Parshat Matot/Masei and Lessons from my Mom
I am not sure if I can adequately express my excitement that my mother, Lois Gelb, is visiting Camp Ramah in Palmer for the first time this Shabbat. My dad, thank God in good health, is at home in San Diego and will soon be getting a play by play of her visit. I have been getting more and more excited over the past weeks telling everyone that my mom is coming. My parents have long supported Camp Ramah and believe in the work we do here. It means so much to me to have her come and see it. Why? Because I, like most people, want my parents to be proud of me. I want to show them that I have internalized their values and teachings and have made them a part of my life. So everyone, here are two lessons, of many, that my mom taught me that I would like to share with you.
The beginning of this week’s combined parsha, Matot/Masei, instructs, “If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.” The basic meaning is clear: it is important to keep our promises. For me, this includes the idea of living up to one’s promise, or potential. This brings me to lesson one. My mom would often say to me, “don’t worry about other people, be the best Ed Gelb you can be.” This is a take on the classic story of Rabbi Zusha, who said he wasn’t worried that God would ask him on Judgment Day why he wasn’t more like Moshe. He was worried that God would ask him why he was not more like Zusha. All we need to do is be the best version of ourselves we can be. I can tell you that being the youngest of six incredibly accomplished siblings can be intimidating. My mom’s teaching has helped me find my own path and not worry about comparing myself to them or others.
Another lesson. My mom tells a story about her mother, the late Tybie Capin, that I also find instructive. It is based on Shammai’s teaching to greet everyone with a cheerful countenance. My grandma had a warm and ready smile; she was also a bit of a daydreamer. When she was young, she worked at a large department store. One day, as she walked down a long aisle, she noticed someone familiar smiling as she came towards her. So grandma nodded and smiled back. The other person did the same. There was another exchange or two as they neared each other, until my grandmother suddenly realized that there was a mirrored wall at the end of the aisle — she had been smiling at herself the whole time!
My mom takes the lesson further. What happens when the smiles are not forthcoming? Let’s say you enter the Chadar Ochel tonight and are try to find a seat at your table, and as you approach the person you want to sit with scowls. You will feel bad. But if the person just smiles, you will feel warm and welcome. What a difference being pleasant can make!
So mom, thank you for coming. Thank you for your advice thirty years ago that I should go spend a summer working at Camp Ramah. Thank you for teaching me to reach for my own potential and to be kind while doing so. I wouldn’t be standing here without you. Shabbat Shalom.