Making Memory Matter

Sermon delivered at Yizkor-Memorial Services on Yom Kippur Day 5767 – October 2, 2006, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

Each of us comes to this painful service today with sadness. We seek comfort. Judaism teaches us that the greatest path to healing after loss is to make our memories matter.

Memory, zikaron, is an important mitzvah in Judaism. We are gathered here, in observance of this religious obligation. On an emotional level, we want to keep our loved ones’ memories alive in our hearts. As a matter of mitzvah, we are commanded to keep their memories alive through our actions, to make their memories matter.

Torah teaches us that, after the death of his mother, Isaac only finds solace when he marries Rebekah. But Torah does not explain how Isaac’s grief is assuaged. My theory is that Isaac is comforted in his marriage because, only once he is with Rebekah, does he know that he can replicate the most important mitzvah of his parents’ life: perpetuation of the faith we know as Judaism. Isaac understands that, with his marriage to Rebekah, he will be able to make his mother’s memory matter, transmitting our heritage to the next generation.

I stand before you, but in a way, not among you. I do feel impoverished by the losses of dear friends and congregants in the last year, of people who mattered deeply to me and to this Temple. Admittedly, though, those are not personal losses. For me, familial wounds are not fresh in the heart. I have been blessed, never suffering the untimely or tragic death of a loved one.

Today, though, if you will indulge me, I would like to share some rather distant memories from my own family. These stories of lives, and deaths, inspire me, and I pray that they inspire you. I will speak of my ancestors, long gone from this Earth, who continue to live, in meaningful ways, because those they left behind made their memories matter. Maybe these examples will inspire you to find comfort in your own losses, as we all make our loved ones’ lives endure through us, even now that they are gone.

Gus Loewenberg died on December 24, 1915. The youngest of his seven children, my grandmother, was eight years old at the time. Nevertheless, she retained powerful memories of her father throughout her life.

More than sixty years after his death, my grandmother would tell me of the tragic circumstances. My great-grandfather was a prosperous merchant, cotton grower, and banker in Kosciusko, Mississippi. Then, depression struck in 1913. At Gus’ General Store, farmers who bought on credit were unable to pay their bills. The cotton market collapsed, affecting Gus himself, as well as his customers at the store and the bank. The bank failed. The little bank in Kosciusko was unable to pay all the depositors who came for their money, and no government deposit insurance existed then. Once the institution’s money was gone, my great-grandfather was under no legal obligation to the folks who had lost their money. Moreover, the depression was a national crisis, so the depositors’ losses were not his personal doing; and his own financial circumstances had suffered mightily. Nevertheless, Gus lived by a higher standard. He determined that the responsibility was his. He insisted on repaying the depositors from his limited remaining personal funds.

The way the family told it, the financial crisis led to a major heart attack. After two years as an invalid, Gus died.

His values, though, did not die with him. The General Store remained in business; but the widow, Clara, would not permit her older sons to press customers for payment. She and her children never regained any semblance of their prior wealth. One could not even say that, materially, they were comfortable.

As a teen, I visited a great-aunt, in the modest home where Clara had lived out her days. That house sits on a small neighborhood lot. The large estate, which had rested on the entire city block, namely the Loewenberg family home, had been torn down after the money was lost, and most of the land was sold. Clara never even had a bedroom in that small house, as she gave up the master bedroom to her eldest daughter and son-in-law, when they fell on hard times of their own. Clara slept in a bed set at an angle in the dining room, because no wall was long enough to accommodate it; and so she lived to the age of 95, more than half a century after Gus’ death. That little house was a symbol of the tremendous sacrifice that Clara and her family made to live up to example that Gus had set for them. Little wonder that two of Clara’s grandsons, including my father, are named Gus; and a granddaughter is named Clare.

Clara Loewenberg was not a permanently sad widow. No doubt, she mourned her husband’s death until her own, but she lived for the living. She honored her husband’s memory by living out his selfless integrity, while modeling those values to her children and grandchildren. She bequeathed a great legacy, so much more valuable than money.

My grandfather, Irvin Shlenker, died suddenly, at the age of 66, when I was a boy, eight years old. Papa, as my sister and I called him, was a sweet figure in our lives, but we were not blessed to know him well. Mostly, we heard stories about him after he died, tales of the tremendous impact he had on the Houston Jewish community, in the business world; and in the lives of Holocaust refugees whom he had sponsored, when they came to America.

What we did not know, or appreciate, was that legacy mattered a great deal to our grandfather.

I wonder whether Papa had ever heard of the Jewish tradition of leaving an “ethical will.” An ethical will, popular particularly in the Middle Ages, is a document in which a person bequeaths values, not property, to the next generations.

Embedded in his actual Last Will and Testament, in the legal document itself, as a concluding statement, are six paragraphs about the meaning of his life. Addressing himself to his children – my uncle Sidney, of blessed memory, and my mother – he wanted his life to matter, as they remembered him. What he has left us, in these words, is so much more valuable, and enduring, than the material goods disposed in the Will.

The central statement of Papa’s “ethical will,” if I may call it that, is a paragraph of only one sentence: “Let no one mourn for me, except by deeds of kindliness, acts of charity, or by personal efforts to increase the love and devotion among his fellow men.”

A kind person, Papa embraced every possible distant relative. He cared for people he never met, individuals of every station in life. Papa hoped that kindness would not die with him.

“Charity” was a centerpiece of Irvin’s life. Much of his giving was personal and quiet, not tax deductible. The last photograph taken of him before his death shows him handing out coins to children on the streets of Mexico City. He assisted many of his own family members, some so distant that nobody else knew how they were related. After my parents married, he sent a monthly check to Clara Loewenberg, his son-in-law’s grandmother. A banker, he often extended personal loans to individuals who could not qualify at the bank.

More publicly, with his wife, Bertha Alyce – or Mimi, as we called her – Papa was the most significant Houston Jewish philanthropist of a generation or more, though far from the wealthiest. Mimi – now also of blessed memory, but who outlived him by twenty years – and now my mother, made his memory matter with continuing acts of tzedakah, some explicitly in his memory, all honoring his values.

The climactic paragraph of Papa’s ethical will reads: “To be the partner in the creation and fashioning and forging of a happy family is an opportunity for service to God and to our country that is within the reach of everyone. Magnificent in its process of bringing abundant joy and happiness into the immediate family circle, its contagious chain reaction will ultimately create an impact . . . throughout the world that eventually will set a standard of moral values that will bring everlasting peace to the entire world.”

For Papa, so prominent in the public square, the family was nevertheless of primary importance. He expresses the importance of family, with unique power, to bring about a Messianic future, that day when God will rule the Earth. Therefore, he concludes his Will: “I direct and beseech you, Sidney, and you, Gay, to render to the fullest measure of your ability and capacity unselfish service to God, to your family and to your fellow man.” By raising children with his values, Papa hoped to bring a better future to all God’s creation, through them. As his children would serve God, their families and humankind, so would their father’s memory live.

Each of us comes here today with memories that make a great deal of difference to us personally. Our challenge is to transform our recollections into actions. Our hope is that, like Isaac, we may be comforted as we bring our departed loved ones’ most cherished values to life in this world.Let us transmit Judaism to the next generation – in our own families if we are so blessed, or in our congregational family, as we are all blessed – so that Abraham and Sarah live, even millennia after their deaths.

Let us replicate the sacrificial integrity of people like Clara and Gus Loewenberg, so that they can never die, even decades after they have left this Earth.

Let us practice the kindness and charity of people like Irvin Shlenker, sweet and generous in the public sphere and kind in personal encounters, so that they live among us, forever.

If we are blessed with family, with future generations, let us raise them to repair God’s world, so that, like all the righteous who have gone before us, none can ever die.

Such is the message of Yizkor on this Yom Kippur Day. We will be better people, if we will meditate on the meaning of our loved ones’ lives, and make their memories matter. May God strengthen us, to turn our loss into action. Then, may we find comfort. Then, may their memories truly be a blessing.