Rabbi Cutler – Shavuot II 5779: Yizkor Time
I did not yet know Tilly Oslender when, at the age of 100, she decided that perhaps it was time to stop canvassing door to door with city councillor Joe Mihevc. I did know her though, already for a few years, when I asked her a few days after the Ice Storm of 2013 where she had sought shelter. Her apartment, I knew, had been without heat and power for a few days – and she lived alone. Proudly, almost surprised that I could have asked such a question, she told me that she stayed put, like it was no big deal, hinting perhaps, ‘you know where else it was cold?’ Czarist Ukraine – where she was born and she did okay there too.
At seven years of age Tilly began living through the First World War. With her family, at the age of twelve, she survived the Russian revolution. In her twenties she came to Canada, married, and started a family. By her thirties she was a civic activist in her adopted homeland, involved in unions and the library system. Jumping ahead many years, in her 11th decade, in one of my favourite rabbi questions of all time, she wondered whether it was permissible to eat flax on Passover. I told her that though flax is considered kitniyot – not chametz, but a variety of foods that Ashkenazi Jews classically avoid on the holiday – at her age, she is permitted to eat it since was part of her regular diet. She didn’t eat it.
At 110, Tilly was still a regular bridge player, though not quite walking with the same clip across Eglinton and down Bathurst. This past Wednesday, in an equal parts uplifting and sad service, I attended her funeral. Tilly was 112 years old. She was still living by herself.
One week before Tilly’s funeral, I attended the shiva for Eitan Lebo. I didn’t know Eitan like I knew Tilly. Though he spent time at my house over Passover, I didn’t speak with him because he wasn’t there for me. Eitan came over for a playdate with my son Jacob. He was a gentle and curious boy. His teacher, an Adath Israel member, described him as the dream student – loved by his peers, attentive to instruction, and an eager learner. In his short life, Eitan lived in Israel and Canada, in the country and in the city. His smile generated many others and two years after he was first diagnosed with Leukemia, he died at the age of seven.
“O Lord, You have been our refuge in every generation. Before the mountains came into being, before you brought forth the earth and the world, from eternity to eternity You are God.”[i] So writes the Psalmist. Eternity, we know, is the domain of God alone.
The psalm continues. “You return man to dust; You decreed, Return you mortals! For in your sight a thousand years are like yesterday that has passed”. People die. It is part of God’s created universe. At a ripe old age or much, much too early, they die and our sense of time is not like yours God. We count years, months sometimes, days. You though God, your sense of time is an entirely different scale, You Who Are Beyond Time.
Teach us therefore, the psalm declares, “to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart”. Teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart.
Shavuot is the holiday of counting. Since the second night of Pesach we have been engaged in Sefirat Ha-Omer, the counting the omer – the omer being the barley sacrifice offered throughout this period in the Temple. Every night we count. Starting from day one and ending at day 49. Each day we count up until Shavuot.
“Today is the first day of the omer equaling one day of the omer”, we began. “Today is the 18th day of the omer, equaling two weeks and four days of the omer”. “On Friday night we stated today is the 49th day of the omer, equaling seven weeks of the omer”. All of this leading up to Shavuot, translated literally as the holiday of weeks.
We count and we count and we count. Less it seems to remind us of our limited time here and more so in anticipation of Shavuot to come.
A midrash teaches that this counting dates back to the exodus. The Israelites were told as they left Egypt that they would be given the Torah in 49 days. In eager excitement they counted. Day one. Day two. Day three. The time was used for spiritual preparation. The time they knew they had was used to elevate themselves so that they would be worthy of Torah. At Shavuot the Torah was handed to them as a gift. Today, on Shavuot, we celebrate זמן מתן תורתינו, we celebrate the time of the giving of Torah.
In Hebrew לספור – to count – and לספר – to tell – come from the same root, ס.פ.ר.. It is the same root that spells out ספר, book. It is often through numbers that we of tell the stories of lives. He was born in 1935. She was only 40 when she was appointed company president. He was 87 when he died. Numbers give us context. They help us determine good and bad, a life long-lived or a life cut short. The stories of our lives are told through numbers, even as that counting comes with certain ironies.
First, classically, Jews didn’t record dates of birth. We actually don’t care about is exactness of years. The first birthday noted in our tradition is that of Pharaoh – the ultimate other.
Second, counting people, in the Torah, results in danger and death. Until today, many Jews do not count individuals. In some communities it would be taboo to ask how many children or grandchild one has. When necessary – a kindergarten teacher, for example, checking to see that all of her pupils are present – will recite a verse with ten words, pointing to one child per word. The verse from Psalms, הוֹשִׁיעָה אֶת עַמֶּךָ וּבָרֵךְ אֶת נַחֲלָתֶךָ וּרְעֵם וְנַשְּׂאֵם עַד הָעוֹלָם,[ii] is popular. “Deliver and bless Your very own people; tend them and sustain them forever.” In English the math doesn’t work as well.
In his work, The Jewish Experience of Time, philosopher Eliezer Schweid notes three different types of time in the bible. The first and least significant is the biological, the personal, the one whose clock starts at birth and ends with death. That time – whether it be long or short – is only relevant to a small group of people, the community around an particular individual.
The second is cosmic time, established at genesis. It is time that repeats itself. Sunday to Shabbat. Sunday to Shabbat. A predetermined cycle that repeats itself ad infinitum. Every year we mark the creation of the world. Every year we will mark the giving of Torah. This idea of time is similar to Indian doctrine of cosmic cycles or yugas and the Greek concept of Anakuklosis.
But there is a third concept of time, that of historical time. Historical time is an undertaking of memory and hope. It organizes Jewish national life around specific events that are recalled with an eye toward redemption. Passover the first holiday in historical time, marks the beginning of our peoplehood, where we begin to write our own story. It is followed by the covenant with God at Sinai that we celebrate today – a covenant that lays the foundation for our relationship with God and our role in bringing about the redemption of the world.
While in the cyclical, cosmic time, events occur and reoccur, a holiday, in historical time, commemorates an event that passed, never to occur again. It generates a timeline – a linear idea of time with a past, present, and necessarily a future. The past and the future are the poles against which we understand ourselves. In this view of time we as Jews must ask ourselves, what can I do to make tomorrow better than today? When Akavya ben Mehalalel teaches in Pirkei Avot “Know from whence you came and to where you are going”,[iii] this can be understood not only in terms of biological time, but historical time as well.
“Tell me, O Lord, what my term is, what is the measure of my days; I would know how fleeting my life is. You have made my life just handbreadths long; its span is as nothing in Your sight; Everyone is but a breath, even those who seem secure.”[iv]
None of us here know when our time will come – whether we will be like Tilly – Tanya Etel bat Menashe v’Raizel or God forbid whether someone we know will pass away as young as Eitan, Eitan Binyamin ben Meir v’Shoshana, זכרונם לברכה, may their memories be for a blessing. It is hoped that that mystery, that ultimate unknown, pushes us to live as if today really matters because who knows what tomorrow might bring? It is hoped that we can situate ourselves in cosmic time, bringing ourselves a sense of stability, of tradition, of Jewish values, while also living in historical time, always hoping and acting for a tomorrow that is better than today, always looking ahead to mashiach.
We count the years, but it is more important to make the years count.
In a moment it will be time for Yizkor. We will remember loved ones – those who grew old and those who did not. I ask that today, days after the 75th anniversary of the landing at Normandy, we also remember those brave soldiers, including members of our sacred congregation, who fought and died on the beaches of France and beyond. I know that some of you are thinking of fathers, uncles, brothers, cousins and grandfathers who fought in Europe – people like Ben Delson, father of our member Bob Delson, an Air Force Mechanic Class B, who was attached to the 143 Wing, City of Montreal “Wildcats” 438 Squadron, which flew Typhoon aircraft. Ben’s wartime photographs include shots of landing craft driving through the surf to the beaches of Normandy.
Ellin Bessner who spoke here not long ago, tells the story of Albert Tweyman.[v] Albert was born in 1919 to parents Rose and Harry. He grew up on Dundas Street with his seven brothers and sisters, including his twin brother Jack. Albert finished Grade 9 at Central Tech, but left school at 14 years of age, to help out at home. He worked for several years including as an editorial assistant and composer for the Daily Hebrew Journal (Yiddisher Zhurnal), and later, for Columbia Pictures, as an office clerk. In March 1941, Albert was called up and assigned to the militia. His application for the air force was rejected because he couldn’t provide the RCAF with his parents’ naturalization papers, as they were married in Poland. Albert was a small man – 5’3 and 129 pounds. He was assigned to an Anti Aircraft Battery and spent over a year in Kitchener, Borden, and Halifax before transferring to active service in order to be with his friend and Adath Israel member Mac Latner.
Albert arrived in England days after D-Day, knowing that he would soon join the battle for France. At noon on August 8, over 600 USAF bombers pounded the area around Caen, 20 kilometres south of Juno Beach. Tragically, some of the bombers dropped their loads on top of the Canadians, Poles, and Brits. Over 300 soldiers were killed in friendly fire.
Bombardier Tweyman suffered shrapnel wounds to his leg and died later that night. The army buried him in a temporary cemetery “with religious rites”.
Albert’s family was officially notified two weeks later that their son was wounded. It was only upon further inquiry they were told that in fact Albert was dead and buried.
After the war was over, officials reburied Tweyman in the large Canadian war cemetery in nearby Bretteville-sur-Laize, where Ellin Bessner, who is currently in France to make the D-Day anniversary, will be paying her respects.
[i] Ps 90:1
[ii] Ps 28:9
[iv] Ps 39:5-6
[v] Adapted from https://ellinbessner.com/2014/06/twin-jewish-brothers-from-toronto-served-in-the-canadian-forces-during-the-second-world-war-one-went-to-france-after-d-day-and-didnt-come-back/. See also Bessner’s Double Threat: Canadian Jews, the Military, and World War II, pg 25