You May Be Seated
I always sit in the same place when speaking with the Ribono
It so happens that my seat is behind Rabbi Louis’s. I’ve been
sitting there for the past fifteen years. I do so as an expression
of my gratitude and affection for him. He befriended me at a
troubled time in my life when I needed help in my efforts to
become an observant Jew. That seat has become my makom
kavua, a fixed place of prayer, and remains “mine” by the force
of custom alone. In shul life, one’s makom is of such
importance that the word itself is often used to denote one of
Ben used to sit next to me in shul. In the eight years since his
death, only my father has sat in Ben’s seat when he comes to
shul on the eve of the High Holidays. Neither Ben nor his
grandfather was religiously observant. As for me, I’ve evolved to
the point that just the anticipation of their arrival is enough
to put the tov in yom tov. As difficult and painful
a lesson as it was, it has taught me that I can only demand strict
observance of myself.
I can see Ben’s yahrzeit plaque easily from where I sit just over
the top of the mechitza. It is the eleventh one down in the
first column of the first of five bronze panels. No matter the
season, the occasion or the daily weather, Ben is unfailingly
where I expect him to be. Since his passing, his plaque on the
south wall of the main sanctuary has become, I guess one can
say, his new makom.
My younger son Zac attends shul as infrequently as his older
brother and grandfather. Their mother and I did not raise our
children observantly. In my family, it was I who alone became
religiously observant, and I was no different at their age than
they are now. So it doesn’t really concern me too much
because Zac has proven himself to be the kind of
young man who has become both captain and navigator of
his own ship. He has needed some guidance along the way,
but then haven’t we all? If, however, you look closely into
Zac, you’ll find a winning blend of his mother’s hard-headed,
common sense approach to everyday life, his older brother
Ben’s stubborn defiance of convention and the acquired
wisdom to recognize the correct path when it’s staring at him
in the face.
There were but a handful of occasions when my sons, Dad and
I came together for the holidays. They came and went so
quickly and, although they were more bittersweet than
purely happy, I recommend it to all sons and their fathers.
Shul life is, after all, about family, community, happiness,
sadness, belief, faith, friendship and, yes, God and Torah.
Naturally, I wish we had been able to get together more
frequently, but for my Dad, well … is there anyone who cannot
understand how a grandpa feels when surrounded by his son and
grandsons? I do, however, admit I am envious of other fathers who are
fortunate indeed to have their sons sitting by their side on a
regular basis. If I had a second chance, I’d do things differently.
The last time my Dad was in shul was on Erev Rosh Ha Shanah,
2006. He had already begun his battle against colon cancer
but still looked robust enough to remind me of the gibor he
had been in his younger years.
The Aseres Yemai Tchuva is a season of reckonings, a time
when you just begin to wonder about things, you know …
and as I looked at my father, seated between me and my son
Zac-Ben had already been gone for five years-it occured to me
that this night might be the last time we’d all be together. I
saw him whispering to Zac. I could not make out what he was
saying, but it allowed me a few moments …
The entire downtown business district would pour into the
streets around 5:30 P. M. clogging the already congested
traffic lanes of Chicago’s bustling “Loop”. Blaring horns of
Checker taxicabs and city buses made it hard to hear one’s
voice, but my father’s voice … I always heard.
As a kid, I recall his homiletic lessons that were not, he was
fond of saying, worth “a hill of beans” unless we perform
good deeds, “acts of loving kindness”, he called them. “Words
alone are cheap Son. Actions speak louder. Remember that!”
One bitterly cold afternoon stands out in particular. A
dusting of powdery snow had fallen. The city sparkled with an
illusion of purity. My father and I had just left his office and
were on our way home when a shivering, bedraggled man
approached us. The butt of a cigarette hung from his cracked
lips. His thin, dirty jacket reeked of tobacco and alcohol. He
muttered something to my Dad, but I couldn’t make it out.
“Here, my man. Take this,” my father reassuringly said while
removing his long coat and draping it around the trembling
shoulders of this fellow. “Be well,” he added with a faint smile.
He took me by the hand and headed to the underground
garage where he had parked his car. “Daddy, aren’t you cold?”
“A bit son, but I would have frozen had we walked past that
man without responding. Giving is more blessed than
receiving, sonny boy.”
Now, nearly fifty years later, on the eve of the New Year,
while the three of us sat together probably for the last time, I
prayed that if I could but a fraction be to Zac what my father
had been to me … dayenu.
dayenu: from the Passover Hagadah, "it would have been enough".
Aseres Yemai Tchuva: "The Ten Days of Repentance" beginning with Rosh Ha Shanah and ending with Yom Kippur.
Erev Rosh Ha Shanah: Eve of The New Year
gibor: a man of strength
mechitza: partition in orthodox synagogue seprating men from women in sanctuary.
yom tov: "a good day"; holiday
Ribono Shel Olam: Master of The Universe
Alan D. Busch