The Red Suitcase

KOL NIDRE 2011-5772

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


Friends, I stand here this evening awash in a sea of feelings. Like every year, I am energized as our community comes together and inspired by beautiful renditions of Kol Nidre. But perhaps the dominant emotion for the moment is gratitude.

I am grateful to be your rabbi, sharing in our 28th High Holy Day season together. The Hineni prayer with which I began this evening is a sincere expression of the honor I feel and recognition of the trust that has been bestowed upon me. Intertwined in one another’s lives, we have become like family in so many ways.

I am of course blessed with my actual family. I am especially pleased to have not only Lynn, Sara and Mica here this evening, but also my mother-in-law Ellen, and yes, you are seeing double, her twin sister Ruth.

Though still filled with gratitude, as most of you know, there is a subtext of sadness for me.  I am observant of sheloshim, the 30 day mourning period for my mother, Janet Loewy. Her seat in our sanctuary is empty for these High Holy Days. She, along with my father, so loved to be here. Yes, it was because of “her son the rabbi,” but also because of our service and all of you. During her last time with us for the Holy Days, she was celebrating her 95th birthday on Rosh Hashanah 2009. She died one week short of her 97th. Reflecting upon her years with gratitude, I am able to say with confidence that it was a meaningful life.

As has happened so many times over the years, I plan my holy day messages in advance, only to have storms, world events and life intervene. Upon reflection, is that not the reality that all of us confront? We plan, focus our attention in one direction, only to be diverted into another.

This evening my original concept was to discuss a teaching from our Jewish tradition. I will keep to that plan, but shift my emphasis. Perhaps you have heard of the lamed vavniks? From the Talmud we read:

Rabbi Abaye said that there must be at least 36+ righteous people in each generation. Usually there are more, lots more. The full Talmud text is as follows: Abaye said: The world must contain not less than thirty-six righteous people in each generation who receive Shechinah’s face, as it is written, “Blessed are all that wait for him.” (Isaiah 30:18); the numerical value of him -‘lo’ (lamed vav in Hebrew) is thirty- six.” From this little anecdote comes the legend of the lamed vavniks.

However, in good rabbinic tradition, another rabbi, Rava, cites a different verse which suggests that there must be 18000 righteous souls in each generation. What a surprise- rabbis can’t decide if it is 36 or 18000 righteous people in the world. The only point upon which they can agree is that we are dealing with a derivative of 18.

Who are these righteous ones? How will we know who they are? Naomi Bremen, in her book, “My Grandfather’s Blessing,” shares the teaching as she learned it from her him:

“Only God knows who the Lamed-Vovniks are. Even the Lamed-Vovniks themselves do not know for sure the role they have in the continuation of the world, and no one else knows it either. They respond to suffering, not in order to save the world but simply because the suffering of others touches them and matters to them.

He went on to explain “that Lamed-Vovniks could be tailors or college professors, millionaires or paupers, powerful leaders or powerless victims. These things were not important. What mattered was only their capacity to feel the collective suffering of the human race and respond to the suffering around them. “And because no one knows who they are, Neshume-le, anyone you meet might be one of the thirty-six  
for whom God preserves the world,” my grandfather said. “It is important to treat everyone as if this might be so…Without compassion the world cannot continue. Our compassion blesses and sustains the world.”

With this legend of the lamed vavniks, I then planned to speak about what it means to truly lead a meaningful life, an appropriate theme for this holy day. Then life intervened, but perhaps only slightly. My friends, I cannot say for sure that Janet Loewy, my mother, was one of the lamed-vavniks, but just perhaps… As taught, we never know who they actually are, but we do know that the world is better because of them, and that how they conducted their lives can serve to teach us how to fill our days with meaning.

So, this evening I feel compelled to tell you about my mother and the life she led. To some extent I do so out of my own need to mourn and share with my congregational family, or simply to examine one whose life is worthy of emulation, as we reflect upon being inscribed for meaningful living.

Mom was a spiritual woman. She truly believed in God and the power of prayer. It provided her with strength, comfort and insight. This did not mean that God was answering or directly responding to her words and thoughts. Rather, for her prayer was a way to check in with God, to feel linked, whether expressed in the sanctuary or in her solitude. Though surrounded by others, who loved her and cared for her, she appreciated feeling that God was there too.

As she awoke each morning, she would recite a verse from the Book of Psalms: “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” It may have been part of the formula for her longevity, reflecting a positive attitude: Each day is a new beginning, a new opportunity. Each day has the potential for joy. Each day is a blessing from God. Even when life can be challenging, there is always a new day, not a denial of problems, but the optimism that comes with knowing there is going to be something good in each and every day.

I should point out that to be a lamed vavnik does not mean one is an ascetic and denies the pleasures of life. On the contrary, one sage of our tradition teaches that in the world to come we will be asked about the legitimate pleasures we denied ourselves in this world, just everything in moderation. This past summer, I had a great deal of time to talk with my mother. Even when she was feeling well, she accepted the reality at age 96 that one does not live forever. Reflecting upon her years, she spoke of how much she enjoyed life, the places she had travelled, the opportunity to grow and learn, to meet a variety of people, to savor all the best life had to offer. A meaningful life includes expanding one’s awareness, moving beyond our own little corner of the world, as wonderful as it is, and opening ourselves up to the many other potential experiences that are waiting for us.

According to folklore, Lamed vavniks are usually anonymous. No one, not even they know who they are. Certainly Mom would not have defined herself as one. She dedicated herself in public and private ways to making a difference. I can share a long list of organizations Jewish and secular, where she was a leader. But let me tell you two stories: As I grew up, Lil, a school librarian by profession, was a woman who belonged to our congregation. She had no children and when her husband died, was all alone, a bit of a strange woman in truth, at least from a teenager’s perspective. I remember her because she became a weekly fixture at our dinner table, as did many others who Mom thought of as being alone in the world.

Another story- while working for the social service department of Nassau County as a volunteer, she was assigned the case of a man, who had been a Cantor. Suffering physically, emotionally and financially, alone in the world, she was able to help him receive the kinds of public assistance he needed to maintain himself. That was her job, but she did not stop there. She would cook for him and regularly reach out to him. And when he died, she along with my father, took it upon themselves to arrange a proper Jewish burial attended by a total of three, my mother, father and the officiating Cantor.  It’s the little, quiet, anonymous acts of loving-kindness that we perform which likely resonate on high the loudest.

In her lifetime, Mom received many awards and accolades. But it was one plaque in particular, which she received that captured her essence, so much so that she expressed the desire to be buried with it. It simply read: “Others.”

One of Mom’s primary areas of involvement was synagogue caring committee, similar to what we call Lev B’lev, heart to heart. She had her committee functioning the way I would love to see ours operate: assisting families in times of mourning, responding to illness, aiding individuals who are home bound, ensuring that everyone has a home for holy day meals and any other way that can be supportive of others. If you see yourself as someone who can help make a difference in the lives of others in this way, let me know and I will pass on your name to Marilyn Bernstein, the new Chair of the committee.

I am fully cognizant that I am the beneficiary of an amazing legacy of goodness. Going through her apartment and possessions following her death, my brother, sister and I each chose different mementos. Two in particular are quite symbolic and speak to what it means to lead a meaningful life. The first was the 65th anniversary ketubah, signed by all of my parents’ children and grandchildren. My parents had an amazing love for one another and a happy marriage for 69 years. As I have shared previously, the secret to their success was devotion, respect, supportiveness, friendship, caring, sensitivity, patience, open communication, shared values and goals, and a deep abiding love. While it seemed to come naturally, we all know that meaningful relationships, whether with partners or spouses, children or friends, don’t just happen. They require personal dedication and a desire for them to succeed, along with the ability to be forgiving and understanding.

The other memento is not so sentimental, but equally powerful in its message. It is the red suitcase you see next to me on the pulpit. Shortly after my father died in 2008, an event that we feared would be devastating for Mom, she told me she wanted a new suitcase. My father had previously dissuaded her, saying the old one was good enough. Dad was now gone and she wanted a new one with wheels. So, together we went to a local luggage store and she selected, not just any suitcase, but a bright red set with her initials inscribed. This was her statement that one can indeed overcome great adversity and continue in life, even when her heart was broken. With that suitcase she travelled here many times, was present in Chicago and Boston for the naming ceremonies of her sixth and seventh great grandchildren, celebrated and danced at the B’nai mitzvah of two others and if that was not enough, took a ten day vacation in Cancun with my sister and nieces. When life throws us unbearable challenges, when we might allow ourselves to feel as though we can’t go on, each of us needs to summon the strength to purchase a red suitcase.

Friends, I know how blessed I was to have had a mother, and in fact both parents, who demonstrated daily the essence of what it means to lead a meaningful life. I am also fully aware that there will now be a tremendous void in my life. I can only hope that by sharing these stories it will inspire each and every one of us to lead lives of meaning. I believe that all of us are linked to God, entitled to enjoy life, implanted with the potential to make the world a better, more caring and compassionate place in big and small ways, while staying connected with the ones we love. I know this because, I have been taught by the best.


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