Yesterday was Rosh Chodesh Shevat, the first day of what we consider to be the month in which we celebrate the new year of the trees in two weeks, a time that hints at rebirth and the coming of spring. Yet today is the first day in a few weeks that it really feels like winter, cold and dreary and rainy. Today is also one week since we lost a great person, the rav of our former community.
This past Sunday we attended the funeral of our community rabbi from a long distance away. Yes, he was just a simple, quiet rabbi, who had been leading just one of the many synagogues in the community for the last 38 years, although I believe he was also considered to be the main rav of the whole community, the marah d’asra. We were able to attend virtually due to the current situation, which, I guess, has had a few positive side effects along with all of the difficulties, because in the past no one would have thought of livestreaming funerals or weddings or other important events that we have missed in the past because we now live 6,000 miles away from our former community. So we were thankful to be able to pay last respects to this quiet, simple person, along with, at one count, at least 3,500 other people, a number that would be surely much higher if all of the people watching were counted, as each computer could have had (as ours did) more than one attendee.
We have wonderful rabbis in our current town, who are available, and patient, and knowledgeable, rabbis to whom we can ask personal and difficult questions or mundane ones, even calling from the supermarket at Pesach (Passover) time, when things are more confusing for us here. We are blessed to be part of a community whose founder and leading rav, Rabbi Riskin, is also knowledgeable and patient, a great person who has taken time to get to know so many of us in his growing community.
But back in our hometown, where my husband grew up, the rabbi we just lost, the world just lost, was my husband’s rav before we got married, and even though we didn’t live there when we were newlyweds, Rabbi Yehuda Kelemer, zt”l, was the rav we called most often with any questions, and he was a big part of the reason we moved back to that town when we decided to buy a house and were looking for a community. When we thought about looking elsewhere, we realized that if we would always be looking to this rav for guidance, why not live in his community?
So we lived there until we felt it was time for our much discussed move to Israel, yet even then, even from here and with guidance closer to home, we still felt connected to our rav.
In Judaism, each person is meant to learn the Torah for themselves, to look for and find answers, to be personally connected to the Torah. But we are also encouraged to find a rav, someone who has spent many years learning and finding answers, someone who can give guidance for both the simple and the difficult questions and issues in our lives. We are blessed to have guides we can rely on, to have rabbis we trust. We have the most amazing community leader here. And yet, as more than 3,500 people can attest, there was something special about Rabbi Kelemer.
Many people watching the funeral shared (in the side chat) their loss and grief, and so many shared stories of why they felt such a deep connection with Rabbi Kelemer. I also have a story to share, a specific story, but it goes deeper than this one event. When we lived there, any time we bumped into the rabbi on the street, in shul, anywhere, he would smile his gentle smile and ask how each of us were, speaking as if he had all the time in the world, as if whomever he spoke to was the most important person. After we moved, when we came back for visits, he was just the same. Each person in his community was important, part of the community but a whole person themselves. The particular event that I remember was five and a half years ago, towards the end of the summer when our mother was dying. I was with her in New Jersey, at least an hour’s drive from Rabbi Kelemer’s community and home.
Rabbi Kelemer was niftar (passed away) last Friday, Erev Shabbat Parshat Shemot; the Torah portion we read last Shabbat was Shemot, which means Names. It is about how one of the things that kept the Jews together during their exile to Egypt was that they kept their Jewish names. When we think of Rabbi Kelemer as a community rav, that is because this is the name he chose for himself. We all know that he was so much more, seeing people for their value as a person, every single one, and that is why he was respected and loved. He gave guidance but not recrimination, love and not judgement.
When we have children, as someone said at our first child’s naming, the first thing we do as parents is give them a name. Even if we don’t realize it at the time, we are also putting certain expectations on them, thinking that they will grow up and take on our customs, live their lives as we do. As children, we often accept what we are taught, following in our parents’ footsteps, thinking that whatever we know or do is “normal”. Then we grow up and learn about the world outside, about who we are, and what we want for ourselves. Sometimes we choose to follow the path our parents have laid out, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we decide we don’t want to use the names we were called our whole lives. Sometimes we become more outwardly religious than our parents and our community, sometimes less. I know someone whose child chose to switch to their Hebrew name when they became more religious, and their mother had a hard time accepting that. There are other children who want to use their English name or another name altogether; some parents accept this and some don’t. A name is more than the word itself; it is an expression of who you are, who you intend to be. Even if you don’t change your name, you may still want a different life than your parents had in mind. I know that each of my siblings and I do not live our lives exactly as either of our parents did, and yet, they accepted and loved each of us for who we chose to be, even when it went against their ideas.
As parents, we can give a name and teach our values, give light to the beginning of our child’s path. We plant the seeds of ideas we have and nurture our children as best we can. We give them tools to live and to understand life. But we cannot choose their paths for them. Sometimes we choose different paths from what we learned, and sometimes what we thought our children would choose is other than what we may have expected or planned, even if unknowingly.
Plans change, life changes, and we grow when we learn how to flow with the change. When I started writing this earlier in the week, it was sunny and beautiful. As I finish this so I can share it, I look at the clouds and, instead of feeling sad, remember that this is the time we plant seeds, we plant trees, because rain is what we need for new growth. I hope the seeds that I have planted in life will take root and bloom, just as in a few weeks when we celebrate the new year of the trees, we will see blossoms painting the landscape.
If I take anything with me from what Rabbi Kelemer taught with the very way he lived his life, I hope I always remember to treat each person with respect; I hope to convey to my children, friends, and family, the message that they are each people with value and I love them, whatever their choices (as long as their choice doesn’t hurt others), and that I want them to grow in their own ways.
In the end, each and every one of us chooses our own path, decides what our name will be, what legacy we leave. May we each choose to bring light to the world in our own unique way.
“…And rain will make the flowers grow.” (Les Miserables)
Yehi Shemo Mevorach