One of the main activities that came to be associated with the Festival of Shavuot is study. Another custom of the festival is to recite special prayers in memory of special people who have died.
As I prepare to participate in our congregation’s annual Shavuot study session in a few weeks, my thoughts turn to one of the most dedicated students I have ever had who died a little more than four years ago, Leah Lantz.
Each year on my birthday, Leah sent me a hand written card that had יום הולדת שמח
(Happy Birthday) written in Hebrew.
Leah was a regular at Beth Israel at every Shabbat Eve service and at Torah study every Shabbat morning. During the class she asked probing questions and often shared anecdotes about when she was a young girl growing up in Poland.
The one I will always remember was about her father who owned a small shop—jewelry store – if I recall correctly. Her father would keep a volume of Talmud under the shelf in his shop, and in between waiting on customers he would devote every spare minute to study. That example inspired Leah to enjoy a lifelong love of learning.
For me, Leah Lantz was an absolute inspiration. In her last years she could hardly hear, and she could hardly walk, and yet into her 90’s her indomitable spirit and thirst for knowledge propelled her to continue to participate in every imaginable learning opportunity. And she always greeted everyone she met with the most wonderful smile on her face!
Just before I left on a mini sabbatical at the end of 2009 Leah took my arm and told me how much she would miss me. “I’ll be back in two months,” I replied.
“But who knows what can happen in two months?” She answered.
When I returned, it was clear-–to my shock-–that Leah’s condition had deteriorated markedly. She came on the first Friday night after my return to Beth Israel, but there was no sparkle in her eyes, and she was in some pain. She also came to Torah study the next morning. She took her accustomed seat right at my side, which gave her the best chance of hearing, but she was unable to really focus and was in real discomfort. I looked at her, and my heart told me that this was Leah’s last class with me. I felt like she had waited for me to return and she had come to say, “Goodbye.”
Now I imagine her alive in another realm walking briskly – not shuffling along with her walker – and taking her well-earned seat in the very first row of the ישיבה של מעלה, the Academy on High. There with her mind alert and her ears unclogged she will hold her own in any discussion with such fine minds and great spirits as our sages, Rabbi Akiva or Hillel, Beruria or Ima Shalom.
On the Shabbat after Leah died, I asked our Torah class to please leave the seat next to me-–Leah’s seat– empty in tribute to her. Four years later the void in our class and in my own heart left by Leah’s passing remains. Her memory, though, and the shining example of תלמוד תורה—the diligent study of Torah-–that she personified will always be with me particularly as Shavuot, the holiday we celebrate by studying Torah, approaches each year.