It was Wednesday morning, October 15th, 1969 and I was a soon-to-be sixteen-year-old, miserable teenager. How I wished I could just stay home from high school. Faking illness was not an option. My mother’s solicitousness would drive me out of bed. Ditching school was not on my radar screen at that point in time. There was nothing to do but to get ready. I dressed, unhappy that my clothes were missing the black armband that most of the classmates I admired would be wearing.
A day earlier I was sure that I would be in their ranks. A dinner table conversation about the Viet Nam War Moratorium had proved me wrong. My father, a mild-mannered, patient man, became very assertive. Although he was not strongly supportive of the war he was very supportive of The United States.
I refrained from reminding him of all the Jews who had tried to flee Nazi Europe and had not been given asylum in America.
“To wear a black armband against the government is the height of ingratitude. I beg you not to wear one.”
My father made very few demands of me. No matter how wrong I thought the war was I could not defy him. So I went to school miserable, made it through the day, and learned an important lesson.
This Shabbat we will read in the Torah portion, Toldot, about the birth of Esav and Yaacov to Yitzhak and Rivka. This is also the Shabbat that I sat shiva for my father six years ago. Interestingly, my father’s Hebrew name was Yaacov. We are taught that Yaacov received his name because he was born holding on to the heel (ekev in Hebrew) of Esav. According to a Torah lecture I heard from Rabbi Aba Wagensberg we see the word ekev only three times in the Torah. From the three uses of the word we learn out how important it is to care about the small things, the easy commandments as well as all of the little gifts HaShem gives us daily. In other words, developing the trait of appreciation is a foundation of Judaism. This is what Yaacov was trying to convey to Esav as they were born. Unfortunately, Esav did not understand.
My father did, though. Over and over he showed me the importance of gratitude until the very end of his life. His last six days were spent in hospice and the nurses were amazed how a man in such pain could still manage to constantly thank them for every little thing they did. I was not surprised. That was who my father was. It is my prayer that I can emulate him in this trait. His memory is indeed a blessing.