A Shiva Speech for Yael Wittenberg


The following speech was delivered at the Seuda (meal) marking the end of the shiva for Yael Wittenberg (nee Nicole). A shiva is a period of mourning where the family stays in their home and talks about those who have passed. I never met Yael, but had the honor of speaking at this occasion…

At every shiva I attend, I ask the same question: What one attribute, or characteristic, or action should I carry forward from the person who has passed on? What was the singular gift that you, the mourners, hope to see echo through the reality that remains? Having heard about Yael’s bullheadedness, I expected the answer would be just that. She was stubborn and, eventually, she got her way. But that is not what was shared. Instead, I heard about something else entirely. I heard about her love of G-d – even in the face of her devastating experience of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s). I heard about her dedication to the spiritual and the mystical. I heard about her Emunah (Faith).

As I listened, I thought: this is what we need right now. We need to find a way to embrace G-d even in our sadness and our loss. After all, somebody who attended this shiva earlier in the week told me that it had been nice to attend the shiva of someone who had a chance to leave their own legacy behind. In a time in which the young are being cut down in battle, Yael’s example could be a guide to us all.

But as much as I could use this opportunity to speak about the needs of our people, what I really want to talk about is the two sides of your family. On the one side, Manny’s side, there are the Askhenazim – ordered, seemingly rational, logical – at least as we Europeans define it. On the other side, there are the Sepharadim – emotional, spiritual, mystical. I know these are stereotypes, but they are what I heard during this shiva.

Yael said Tehillim every day. All of Tehillim. Even as her disease overwhelmed her. Even when she could no longer move her lips or her hands. And, of course, I heard Manny repeatedly, with a little shake of his head, dismiss her crazy practice of reciting some section of Devarim (Deuteronomy) repeatedly.

Your family has a divide, and quite simply, it reminded me of the life of Yitzchak (Isaac) that we read about in this week’s Torah portion. We tend to think of Yitzchak as the most spiritual of the Avot. He may well have been, but it wasn’t what he sought.

You see, Yitzchak had the most physical relationship of any of the forefathers – he sports with his wife.  Yitzchak loves Esav because of his food. Yitzchak doesn’t pray for the future – for children – on his own behalf, but only when his wife pushes him to do so. And… Yitzchak was the only farmer of the forefathers. He desperately wanted to plant himself in a place and feel like he had a physical home.

This approach is natural for survivors – and Yitzchak was a survivor as sure as any child of the Shoah (Holocaust). His father clung to G-d despite the costs to his children. The ancestors of those in the Shoah did the same. We here today are doing the same – coming to Israel and putting our children in the army and risking their lives for our people.

Yitzchak was nearly sacrificed for his father’s dedication. And, like so many survivors of such spiritual danger, he wanted to run from the spiritual and cling to that which he could touch.

It was Rivka (Rebecca) who changed his reality. She embraced Avraham’s mission – sight unseen. With a fierce determination that reminded me of Yael’s bullheadedness, she decided to go to Israel and dedicated her life to G-d’s vision. And, when the time came, it was Rivka who recognized the beauty of Yaacov’s spirituality and the emptiness of Esav’s materialism.

Bit by bit, she transformed her husband. He went from a man who pursued the physical – to a man who realized that the intangible – the relationship with G-d – is all that matters. Yitzchak’s final blessing to Yaacov (Jacob), brought about by Rivka’s machinations, was not for plenty and domination. It was for him to inherit the relationship with Hashem. Up until that point, Yitzchak had never been a source of blessing in his own right. He had only been blessed in the name of Avraham his father. But immediately afterwards, Yaacov was blessed in Yitzchak’s name.

Remarkably, Rivka doesn’t create this reality by pushing spirituality and mysticism. She starts down the path with something very different. We all know the famous story. She is riding her camel when she sees Yitzchak for the first time. What does she do? She covers herself with a Tzeif – a veil. We think of the Tzeif as a sign of modesty. But there is only one other place the Tzeif appears in Torah.

Tamar wears it, as the sign of a prostitute.

Rivka doesn’t start off by appealing to Yitzchak’s mystical side. She can see his struggle and uncertainty. So she starts with the physical. She gives Yitzchak the grounding that he so desperately needs. She comes into his mother’s tent, he loves her, and she builds from there. I bring all this up because Manny was quite happy to share how he met his wife. It wasn’t in Synagogue. It was in Nice, in the south of France.

As Manny described it to me earlier this week – ‘she was a very pretty lady in a bikini’

Yael is in some ways an inheritor of Rivka. Yael was dedicated to hachnasat orchim (welcoming of guests) as Rivka demonstrated with Eliezer’s camels. Yael was determined to do what she thought was right – irrespective of change it brought. Yael was dedicated to the intangible and forever faithful in Hashem.

She brought those around her to a relationship with G-d, with whatever tools she had at her disposal.

Manny himself became more religious – perhaps due to the encouragement of his wife. And their children, with time, have grown to respect her vision and – despite their protestations – realize the beauty of her Faith. Her son in London is wracked by the power of emotion even as he tries to lay claim to his logical, European, mitnagdish heritage. And Natalie has come around to respecting her mother’s incredible Faith – despite her resistance to its seeming insanity when she was younger.

I haven’t met the rest of the family, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see similar threads running through it.

I never met Yael, but I can look at all of this and I can see something remarkable.

I can see a woman who bent the world around her through the strength of Faith and through the clarity of her vision.

I can see a woman who, like Rivka Emenu (our foremother), can leave us all with a valuable lesson:

    We can change the world around us.

Even overwhelmed by a fatal disease as Yael was, we can change the world around us.

All it takes is Faith and a love of G-d.

Published in Religion & Philosophy
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  1. Susan Quinn Member
    Susan Quinn

    A beautiful story, Joseph. Yes, we can change the world around us, and as Jews, we have the obligation to do so in a positive way.

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  2. MikeMcCarthy Coolidge


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