A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP – @TheRealNimoy
That was the final tweet from Leonard Nimoy, who used Twitter like the artist he was in so many other media. Like most people, I first encountered him playing Spock, the misfit officer on the Starship Enterprise. Like any good actor, he used pieces of himself to give life to that role. Two years in the US Army as a Jew must have been great preparation to play the only Vulcan on the Enterprise.
I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Nimoy but I know several people who did meet him in various settings. What strikes me now is that I’ve never heard anything bad about the man: he was kind and polite in his dealings with fans and he was a pillar of his synagogue. I gather from his artwork that he was a good Reform Jew, asking questions of the tradition at every turn. If you doubt that, check out The Shekhina Project (NSFW.) He had a true artist’s eye, seeing beauty where others refused to see it: check out The Full Body Project (also NSFW.) He and his wife Susan gave generously to their communities via the Bay-Nimoy Early Childhood Center and the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles – and those are just the gifts of which I am aware. Everything I’ve heard suggests that there were many small generosities that will never be public.
All of this is to say that the man was a mensch. He played a role that became a big deal in pop culture, but it was only one of many roles he played in his life. Some had more artistic merit, perhaps, and one was the role we all should play, that of Human Being.
Today I attended a funeral for a wonderful woman. It was sad, as all funerals are sad, but it was also a celebration, because Henrietta Garfinkle, or “Hank,” as her friends knew her, had been waiting for this day. She buried her great love, Vic, 18 months ago, and while she was not a person to grieve herself to death, she looked forward to spending eternity with him.
A lot of people avoid funerals. It’s too bad, because at the funeral of a mensch – a deeply good person – you can learn a lot about how to become a mensch yourself. We heard stories from Hank’s children, and her children’s spouses, about how she had been with them. We heard from her rabbi. And as is the case with Jewish funerals, they told the truth about her. That is actually a rule about a Jewish hesped, or eulogy: it has to be true, even when the truth is difficult.
I can’t remember everything that was said. What I know is that I left that funeral with a clearer idea of exactly the sort of mensch that Henrietta was, and that as a result, I know some new things about how to be a good Jew and a good person. I learn not only how the person was good, but I get a sense of what their challenges were in being a good person. This happens every time I attend a funeral.
So the next time you hear of a funeral in your congregation, consider attending. It is a mitzvah to attend a funeral, even if you didn’t know the person well. If they were part of your community, it is a mitzvah to go, period. If they were especially beloved in your community, be SURE to go, because it’s a great opportunity: you’re going to learn from the best.
The absolute best thing about being a teacher is the opportunity to learn from one’s students.
I’m currently teaching a class on Pirkei Avot, the Verses of the Fathers, at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. Today we talked about Chapter 2, and a question came up about the verse that is usually translated:
In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.
I pointed out that in a spirit of greater inclusion, some translators translate anashim as “human beings” and ish as “human being.” One student offered the following translation, which I love:
In a place where there are no menschen, be a mensch!
Originally, the Yiddish word mensch came from the German for “person.” By the 20th century, it had taken on an additional layer of meaning, that of a person who is decent and kind, one who embodies the best of humanity. The Jewish-English Lexicon offers Rosten’s translation: “An upright, honorable, a decent person.”