Undeserved Gifts| April 5, 2020
I wish I could sum up my legacy as succinctly for my descendants
My father and I were standing in the large back bedroom of our house, which I shared with my brother Jeremy and which served for some months as the venue for our family’s nightly performance of Royal Canadian Air Force exercises.
I don’t remember what, if any, conversation preceded Dad’s comment. Just him saying to me rather matter-of-factly, “You’re smarter than most people, you’re better-looking than most people (okay, he was my father, and it was a long time ago); and you are more affluent than most people. And you did nothing to deserve it.” Whether my father actually said it, or it was only implied, I understood that I was thereby obligated to make the most of my undeserved gifts for the good of others.
Many times over the years, I have described those words as the primary message with which I was raised, though I have only that one memory of my father articulating it specifically.
I wish I could sum up my legacy as succinctly for my descendants. Or that there were some image of me that my children will all share — like the image my friend Alan Sakowitz bears of his father, who while on family vacation in Mexico City plunged without hesitation into a gang of toughs beating a complete stranger. Years later, at a crucial juncture in his life, that image forced Alan to share with the FBI his suspicions about a Ponzi scheme, knowing that he was thereby putting his life and that of his family in danger.
Or the image carried for life by a Jew, now deceased, who was the initiator of kol davar she’be’kedushah in the Great Synagogue of Petach Tikvah. Despite being separated from his parents when he was not yet ten, he was zocheh to not only remain frum but to raise a family of talmidei chachamim. Near the end of his life, he shared with one of those sons the image that had always guided him: his father running after the train taking him across the Austrian border to safety, shouting, “Zei a gutte Yid, Zei a gutte Yid,” until he fell facedown on the train platform still crying out to his son.
I have no such images to leave. But I do have my writings. My own tzava’ah has now taken the form of a collection of 100 pieces on people I have admired, most unsung heroes.
For years, I sat behind Yair Weiss a”h in shul. You can learn a lot from that vantage point. I almost never spoke to him because I never felt I had anything important enough to take up the time of someone who never wasted any. Though he was always among the first ten at the 6:10 a.m. Shacharis minyan, that only came after his early morning chavrusa, with whom he completed Shas three times. And davening was followed by the drive to work, with a seder in Mishnah yomis and Mishnah Brerurah yomis. Asked how many times he had completed Shas or Shas Mishnayos, his answer was always the same: Not enough.
Sam Berns was only 17 when he died of a rare premature-aging disease that made him look like his parents’ grandfather. In a TED Talk shortly before his passing, he enunciated his rules for life: Don’t waste time thinking about what you can’t do; there is so much you can. Surround yourself with people of high quality, like his group of close friends, “who judge one another for what they are on the inside.” Always try to have something to look forward to , something to make your life richer. Pretty good rules for a teenager who lived in the face of imminent death.
And, of course, the collection begins with Dad a”h, my lifelong hero. No question was more repugnant to him than “Am I doing more than my fair share?” He never calculated his own time or energy in formulating his solutions for resolving disputes between his sons or any other family plan. Together with my mother, he taught us that there are rules in the world and one ignores them at one’s peril.
The message I hope to pass on to the descendants whom I know and to those yet unborn is: Look for the good in every person, learn from that good, and use the wisdom thus attained to improve your own lives and those of everyone with whom you come into contact.
(Originally featured in A Gift Passed Along, Special Supplement: Pesach 5780)
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