Parshat Vayelekh: Deuteronomy 31:1-30; Hosea 14:2-10; Micah 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-27. (Shabbat Shuva)
For the first time since he came to America nearly 70 years ago, my 98-year-old grandfather, Wolf Gruca, spoke to a group of adults about his life before, during and after the Shoah of World War II:
“I was the youngest in the house [in Poland],” Grandpa told them in his heavily-accented English. “I had three brothers and two sisters. My father had three brothers and one sister, all of whom were married and had families. My mother had four brothers and one sister; also, all were married and had families. When I could count all the relatives from both these families, I would say there were between 60 and 70 members. Most of these relatives the Germans sent to the gas chambers.”
For my grandfather, and thus for our entire family, the telling of the story was more personal. “I know I will not be here forever,” Grandpa explained. “I would like my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to know a little about my life … I am writing because I would like my family to know who I was when I was young … until now.” Thus began a 90-minute presentation that captured only a snapshot of who my grandfather is: what he has suffered, sure; but also, what he has celebrated and what he has accomplished.Because of how amazing the membership of Congregation Shaarey Zedek is, 100 people attended my grandfather’s presentation. One hundred people came to hear the story of a Holocaust survivor in their midst. One hundred people gave up their time to hear about the life of their rabbi’s grandfather.
In our Torah portion this week, Moses, at the age of 120, learns that he is approaching the end of his life. “The Lord said to Moses: ‘The time is drawing near for you to die’” (Deuteronomy 31:14). God then instructs Moses to write down “this song” and Moses complies, writing the words of HaTorah HaZot – this Torah – “to the very end.”
None of us knows when our last hours will come; though, if we are honest, we know that each day we are inching closer. In the midst now of the High Holiday season, we are reminded of our finitude. We are also given the opportunity to reflect on our lives, and we are blessed with the opportunity to share with those we love the most our learning and our losses, our suffering and our celebrations, our accomplishments and our joys. Some may choose to do so in conversation; others, even better, will choose to share their lives with their loved ones by writing down their songs — their Torahs, if you will — “to the very end.”
We celebrate this week Shabbat Shuvah: the Sabbath of Turning/Returning. This is our time to prepare for the future by looking to the past. This is our time to strive to be better and to do better in the coming year. This is also the time to gather our loved ones close, to share with them our stories and to make sure that they are part of our legacies. May we be so wise as to not let these moments pass.
G’mar chatimah tovah: May you be sealed in the Book of Life for life.
Rabbi Aaron Starr is spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.