When I was a kid, my closest relative was my great, great Aunt Millie. She was my mom’s mom’s aunt. Aunt Millie was born in 1890! She was 83 when I was born, so of course my memories of her are only as an older person. She was the youngest one of her siblings, and the only one still living by the time I was born.
Aunt Millie lived in the 1700 Building on the corner of 56th and Everett in Chicago. It was the first place that I was allowed to walk to myself – no streets were even crossed. Mostly I didn’t go there myself, though. My mom went often to visit with, or check on Aunt Millie, and my sister and I often went with her.
When I had my bat mitzvah, Aunt Millie was 96 years old! She was the oldest one in the family, and as much as relatives came from far and wide to celebrate my special milestone, I know they also came to see each other – including Aunt Millie. She died a year later, at the age of 97. For nearly fourteen years, she was an important presence in my life.
My mom’s mom’s family was originally from Germany. Thankfully most of them made it to the United States before the war. Over time, there were many members of my family of Aunt Millie’s generation living on the Southside of Chicago. When my grandmother arrived from Germany, she went to live with Aunt Millie and finished high school there.
Aunt Millie had a son named Allen. He grew up on the South side. He later became a professor of physics and he and his family live in California. I’ve met his children (about 10 years older than I am) a grand total of once in my life, and his grandchildren never. He hasn’t met my kids. That happens – family moves away.
But because his mother lived near me, I saw Allen more than once – including special occasions, regular occasions, and even a lovely dinner with him and his wife Louise during a trip they took to Jerusalem when I lived there. That’s the last time he and I were in the same room, and I think I’ve spoken to him on the phone two or three times in these last two decades.
My connection with Allen is mostly that he is Aunt Millie’s son, and I had a connection with her.
So a few years ago – almost four years ago – I was very surprised to see a card in the mail from him. And… it wasn’t even for me.
Before I tell you what was in there, I want to ask you these questions:
HAVE YOU EVER RECEIVED AN UNEXPECTED GIFT? WERE YOU GRATEFUL? DID YOU RECOGNIZE THE IMPACT IT HAD ON YOUR LIFE? INCLUDING A RIPPLE EFFECT OF GOODNESS?
In this week’s Torah portion, we read the line “Man does not live by bread alone.” (Did you think that was Shakespeare?) This is the context: The Children of Israel had been in the desert for forty years, and what did they eat? Manna (mann in Hebrew).
What was this mann? It was an unknown substance. That is specifically pointed out in the same verse. Mann wasn’t something that they knew, or even that the generation before them knew. It was something brand new. They couldn’t have planned for it or expected it. We are told that God sent it to teach that “Man does not live by bread alone, but by everything that comes out of the mouth of God does man live.”
Now, you can see God however you want to see God, right? But whether your view is the one in the Torah, or whether you look at it as literature, or whether you like to substitute the word Nature for God, we can all learn something here. And I think that one thing we can learn is that sometimes when we think we’re out of luck because we’ve used up all our ideas, something we didn’t see coming… comes.
And something else we can take from this is a reminder to be grateful. Sometimes these unexpected gifts literally fall out of nowhere, and we feel grateful, and maybe even in awe. But what about the everyday gifts? In this same Torah portion, just a few verses later, we are told that we will eat and be satisfied and bless God for the good land (from which the food came).
The Torah says that if we don’t watch out, we will come to a time when we have plenty of food every day (Can you imagine? After all that time in the desert with only mann, there would be plenty of food!). We should watch out for the time when we have plenty of food and good houses and increased wealth and… we will forget that this was all made possible by God who gave us mann.
So often we get trapped in the internal dialogue about where our next bread will come from, that we forget that we do not live by bread alone. We make the bread, we need to be active participants and work for it, but if it were not for the wheat, the soil, the rain… where would we be?
What about our possessions and good houses and increased wealth? We worked hard to get those, and now we work hard to hang on to them. Are we so focused on our effort that we forget to be grateful for what we have? Or that we forget that we didn’t get here alone?
Four years ago, when I opened my mailbox I was not expecting to find a card from Allen. It was a card in honor of my older daughter’s upcoming bat mitzvah, and it contained a generous check. At a time when I was crunched for funds and spending on a big event, that check made a significant impact. And as much as it was for my daughter from Allen, it was at least as much for me from Aunt Millie. I really never would have seen that coming; and I am grateful.
One more thing.
My grandmother was able to come to Chicago because Aunt Millie was there (who was able to come because of the uncle who came before her, who was able to come because he was willing to leave Germany alone for a new land). All four of my grandparents were immigrants instead of victims of murder (my mom’s side) or famine (my dad’s side). Because of that, I exist.
In this week’s Torah portion we are reminded: “Love the stranger, because you were strangers in Egypt.”
We are commanded to honor our parents. We are told to listen to (obey) prophets. We are commanded to love God. We don’t need to love our parents or prophets. But God and the stranger, we must love. We are to draw on the now distant memory of being strangers in Egypt and have empathy. It is so hard to be a stranger in a new place. But with our acts of love – love is a verb, not just a feeling – we can make a stranger’s life better.