It is almost exactly one year since my father-in-law, Rabbi Yankel Weisberg, passed away. The month of Elul had always held special meaning for him. As its first days would approach, he would recall how his mother in the old shtetl would say that one could palpably feel Elul’s sanctity in the air.
His death was not a tragedy in the usual sense of the word; he had lived a full and active life for more than eighty years, leaving behind a large family of children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. But a death is always an unanticipated tragedy. Though he had been weak for the last few years, his sudden death was unexpected.
My children returned home from school just moments after I had learned the news. My older children were very saddened, flooded with memories of an active, kindly grandfather who had visited us many times in Toronto. My oldest son and daughter remembered how he had bought them their first real bicycles, a smaller red one and a larger pink one. They remembered his patience in sharing from his seemingly limitless store of stories about life in a different era, his interest in their studies and, of course, his trail of wonderful presents.
My younger children, on the other hand, only had memories of our visits to my in-laws, seeing their Zaidy for just a few moments, in his weakened state, before he became too exhausted and needed to retire.
So I was a little taken aback by my youngest daughter’s response to the news. A flood of tears trickled down her soft cheeks. For a long time now she had been reciting chapters of Tehillim (Psalms), and the finality of his being gone was a tragedy for her young mind. It was hard for her to come to terms with never seeing her Zaidy again. Even a weakened Zaidy whose memory was fading was nevertheless a real Zaidy.
The next 24 hours passed in a blur of rushed activity – making arrangements to travel to Lakewood, New Jersey where my husband had already arrived and where the funeral and shivah would take place.
Over the next few days, we would hear many stories about my husband’s father – from people whom he had helped in numerous ways, favors he had done, and projects he had been instrumental in launching. Many prominent rabbis, Roshei Yeshiva and communal leaders spoke about his lifelong devotion to building the Lakewood Yeshiva, of his activism in starting Peylim, an organization whose mandate had been to ensure that every Jewish child in Israel had a Jewish education, and of his personal self-sacrifice anytime to any project – big or small – was needed for Jewish continuity. Many spoke of his idealism, his supreme honesty, or his forgoing materialistic pursuits for the sake of spiritual goals.
The stories, comments and perspectives were encouraging for all of us to hear. I was especially gratified that my children learned of their Zaidy’s monumental and lasting contributions.
But one individual spoke of my father-in-law in a way that touched me more than any of the others.
As my husband stood up before the large crowd, he began emotionally: “I am trying to recall some of my earliest childhood memories of my father. But my mind is blank. I have none. I have no memories, because you, dear father, were never there.” He paused before the astonished crowd.
“You were never there, like so many other fathers, to take us on trips to the zoo, or on family outings to the park. There were no family games or short walks to get ice cream.” Again he paused, with the audience giving him their full attention.
“There were never these outings or trips, because you were too busy. You left in the early hours of the morning before I awoke, and often returned late at night, long after I had gone to asleep. You were always busy. Busy running to a shiur… Busy running to help begin a new organization concerned with the plight of fellow Jews… Busy working non-stop to strengthen the values of Torah. When Shabbat finally came, you were so exhausted from your long, strenuous hours throughout the week…
“But though you may have been physically absent much of the time in those early years, you taught us – me and all your children – a powerful message. You taught us to value what was really important in life. You were willing to forego the normal pleasures of fatherhood – what could be a greater pleasure for a father than taking his children to the zoo? – in order to help another Jew, in order to strengthen Torah in this country. And by doing so, you taught me so much more than any “heart-to-heart” talk could ever convey.
“You taught me values. You taught me priorities. You taught me the need to reach out to other Jews and work tirelessly for a better tomorrow.”
My husband concluded by saying, “I know that now, too, you will ignore your discomforts and push yourself. You will push yourself up on High to beg, plead and demand from G-d to end our exile, our suffering and hardships.”
As my husband spoke, I realized that his message was one that my youngest daughter seemed to have intuitively picked up on. Earlier, I had wondered why she grieved over the passing of a man she barely knew. But there are times when even in our absence and our silence – and sometimes, through our absence and silence – we sent a message that is stronger than any words can possibly convey.
My daughter did not experience the hours of contact and conversation with her grandfather that her older siblings had been privileged to enjoy. Yet she had sensed, in our short, ten minute visits, her Zaidy’s message of love. Her Zaidy was her Zaidy and he loved her – and it was over this tragic loss that she cried genuine tears.
My husband’s message would also bring comfort to us and to the whole family in the ensuing days, months and years. His father’s life was continuing even in his absence. As the yahrzeit candle burns perpetually on our kitchen counter, it isn’t only his father’s memory that we are keeping alive.
More importantly, the continuing message of his life – the principles and values that he cherished and imparted to his children ? continue to live on.
Chana Weisberg is the author of The Crown of Creation and The Feminine Soul. She is the dean of the Institute of Jewish Studies in Toronto and is a scholar in residence for www.askmoses.com. She is also a columnist for www.chabad.org’s Weekly Magazine. Chana Weisberg lectures regularly on issues relating to women, relationships and mysticism and welcomes your comments or inquiries at: firstname.lastname@example.org