Grass Roots: a holiday question and memorial reflection

As we approach the high holidays, grass shows up in two haftarah readings. What do these verses tell us in this season of repentance and return? I am pondering. Meanwhile, a recent yahrzeit called to mind the sweetness of grass as well as its transient nature. Does that, too, carry a message for the high holidays?

We learn on Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort that follows the lowest point in the Jewish calendar, that “all flesh is grass,” and that “grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8). Three weeks later, on Shabbat Shoftim, we are told “Mortals fare like grass” (Isaiah 51:12). (Full verses and Hebrew below)

Learning to Witness

My father, Delmar G. Spatz — called just plain ‘Spatz’ by most adults, including my mom — was raised in northern Wisconsin. He moved to Chicago after his Army Air Corps service during World Ward Two; he’d been stationed in England but still taught us to sing “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree).” Spatz met Bette, a native of Chicago. They married in 1951 and settled on the city’s West Side. He died in 1976, the summer I was 16.

The hole my dad left has taken many shapes over the decades. This is his 40th yahrzeit. And it appears to me this year that his death – and his life – form a hollow that creates a lens.

A few weeks ago, my older sister, Martha, and I had the opportunity to discuss some of what he taught us to see. She told me how, in 1968, he walked her out to see the tanks, deployed a few blocks from our apartment in the wake of Martin Luther King’s murder and the subsequent unrest. Later that year, during the Democratic National Convention, Dad sent Martha and a friend downtown to the Prudential Building – then the tallest place around – so they could see without direct risk to themselves what was happening between police and protesters in Grant Park.

That was the year Martha turned 14. I guess my younger siblings, Amy and Bob, and I were considered too young for these particular field trips.

But learning to be a witness was a major part of our education in all the years we had with Dad. He especially emphasized noticing people and circumstances that regularly went unrecognized.

It took me a long time to realize that my classmates were not being taught see the same way my dad wanted us to see. It might take me another 40 years to explore just how the lenses crafted by my dad’s lessons worked – and continue to work – in my life.

grass2Meanwhile, though – in the way each yahrzeit seems to bring its own new facet of blessing – this year I recall another aspect of that lens. I remember Dad teaching me to notice how the strongest blades of grass, when pulled gently from the ground, would yield a hidden, moist taste treat. He helped me recognize that the greenish-white part of a watermelon, the stuff closest to the rind – that so many people toss away – is often the sweetest. And together, on many a horridly hot summer day, we witnessed how sitting absolutely still could call up a breeze more cooling than anything produced by a fan, electric or paper.
— these reflections were shared with Temple Micah on August 20, 2016.

Haftarah Verses from Isaiah

קוֹל אֹמֵר קְרָא, וְאָמַר מָה אֶקְרָא; כָּל-הַבָּשָׂר חָצִיר, וְכָל-חַסְדּוֹ כְּצִיץ הַשָּׂדֶה.
יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר נָבֵל צִיץ, כִּי רוּחַ יְהוָה נָשְׁבָה בּוֹ; אָכֵן חָצִיר, הָעָם.
יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר, נָבֵל צִיץ; וּדְבַר-אֱלֹהֵינוּ, יָקוּם לְעוֹלָם.

Hark! says one: ‘Proclaim!’ Another says: ‘What shall I proclaim?’
‘All flesh is grass, and its goodness is as the flower of the field;
The grass withers, the flower fades;
because the breath of the LORD blows upon it–surely the people is grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God stands forever.’
— Isaiah 40:6-8, in Haftarah Va’etchanan

אָנֹכִי אָנֹכִי הוּא, מְנַחֶמְכֶם; מִי-אַתְּ וַתִּירְאִי מֵאֱנוֹשׁ יָמוּת, וּמִבֶּן-אָדָם חָצִיר יִנָּתֵן.
I, even I, am He who comforts you: who are you, that you fear Man who must die, Mortals who fare like grass… — Isaiah 51:12, in Haftarah Shoftim

Hebrew text from Mechon-Mamre.org,
Translation adapated from “Old JPS” and Sefaria.org
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