We spend a lot of time reading in our house. One of our favourite sci-fi writers, Spider Robinson, is famous with me for his observation known as Callahans’ Law – “Shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased — thus do we refute entropy”. We are very grateful to you, for this holy community, who come together at times of joy and sorrow.
Rebbe Simchah Bunim of P’shische (d. 1827) said “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “For my sake was the world created.” But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “I am but dust and ashes.”
When we return to being dust and ashes, how do we mark our life’s passage? For Esther it is in the many many lives she enriched. I don’t think she ever had to reach into her left pocket.
Growing up, being Esther’s son was both joyful and challenging. I have very fond memories of her easy laugh, of going shopping with her rolly basket, of pie at Woodwards and crumpets and tea at Johnstone Walker in Edmonton. I was amazed then, as I am today, of how she seemed to know the names and family background of so many people, from the produce manager at Safeway to her favorite checkout people. It was a challenge because my Mom had very high expectations of me in especially two areas: politeness and empathy. Those sound like simple childhood lessons as I say them out loud to you here, but trust me when I say that even though she was only 5’2, Esther was a fierce promoter and defender of both these value, and that those labels – politeness and empathy, were simplistic abbreviations for much deeper values.
Esther insisted on me being polite. Please, thank you, wait your turn, let that person go before you, say hello and goodbye, listen before you speak, dont interrupt. She would be more upset with me for rudeness than for breaking something around the house – her values were clear about the importance of treating people well.
The other attribute Esther manifested through her life was an extremely high empathy. Her early lessons on that to me were simple – “How would you feel if someone did that to you?” After the usual hundreds of times it takes a parent to relay a lesson to their children (), the step of considering the effect and feelings on the person I was about to tease, laugh at, or hit eventually sunk in and made me a less impetuous, and hopefully kinder person.
But make no mistake, these qualities did not make Esther a passive nice person. I have another chevre, a community of our Edmonton Talmud Torah class who amazingly keep in touch by email and share news and events. When I asked for their memories of Esther several recalled with great clarity Esther’s influence on them in our teenage years, when she and Dan were advisors for BBYO, and Jewish youth group. Mona said “I recall your mom as one of the first adults to treat me like a ‘grown up’ (even when I may not have behaved as one). She would ask me what was going on in my life and I knew her interest was genuine as she would always actually remember our conversations the next time she saw me.”
When Esther saw a clique that was excluding one of the other girls, she engaged them in dialog with that combination of unvarnished truth, outrage, her deep sense of fairness, topped with a dollop of guilt, to encourage inclusiveness.
Esther’s sense of fairness extended reagrdless of gender. Talmud Torah classmate Arna Poupko Fisher wrote “Your mom was one of the few people who made MY mom ‘stand at attention’. She was a feminist before her time…with moxie and forthrightness and irrepressible energy. My mom really loved your mom and so did I.”
Mom, in a few minutes we will commend your body back to the earth, and help your beautiful neshama go free, the neshama that was getting increasingly hard to radiate as your brain became a cataract to its glow.
In our mystical tradition the Zohar tells us that Esther’s neshama is still near, in the process of rising upwards to the light of creation, where after a brief time to be cleared of the pains and mistakes of this world will be free once more. If it should be your choice, perhaps the world will be blessed with your soul once again, to bring compassion, awareness, and wisdom to another community and to a family who loved you as much as we did.