Friday, July 31, 2015

Va'etchanan: Calling Witnesses And An Unusual Unveiling

A few weeks ago I received a request by a non-member to do an unveiling at a nearby cemetery. That wasn’t so unusual.
What was unusual is that the deceased passed and was buried in 1973.
In October of 1973 Phillip Harris, 10th child of Jewish immigrants, a veteran of world war I, a childless bachelor his whole life, died in Wilmington. The Obituary indicated that MCrery’s handled the arrangements, and he was buried in Riverview cemetery, perhaps a few blocks down Market Street from Beth Emeth. There is no indication that any rabbi was present, and as it turns out, no one put up a headstone for him.
By chance, his great-nephew was doing genealogical research and discovered that Harris laid in an unmarked grave in a crumbling non-Jewish cemetery for forty years. As he had Harris’ service record, he contacted the Army, who agreed to put a stone up remembering him. And this past week, a very small circle gathered to honor a person no one remembered, and to dedicate a stone long after.
The rabbinate is many things, but it isn’t boring.
I bring this story up for a few reasons. First, it reminds us that there is no expiration date on mitzvot. Would it have been better to have put the stone up 40 years ago? Of course, but here we were, saying kaddish over his grave, leaving stones on his marker, and I have to believe that still made a difference. That this moment was a sacred moment. How often do we kick ourselves for not reaching out to that person sooner, or taking up that cause when it was still fresh in our minds? Nevertheless, there is no time like the present, and even if we tarry (though hopefully not 40 years!), we can still do profound good in the world.
Secondly, I feel like this is a reminder that our actions have power far, far beyond the immediacy of the moment. We may say something or do something in a moment, but the effects are felt days and—in this case, years—later. Our actions and our words are more than a passing shadow. They have a real effect on the people in our lives. They matter, deeply and profoundly. The failure to raise a stone led to a man today raising that memorial, led to the creation of a community of prayer, led to this rabbi standing in a cemetery I’d never seen. A simple act with profound resonance.
Toward the end of the portion this week, we are told by Moses that we should “do what is right and good in the sight of Adonai.” We might read that as meaning to Obey; an important value in a portion where we read the shema.  Or we might read it as Nachmanides does, to go beyond the letter of the law—an important value in a portion that includes the 10 Commandments! But I think there’s another layer here as well: it is a reminder that our actions are not merely our own; that they are observed by those around us, they are observed by ourselves, and they are observed by God. Certainly our actions—like ourselves—are not perfect. But we need not dwell on missed opportunities, nor judge ourselves by them alone. The possibility for our actions leading us to God—even if it means putting up a grave stone forty years later—is waiting for us, all the time. So, what are we waiting for? 

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