January 27, 2018 — 11 Shevat 5778
This week there was a weird confluence between Parshat Hashavuah and People Magazine.
Our weekly Torah portion is about the splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the exultant song of celebration that Moses sings with the Israelites. Az yashir moshe u’venei yisrael et hashira hazot laadonai, then Moses and the Israelites sing this song to God. It is a happy song. A song of victory. And because it is part of our daily, Shabbat and festival morning liturgy, we have been singing this song every day for thousands of years ever since. It is a song that does not end. It is a song that goes on forever.
But People Magazine tells of a different song and a different singer, namely, Neil Diamond. Neil Diamond is known to Boston because of Sweet Caroline that Red Sox fans sing at Fenway in the 7th inning. He is known to Jews because not only is he Jewish, and he grew up in Jewish New York, he starred in the Jazz Singer, about a cantor’s family. He is known to America writ large because his immigrant song, America, was the theme song of Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign in 1988. At the age of 77, he was still performing at concerts before sold-out crowds. He was in the middle of his 50th anniversary tour. He was all set to take his show to Australia and New Zealand. Age 77 and the ageless singer is still traveling to the other end of the world to give concerts. It seems like Neil Diamond is the song that lasts forever.
But, alas, People Magazine came out with the sobering news that at the age of 77, Neil Diamond has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and his doctors have forbidden him from giving concerts anymore. His 50th anniversary concert schedule was abruptly canceled.
No song lasts forever. No singer lasts forever.
So now we have a question. How do we understand the exultant song of Shabbat Shira in the larger context of our own mortality? How do we sing robustly and joyfully today knowing that nothing is guaranteed tomorrow?
Thinking about Neil Diamond, my mind raced to a famous passage from the Talmud, from the tractate Shabbat: Elu devarim sheadam ochel peroteihem ba’olam hazeh. There are certain things we do which have an immediate impact in real time, right here, right now. We see that benefit. We get that benefit. We feel that benefit now. ve’hakeren kayemet lo l’olam habah. But then there is also a benefit that will ripple in another time and place, perhaps years from now, in ways that we can never predict. The prime example of the deed that has a benefit now and a ripple effect years from now is gemilut hasadim, acts of decency and kindness.
What we do today shapes not only today, but shapes the future years from now in ways that we can never anticipate.
Which brings us to our honoree this morning, Eugenia Gerstein. Eugenia inspired many singers of all ages, has conducted many choirs, has implanted a love of music for generations. But in thinking about Eugenia the poetry of William Blake comes to mind. That you can see the entire universe in a grain of sand. And the grain of sand through which you can see the impact of Eugenia is the following. One of our members, Ayelet Sternberg, was deeply moved to make today happen. Ayelet reached out personally to 200 families whose children were taught by Eugenia in various contexts: Schechter, our religious school, Camp Pembroke. She went to each institution and inquired: who were the students taught by Eugenia over the last 23 years? Leave no stone unturned. It was an extraordinary attention to detail and an extraordinary labor of love.
I wondered: why?
Why did Ayelet Sternberg leave no stone unturned? Why the urgency to contact every family in every Jewish institution that Eugenia ever taught in Greater Jewish Boston in 23 years?
And then Ayelet shared her personal story of Eugenia with me, and gave me permission to share it with you. Ayelet first met Eugenia when Ayelet’s daughter Yael was a kindergarten student at Schechter, and Eugenia was her music teacher. Just then Ayelet was very sick. She had a double lung transplant. She needed to carry an oxygen tank 24 hours a day.
Eugenia did not need to be asked. She jumped into action. She reached out to Ayelet’s husband Eddie and said how can I help? Eugenia started giving Yael private piano lessons. Eugenia taught Yael life lessons from piano playing. If you mess up, even in a recital, even before lots of people, even in the biggest moment when you wish you had not messed up, no matter. Keep on going. Keep on playing. Never give up. Never give up on the song. Never give up on life.
Eugenia brought that spirit to Ayelet. For six years after her double lung transplant, Ayelet was too weak to sing. Her lungs did not have enough strength. So Ayelet started taking piano lessons with Eugenia. Do not give up on song. Play the piano. And then do not give up on song. Eugenia encouraged Ayelet to join the adult choir and to sing again. Ayelet has been in our choir ever since. Keep on going. Keep on playing. Keep on singing. Never give up. Never give up on the song. Never give up on life.
That happened in 2004. When Eugenia reached out to Ayelet, Eddie and Yael in 2004, that was adam ochel peroteihem ba’olam hazeh, a person enjoying the fruits, the interest, of their deed in real time. The relationship between Eugenia and the Sternberg family was a holy, win win relationship in real time, in 2004.
But today it is 2018. Ayelet being motivated 14 years later to thank Eugenia for her decency and caring is the ripple effect, the far-reaching consequence, that Eugenia would have had no way of knowing when she taught a kindergarten girl whose mother was sick way back in 2004.
What is true for Eugenia is true for all of us.
What we did 14 years ago is still alive today.
What we do today, the kindness we show or do not show, is going to be alive 14 years from now. That song—what we do, how we live our lives every ordinary day—is the song that does not end. That song last forever. Shabbat shalom.