Cheshbon HaNefesh: The Arithmetic of My Soul


By: Marcia Greenwald

Go figure. Maybe it’s because I taught math for over forty years that numbers permeate my life. It’s always been that way, but even more so since my husband, Manny, passed away in January.

If he had lived another month, we would have celebrated our fifty-ninth anniversary.

On the eighth night of Chanukah, we celebrated Manny’s eighty-seventh birthday with a festive family dinner. It’s true that his mind, fortified by Torah study and a lengthy law career, was not as alert as it used to be. But he knew that he was surrounded by children and grandchildren, and a wife, who loved him. And I know that if they had come to me fifty-nine years ago and told me that I’d get fifty great years, seven so-so years and eighteen lousy months, I would have asked, “Where do I sign?”

Well, nobody told me, and I didn’t sign, but I knew my life with Manny was a gift. And when I heard my sons saying Kaddish for their father, I remembered the fact that my father said Kaddish for his father as a twelve-year-old. And here were our sons, both in their fifties, saying Kaddish for their father. And I knew that they knew what a gift they had been granted.

As for me, since Manny passed away, numbers continue to shower me with comforting gifts. I find myself remembering that unlike me, spouting numbers at every turn, Manny kept the arithmetic of his life tightly under wraps. We were engaged to be married when someone mentioned that Manny had graduated first in his class. In all the months that we had known each other, it never occurred to Manny to divulge such a self-aggrandizing statistic.

Manny was an attorney, and he chose that profession because he wanted to help people. I have noticed that some choose to be lawyers to help themselves, but that wasn’t Manny. Our kids used to joke about the fact that he just couldn’t bring himself to charge high fees for his services. They never forgot the client who paid their father with gefilte fish.

During shivah and the weeks that followed, friends, neighbors and clients divulged Manny’s numerous acts of chesed about which we were completely unaware. People in organizations he served told us how he not only did their legal work gratis, but also that he usually paid their filing fees. When his clients and friends discussed their own wills and estates, he encouraged them to remember to include tzedakah in their plans. I didn’t have to know exact dollar amounts to be comforted by these posthumous reports.

His integrity shattered stereotypes about lawyers. A colleague wrote, “Manny never lost his tzelem Elokim in my dealings with him across the closing table. We’ve lost a fine member of the bar down here. We’ve gained a superb lobbyist Upstairs.”

If you told Manny something in confidence, it stayed that way. Many a client, chatting on the phone with me, would mention facts and figures I knew nothing about. They would exclaim, “What? Manny never told you?” I would reply, “No, I had no idea.” They often responded, “But I want you to know all the details.” And filled with gratitude, they would describe how Manny helped them with a pending sale, purchase or loan.

As I continue to adjust to widowhood, numbers continue to offer me comfort. I find myself remembering that my maternal grandmother became a widow upon the birth of her first child; she was nineteen years old. My paternal grandmother became a widow in her thirties. Yes, my fifty-nine years with Manny were a gift.

Still, while riding on the bus to our Jerusalem suburb a few weeks after he passed away, I saw the hundreds of breathtakingly beautiful almond trees in blossom, just in time for Tu B’Shevat, and I cried because I knew that Manny was missing this. And then I thought how he’d miss our twin granddaughters’ bat mitzvah celebration held this past spring, and our twin grandsons’ bar mitzvah celebration in five years and all the engagements and weddings along the way, and I kept crying until I heard him say, “I see the trees, I see them. Stop nagging!”

So I figure that if he can see the blossoming almond trees from his heavenly abode, Manny will surely see our family tree continue to blossom. I’m 100 percent certain of it.

Marcia Greenwald lives in New York.

This article was featured in the Fall 2015 issue of Jewish Action.