Today is the Yahrzeit of my mother of blessed memory. It’s been thirty-eight years and as time rushes by, my memory of her fades. I no longer remember facial features, the sound of her voice, or the way she so eloquently expressed herself. My recollections seem to grow fainter every day, and all I’m left with are fleeting moments of clarity. Often I’m forced to embellish the memories that I have resurrected from the recesses of my mind.
What made my mother unique was her lack of exceptionalism. Her claim to fame was that she was nondescript and didn’t stand out. She was a first grade teacher and lived under the radar. To her credit, she was able to see brilliance where others saw mischief or unruliness. She understood that each child learns and thinks differently. She taught children as individuals and realized early on that one curriculum can’t adequately meet everyone’s needs. She realized that academic successes weren’t dependent solely on IQ scores and often children who other teachers had dismissed, excelled under her tutelage.
This week’s Torah portion states: And Joseph, his brothers and the entire generation passed away. It was only after their demise that the nation can begin growing. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were infinitely greater than their descendants, yet conversely, their trials, tribulations and troubles were equally significant. Greatness may seem a laudable and envious position but it often comes at an extremely high price. Would we be able to deal with an Ishmael or an Esau in our family? Would the dysfunctions override any of our other accomplishments? Would any of us be willing to trade our mediocrity for their greatness when that greatness comes with much higher highs and much lower lows?
Sadly, my children never met their grandmother and she never met my children. No matter how I try to convey who my mother was it’s hard for them to comprehend the grandmother they are missing. My daughter works as a government liaison for Jewish education and recently attended a meeting in the school where my mother taught forty years ago. Shockingly, the principal who is now over ninety years old still works at the school and was overwhelmed to meet the granddaughter of one of his teachers. He was so excited that he asked my daughter to phone another administrator who had worked with my mother. They appraised her of what her grandmother meant to them and to a myriad of students. Again, last week, my daughter attended another meeting where the guest speaker recounted her experience in first grade. She spoke about how she was misunderstood by her teacher and had to change her class. Her new teacher totally transformed her life and she is now an educator herself. Well, it came to the speaker’s attention that my daughter was in attendance and the speaker made a beeline to her to inform her that the teacher that changed her life was indeed her grandmother.
Our sages write that “Jephthah in his generation was like Samuel in his generation.” Even though Samuel was far greater than Jephthah, he is nonetheless considered an equal as he was the leader in his time. All too often we tend to equate greatness with those who have catapulted to the greatest of heights. We assume that for an achievement to be meritorious it has to outshine previous achievements. To be great means you have to surpass someone else who society considered great. But perhaps that ideal is warped or misconstrued. Perhaps the Torah, by telling us that Joseph and the entire generation died, is indicating that we no longer have to try and emulate them. Indeed, they may have been great, but that was in a different time and a different place. Moreover, in spite of their merits they failed to bring cohesiveness unto humanity. Their generations had to be supplanted by lesser generations for Israel and the Jewish nation to come to fruition.
My mother is still guiding me thirty-eight years after her death. While her memory continues to fade, her ideals and values grow stronger. What I was unable to fathom or comprehend as a child, I’m now able to grapple with and implement into my life. What I have lost, sadly I can never get back, but what I have not yet found can thankfully still fill volumes.
Tehei zichrah baruch – May her memory be a blessing even to those who never knew her.