I’m thankful to Tom, our Dean, who gave me a choice earlier this week.
You see, the church provides not one but two passages from the Hebrew Bible for reading this morning, and Tom asked me earlier this week which passage I would prefer.
Passage 1 – From Exodus Chapter 14 which presents the Egyptian army pursuing the Israelite slaves through the Red Sea and then describes the waters crashing down on the Egyptians so that the slaves can escape to freedom.
Passage 2 – From Genesis 50 which presents the events after Jacob dies. His sons are terrified that Joseph will summon up the memory of how the brothers sold Joseph into slavery and, now that their father Jacob is gone, the sons are sure Joseph will finally punish and get even with them. Instead, Joseph promises them all will be well.
So…which passage for today?
Exodus 14 at the Red Sea – epic and awe-inspiring?
OR Genesis 50 – Joseph and his brothers after their father’s death – a personal and almost private reading?
As you can tell, I chose Genesis 50 – the quieter passage.
I know Exodus 14 with its story of the swirling waters covering up the Egyptian chariots provides an incredible backdrop to the floods and hurricanes of the last two weeks. Harvey and Irma require our attention now and into the future.
Nevertheless, I wanted to read Genesis 50 today because I have another story to share this morning. Like Genesis 50, it’s a family story. It’s my story. It’s where I have been this past week.
So Genesis 50 it is.
Picture the scene.
Jacob the patriarch has died. He has 12 sons and the oldest boys have so despised their little brother Joseph that years ago they sold him into slavery. Time has passed. The family has been reunited. They’ve lived together in Egypt for many years until this week’s Scripture when Jacob passes away. Now the brothers wonder if Joseph will finally get even with them.
Except he doesn’t.
According to our reading, Joseph says life has worked out for the best. All of them are safe together. Verse 21 – Have no fear. I myself will provide for you and your little ones. Verse 22 – In this way Joseph reassured the brothers, speaking kindly to them.
It’s a wonderful resolution to the family crisis.
In fact, the original Hebrew paints the family picture even more powerfully. The Hebrew reads…VAYIDABER AL LIBAM…which means not so much that Joseph spoke kindly to his brothers. Rather…HE SPOKE TO THEIR HEARTS.
VAYIDABER AL LIBAM…JOSEPH SPOKE TO THEIR HEARTS.
That is where I am today. This is where my story can be found.
Although my uncle died a few weeks ago and this past Sunday we had a memorial service for him in Chicago, this morning my heart feels blessed and reconciled.
What happened in Chicago “spoke to my heart.”
The whole event or series of events spoke to my heart because we did it so very well.
True, there was “business” to be done. My aunt has dementia and we needed to be sure the health center in the assisted living complex where she and my uncle live was right for her. Forms had to be signed. Bank accounts and pharmacy accounts had to be arranged.
And then there was the matter of the apartment my aunt and uncle owned in the assisted living. It had to be emptied. Since Stan and Gert (my uncle and aunt) have no children, we (2 nieces and 3 nephews) had to deal with the business of closing the apartment. Note too that none of us are local. This was our weekend for decisions.
We had to divide up their beautiful worldly goods among the five of us without coming to dislike each other AND while not forgetting this was not a shopping expedition. The furniture, flatware, sculptures, paintings, and the many many photographs and memorabilia were part of Stan and Gert’s life.
We didn’t love these things. We rather loved Stan and Gert and the things only mattered because they spoke to our hearts.
So, the five of us and our spouses and children sat in the apartment and remembered the spirit and style that characterized Gert and especially Stan who was gone.
Stan – sitting on the sofa watching Rachel Maddow on CNBC and lamenting the sorry state of American politics. He was always so engaged in politics and public affairs.
And speaking of broad commitments…as we roamed through Stan’s files and papers, we came upon his listing of charitable donations. The gifts themselves were not huge, but Stan listed them alphabetically and they literally spelled out Stan’s political and moral priorities. There must have been 50 organizations he supported annually. Most were to the left of the political spectrum, but the fact is that he gave. He not only talked politics and commitment. He backed up the talk with funds.
We loved discovering this charity list because it told us more about Stan, but also because it was so characteristic of Stan never to have told any of us about his giving. He was too private for that and modest as well.
And, by the way, we loved the list because there wasn’t only one list. As we discovered, he had a list for every year going back more than a decade. That was Stan too. Organized. Detail-oriented.
One of the nieces told a classic Stan tale: Once, years ago, when Stan and Gert lived in their house, it was a snowy day. Vera (the niece in question) told Stan she would take out the garbage. Stan was concerned that this was a recycling day and the recycling containers had to be set out a certain way. He told Vera how to do it. She followed the instructions to the letter, dragged the proper containers to the bottom of their driveway, got in her car, and backed out of the driveway.
As she was driving down the street, she looked in her rearview mirror to see Stan walking down the driveway and readjusting the containers. They had to be just right!
We all smiled when she told that story.
That was Stan – meticulous to the T!
He loved numbers too. Memorized them with barely a thought from social security cards to telephone numbers to credit cards. In fact, I have an admission. I like numbers too. I especially have fun with phone numbers that are symmetrical. Numbers with 3, 6, or 9 in them. 2, 4, 6, 8. I never mentioned this to another living soul, until about two years ago on a Chicago visit Stan commented how elegant a certain phone number was. It turned out he and I had this same shared love for figures.
And Stan loved pancakes for breakfast. Ate them with total delight and gusto.
And he loved his brother, my father. It wasn’t anything flashy. Stan didn’t wear emotions on his sleeve, but how fascinating it was to go into his bedroom and see a photo of my father on his dresser. Nothing else was there. Just that photo.
This past weekend I learned that, back in the day, Stan even played a decent game of hockey!
I myself told the story of how Stan and Gert took off for Europe in the early 1950’s. Stan had just finished his Ph.D at University of Wisconsin in Madison. I am pretty sure he didn’t even have a job yet. Nevertheless, Stan and Gert scooted off to Europe for a sojourn of several months.
It was the first of many trips they took around virtually the entire world.
By the way, I mentioned a Ph.D. That was Stan’s degree in biochemistry that launched him on a career he almost never discussed with us. He was private and he was modest. But Stan ultimately served as Chair of the Biology Department at University of Illinois Chicago Campus for over a decade and, as we discovered in reviewing his files, he published article after article over the years. In addition, he created a Ph.D. program in biochemistry at the school and, in addition, he mentored tens of students in their scientific research over many years.
That was my uncle, Stan Shapiro.
And it is a very impressive legacy indeed.
Except I said earlier what happened over this last weekend “spoke to my heart.” Just as Joseph touched his brothers in a heart-to-heart manner, I was moved – not only impressed - in Chicago.
That happened because, after all the talk, I also had some time for silence. Just to contemplate that Stan was my father’s brother and, in that regard, my last biological connection to my dad and the Shapiro family. There is something awesome in that realization. Sad. Sobering. Very real.
But here is a discovery I never expected.
On Sunday morning, one of the nieces came across a file containing Stan’s report cards from 8th through 11th grade. Guess what? He did well in school. He won awards. He worked hard and, even back then, the report card had to be signed by a parent when it was returned.
Lo and behold, on the back of one of those 1930’s report cards, the parent who signed was my grandfather – Morris Shapiro. I am named after Morris (I’m Mark); he died several years before I was born.
But here’s the amazing part of that one report card with my grandfather’s signature. Although I had heard stories and seen pictures of Morris, up until Sunday morning I had never seen his writing. Here was his signature AND, to my surprise, he made the M of Morris the very same way I make the M of Mark. We both begin the M with a big loop. Except the first time I ever saw his M was seven days ago. Somehow the grandson Morris never knew signs his name like Morris. People say I am like Stan; perhaps I am even like Morris whom I never knew!
That discovery stilled me and, as I’ve said, spoke to my heart…
As did one final moment.
Tuesday afternoon my wife and I were in a bit of a rush to tidy up loose ends and get to the airport. However, I just wanted one more time to visit Stan and Gert’s apartment. This would be my last time seeing it since it will be emptied and probably even rented to someone else by the time I return to Chicago.
So there I was in Unit 3502. Lots of furniture already moved. The place was beginning not to look like Stan and Gert’s home.
I only wanted to be there. To take it in. To remember good visits and rich conversations and laughter.
I wandered through the rooms in silence. Stood in silence.
And after a few minutes, I was ready to depart when I noticed a vase Stan and Gert had bought on a trip to Greece. It wasn’t anything unique. I believe it came from a museum shop, but there it was. Other relatives had taken other Greek pieces. My wife and I hadn’t done so. We’ve got more than enough clutter in our home. Still, there it was. A little bit of Stan and Gert’s love for art and history and culture.
I took the vase off the shelf and placed it in my bag. It was coming home to Massachusetts with me.
And then – holding the vase and holding my breath - I said a blessing. It’s actually the blessing said in Judaism for the end of the Sabbath. It’s said as the holiness of the seventh day comes to a close and you prepare to re-enter the regular days of the week.
Here I was leaving this unique home that was Stan and Gert’s. I wasn’t coming back. I was closing a chapter in my life and theirs. I was separating. Farewell.
So, I said…Baruch atta Adonai…Blessed are You, God, Spirit of the Universe…ha-mavdil bein kodesh l’chol…who separates between the holy and the everyday.
Joseph spoke to his brothers and touched their hearts.
Stan spoke to me a thousand times and in many ways touched my heart.
So may it be for you.
May you be moved by those you love.
May you be enriched and sustained by love.
May your life be better today because we have shared this story about family and connections that make us each who we are.