like the challenges that Zeidy faced. Losing your family in the Holocaust, surviving not only Stalinist Russia but years in a Siberian prison… he knew challenges. He told me many times, and I eventually understood even though we spoke different languages, that when he was in Siberia he davened every day by heart because they wouldn’t let him have a siddur. He knew all of Shacharis by heart except for the shir shel yom of one day. That’s facing a challenge and rising above it.

I recently heard a shiur by Rav Aharon Kahn in which he told an incredible story about a lesson that he had learned. He had once given a shiur in a wealthy shul where the women didn’t always dress properly and he said a joke – that he was surprised how poor the people are because they can’t even afford to buy a whole woman’s dress. Afterwards someone came up to him and said, “Do you know who I am? You sit in the yeshivah all day while I travel on business and am faced with the hardest religious challenges in life. And I remain strong and don’t give in. And you think you can make fun of me?” To Rav Kahn’s credit, he apologized then and continues to apologize to this day. We can’t imagine the difficulties of a Soviet prison and for Zeidy to have come out with a strong emunah intact and a love for Torah and mitzvos, we can’t touch his toes when it comes to zekhuyos in shamayim.

When I first got married, I davened in a yeshivishe shul where there was one non-religious man who came every week. He stood out like a sore thumb. His wife had recently passed away and he had decided to start going to shul, and he liked our shul for some reason. One time we had him over for Shabbos lunch and my wife recognized him. He used to sell fruits near her house when she was growing up. When she described who she was, he vaguely remembered her but he remembered quite clearly Zeidy. Every day when Zeidy walked by the store on the way to shul he would say a cheerful good morning to this fruit salesman and he remembered it years later. And I’ve heard stories like that from many people who find out I married Reb Sholom’s granddaughter. It’s the simple act of being friendly, being menschlikh, that shows who a person is and what he stands for.

There is a contradiction in Mishnayos over how Tavi the servant of Rabban Gamaliel is described. In Sukkah (20b) he is called a talmid chakham but in Berakhos (16b) he is simply called “kosher”. If he was a talmid chakham, why would the Mishnah in Berakhos call him simply “kosher”? Shouldn’t it have called him something greater, a talmid chakham?

I think that the answer is that everyone start outs with a pure neshamah but we have to work hard to keep it pure. Someone can grow into a talmid chakham but not always maintain that purity. Just because you know a lot of Torah and you have a long beard, it doesn’t mean that you’ve done everything else right. Zeidy was the other way around. He was a simple Jew. He didn’t know all of Shas and he didn’t have a long beard, or any beard, but he had a pure neshamah.

When I was a bochur in yeshivah I had a scary experience. I had the zekhus of assisting a gadol ba-Torah in his last days. When R. Dovid Lifshitz got very sick, I was assigned the task of helping him out during davening. At the end of his life, I saw something incredible. He would come to the beis medrash and someone else would put tefillin on him. Then he would sit with a siddur and daven. I was waiting to see when he finished the page to turn it for him and I realized that he would keep davening the same page over and over if I let him. Sadly, the illness and the medication took away his memory and almost his ability to function. But one thing he knew, something that was in his very bones, was that he wanted to daven. When you strip away all of the learning, all of the accomplishments, what you end up with is a simple, kosher Jew. Deep down, that is what a gadol ba-Torah is – a kosher Jew.

While Tavi was a talmid chakham, when you stripped away everything that was added on, when you brought him down to the raw essentials of who he was, he was a kosher Jew. That’s a level of scrutiny I don’t think many of us can survive. As it turns out, it isn’t so easy to be a kosher Jew.

When I visited Zeidy last, this past week, he was dozing in and out. But the whole time he had a Tehillim in front of him and was trying to say Tehillim. He wasn’t turning the page, and when I turned it for him he eventually turned it back. He didn’t know where he was and what he was doing. I don’t even know if he knew who I was. But one thing he knew was that he wanted to say Tehillim. That’s what a kosher Jew does. For many years he was always proud to tell me that in his shul he davened pesukei de-zimra from the amud every day, at least that’s what I think he said. A big yasher koach to Rabbi Taub and his shul for giving Zeidy the opportunity. Every day. He lived for that. He lived for davening to Hashem.

I remember when I was young I used to like to listen on the radio to the song called Zaidy, about the Zaidy who would laugh and sing zemiros and bring joy to the whole family. My grandfathers died when I was young and I never had anyone like that. It was only when I got married that I met someone who literally matched the lyrics of that song. He welcomed me into the family like a grandson and he even though he barely spoke English and I barely understand Yiddish, I could always feel his love for me, my wife, and my children. I never cried before over someone’s death like I cried last night over Zeidy and I’m just privileged to have had him in my life for the many years that I did. I speak now to my children. Know that you are descended from a very holy man. He wasn’t a tzaddik or a talmid chakham; he didn't have a beard or a funny hat. But he was the kind of man that Hashem wants us all to be.

Yehi zikhro barukh. Bila ha-maves la-netzach u-machah Hashem Elokim dimah me-al kol panim, ve-nomar amen.

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