My Father’s Continuing Funerary Cortege
A country song comes to mind as I try to picture what reading the complete extant papers of my father has been like for me during these past weeks.
There’s a long line of mourners
drivin’ down our little street
and their fancy cars are
such a sight to see …
The singer is commemorating the loss of someone he loved, who went off to find a life larger than their small town could afford, returning only in death when all the success she had won in the great world could no longer touch her.
I don’t know why I think of those lines, except that my father, born in Louisville, Kentucky, liked old-time country music as much as I do.
In fact, my father did not break any records for success in the great world — at least not measured against the career achievements of his peers in Columbia University’s outstanding class of 1925. His classmates, some of whom had been close friends when they all set out in life, went on to become national opinion-shapers for high-brow America in the period between the 1920’s and the 1970’s.
Instead of trying to characterize my father, let me give you a sample of him, lifted out from the papers I’ve been going through lately.
This one appears to be a sermon, printed in my father’s rabbinical days, dated May 30, 1941. The name of the publication isn’t preserved. He’s writing to commemorate the Feast of Weeks, Shevuoth, which is simultaneously a harvest festival and a celebration of Israel’s being given the Law at Mount Sinai.
Israel seems to have been badly frightened at Sinai. The thundering and the lightning and the smoke issuing from the mountain scared them, and they said to Moses, ‘You go up and talk to God, we’ll stay here, if you don’t mind’
“What’s the matter,” said Moses, “not scared, are you?”
“O not at all,” the people said, “we’re not scared a bit; we simply realize the historic importance of this occasion, also we don’t think it quite proper that people like us should get too near to God, and to cap it all our knees aren’t in very good shape at this moment; you go up, Moses.”
“All right,” Moses said.
God spoke the words of the Law. They were as long as all time and, on the other hand, no longer than the Ten Commandments. Judging from the terrific thunder-crashes they must have been spoken in a Voice louder than the world and all space; still it seemed a mere whisper, requiring one to strain one’s ears to hear. It seemed to last an eternity, but was all over in a moment, or so it seemed, so that the people didn’t have time to get more scared than they already were.
God said, “Will you now accept the Law?”
The exact words which the people answered were not recorded, but according to most authentic tradition the substance of it was as follows: “We recognize the honor, O Lord, but may we be excused; It’s not that we’re unwilling, but we’re unready; we’d like a little time first to think it over, and then to talk it over, and then to practice it a little bit, while we feel our way, and get used to the idea. After all, this Law we’ve just heard spoken of is not a simple thing; there are serious risks involved; we’ve heard spoken, this very moment, unless our ears deceived us, which is not likely, that if we do this or fail to do that, if, in short, we fail to keep the Law after we accept it, we might get into trouble. So, we appreciate the compliment, but …”
God said, “I will now blast the world into its primeval chaos. This Law is the code of being human. If mankind does not wish to accept the burden, the challenge, the fight to keep on being human, and the risks of that fight, then let the world return to its original emptiness.”
The people then accepted the Law, and the mighty historical struggle which it implied.
Among his papers, I find letter after letter expressing the most heartfelt love and attachment. First from very humble parishioners. Later, from his students of philosophy. From notables in his and adjacent professions.
They worried about him. They hoped to know the secret of him. They did not get tired of him.
Neither do I.