Every Shabbat is known by the portion of the Torah that is read that week (portions are usually named for the first Hebrew word or two that’s read). Some Shabbats are special Shabbats – usually tied in with the time of year, and known by a special name in addition to the Torah portion. This past Shabbat, the last Shabbat before Pesach begins, was Shabbat HaGadol (literally the Great Shabbat, or the Big Shabbat). The portion read was Acharei Mot.
Seven years ago, in 2007, when I first met Larry, I was in the midst of planning Eitan’s bar mitzvah, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. Because the length of the Hebrew year can vary by a few weeks, some years the portion read is a double portion, as was the case for Eitan’s bar mitzvah. In addition to the Torah reading, there’s a supplementary haftarah reading. The Torah portion is from the Five Books of Moses, while the haftarahs are taken from the additional books of the Bible – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Kings, etc.
I had the [sometimes frustrating] challenge and pleasure of teaching Eitan to leyn (chant the Torah portion and haftarah), and discussing the parsha with him. At the end of Acharei Mot are a bunch of sexuality laws, and I remember Eitan saying, “I didn’t know God thought about this stuff!”
Just as Eitan had two yahrzeit dates this year (because of the two months of Adar, see my 51-weeks post), there are two bar mitzvah anniversaries this year. His bar mitzvah year was a double portion, but this year the two portions are separate, with Acharei Mot and Kedoshim falling on two separate Shabbats.
Last week, I signed on through my shul to leyn the haftarah this past Shabbat, thinking it was Eitan’s bar mitzvah haftarah, the shortest haftarah of the year and one I knew from having taught it to him. But when I went to prepare the haftarah, I realized in fact, it was Shabbat HaGadol, which has a different haftarah. And then I remembered, Shabbat Hagadol was Larry’s bar mitzvah – something he told me early on. Seven years ago, he wrote to me, “Tomorrow is the anniversary of my bar mitzvah. I always thought that the reason it was called Shabbat HaGadol was because of my bar mitzvah. I recently read a very interesting d’var torah tying the timelessness of Shabbat and the exodus from Egypt together which explained the meaning in a new way for me. It has been 39 years – three times 13.”
So learning the haftarah was doubly significant to me. Honoring Eitan for Acharei Mot, honoring Larry for Shabbat HaGadol.
Oddly, it was only this year that I realized Eitan and Larry’s birthdays are exactly one week apart. I think because Larry’s is March 26 and Eitan’s April 2, two different months, I hadn’t made that connection. So it makes sense their bar mitzvah anniversaries might overlap.
While I am having issues with my relationship with God since the loss of Eitan and Larry, I still feel like there can be signs if we choose to see them as such. Signs of? Communication – from God perhaps, perhaps from Larry, perhaps from Eitan. I felt like I got three connection “signs” from Eitan Shabbat morning.
When I’m leyning haftarah, I have a process to learn it. I will chant it straight through once, then go through verse by verse with a translation. I’ll then read about the haftarah in The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot, which Larry gave me for my birthday six years ago, and look at that translation as well. This week, when I was going through the JPS Commentary, I noticed there was a typo in the English translation: the number indicating verse 20 was missing – 19 was there, and 21, but no 20. Eitan would have been 20 on his birthday this year.
Then, as I was walking to shul, caught in a bush at eye-level was an empty bag of Doritos – a favorite snack food of Eitan’s, the last thing he was eating the night before he passed away. Felt like a little wave hello.
Lastly, at shul, I pulled out a Hirsch chumash – I like to see how the commentary differs from the JPS translation I studied from at home. It happened that the dedication page was to someone with the surname Medoff – Eitan’s great grandmother on his dad’s side was a Medoff.
I dedicated the reading to Larry and Eitan.
The haftarah is taken from Malachi, chapter 3. Here’s the last line of the chapter:
כד וְהֵשִׁיב לֵב-אָבוֹת עַל-בָּנִים, וְלֵב בָּנִים עַל-אֲבוֹתָם–פֶּן-אָבוֹא, וְהִכֵּיתִי אֶת-הָאָרֶץ חֵרֶם
24. And he shall return the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers; lest I come and smite the land with utter destruction.
This verse intrigued me, as I was thinking about my lost son, and lost partner, who is a father. I found little satisfying or enlightening commentary on it, however. Several commentators took what seemed to me a simplistic approach interpreting it as saying that fathers and sons have to do what God says or he’ll destroy us. One interpretation I liked was this:
“R’ Mendel Hirsch z”l writes that, in fact, the verse just quoted should be translated, ‘He will turn the thoughts of fathers towards their sons, and the thoughts of sons towards their fathers.’ The accomplishment of Eliyahu Hanavi will be that he will bridge the generation gap which has so divided society.”
I discussed the verse with my dad, with whom I’ve always loved discussing Torah, as he’s so knowledgeable. He interpreted it as being about parents and children coming together, getting along, making peace with one another – without that, society will fall apart. I thought it was significant that the text says lev, heart – not just that fathers and sons will return to one another, but that their hearts will. This is a deeper level of reunification than merely getting together.
The root of the Hebrew word הֵשִׁיב can have multiple meanings – turn, return, and repent – and they all can apply here. We should turn to our families, we should return to them if we have become separated, and we should repent for turning away if we’ve turned away. And it goes both ways here – from parent to child and child to parent. (I’ll shift here to interpreting the male language as gender neutral – not just fathers, not just sons, but parents, and children).
This is especially relevant for this time of year, when we come together as families, multiple generations, to observe Pesach. I think it’s this verse that connects Shabbat HaGadol to the time of year, to Pesach. The commandment of Pesach is to tell the story of the Exodus to our children. At the beginning of the Haggadah, there’s the anecdote about the four sons, and the way they ask about, or are to be told, the story of the Exodus. This is an acknowledgment that not all children are the same, that each is an individual, and needs to be treated according to their personality, and told the story in a way that makes it work for them. My dad interpreted the “heart” use in this verse as indicating the importance of understanding who your individual child is, and the way they need to hear this story.
I agree: the use of “heart” here means, go the core of who your child is, understand that child. And it goes both ways, for the child, the new generation, must understand appreciate the core of the older generation, and who their parents are, for there to be peace and redemption, both in families, and in the world.
In his first email to me, Larry wrote, “I have three lovely daughters who mean the world to me.” Big, beautiful heart.
Two pics from 2007. This is Eitan just before his bar mitzvah party in May, which he shared with Lev Rosenzweig-Ziff. Lev’s mom, Elizabeth Rosenzweig took this photo, later blown up and attached to a board for friends to sign (and deface) at the party.
The second is in Chicago in August, at the Bean, because I love this pic, and came back to Chicago for the first time since 2007 to have a Seder with my folks and my brother’s family. Last time I was here with the three kids, for a magical, glorious vacation.