May 27, 2024
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‘And the Servant Took and Set Out’: A Hesped for Leo Brandstatter, z”l

וַיִּקַּח הָעֶבֶד עֲשָׂרָה גְמַלִּים מִגְּמַלֵּי אֲדֹנָיו, וַיֵּלֶךְ; וְכָל-טוּב אֲדֹנָיו בְּיָדוֹ

“And the servant took and set out—with all the goodness and bounty of his master in his hand.”

My father-in-law, Leo Brandstatter, חנניה שמואל ליפא בן אלחנן, who for the last 30 years I was privileged to call my “second” abba and who treated me like a son in every way, lived his life as, and constantly strove to be, an eved Hashem. For our zeidy, being considered an eved Hashem was of the highest compliments.

I’d rather not focus on his time suffering from cancer, but before delving into observations, impressions and cherished memories of nearly three decades, I would like to share three recent episodes that best capture my father-in-law’s relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu and his wellspring of remarkable faith.

Last Pesach, when we all thought it was our final goodbye and each of us had 15 precious minutes to receive final brachot and life lessons, my Jojo asked Zeidy, “Are you scared of dying?”

And without hesitation, he answered, “Scared? How could I be scared? This is Hashem’s plan, and anyway I will be greeted by all those who loved me and passed on.”

My son quickly had a follow-up question. “But how will you recognize them?”

Zeidy gently caressed his grandson’s face and said: “Imagine explaining to an alien our five senses. Taste, smell, sight … Just imagine Hashem giving us 20, 30, 100 new senses when we go to Olam Haba.”

His emunah was so interwoven within his personality that he didn’t hesitate even for a minute to consider the right words to dispel a child’s fear.

His mastery of storytelling equipped him to explain the irrational and the mystical as rational and logical to an inquisitive grandchild.

On a side note, if you never heard my father-in-law speak at a function or simcha, you really missed out. It was precisely crafted, of perfect words, with impeccable delivery, with the exact amount of humor, and of course sprinkled with his charm and warm smile.

Second story: Last week I was given a gift. I was able to spend two afternoons with my father-in-law. We discussed his last wishes, his brachot for his children and grandchildren. We hugged and kissed and said goodbye. Within that conversation we had a frank and honest conversation about death and dying. I asked him if he was ready. And if he had any taynos.

He looked at me with shock (I sensed a bit of disappointment) that I could even ask if he had complaints against Hakadosh Baruch Hu.

I will try to share his words verbatim.

He started to tear up and said, “Look at my life. Look at my family. Look at all the beauty around me. Me, have taynos? I am so, so lucky. So extremely blessed.”

What makes this exceptional is that my father-in-law’s struggle with cancer was a painful and grueling ordeal. But he wouldn’t dare complain against his Creator; he was taking stock only of his blessing and goodness and not the hardships.

One last story: A month ago, my father-in-law asked me to send him three pairs of tzitzit. I wasn’t sure about the size because his big frame was becoming very frail. So I sent back one pair with Batsheva. And it was a perfect match. So he asked me to bring back two more. I looked all over; he wanted something very specific and I found only one pair.

Last Tuesday, when I gave him this second pair, I mustered up the courage and asked. I said, “Abba, I don’t want to be callous or insensitive, but three pairs? Why all the pairs of tzizit?”

His response: “I want to show Hashem that I have plans to live. Plans to do mitzvot. To wear out pair after pair of tzitzit. Let’s see if He takes me away from my mitzvot.”

His final act of defiance was engaging in his love for mitzvot.

“I am so sorry that I brought you only two pairs.”

וְכָל-טוּב אֲדֹנָיו בְּיָדוֹ

With all the goodness and bounty of his master.

My father-in-law loved everything about being Jewish. He had a love for tefillah, a love for minyan. He got there early, left late. Any committee that was associated with the shul, sign me up! He appreciated good baalei tefillah and would sing along—even though he didn’t have the best voice. He loved the comradeship in shul. It was his home away from home. It was truly a תפילה באהבה ומאהבה.

He loved his mesorah. He treated it like Torah Shebichtav. Shalom Aleichem had to be sung a certain way. Havdalah on beer was a יהרוג ואל יעבור. Certain brachot, gifts, practices were all rooted in a deep appreciation and affiliation with his mesorah.

I think his love and deference for mesorah came from his unwavering esteem, reverence, love and honor for his parents. The way he shared stories about his father and the way we all observed how he treated and cared for Babi Cesia, radiated a deep love, a deep understanding of sacrifice and appreciation of all the care and doting and time that were invested in raising him.

וְכָל-טוּב אֲדֹנָיו בְּיָדוֹ

He loved learning Torah. Whether the Daf Yomi, Rav Sobolofsky’s shiur, Rabbi Yudin’s Torah, Rabbi Sacks’ Torah at the table. Learning with his grandchildren. Running to catch a shiur before Mincha. Getting a good seat at shalosh seudos right near the shtender. He was צמא למים.

He was thirsty, and no matter what time of morning, no matter the age discrepancy, he was front and center learning in shiur.

He was extremely bright. And any sugya that involved math was a delicacy. And he was an intense learner. He was either following each word with his finger or squooshing up his enormous cheeks in his hands, staring intensely at the maggid shiur.

And if you merited being his chavruta you were a friend for life, a ידיד נפש in every sense of the word.

His thirst for learning came hand in hand with his kavod rabbanim. The respect, admiration and awe that he had for his rabbanim—especially his rav, Rabbi Yudin, who happened to be a very close friend—was remarkable. It was an incredible dance. Never crossing the line, ever balancing the best friend and the mara d’asra relationship.

He loved Rabbi Yudin with his entire heart and soul and we are all so grateful that Rabbi Yudin was there for him all these years (which rav would forfeit shul on the Yomim Noraim to daven with a homebound friend), and your greatest act of chesed and friendship was to be by his bedside and recite viduy for Zeidy.

וְכָל-טוּב אֲדֹנָיו בְּיָדוֹ

If that was not enough, he was also involved with so many aspects of the community. He was a true עוסק בצרכי ציבור from the eruv, vaadot of the shul, to being part of the chevra kadisha for as long as I can remember…

(Just a side note, usually you don’t speak about being part of a chevra, but I am sharing this because it gives insight to my father-in-law’s remarkable sensitivity.)

Around 30 years years ago my father-in-law took me under his wing and trained me for the chevra kadisha. One of the greatest honors of my life was performing a tahara side by side with him. And inevitably, if it was a difficult tahara and he was sensing that I was about to get emotional he found his way near me (left his station for a moment) to put his hand on my shoulder or back.

וְכָל-טוּב אֲדֹנָיו בְּיָדוֹ

He helped revolutionize Jewish special education. Seeing an educational void, he helped spearhead the founding of Sinai, championing the needs for exemplary special education and inclusiveness.

He simply loved being a Jew and took the task of being an eved Hashem … no, not a task … but the greatest privilege a human could have.

I think my father-in-law would be disappointed if I painted a monochromatic portrait. Because he was surely a colorful person.

He loved his work in marketing and advertising. He enjoyed explaining to us certain research projects and successful ad campaigns, and what were some of the psychological tricks of the trade.

He would walk into a room and his charm, charisma and loudness would liven up the party.

He had such a שמחת חיים. That is why it was so, so difficult seeing him bedridden, without that sharpness (mental acuity) and sparkle in his eye.

He loved life.

He loved his Yankees. Watching… listening… attending games. How many times did we have to stay in a parked car, just listening to the end of an inning, before continuing inside. At games he danced, clapped, sang, cheered … he was completely immersed. I never got it.

It’s amazing that he loved me so much— despite me being sports illiterate.

(Sometimes I was jealous when we would lose our walks home from shul because I had no idea what anyone was talking about.)

He loved history books: civil war, world wars, Israeli history, presidential biographies. His thirst for knowledge was not just limited to Torah, but exploring the world.

He loved his music. When he wasn’t listening to the Yankees he was listening to classical, show tunes, and what surprised his grandchildren the most: He loved his Pink and Adele.

And he was passionate. He loved Eretz Yisrael. Loved the fact that he shared the birth year of our state. He was so proud that we lived here.

He would embarrass me by parading his NBN baseball cap wherever he went (and those hats are pretty nerdy). When I saw him last week, near the couch where he was resting, a Nefesh hat was by his side.

He loved Israel. For the past few years our WhatsApp group of Batsheva, me and my in-laws has been called “Apartment Search 2018.” They always dreamed about living in Israel.

This is not the way you wanted to come.

You were passionate about your friends and your days at Morasha and YU. Morasha stories were bountiful. And you often reminisced about YU days, stories of you being the captain of the fencing team, a place where lifelong friends began. And Torah and reflections of the Rav.

You were passionate for Torah, for mitzvot, for kehilla, for history, for music, for sports, for friendships. You were passionate about life.

And that is why you fought like a warrior to stay alive.

ובחרת בחיים. That was your motto to every doctor.

If there was a chance to extend your life, you took it—no matter the risks and pain.

You loved living and cherished each moment you had.

וַיִּקַּח הָעֶבֶד עֲשָׂרָה גְמַלִּים מִגְּמַלֵּי אֲדֹנָיו, וַיֵּלֶךְ, וְכָל-טוּב אֲדֹנָיו, בְּיָדוֹ; וַיָּקָם, וַיֵּלֶךְ

The Seforo asks why the repetition of the word וילך and he suggests that the second reference is because Eliezer did not leave due to a command but left because it was his will.

כי הכל היה בידו לעשות בו כרצונו ולכן קם וילך לדרכו

Zeidy, you fought until the very end. You gave us six more months despite it all. And you, only you, decided when it was over.

We thank your doctors. Especially Dr. Goldinger, whom you loved because he was a yorei shamayim. Who gave you hope. Who fought by your side. And literally constantly was thinking of ways to either save you or prolong your life.

We thank you for teaching us what it means to fight for life. A lesson that we have all internalized.

But most importantly we thank you, Ema. No one in this world knows how you do it all.

Your love, empathy, respect, courage, faith, service, sacrifice and extraordinary care have been awe inspiring to everyone who has had even a glimpse of what you have done and how you have been and who you are over these last few years.

But my father-in-law’s greatest passion was his love for his family.

As Dov mentioned at yesterdays’ service, family came first. He dropped everything for family—no matter what time of day and how challenging the matter.

His sister Bruchie was almost an extension of his being. He so valued that precious relationship.

And of course Zeidy cherished each and every one of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He was genuinely interested in their lives, enjoyed playing games, learning Torah with them, and relished an occasional movie time.

He loved his brothers-in-law and sisters-in law: Annie, Shmuel, Sam, Menachem, Susie, Norman. והיו לבשר אחד They were a fused unit. He couldn’t imagine going through life, both the ups and downs, without them.

My last day with you, last Tuesday, most of our conversations were focused on the children. You were highlighting their strengths and talents, how you got a kick out of the fact that each was so completely different. You honed in on each of your grandchildren. You knew their strengths, expressed your belief in them, and gave brachot for their futures.

Elchanan, Jessie, Nechama, Ahuva, Yaffa, Chana, Tziporah, Jojo, Adina, Elchanan, Liora, Shoshana, Emmy and Amicha, you were his light and life! Each and every one of you has a spark of your zeidy within you. You all must cherish your memories with Zeidy and take one facet of his stellar character and incorporate it into your lives. Be it his davening, his chesed, his kindness, his love of Torah.

Each of you should take on a קבלה—a little bit more—to have Zeidy’s neshama burn within you.

Abba took great pride in the fact that he raised some phenomenal children. As he said, highly intelligent and capable people dedicated to chesed, Torah, and mesorah. Both Dvora and I are greatly appreciative of all the work you and Ema invested in our spouses.

Because you saved us a lot of time.

Seriously, Dov, Dvora, Batsheva, Yisrael, your remarkable kibud av during these years has been the greatest lesson for our children.

Zeidy, what made your parenting so special was that you were in tune to and anticipated our needs. How many times would we be given assistance (either encouragement, material assistance) at the exact time when we needed it? We rarely had to ask.

You also understood and saw our potential and believed in our ultimate paths and direction.

I am so grateful for your insight and guidance. So many of my life’s major decisions happened on our long walk home together from shul.

Abba, if your ultimate passion was family, then the summit was your love for Ema. Your marriage was beautiful. Simply beautiful.

There are some marriages that could be described as ויתקע בשופר גדול. Episodic grand gestures. But your marriage to Ema was rather built on thousands upon thousands of קול דממה דקה moments, קולות דממות דקות. Loving gestures throughout the day, words of encouragement, stealing kisses, snuggling together watching your favorite shows, caresses and soft touches on each other’s hands.

We all noticed. And we all loved it.

And the respect that you showed one another should be a model for each couple.

Something I observed last week: Monday night, you, me and Abba actually sat at the table for dinner. And you had to write some checks… Instead of just doing it yourself, you asked Abba:

“Buobs, can you help me and sign these…”

In that one instant Abba’s face transformed; he sat up, grabbed the pen. For those minutes he looked like himself, he felt purpose, you restored his dignity.

That subtle, gentle, nuanced love was ever present in your “relationship ballet” throughout your 50-plus years of marriage

וַיִּקַּח הָעֶבֶד וַיֵּלֶךְ, וְכָל-טוּב אֲדֹנָיו, בְּיָדוֹ; וַיָּקָם, וַיֵּלֶךְ

Zeidy, we will miss your hugs, your zemirot, your Erev Yom Kippur brachot (which I need to ask mechila from you because I secretly recorded it last year so that I, and we, have it for life).

We will miss your kindness and gentleness, your laugh, your huge smile, your cheeks, your support and guidance, your wisdom, your patience, your self deprecation and humility, your faith in us, your חן, your phenomenal speeches and toasts, your sense of humor, your charm. The ballgames and the walks to shul. And we will so, so sorely miss you at our future smachot, b’ezrat Hashem (at weddings, bat/bar mitzvot, new great-grandchildren births).

Please watch over us. Please be a מליץ יושר for us. Please give Ema the strength and shine love on her and us from above.

וַיִּקַּח הָעֶבֶד וַיֵּלֶךְ, וְכָל-טוּב אֲדֹנָיו, בְּיָדוֹ; וַיָּקָם, וַיֵּלֶךְ

And the servant took and set out—with all the goodness and bounty of his master in his hand

Abba, Zeidy, Leo, תקום ותלך. No more suffering. Arise and go back to your master. What bounty and goodness you have in your hand. What glory have you given to Him during your lifetime.

Stand tall… Stand tall at שערי שמים as they proclaim, “Here arrives חנניה שמואל ליפא בן אלחנן.”

A truly remarkable man. A truly exceptional עבד ה’, תהיה נשמתו צרורה בצרור החיים.

By Rabbi Yehoshua Fass

 

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