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Debt of Honor

I opened the envelope, looked at the pages, and screamed, “Wait, hold on a minute!”


When a congregant calls asking me to officiate at the funeral of a relative, I know what to expect. More often than not, it’s a clear sign that the deceased had no rabbi and probably no affiliation with Judaism.

So, when Phil Gotlieb (name changed) asked me to officiate at his younger brother’s levayah, I realized that his brother was almost certainly another victim of the assimilating effects of American life on the Jewish People.

Phil said, “My brother Nat, being only 12, was quite traumatized when our dad died. It was 1965 and the counterculture movement was going strong. Nat dropped out of yeshivah and moved to San Fransisco when he was only 14. He became a child of the ’60s, a hippie. When he finally returned to the East Coast, he was 30, jobless, and with no marketable skills. He had abandoned Torah, and he and his wife were never privileged to have children.”

I readily agreed to officiate. The funeral would be at the graveside the next morning, and I arrived early at the cemetery office to obtain the grave location.

As I turned to leave, the cemetery clerk handed me an envelope. “Rabbi, take this envelope. The deceased requested it be buried with him.”

“Did you look to see what’s in the envelope?”

“No, of course not,” he said with a shrug. “As long as they pay the bill, what do I care?”

I opened the envelope, looked at the pages, and screamed, “Wait, hold on a minute!”

I raced outside to Phil’s car and dragged him into the cemetery office.

“Rabbi, what are you doing?!” Phil protested, staring at me.

I sat him down at a desk, poured out the contents of the envelope, and simply said, “Read!”

“Rabbi, I don’t understand—”

Then suddenly wailing was heard throughout the cemetery office, the likes of which caused the dozen or so funeral attendees to race into the office.

“What’s going on?!” they asked Phil.

Phil, his voice shaking, said, “All my life I looked at my brother as a failure. As a man who abandoned Torah. A man who floated from place to place. A man who only took and never gave. However, I was wrong. Very wrong. Most of you don’t know this, but when our father died in 1965, he left us with tens of thousands of dollars of debt. For years, we received eviction notices and were told by our mother never to answer the door or phone, lest a debt collector be on the other side. This went on for ten years straight. Suddenly, in 1975, the notices, the phone calls, mysteriously all ceased. We never knew why and never asked.

“Today the mystery has been solved.

“I now see that for ten years, from the age of 12 in 1965 until he was 22, my brother Nat slowly but surely repaid every penny our father owed. The last page in the envelope contains a document that states: All loans and penalties have been paid in full. Gotlieb file is closed.”

Phil shook his head. “All these years, I thought my brother was a nothing. That he lived a wasted and unfulfilled life. Now I realize that he was greater than all of us in so many ways. Who could have thought that for ten long years, when he was so young, he somehow scrimped and saved, and without telling a soul paid off our father’s debt?”

A few minutes later, as we stood by the open grave, Phil lovingly fulfilled his younger brother’s last request and placed the papers on top of the aron.

“Nat,” I said, addressing the niftar, “when you get to Shamayim, make sure you show them the envelope and what’s inside. All doors will automatically open for you.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 777)

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