May 27, 2009
At this season of change, as spring gives way to summer, as farmers across the world harvest their crops, Jews end the season of counting the Omer and prepare to receive the Torah anew, celebrating the cycles of life — and its fragility. We note the collapse of our illusions: what we think of as stable and solid is not, what we consider to be ephemeral and passing abides.
Anger and hurt, it turns out, are passing. Love alone endures.
Such a lesson hit me last summer, marking the second yahrzeit of my stepfather’s death. I first met Kurt Schlesinger when I was 9 years old, and my beginnings with him were turbulent, worried as I was that to love him was to be disloyal to my father. Over time, Kurt’s goodness won me over. He lavished hours of time on activities that I loved and on some that he taught me to love. I was not naturally athletic, yet Kurt nudged me into a local tennis club, driving me there day after day, lavishing hours lobbing balls at me and with me. Under his tutelage I became a competent player, and through his encouragement entered the alien world of athletics, which had always felt natural for him.
A great mind, Kurt taught me to cherish big thoughts. He would ask questions about the universe, science, humanity and culture. Topics I didn’t even know one could inquire about, he explored with gusto. He quoted Shakespeare and Plato and Freud with equal ease. He would lie down on my bed as I did my homework, delivering impromptu lectures on the subject at hand. Kurt researched his own essays on diverse subjects, applying his expertise in psychoanalysis to Shakespeare, to religious ritual. He taught me that the boundaries dividing human knowledge need not remain impermeable, nor need we sunder what we know from what we feel. Kurt insisted that knowledge must contribute to human betterment. I learned from him that I could be a man and yet relish the life of the mind.
Kurt’s great laugh and his expansive love of humor let me laugh at the world’s foibles and my own shortcomings, while gently motivating me to self-improvement. Kurt was a man after whom I could fashion myself, and we were extraordinarily close in my teen years, even in college. During that period his marriage with my mother entered a difficult phase, one that ultimately resulted in their divorce. With their separation, it was as though he divorced me — he no longer wrote, no longer called, no longer visited. I remember phoning him weekly after the divorce, just to be able to keep a connection to a man who had been such a central part of my own identity. Kurt always sounded happy to hear from me, but he never initiated a call himself. After a year and a half of weekly phone calls, I finally told him that I couldn’t chase after him any longer. Caring for my own growing family, my own vibrant congregation and the demands of my career was exhausting. I told Kurt that I wanted him in my life, but that presence had to be mutual. I told him that I would wait for his call and would reciprocate, call for call.
Unfortunately, that was not to be. His call never came. In retrospect, I don’t think Kurt was hostile to me, although I do think he was outraged at being divorced. Nonetheless he did not initiate, did not reach out, and I was unwilling to shoulder the passivity, entitlement and distance. Bearing my own struggles with my own children, to assure the vitality of my own marriage, to provide for my family and help my community, I could have used a stepfather; I could have used Kurt’s presence and wisdom.
As time passed — first weeks, then months, then years — without any calls, without any initiative on his part, I grew bitter also, and stewed in my anger, my sorrow and my sense of abandonment and betrayal.
The book Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, teaches, “Love is stronger than death.” If it means that love has the power to stop people from dying, the claim is false. But I do not think that is what it means. I think Shir HaShirim asserts that, connected by the bonds of memory, linked in love to those who have gone before us and preparing for those yet to come, we form an indivisible web of human caring and human belonging. Creation is a cascading fountain of love that moves from one generation to the next, and the remarkable reality of life is that the anger can fade, the frustration can evaporate, the pain can dissipate, if we let it.
What abide are acts of caring and love.
About two years ago, I heard that Kurt had a brain tumor, and I knew instantly what I must do. I called him out of the blue. Kurt was already in the advanced stage of his disease, already in the hospital. As we spoke, he drifted in and out of consciousness, sometimes aware of who I was and of the people around him, of our life together, and sometimes not at all, speaking nonsense. In his moments of lucidity, he did say, “I love you,” and in his flashes of awareness, I was able to say, “Kurt, I love you, too.” He drifted in and out in that conversation, but when he was “in,” it was clear that despite the years of silence, despite not having kept up our connection to one another, there remained a deep communion. Within a week, he died.
I think about the years of silence now, but the anger is gone. The sorrow is gone. Love alone endures. As the midrash wisely notes, “The love shown after death is true love. A person sometimes honors his father through fear or shame, but this love after death is a true love.”
I recall my stepfather, two years after his death, without anger. Kurt had his weaknesses, as do I; his shortcomings, as do I. Neither of us lived the perfect life; neither of us always chose the best possibilities that God offers. Yet his gifts to me remain every day: a love of the physical world, of creation, and a marvel at the science that allows us to understand what the world is and how it works, a keen appreciation for the quiet joy of the intellect and a great love for trying to pull it all together. And, of course, laughter — loud and often.
These gifts remain long after the anger dissolves, long after the frustrations are forgotten. Love, it turns out, abides, and at this time of year of Shavuot, we celebrate receiving the Torah, as did our parents and their parents before them, all the way back, because we know that love is, indeed, stronger than death.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (www.bradartson.com) is the dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is vice president. He is the author of more than 200 articles and nine books, most recently “The Everyday Torah: Weekly Reflections and Inspirations” (McGraw Hill, 2008).