Most often, noteworthy people are known for what they do. Sometimes, what impresses us most is what they are. Los Angeles learned this distinction a few days ago in tragedy that left the community reeling, shocked, and speechless.
Shimi Grama was not quite 22 when he his vehicle spun out on the way back from LAX where he had driven his grandmother after Yom Tov with his family. He lingered for a bit in an ICU at UCLA Medical Center, but the Malach ha-Mavess was apparently impatient. Just a few hours after many in the community had spoken with him in the morning, the word got about that a precious and beloved bochur was no longer with us.
The levaya was one of the largest I have seen in decades in Los Angeles. It was certainly one of the most moving, although unspeakable tragedies have occurred at other times. Shimi’s parents are both upbeat, involved and beloved community people. The community would have flocked to their side, and to the side of all the bereaved siblings who so quickly went from simchas Yom Tov to its dark opposite. It would have been a jarring and draining experience, even if Shimi were just another precious Jewish neshamah.
But he wasn’t. It was remarkable to witness the instant comprehension of a thousand people of what Shimi was. They got it, and they got it quickly. In one instant, they understood who he was, and how much they admired his essence, even if they had never met him.
My family knew a little better than some others, because of our deep involvement with Kids of Courage. Shimmi had been a counselor for the large summer trip to San Francisco this past August. (A very special chassidishe boy in Boro Park needed special help in coping with the news of the loss of his counselor and friend.) He was involved with other chesed projects as well. Focusing on what he did, however, would miss the point. How he acted was only the expression of what was already there. Listening to the maspidim who did their best to convey meaningful words between spasms of crying, everyone learned what was really important about Shimi. He was the quintessential Good Person – good the way HKBH wants us to be good.
Shimi was pleasant, personable, upbeat, positive, warm, a good friend to everyone, and always the first to assist. He learned, and loved learning. He was a devoted son. Those are all important, but they are not the things – individually or collectively –that he will be remembered by most. He will be remembered as a model of the goodness we admire and secretly wish we could be.
Most of us can identify good in many people around us. We are part of a generally good community. With all the faults, we can take pride in a surfeit of good and chesed. Pointing to the good in others comes easily.
No one in the room for Shimi’s levaya would have been surprised to hear lists of accomplishments in chesed. But that is not what they walked away with, not what they spoke to each other about hours later when reflecting about what they had heard and digested. Rather, they took away a portrait of a Good Person, the entire package of mirroring the midah of Goodness in Hashem.
For the rest of us, performing acts of chesed is enormously powerful. Those acts are cherished by HKBH for what they are, besides changing the performer for the better. Slowly, they turn us into better, more giving people. For most of us, though, they are line items on a list that keeps getting longer, as if our chesed resumes kept adding pages. It remains, however, a work in progress. Some smaller number of us, however, have all the pieces of the chesed puzzle collected and assembled. The difference between them is subtle, but elegant. We might only notice if we stopped long enough to scrutinize the entire person. We rarely do that, except at a levaya.
Several of the maspidim dramatically linked the tragedy to the davening of Yamim Nora’im. Just days before, we had recited mi yichyeh, u-mi yamus; mi be-kitzo u-mi lo be-kitzo. I thought rather of more recent liturgy – the Book of Koheles. Shlomo tells us that it is better to go to a bais evel than to a place of rejoicing. One of the reasons is that the lessons we take away from hespedim and the like can be more profound and longer lasting than what we take away from the simcha of the wedding. It is often difficult to define just what we have come away with from a levaya, other than a heightened sense of our mortality. Shimi Grama, z”l, made it easy. No one who left the levaya wanted to rush to join him beside the Kisay ha-Kavod. But everyone with any she’ifah for ruchniyus became impatient to be more like what he was.
Yehi zichro baruch