Our teachers (Rabbanim) teach us that the duration of our lives can be counted in words not just years. When we have used our quota of words, we leave this world. Of course, words of Torah and words used in the performance of mitzvos are not included in this count. It could well be that for those who have dedicated their lives to some productive endeavor, it is the completion of their portion of that work that marks the end point, but only when it is the right time.
Joseph’s grandmother, then in her nineties counted her years in terms of stitches of embroidery — so many beautiful tableaus, tablecloths, bed linens and pillows so lovingly and artfully hand-stitched and given to her children, grandchildren and friends. Now she was so ill that she didn’t even have the strength to thread a needle or weave it through the delicate material.
Her grandson Joseph, who heard that his beloved grandmother had taken a turn for the worse, found an unexpected opportunity to visit her when a well-known Rabbi offered him the position of being his assistant (gabbai) during a short trip he was planning to the West Coast. Joseph accepted the offer eagerly, but on condition that he could have a few hours off to visit his grandmother in Los Angeles.
So, on a bright, sunny California afternoon Joseph set off to see his grandmother. She still lived in her own home but was attended by a full-time nurse. For Joseph, who had been raised in California in a Reform environment, this was his first return trip since he had started a new life as an Orthodox Jew twenty-five years before. His grandmother was naturally delighted to see him, and he was very grateful to be able to visit with her as she had been a very special influence in his life. She had, with great effort, made a special trip to the East Coast to visit Joseph and his family and see her only great-grandchildren just two years earlier.
Joseph sat with her for a long time and in quiet conversation touched the cords of the special bond they shared. Toward the end of the visit and with no prelude, Joseph’s grandmother startled him by asking bluntly, “Why am I still alive?” Taken aback, Joseph wondered what prompted this question. His grandmother, seeing the puzzled look on his face, explained that she had lived until recently a very self-sufficient life and had taken particular pleasure in her needlecraft, but now all she could do was lie in bed, feeling weak and useless.
Joseph hesitated for several moments, silently asking Hashem to put the right words in his mouth.
“Every moment in a person’s life, even when a person finds himself in circumstances like yours, there is an opportunity to do a good deed, like for example, sharing an encouraging word with another, being an empathetic listener or even just silently offering praise to the Creator for all He has done and continues to do.”
“Our body, you see, is like a garment that the soul “sheds” when it is no longer needed, but our holy soul, which is really who we are, is never extinguished.” His grandmother, who had been brought up as a Reform Jewess seemed now to begin to understand this rather lofty concept and thanked him profusely for his words of comfort and consolation. Parting company from each other was not easy, and they both knew that this would probably be the last time they would ever see each other.
A few months later, on a leil Shabbos evening, a sweet baby girl was born to Joseph and his wife. Very late on motza’ei Shabbos, when Shabbos was over in California, Joseph called his parents to tell them the wonderful news, and then his grandmother. A nurse answered the telephone and said that his grandmother was sleeping and had been only semi-conscious most of the week. He was about to hang up without leaving a message, but the nurse recognized his voice and reminded him that they had met when he was in Los Angeles. Something prompted Joseph to tell her that he was now the proud father of a newborn daughter.
Early the next morning, Joseph’s mother called to tell him that his grandmother had passed away during the night. He was of course greatly saddened by her passing, but on top of that he was disappointed that he had been unable to give her one last pleasure — the good news of the birth of another great-grandchild, and he told his mother so.
“Oh, but that’s not so,” his mother said. “Your grandmother awakened one more time during the night, and even though the nurse believed she wasn’t fully conscious, she told her your good news. To her astonishment, for the first time in a week your grandmother fully opened her eyes wide and smiled. The nurse told me that her eyes were shining and radiated an inner joy for a few seconds; then she feel asleep and later that night passed away” Joseph’s grandmother had tarried just long enough to hear the good news and no doubt offer a silent prayer of thanks..
To round out this amazing sequence of events, Joseph’s Shabbos gift was his seventh child; his grandmother was also born on Shabbos was one of seven children. The following Monday morning during the reading of the Torah (keriyas HaTorah), the new born baby was named after Joseph’s grandmother. If it was necessary for her soul to return to this world, there was already a new “home” in which to dwell, with fresh opportunities to continue to do good deeds and praise of the Creator for all that was, is and will be.
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