Today is December 31, 2014. At midnight we will usher out the year that “was” and welcome in the year that has yet “to begin”.
This is the time of year when people begin to unpack their “boxes” from the past year (or two, or three…)
Some of the “boxes” are metaphorical. They represent the events that took place in our lives over the past year.
For some of us, these events are life-altering and bring us joy, sorrow or growth. We want to take these events out of the box, place them in their proper perspective and use them as inspiration and motivation for the year ahead.
Some events are so difficult, we bury them deep inside the “box” and can’t think about them, or don’t want to think about them for a very long time. So we keep them packed away for a very long time.
And yet, this act of “unpacking boxes” and reflecting on their contents is a very Jewish notion. As a Jewish people, the gift of memory is important to us. It’s important for us to reflect on the past. Our spiritual life does not only consist of reactions to the present and hopes for the future, but also what we can recall in our minds and hearts of what has been. And not only to reflect, but to turn our reflections into actions and deeds of love.
“We cannot overstate our debt to the past, but the moment has the supreme claim.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Letters and Social Aims, 1876)
As we unpack our metaphorical boxes at this time of year, some of us are also unpacking physical, actual boxes. Yet, what’s inside represents so much more than the actual contents themselves. Contents which can inspire us for the year ahead.
Earlier this week, my sister and one of my brothers both sent me an email (ok – my sister will correct me: she sent me a text message. My brother sent me an email.) Unbeknown to the other, they had each decided to finally unpack the boxes they had from five years ago when both my parents died, 10 weeks apart from each other (my father died first, on December 26, 2009 and my mother died 10 weeks later, on March 15, 2010. They had been divorced for 37 years).
As they each unpacked their boxes, they found a treasure-trove of items. Memorabilia, family photos, artwork, books (my beloved copy of the book “Harriet the Spy” by Louise Fitzhugh, held together by Scotch tape, since I read it so many times. My sister’s eight-year old will now read it!), silver, china and so much more. Things that have meaning to our family.
One of the items my brother unpacked, however, was a newspaper article that was written in 1949, just after my paternal grandfather, Harry Sobel, died at the age of 45.
He died from a rare form of Juvenile Leukemia, after being ill for only 8 days. My father was 12, his brother was 9 and his sister was 6. All of a sudden, my grandmother was left alone with three young children to raise. We knew my grandmother as a strong, capable woman.
She was the epitome of a modern woman, who was audaciously hospitable, philanthropic, charming, artistic, generous, loyal and kind. She was also very modest about her achievements and did not like to accept accolades for her work. She was a role model for all of my siblings, my cousins and me.
And apparently, my grandfather was a similar kind of person, modest and unassuming. But this article about my grandfather reflects for us how very special he truly was.
It shows that our years on earth may be many or few, but what ultimately matters is what we have done with our time to make a difference while we are here.
So here are the important lessons for each of us to take into the New Year from my grandfather Harry Sobel, z’l (may his memory be for a blessing).
- Be a good friend
- Become involved in your community
- Be fair and honest in business
- Open your door to others: Embody the notions of “Audacious hospitality” and a welcoming home – especially if you know others don’t have a place to go.
- Have a fair and generous spirit (tzedakah – literally means “justice” – helping those in need)
- Help others to help themselves so they won’t need to rely on the assistance of others any longer (according to Maimonides, the great Medieval Jewish philosopher, this is the highest level of philanthropy).
As I read this newspaper clipping and reflect on its message, I feel connected to my family, those who are with me only in heart, mind and memory and those who are still present. I feel inspired to continue in the path they walked before me and hope I can achieve the heights they scaled.
Happy New Year!