October 22, 2019

Losing Gammi

Several weeks ago on Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach my grandmother Marie Lebovitz passed away.  We all lovingly called her Gammi.  My Dad asked me to officiate the funeral.  Although I had never officiated a funeral before, I said yes.  I would do anything for my father.  And thanks to Rabbi Nicole Guzik’s coaching ahead of time and Rabbi Vernon Kurtz’s mentorship before and during the funeral, I was able to officiate the ceremony.

I eulogized my grandmother. Like all of my grandparents, she had survived the Holocaust.  And like all of my grandparents, Gammi was not a survivor.  She was a prevailer.  Her toughness allowed her to prevail over the Nazis even though she lost so much family.  Her toughness allowed her to come to a new country and start a family.  Her toughness allowed her to walk up to a young, good looking Jewish guy dressed in a Russian uniform and offer to sell him cigarettes and then demand that he take her with him to America.  Thank G-d she did— He was my grandfather, Ba.

And after the service, we sat Shiva and in many ways I thought the process unfolded perfectly according to the wisdom of the Rabbis.

And then this past week, one night my four-year-old daughter began to sob that she would never see Gammi again.  Whatever it was that set the crying off (and my wife and I are still not sure), we were not prepared for it.  Having not been at the funeral, she needed a way to say goodbye.  Between her sobbing she asked, “How do I call Gammi to say goodbye if Gammi is with G-d?”

I tried every explanation you could think of.  Gammi will always be with us.  If you close your eyes hard enough you can see Gammi.  Just say goodbye and Gammi will hear you.  But nothing could satisfy her.  My daughter wanted to make Gammi a goodbye card and give it to her.

It was then that my wife and I offered to tape the card onto a balloon.  Without even having to finish explaining our plans, my daughter surmised that the balloon would fly up to heaven.

You see, much like my personal story, three weeks ago we read in Parshat Shemini (Lev. 10) that Aaron’s two sons Nadav and Avihu each lost their lives.  And this week’s Parshat Acharei Mot begins “The L-rd spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron… Thus shall Aaron enter the Sanctuary…” (Lev.16:1-3).  It is here that G-d describes a new type of ceremony that we know today as Yom Kippur.

I would like to think that this new ceremony established hope for Aaron.  I would like to think that it rekindled his love for G-d and trust in the Holiness Code.  Here, G-d shows that there will indeed be a place for judgment and reflection, and G-d understands that we as humans need both.

I want to think that Parshat Acharei is placed here for a reason—To create a connection that establishes Yom Kippur as our next big goal after the celebration of Pesach is over.  On Yom Kippur we look at G-d as the truthful judge.  On Pesach we look at G-d as our savior.

Before the funeral, during the “Kriyah” (tearing of the cloth), the mourners say the blessing “Baruch atah… Dayan Ha’Emet” or “Blessed are you G-d… the Truthful Judge” – Just like on Yom Kippur.  And then during every Kaddish during the year, the mourner says “Yitgadal V’Yitkadash Shmei Rabah” or “His name should be mighty and sanctified” – Just like on Pesach.

Ba and Gammi used to take such pride in making their Pesach Seders and I used to take such pride in standing next to them during Yom Kippur.  These holidays and all of the ceremonies in the Torah – They end up being the basis for so many family memories, so many community memories.

Because that’s what true community is.  Our fellow Jews form our sanctuary today.  It’s where we celebrate Pesach and Yom Kippur… And Gammi.  It’s where we throw candy for Simchas and where we cry during mourning.  We think of those who are standing with us and those who once stood by our sides.  That special quality, that special feeling, that’s what Yidishkeit demands from a community.

Although the Torah doesn’t say it, I can assure you that Nadav and Avihu heard their father Aaron’s prayers.  And although I have no proof, I can tell you with all of my Rabbinic training and with all of my studying and with all of my Emunah, my faith, that my daughter’s card was carried to heaven on the balloon.

Thank you G-d for directing the balloon.  Thank you Gammi for accepting the card.

I pray that Gammi’s memory blesses all of us with connection.  A connection that not only bonds us as a community but a real covenant that bonds us across generations all the way back to Aaron and the community at Mount Sinai.

I love you Gammi, always and forever.