On the Hebrew lunar calendar, today is the tenth of Av. Since Tisha B’Av (the ninth of Av) fell out on Shabbos this year and we do not mourn on Shabbos, we commemorate the mourning of the destruction of our Holy Temple today, the tenth of Av. It is a day of sadness, mourning and tears for the entire Jewish people. It is a particularly sad day for our family on a personal level, too.
The tenth of Av 5765 was the most terrible day of my life. Eleven years ago, we lost two great men in the family on the same day. That morning, the Cohen family lost our patriarch, my dear paternal grandfather, Zaidy Louis a’H. That same evening, the Respler family lost its patriarch, my beloved father-in-law, Milton Respler a’H.
Six years before that fateful day, Zaidy Louis had made aliyah to Israel as a widower of 90 years old. It was his dream to live in Israel and he was living his dream. Although he was legally blind, he spent his last years under the loving care of Uncle Dovid where he spent his days learning with yeshiva boys near the Ohr Sameach Yeshiva. He was no longer capable of reading the words, of learning from cherished seforim (Jewish holy books), but his zest for Jewish learning was as strong as ever. He would gently correct the students that learned with him if they read something incorrectly. They learned from seforim and he learned from memory.
Zaidy Louis had been ill for the past few months. I had visited Israel that summer and had spent time with him during that visit. Over the past week, he had been getting weaker and weaker. He took his last breath on the morning of the tenth of Av and had been buried in Har Hamenuchot (Mount of the Resting) in the foothills of Jerusalem within hours of his passing. We were making arrangements for my father to begin sitting shiva in Cleveland for his father, my Zaidy Louis, when we heard the tragic news about my father-in-law.
It was the day after Tisha B’Av (the ninth of Av, the saddest fast day of the Jewish year) in Queens, New York and my dear father-in-law had been going about the day. That same morning, he had attended the funeral of a young man from his community who had passed away. Dad had spent time trying to uplift the parents, who were his dear friends. After the funeral, he went at work with my brother-in-law. He was home for the evening and had just brought up a load of clean laundry to the master bedroom, when he suddenly collapsed. My mother-in-law found him unresponsive and unconscious, slumped over the laundry. Hatzola (the volunteer ambulance squad) was summoned and they were unable to revive him.
We felt alone and bereft. My father-in-law was the one who took care of everything and everyone. We dared not believe what had just happened. Dad had been his usual congenial self one moment and now he was gone. We made arrangements for my husband, Don, and his brother, Yisroel, to transport Dad’s body to Israel for burial, as was his fervent wish.
And then the public and private grieving began.
It was excruciating. People offered condolences and told us amazing stories about him, stories that he had never shared with anyone. The tears flowed. Our hearts were broken. We did not know how we would ever live on with the new reality that Dad would no longer physically be by our side.
That was eleven years ago and I still feel that emptiness in my heart as if Dad has just left us. There is a new reality. The pain has never left, but it has been dulled with the types of lessons that he has taught us.
This year, I have spent some time reviewing the lessons taught to us by these two exemplary men. They are four life lessons that we can all internalize. They have formed the basis for our families’ core values and that is what they have imprinted upon the world that will live on. It is incumbent upon us to live the legacy of these life lessons through the blur of our tears.
1. Stay Fiercely Loyal to Your Beliefs
Zaidy Louis shared with his family that he did not want lavish accolades etched onto his tombstone. He wanted to be remembered by the simple way that he lived. He was proud that he never told a lie and he wanted to be remembered for that simple but profound accomplishment. In his working days, he had been a traveling salesman, selling office supplies. His boss once asked him to call his local clients to tell them that he was in their area and perhaps, they needed him to deliver some additional supplies. He refused to do this, saying that he could not tell his clients that he was in the area when he clearly was not. He knew that he would incur the wrath of his boss, but he was so careful to live a truthful life and that influenced his every move.
Dad had been an American soldier living in the trenches during world War II. He ate vegetables during the war, so as not to violate kosher laws. He davened (prayed) every morning and put on tefillin (phylacteries) daily. One morning, he was unable to daven and put on his precious tefillin because his trench-mate had just relieved himself. One is not allowed to pray to G-d in the presence of a foul odor. So, Dad left the trench and sat a short distance away, placing his tefillin and praying when he heard a whistling sound that he will never forget. During his prayer, a bomb landed in his trench, exploding it and killing his trench-mate. Dad continued to stay fiercely loyal to his prayers and adherence to Mitzvos (Jewish commandments), being one of the first one in shul (synagogue) just about every day throughout his life.
2. You’re Never Too Old or Too Proud to Learn
Zaidy Louis had a love for learning that was exemplary. Although he did not have much background, he had a yearning to learn that was unusual. In his seventies, Zaidy Louis had retired from work and was looking to learn during the day. There was no daytime Torah learning for a man of his age in Chicago at that time. So, there was only one choice for Zaidy. He enrolled in the third grade of the local yeshiva (Jewish school) because that was the level of his Jewish background.
Before he went upstairs to bring up the laundry, Dad was playing and replaying a phone message left by my daughter, Leah. Leah was in camp for the summer and had left a message for Mom and Dad before Tisha B’av. Leah had called to wish them a “meaningful fast”. Dad had always grown up wishing his family and friends an “easy fast” before Tisha B’Av. He was mesmerized and impressed by the idea that a young child understood and commemorated the deep significance of the fast of Tisha B’Av. It resonated with him and he remarked to Mom that he learned so much from his granddaughter and that phone message.
3. It’s the Little Things that Count
The last gift that Dad had given the grandchildren was on visiting day just before his passing. He had brought them all Hershey chocolate bars. The love and thoughtfulness that he conveyed with that Hershey Chocolate was immense. He didn’t need to bring us lavish gifts. His love was the greatest gift of all. Whenever I visited him, Dad made sure to buy ginger ale for me. He had remembered from the first time that I met the family that I enjoyed ginger ale and he never forgot it.
When Zaidy Louis used to visit us in Cleveland as young children, he always brought us root beer hard candies in the shape of small barrels and wrapped sesame candies, his favorites. Whenever I see those candies, I think of Zaidy Louis.
4. Be Nice to Everyone
Zaidy Louis had a soft and humble voice. I never heard him raise his voice and he was always kind and loving. Those are the memories that will forever stay with me.
Dad empathized with everyone and took care of them. After he passed away, so many people told us stories of how he had taken care of them through life’s personal and financial challenges. He shouldered the personal difficulties of family members and friends and helped them by offering a kind word and a gentle hand. That was his legacy.
My hope and prayer is that these life lessons continue to be passed down to the generations of our family, our community and the world at large.
Then, the tears shed for these special men shall have purpose.
May the neshomos (souls) of Eliezer ben Moshe Michoel Hacohen a’H and Yechiel Meir ben Azriel Yehuda a’H be elevated for all that they taught us and continue to teach us.