My Grandfather was a Peddler

Shavuot: Giving of Torah, First Fruits, and Yizkor

My Grandpas on both sides of my family were peddlers. One sold fruits and vegetables and one sold plastic bags. They both ran small local companies, selling to restaurants and bakeries. I worked for a summer with my grandfather who sold produce out of his van to people and businesses looking for a better deal on produce than they could find in the supermarket. He woke up at 4:00am, loaded the van, sorted through the good and bad produce, made individual bags, determined the price in his head, and off he would go. He would often barter with people, i.e., trading produce for coupons at restaurants. While he had a stern exterior (his last name was Sternberg), he had a warm heart, always sharing his goods with his children and grandchildren.

He taught us life lessons: Regarding the dignity of work, "You need to start at the bottom and work your way up;" about treating everyone with respect regardless of their status, "Everyone puts his pants on one leg at a time" or the more crude version, "everyone's sh*t smells;" concerning going the extra mile, "Make sure you ask your boss at the end of the day if there is anything else that you can do;" and lastly, about keeping perspective, "You can't win every ball game."

When I was in rabbinical school, whenever I would come home for vacations, it was my grandfather who would understand what I was going through and share with me the perfect words of advice. He did this without understanding higher education or rabbinic study; he understood life. We had a class in which we would critique each other's sermons. Public speaking was not my strong suit, and having my words, ideas, and style torn apart by my peers and professors was not so constructive for me. Without knowing any details about what I was  experiencing in school, when I saw my grandfather over vacation out of nowhere he said to me, "You know that they are rooting for you!? The people who will be listening to you speak. They don't want to hear a bad speech. They want you to succeed." This profound insight transformed the way I interfaced with groups when speaking publicly.

At the end of his life, my grandfather left the hospital and decided to enter hospice at home. He was propped up while laying on his bed. He would open his large soft hand, worn from years of hard work, at the side of his body to receive the hand of each person who visited him. We took turns going up to him like Jacob's children did for their final blessings. My grandfather would crack a joke,  drawing from the reservoir of his wry humor. We had the precious opportunity as individuals and as a family to say goodbye.    

I woke up very early on New Year's day, and decided to go to minyan, taking a break from the vigil our family created to make sure he wasn't alone. I stopped at his home on the way. When I arrived, one of the caretakers told me he was at the end. He left the two of us alone. I sat with him amazed by the length of time between each inhalation and exhalation. Then he no longer inhaled. I take solace in this mysterious moment of transition between life and death. 

This is my way of honoring my grandfather as we approach the holiday of Shavuot, the day we present our First Fruits before God, receive Torah, and one of the four times of the year that we say yizkor, the special memorial prayer. These memories are my Torah and the First Fruits of the year that I humbly offer as I declare, "My grandfather was a peddler..."

Here is nice article written in the local paper after he died: