My Aunt Audrey came into our family when I was 15 years old. Our connection was instantaneous; she became my hero and was my champion for the next 40 years.
Audrey had overcome great obstacles and pain in her life. She was articulate, outspoken and smart; she had strong opinions about everything. Though not at all religious, Audrey was a deeply spiritual person; her eyes were open to the wonders of the world, often with a childlike innocence. Aunt Audrey truly appreciated simple gestures, and she delighted in my accomplishments – great and small. She was my cheerleader and advocate in every way imaginable.
Like so many people, I was truly blessed to have an adult in my life other than my parents who took the time to truly see me and value me. Remembering our family heroes, recalling their names and telling their stories, keeps our loved ones alive through the generations.
This entire issue of the Jewish Voice is dedicated to our family heroes and it will be published during the week that we are studying the Torah portion, Shemot – literally meaning “Names.” Shemot tells the story of our people becoming enslaved by Pharaoh and introduces us to Moses, the infant who would grow up to lead the Israelites out of bondage and become the greatest Jewish prophet of all time.
Before telling the dramatic story of our redemption from slavery in Egypt, Shemot begins by tracing the lineage of the Israelite people. “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household.” (Exodus 1:1)
The ancient Israelites remembered their ancestors and honored the memory of their “Family Heroes” by listing their specific names even during painful and difficult times.
Our tradition instructs us to remember all of our personal and family history, and not just the easy parts. A Midrash teaches that when Moses descended Mount Sinai with the tablets of God’s Law, he was so enraged at seeing the Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf, he threw the tablets down and smashed them to pieces. However, rather than discarding them, the pieces were considered an important part of us; they were kept in the Ark alongside the second intact set of tablets.
The Torah teaches us that there is value in our brokenness. Our mistakes help us grow as much as our accomplishments – perhaps more. Our flaws are part of who we are and they are to be respected. We honor our family heroes best in this same way. We remember all aspects of their lives – their flaws along with their attributes.
Make no mistake, life with Aunt Audrey wasn’t always a picnic; she pushed me hard and expected a great deal from me. She let me get away with nothing; in fact, at times, she was a bit scary. But I knew that, too, was her way of constantly encouraging me to work hard and be the very best me that I could be. She was my hero.
Does your family tell stories about previous generations? Do you know important details about the lives of the people you were named after? Who was the person in your family who saw you unequivocally and inspired you to be the person you are today? Do you remember that person, say their name and tell their story frequently, keeping their spirit and memory vibrant and alive for future generations?
When we say the Names and remember, we stand on the shoulders of our heroes and gain support from them every day. The greatest lesson that I carry from Aunt Audrey, ad hayom hazeh, to this very day, is the importance of seizing every moment of every day. She valued the gift of life tremendously; she could squeeze more out of a 24-hour period than anyone I have ever known. When I push myself to do and achieve more than is comfortable, I think of Aunt Audrey, of blessed memory, and I know how proud she would be of me today.
Use the gift of this week’s Torah portion (and it is a gift – a gift that is new and renewed each and every week) to reflect on who your family heroes are to you. Think about the gifts they have offered you, and then think about ways that you can use them to inspire the next generation.
The good news is that even if you don’t know that much about your family heroes, it isn’t too late to start the tradition now. Talk to your parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, kids and grandkids. Tell them everything you can remember about your family.
Bring the idea of “Family Heroes” down to earth by telling the truth – about you and your forebears. Forge a strong link in our Shalshelet HaKaballah, our chain of tradition, not only by telling the next generation about your accomplishments and successes, but also by telling them about who you really are – your successes, failures, disappointments, regrets, your dreams and hopes realized and unfulfilled.
Be someone’s champion; create a name that someday will truly be of blessed memory.
Rabbi Andrew Klein (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Rabbi of Temple Habonim in Barrington and a member of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.