Shavuot 5775—Living Covenantally

22 May 2015 
4 Sivan 5775
 

Shalom Chaverim,  

As we approach the holiday of Shavuot, I am approaching the first yahrzeit for my father, Stephen Baker, z”l, who passed away one year ago on Shavuot morning. I want to take this opportunity to thank this extraordinary Gann Academy community for all of your love and support over the past year.  

In honor of my father and Shavuot, rather than my regular weekly message, I would like to share the hesped (eulogy) that I gave at his funeral. It is a tribute to my father but also a meditation on what it means to live life covenantally. To me, the relevance of this concept for parenting and education is clear: How do we raise children with a deep and compelling sense of connection to and responsibility for something other than themselves?  

While the hesped is long, the opening page describes this value of covenantal living; if you want to learn more about my father’s life and how he lived out this value, please feel free to read on!  

I wish you all a Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,  

Rabbi Marc Baker  

 

Hesped (Eulogy) for My Father, Stephen A. Baker, z”l 
June 6, 2014/8 Sivan 5774 

 Soon after the sun rose on the morning of Shavuot, the Jewish holiday commemorating the giving and receiving of the Torah, my beloved father’s soul peacefully departed this world. Just as the Jewish People gathered around Mount Sinai, stepping forward as we have for thousands of years to re-experience revelation and reaffirm our acceptance of our brit, our 3000–year-old covenant, my father breathed his last breath. How profound that, in his final moments on this earth, he was standing at Sinai with his family, his community, his people.  

While my father was not a traditionally observant Jew, he certainly felt a deep sense of yiddishkeit in his kishkeis. He knew who he was and where he came from. But the image of Sinai captures his life so beautifully for a more significant reason: my father lived every aspect of his life with drive, passion, responsibility, justice, and love; he lived his life covenantally. (I want to appreciate the irony that Dad would have found this very phrase pretentious and would have critiqued me for not finding a simpler way to say this!)  

What does it mean to live covenantally? It means to live in relationship with things larger than yourself—family, friends, community, values, and aspirations—to feel a profound sense of responsibility toward people and values which shape and define your life by virtue of your relationship with them. It means to see yourself not merely as an individual making your way through the world, seeking your own personal fulfillment and self-actualization, but rather as a person who is, in fact, self-actualized through your responsibility for, service to, and love of those people and those values.  

To live covenantally is to have a fire in your belly, a drive and a sense of urgency that propels you through the world; this is how my father lived and loved.  

His covenantal consciousness was manifest in all of the roles he played, and I want to paint you a picture of who this man was by highlighting some of the roles and relationships that defined him: son, husband, professional, friend, community leader, saba, and, of course, father.  

My father grew up in a blue collar family in Medford, MA—“Meffa”—the son of my grandfather Max, of blessed memory, and my Grammy Muriel Baker, brother of Arlyn, of blessed memory, and my Uncle Dan, and nephew of his mother’s sister, our Auntie Beatie. As a kid, but particularly in high school, he was not a great student—perhaps, he was too busy keeping sports’ statistics, skipping classes to get subs with his friends, or courting my mother. If you knew my father, you know how smart he was, but my sense is that he just didn’t have any interest in doing school. Even during his first year at UNH, when he thought he wanted to be an engineer, he just didn’t cut it. And then, he transferred to Bentley College and fell into accounting. He found what would become his professional path and, once he found his path, he locked in, strove for excellence, and nothing could stand in his way. He ended up a straight A student and president of the student body. This is how he did everything, and this was true of his 37-year career as founder and leader of Baker & Co. 

As he grew into an adult with a family and a business of his own, my father never moved far from home, and I mean this in every sense. He built a life for himself and our family that his parents, I’m sure, could only have dreamed of. And yet, while his sister and brother ventured out, geographically as well as intellectually and culturally, my father prided himself on knowing and staying exactly where he came from. As feisty as his relationship with his parents could be, it was the feistiness of a son whose love of and loyalty to his parents were so unwavering. From an early age, he was a mama’s boy, eager to always please his mother. Once, years after my Grandpa Max passed away, I saw one of the prayer books on his shelf that the funeral home had given us for the shiva. “Dad,” I said, “you forgot to return that book.” “Actually,” he told me, “I kept it so I could use it. I said Kaddish for my father every day for the year after he died.” While my father’s Jewish practice might not have been dictated by traditional Jewish law, he certainly felt a sense of commandedness and covenantal responsibility to live out his parents’ values and to fulfill the mitzvah of kibbud av v’em, of honoring your father and mother.  

I have learned what it means to be a husband from my father. My beautiful, resilient mother was his life. Often, when my father was going out to work or on an errand, he would walk out the door, and seconds later the phone would ring. It was him, calling from the garage as he was pulling out. “Is your mother there?” “Did you forget something Dad?” “No, I just wanted to say hi to your mother.” My wife Jill often reminds me that, if he had to run out to get some milk, he would say “Shelley, want to come to the store with me?” Why should they be apart when they could run an errand together?  

My father was a homebody—didn’t need more than my mother to feel fulfilled. When he allowed my mother’s more adventurous spirit to lead them on a trip Italy or France, according to my mother, it was not the museums or historic places that he loved, but rather just eating, shopping, or walking around with her. For my father, Paris and the grocery store were one and the same, as long as he was with the love of his life. As their child, I was most amazed by their relationship, which was not always easy. It was clear how hard they worked at it. While it started with fireworks on Revere Beach, what defined their relationship were both their unwavering and visible love for one another and their tireless investment in themselves, each other, and their relationship. That’s what makes a marriage last, and that is the legacy they are leaving their children. As much as they assumed traditional gender roles, my father was adamant about the fact that everything in their relationship was 50-50. What was his was hers and what was hers was his—finances, decision-making, and parenting. My parents have modeled for all of us what it means to be in a covenantal partnership.  

If you never sat with my father to discuss your financial plan or never had him guide you through a financial decision, then you never saw my father truly in his element. He was a consummate professional who served his clients and colleagues with a profound sense of integrity, a passionate commitment to providing the best possible service. For him, business was always personalit was always about people and relationships, never just about numbers. If you asked him to help you make a financial plan, before he would even talk about budgets or plans, he would ask you: What do you care about? What do you hope for your future? What are your values and what kind of life do you want to live? He was part financial therapist and part life coach.  Over the last few days, clients, some of whom we didn’t even know, have shared about how my father changed their lives, how he believed in them, how he guided them through major life and professional decisions in ways that gave them deep trust in him, but, more importantly, confidence in themselves.  

A couple of months ago, I asked my father how he built such a successful business. His answer was intense: “Fear.” As I’ve reflected on this, I think this was about more than fear of failure or fear of letting down his clients. I think the fear he was talking about was the Hebrew word “yir’ah”, which means fear but also reverence and awe; it is the feeling we have when we sense the magnitude of our covenantal responsibility toward another person and toward doing what is right for that person. This is how my father felt about his clients and about business ethics. And this is why his clients loved him so much, not only as their accountant but also as a person and a friend. Sometimes, if my friends had financial concerns or questions, perhaps early in their careers or their marriages, I would ask my father to meet with them. The answer was always, “Yes, just give them my number.” Once, I referred two friends to him and never heard anything again. A year or two later, they said to me, “You know, your father has been amazing and has helped us so much.” I was shocked, and called my father. “You never told me you were helping those two,” I said. “It was none of your business,” he said. He was clear, proud, and unwavering about the integrity of his work.  

My father brought that same integrity and sense of responsibility to his work in the Jewish community. He cared deeply about giving back, both with time and money, values about which he spoke to us often; he served as president of the North Suburban JCC and of the Jewish Federation of the North Shore, as well as on other boards.  And for him, these were never just volunteer jobs. No, for my dad this was leadership, service, and civic responsibility, more opportunities to do what was just and right in his eyes. He prided himself on being the person who would never take the easy way out and who stood for the position that was not easy or popular.  Only my father would come home from jury duty and report, proudly, that he had hung the jury, or he would come home from a board meeting and share, with a sense of accomplishment, that he had stormed out of the meeting and might have to step down from the board. I recently reminded him about that jury story and, without missing a beat, he said with the same level of aggravation that he felt at the time, “They did not prove it beyond a reasonable doubt!” My father fought relentlessly for what he felt was just and, occasionally, collected some injustice along the way!  

He was not always easy, and it was not always fun to be on the other side of an argument with him. At the same time, living covenantally is not only about responsibility and pursuit of justice; it is also about loyalty and love, of people and relationships. My father loved his friends, many of whom he had been friends with since he was a child. If you are able to come to shiva, you can look for them in the pictures in his Bar Mitzvah album. Whether going out to dinner, traveling, or just being together, my parents and their friends had fun, they laughed together, and they supported each other. Thank you for teaching us what community is all about. I am so deeply grateful to all of you for your love, particularly during these difficult last few months. As I’ve often told my mother when she comments on Jill’s and my choice to live in a tight-knit, Orthodox Jewish community: We’re just following the model she and my father set for us. The only difference is that our deli is kosher! 

Nowhere was my father’s love more boundless or his joy more visible than in his role as Saba, as grandfather to eight adoring grandchildren. My Grammy, his mother, said to me: “You’d think no one ever had grandchildren before he did.” His grandchildren were his pride and joy, his legacy, and there was such pure and uncomplicated, mutual adoration between them. I know my son Lishi will never forget being at Fenway Park with his Saba, at my father’s last Red Sox games, when the Sox won the American League Championship Series against Detroit, and at Game 2 of the World Series. Whether watching and attending Red Sox and little league games, watching the Lone Ranger, playing ball, crawling into bed at crazy hours of the night, Saba had such overflowing love for his grandchildren and was and always will be a giant in their eyes.  

Finally, let me share a few thoughts about my father, the father. When I was living in Israel the year after I graduated college, my parents and I went on a religious journey, and I’m sure they had no idea at the time just how far I would go. One evening my father and I sat down for a scotch in the lobby of the hotel formerly known as the Laromme. He said something to me that night for which I will forever be grateful: “Your mother and I don’t exactly know where this is going nor do we understand all of your religious practices and beliefs. But what we do know is that we always want you to be able to eat in our house. We always want you to be able to be who you are in our house.” What greater gift can a parent give his child than to give his blessing for him to make different life choices than his parents made, while knowing that his parents will always love him unconditionally for who he is? This love has been the foundation upon which I have become the person I am today.  

This is how my father and mother have loved their children: unconditionally, with no strings attached, covenantal, parental love. My father embraced Jill, Matthew, and James as his children. He strived to pass on to them the same values and belief in their potential as he believed in Kim’s, Allison’s, and mine.  

I know how proud my father was of me. I know this not because he told me or talked about it, but because he showed me, he lived it. When we were little and he was building his business, he worked all the time. At a certain point, he realized that we missed him and needed him in our lives more. He actively shifted his priorities, which, in retrospect, could not have been easy, and from then on, for the last 30 or so years, I don’t think he missed a game or a performance.  

My father never doted, at least not on me. He never overpraised and never wanted me to think I was any greater than I was. When I was in second or third grade, playing JCC basketball on Marvin Mandel’s team, my father said to me: “Listen, you keep your mouth shut, do everything the coach says, and never ask to play. Just sit on that bench and be grateful that they are willing to have you as part of the team.” I learned from my father to strive for excellence not because nothing else would suffice; I learned from my father that nothing I would achieve in life would be because of my natural talent or because I deserved it. I would have to earn it, to work for it, and I should be grateful for the opportunity to do so, whether in school, in sports, or in my professional life.  Even when he and my mother graciously followed me around the Northeast watching me play college squash, he always tried to keep me humble. Once we were playing Trinity in Hartford, and I was slated to play against a former Junior World National Champion. I told them not to bother coming, but they wouldn’t miss a match if they could help it. The match must have lasted all of 30 minutes, and when I came off the court dejected, my father put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Son, it’s all right. It was worth the drive . . .  to see him play!”  

In his final weeks, Dad gave all of us a gift. He didn’t avoid or deny, he didn’t say, “I don’t want to talk about it”, and he didn’t pity himself. Instead, he let us in and even let our friends in. He relished the opportunities to reflect, to hold court a few more times, to express appreciation, and to share wisdom. And he gave us the opportunity to share with him what we learned from him and how we felt about him. While his body progressively gave in, his spirit was indomitable. And nowhere was this more evident than in his extraordinary sense of gratitude. After we learned that his treatments weren’t working, we had an intense family conversation in his hospital room where he told us, “I don’t want this narrative to be ‘why me?’” He also told us that you have to add 10 years to his life. Yes, he was only 64, but he started dating my mother when he was 16, started his own business at 25, and had three kids by 27.  He got a 10- year head start on so many people, and he really believed he had wrung 10 extra years out of life. He felt he had everything he possibly could want in the world.  

My father embodied the rabbis’ dictum: “Eizehu ashir? Hasameach b’chelko – Who is rich? One who is happy with his lot.” I think most of us would agree that my father was blessed with an objectively magnificent lot in life; yet, what I find most inspiring about him is that the magnitude of his gratitude for his lot in life dwarfed the lot itself. Some people spend their lives wanting, waiting for more. My father died too young, at just 64, and yet, the man wanted for nothing other than some more time to savor his blessings.  

Dad, you have taught us all what it means to stand at Sinai, to live a life of covenantal responsibility and love, and of deep, profound gratitude. What an extraordinary legacy you leave. We all will do everything in our power to carry it on. I love you.   

 

 

 

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