From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

With Faith, Back into Life

The sudden death of my father changed every aspect of our lives. My mother, a widow at thirty-four, had to plunge into the working world to provide us with basic needs. As caterer and waitress, her hours were long and exhausting. Our paths crossed from moment to moment as each one rushed on to the next assignment. At the age of eleven, I had to make my own contributions of time and supportive tasks. There was little time to express the pain and fear at the loss of a beloved, funny and sympathetic companion-father. I missed him every moment of the day and night, but I had to mask the tears and sorrow for my mother’s sake. She was carrying her own burdens and I found I could not add to her grief by sharing my sense of loss.

My day began as a ritual. Mother worked into the late hours, so she was asleep when I began my school day. New England mornings can be cold, and I can still feel the chill of my clothes as I moved quietly from bedroom to bathroom to kitchen. There was always a note from her with a coin that would allow me to buy my lunch at school. The note was encouraging, but an underlying sadness reflected her loneliness and her fatigue.

Classes began at 8:30 A.M., but my day began at 5:30 A.M. It was a long walk to school, and there was a ritual that preceded my arrival at the Theodore Roosevelt Junior High School. Each morning I would walk to the morning service at Temple Mishkan Tefila, which was halfway to school. Every morning, as an only child, I would be part of the morning service and recite the Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer. It was my tribute to my father and, as I later recognized, a major aid in dealing with a devastating loss. There was no one else to recite the Kaddish, so the fact that I was not yet a Bar Mitzvah (age thirteen, and eligible to recite Kaddish) was overlooked by the doting and protective members of the minyan.

After the first week of this schedule, something quite unusual happened. Mr. Einstein, the Shamash (the sexton) of the synagogue appeared at my front door each morning just as I left the house for my trek to the synagogue. He was not a young man, and on the first week I noticed that he arrived for the minyan in an automobile driven by a congregant. Now, each morning he seemed to be passing my home just as I began my walk to synagogue and school.

He explained, “Your home is on the way to the synagogue. I have to go this way and I thought it might be fun to have some company. That way, I don’t have to walk alone.”

Each morning he was there. We trekked through snow, pelting rain, the exquisite New England fall, the hopeful days of spring, the stifling humidity of summer. We walked, and he taught. Each morning there was another story about the Jewish people, the prayer book, the questions of faith. He listened to my expressions of grief and quietly reflected the tradition that deals with sorrow as with joy. He held my hand as we crossed busy intersections and, after some weeks, he held my hand throughout the journey. I sat next to him in the synagogue, and he listened and he taught and he hugged . . . and he moved into a void that was tearing at my heart and soul.

Years went by, and we spoke by phone and letters. I had entered the seminary, and the day of my ordination as rabbi was my present to him.

Mr. Einstein was in his nineties when I visited Boston with my wife and six-month-old child. I wanted him to see my baby so I phoned and asked him to come to the home he had passed so often. He agreed but said that it was impossible for him to walk, would I please come to get him by automobile. I realized that I had never known where he lived so I asked for directions and set out to meet him.

The journey was long and complicated. His home, by car, was fully twenty minutes away. I drove in tears as I realized what he had done. He had walked for an hour to my home so that I would not have to be alone each morning. My home was not on the path to the synagogue; it was completely out of his way. He had made me feel that I was helping him with companionship; the opposite was true. He knew my loneliness, and he did not want my day to begin without him. He met my son and held him. Members of the family stood by and watched; there was not a dry eye. Each one knew our story and the sight of the next generation nestled in the arms of a beloved teacher and friend required no words. It is a picture that is etched in my heart. When I took him to his home and embraced him, we both wept. We knew it was the last time we would see and touch each other.

My life has been blessed with personal and professional success. Yet, wherever I went, in soft moments and in moments of exultant triumph, Mr. Einstein was holding my hand. By the simplest of gestures, the act of caring, he took a frightened child by the hand and he led him with confidence and with faith back into life.

Rabbi Gerald I. Wolpe

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