By Harriet P. Gross
I’m now reading a new book, “The Angelic Way: Angels Through the Ages and Their Meaning for Us.” In it, Rami Shapiro presents angels not only as the usual metaphor of God reaching down to humans, but as the unusual reverse: we on earth reaching up to God in heaven.
God didn’t need to give angels wings to fly down, says Shapiro. He fashioned them for us, the ones who need a way to fly up.
Shapiro, both a rabbi and a university professor, is making me think in a new way about people I’ve known who were probably angels here on earth, but went unrecognized as such because they were so fully human.
Cases in point: my mother, Rose, whom I wrote a bit about last week, and her sister, my Aunt Luba. After their mother (my Boubby the Philosopher) died, the two widows took over making Shabbat in the big, old family home rather than in their own houses. The clans would gather every Friday evening to sit around a huge table and savor their forschbeises of chopped liver or egg, their chicken soup, their meats and veggies and salads, and most of all their crowning achievement dessert: a huge, snow-white sheet cake, truly angelic, heavy with walnuts.
But you’d never know the duo were themselves angels when they were preparing the meal. Then they fought endlessly about the proper way to cut up a chicken, the correct method of slicing a tomato, all the minutiae of meal-making. Each one knew everything better than the other. That weekly feast was prepared by a pair of kitchen devils! But — devils are really the fallen angels, aren’t they?
Rose and Luba died within a week of each other, in the same hospital, their rooms on the same floor. When we visited, we walked back and forth, bringing to each the bits of love sent to her by the other. That was a quarter-century ago. Their yahrzeits are virtually the same.
One of my granddaughters, now 23, is Rose Luba, named for them both. My sister Ruth, a veteran viewer of those old pre-Shabbat battles, chided my son and daughter-in-law for their choice: “That poor girl,” she said. “She’ll grow up schizophrenic, arguing with herself!” Well, the “poor girl” has not turned out to be a split personality; she is, however, studying to become a psychologist.
I suspect those were two heretofore unrecognized angels, now showering their ironic blessings upon Rose Luba on advance behalf of the many who will someday benefit from her family counseling.
Another earthly angel left us recently — dear Ron Gruen. You must have seen at least some of the many tributes, even if you weren’t lucky enough to have known him in person yourself: articles full of factual praise in both secular and Judaic presses … a d’var Torah of loving praise from a kollel rabbi who was also a study partner … a half-page advertisement in our local Jewish paper, placed by Yeshiva University to honor the man they had previously recognized with an honorary doctorate for his many abiding contributions to Jewish education.
Ron never wanted a building, a hall, a window, even a water fountain tagged with a plaque bearing his name. He gave generously, not for the usual bricks and mortar, but for the more unusual, more ephemeral necessities of a learned and learning life: Teacher training. Curriculum experimentation. New classroom equipment. Scholarships.
Curricula are tried and discarded; teaching aids wear out or are replaced by later models; teachers and scholarship students come and go. Ron gave for and to the current best, whoever and whatever those were at the time. His abiding cause was Torah umada, the melding of our religious and secular knowledge to create aware, involved, productive Jews who contribute to the world.
His own rabbi led the shiva minyanim from the synagogue bimah, before the ark that Ron had built with his own skilled hands, the ner tamid Ron had designed suspended above. After the last one, son Dan, who now chants Kol Nidre in his father’s former place on that very same bimah, recalled Ron’s last words: “My cup runneth over.”
I visualize his beloved grandson Aaron, taken from this world at just 14, leading the choir of angels that escorted Ron Gruen’s flight on new wings to his eternal home at God’s throne. And that cup, brimming with family and good work and tzedakah and love, passing now to Ethel, the ayshet chayil who is Ron’s forever-beloved wife.
By Harriet P. Gross