Exactly two months ago, Sally, our son Benjamin, my sister Nancy, brother in law Eric and I engaged in a journey of discovery. Besides learning about Irish whiskey and beer, we were looking for traces of Sally’s grandfather, Nathan Shallman. The young, lone Nathan left the port of Memel in Lithuania and sailed to Ireland where the family story has it that, as an enterprising teen ager, he sold Christian “tchotchkes” to the locals. Forced out of Limerick in 1904 by Ireland’s only recorded pogrom, he went to Cork and then Dublin, where he finally departed for the United States, ending up in Chicago where he married and had two sons, one of whom was Sally’s father.
I tell you this story because that is why we made our way on a foggy morning in August to Limerick’s Jewish cemetery. My brother in law was certain we were wasting our time and would never find it, but after interviewing several cemetery workers at the main city cemetery, we were directed to a very small Jewish cemetery a few blocks away. The lawn was mowed by the city workers but several of the eleven graves, those without names, were overgrown with weeds. The last burial, a Jewish professor from the local university, took place in 2005. There hasn’t been a Jewish community in Limerick since the pogrom over a hundred years ago. Sally had researched the archives of the Irish Jewish community and could find no mention of her grandfather. Nor did any of the nine graves with names bear any relation to her grandfather.
So, was our trip in vain? Not really, because my sister and I pulled out the weeds and tidied up the graves of the anonymous Jews buried there. Then the five of us stood at the grave of an unnamed Jewish woman buried in the thirties and said Kaddish for her and the ten others in the cemetery. Who knows the last time this had occurred? My brother in law, who was so skeptical about even finding the cemetery, cried as we recited the ancient words.
Why was Eric so moved by this simple act? I am not really sure but I think it was because he understood the timeless importance of a simple gesture of remembrance.
Every morning we say the words, “These are things that are limitless of which a person enjoys the fruit of this world while the principal remains in the world to come.” Among these things is “accompanying the dead for burial” or in general, giving honor to the deceased, which we call “Kevod HaMeit.” That is exactly what we are doing this morning by visiting our dead at this sacred space and by saying Kaddish for them. According to the rabbis, we will be rewarded for this mitzvah in this world as well as in the next. Rashi, the 11th century commentator, wrote “The kindness that is shown to the dead is a chesed shel emet, a true kindness, for one does not expect to be repaid for this act.” “When we do favors for others, part of us hopes that the recipient of our kindness will someday be in a position to help us. For obvious reasons, however, when we help the dead our motives are untainted.”[i] We come to this hallowed ground to remember, we remind ourselves of how much those lying here meant to us as we pay our respects to those who gave us so much of their love. We certainly hope that someday our loved ones will do this for us, but this does not determine our motivation for being here this morning. Our very presence is a chesed shel emet, a true kindness for which we will never be repaid.
In just a few minutes we shall say Kaddish for our loved ones and then visit their graves. As we pull up the few stray weeds and tidy up their gravesites, we do so not as obligation but as a true act of kindness. Even though our motives are untainted, for this we will be rewarded in this world and in the next.
Kein y’hi ratson– may this be God’s will and let us say:
[i] Telushkin, Rabbi Joseph, The Book of Jewish Values, page 432.