In Loving Memory of Michael Weiner
The following is the eulogy by Rabbi Ellen J. Lewis, delivered November 21, 2013.
In times of sorrow, we turn to our tradition for comfort and inspiration. Today as we honor the memory of our beloved friend Mike Weiner, we turn to the words of the rabbinic sage Ben Zoma who challenges us to consider four questions:
The first question – Eyzeh hu hacham? – Who is wise? Ben Zoma asks, and then offers this answer: Halomed me kol Adam, the one who learns from everyone. Mike’s Hebrew name aptly was Shlomo, like that of the great King Solomon, a man known for his wisdom and peace-making ability. King Solomon knew you had to study other people if you wanted to be wise and if you wanted to make peace. That was the kind of wisdom Mike had. Yes, he was an excellent student – Di said that the night before history exams in college, people would line up outside Mike’s dorm room hoping for last minute tutoring – but more importantly, he learned from everyone he met.
That is part of why Mike enjoyed teaching religious school to fourth and fifth graders; he felt like he learned as much from them as they did from him. Mike would have told you, given his personal history as a student in Hebrew school, that he was an unlikely candidate to teach Hebrew School. In fact, rumor has it that Diane insisted he enter the class-room to be sure we weren’t brainwashing their children with narrow-minded dogma. But once Mike entered, he never left, except for his absences visiting the clubs during spring training. The kids forgave him those absences because they knew he had something to do with baseball. In fact, one week when he was on his yearly jazz festival vacation, one of the kids asked, “Where is Mr. Weiner?” When I said he was in New Orleans, this boy looked confused and said: “But there’s no baseball team in New Orleans.”
Mike became a wise teacher because he learned from the kids themselves what each child needed. He sent weekly class summaries and progress reports to their parents so they could help their children learn. Mike saw that kids just couldn’t learn if they had to sit still all the time; after all, if you knew Mike, you know he himself couldn’t sit still – or even stand still. So he created – heaven help us – competitions that took place in the sanctuary where the goal was to get the right answer and move from the back row up to the front pulpit. If you ask his students, they will tell you that learning with Mike was fun. He loved learning from everyone and he communicated his love of learning to everyone who knew him.
The second question – Eyzeh hu gibor? Ben Zoma asks, Who is strong? And he answers: Hakovesh et yitzro, the one who exercises self-control. If you saw Mike decked out in his favorite blue jeans and infamous Chuck Taylor sneakers, topped off with his always-rumpled hair, you probably wouldn’t have chosen to describe him as strong. His strength was quiet. He would sit in difficult meetings and restrain himself from speaking until he felt like he had something significant to say. Then he would say just the right thing. He never raised his voice even when you knew he had to be having strong feelings. That kind of self-control rubbed off on the people around him. When Mike sat in a room, even if he said very little, the other people felt a little stronger and behaved a little better. His strength lay in his flexibility and adaptability.
Going public with a diagnosis of a brain tumor, surely an excuse for an emotional display? Mike’s statement was understated: he said simply that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Going to the All Star Game in a wheelchair? The people around him had difficulty managing their feelings when they saw him, but Mike was his usual gracious friendly self. The players knew he loved him, not because he threw his arms around them – that wasn’t his style – but because they felt it in his presence and saw it in how he represented them. His strength and self-control gave us strength.
The third question – Eyzeh hu ashir? Ben Zoma asks, Who is rich? and he answers, Ha sameach b’chelko – the one who is happy with what he has, with what she has been given. Diane said it today: Mike’s relationships with everyone here and with those who wished they could be here were his greatest riches. It wasn’t the shock of his diagnosis that made him wake up, look around and suddenly appreciate what he had; that was part of the fabric of who he was long before. Being sick just crystallized it in a new way.
Mike’s response to his diagnosis was, simply, that every day he looked for beauty, meaning and joy.
Mike liked quoting his father Ike – what Mike referred to as Ikespeak – when Ike said, “You can’t be happy unless you want to go to work in the morning and you want to come home at night.” Mike was genuinely happy to be at work and at home. If you ever asked him about Margie, Grace or Sally, his face would light up before he said a word. Diane was the center of his universe, his partner in all things, his rock in these last 15 months. He was constantly in touch with Dannie and David and their families, with Ginny and Lou, with Terry, with Betty, with Steven and Debbie and all the cousins. And then there was his extended family – Diane’s family and the friends who were truly more like family. All these relationships were what made him happy. In them, he found meaning and beauty.
And the fourth question, Eyzeh hu mechubad? – Who is honored? asks Ben Zoma. Ha mechabed et habriyot – the one who honors humanity. Mike treated people with respect. His belief in you helped you believe in yourself. He treated us all as if we were all created in God’s image- except that he wasn’t so sure about the God part. In fact, the only time I ever had a major disagreement with him was the day I found out he was teaching 4th and 5th graders that God was a hypothetical proposition. Mike, I said, you can do that in college but you can’t do that in Hebrew school. To his credit, he looked a bit chagrined. You couldn’t measure his religiosity by his theology, but you could measure it by how he lived his life. He was accepting. He was non-judgmental. He was rational and logical, at times infuriatingly so. He treated everyone fairly. That was how he honored people. And in the end, all those whom he honored returned that honor to him in their visits, calls, letters, emails – whatever way they chose to show him their love, he received your messages with love.
Ben Zoma’s questions challenge us to find the meaning in our lives as Mike did in his. Jewish tradition also challenges us to praise God not just in times of happiness but also in times of sadness. Both are a part of divine creation. When you hear bad news, you make the blessing Baruch Dayan Ha-emet (Blessed is the true Judge, Who understands what we are incapable of understanding). When you hear good news, you make the blessing Baruch Ha-Tov ve’Ha-Metiv (Blessed is the One Who is good and does good). The tradition asks: But what if you hear two conflicting pieces of news simultaneously, for example, being informed of the death of a loved one, and at the same time, being told you have inherited a fortune? The Shulchan Aruch says you then make the two blessings one after the other, both Dayan ha-emet and Ha-Tov ve’Ha-Metiv. Tradition expects us to hold two completely different conflicting emotions simultaneously; you don’t eliminate one in favor of the other. Life isn’t an either or, it is a both and.
Today we say both blessings. Even as we grieve the loss of our Mike, at the same time, we are grateful for a life that was lived so richly and fully. If he could be here today, he would tell us: Keep living your life. And so we shall, diminished by his absence, enriched by his life. Zichrono livracha. May his memory be a blessing.
Copyright © 2013 Jewish Center of Northwest Jersey
Last updated: December 5, 2013