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Martha Shapiro

By Rabbi Sender Haber

I officiated at a funeral this morning for a woman named Martha Shapiro – Masha bas Yosef ע"ה - who had passed away at the age of 107.

Although I did not have the privilege of knowing Martha, I remember reading her article in the paper last December and telling my wife how struck I was by her unusual life and the description of her Kosher kitchen. Two remarkable traits stood out as a learned about her life. One trait, was a personality that was truly loving and caring and sweet; the second was the ability to be happy with her portion and not to be jealous of others.

At every funeral we read an ancient prayer affirming that G-d is in control and that there is no reason to be jealous or resentful of what we don’t have and what others do. Martha lived that prayer with her caring and her modest living.

It is only with those two traits that a person could possibly run a household that was so open and welcoming. The Torah teaches that if someone honors their parents they will merit long lives. Martha welcomed her own mother into her home along with her sister and her sister’s children.

Martha Bloom Shapiro was born in 1908 in Przasnysz, Poland, not too far from Warsaw. At the age of three she immigrated with her parents Leba and Joseph to Baltimore and soon thereafter to Newport News. She married Charles Shapiro in 1939 and lived in Newport News for a total of 104 years.

I was frankly humbled to stand here eulogizing a woman who lived through times that I can only read about. What words of wisdom could I possibly share? How can I possibly relate to a woman born in Pruzhnitz and a woman who truly lived through the entire American experience?

I decided to quote the Rabbi in Pruzhnitz, where Masha was born. His name was Rav Avraham Lichtstein and he was a nephew the legendary Chassidic leaders, the Rebbe Reb Zishe and the Rebbe Reb Elimelech. He recorded his thoughts on the week’s Torah portion in his Kanfei Nesharim.

In Parshas Korach the Jewish people were struck by a plague after the narcissistic rebellion of Korach and his men. They accused Moshe of “Killing the Nation of G-d”. Moshe needed to explain to the people that by quashing the selfish rebellion of Korach he wasn’t killing G-d’s nation, he was ensuring its continuity. If we are obsessed with this world we will not be able to live as Jews and care for and love others as Jews should. In a dramatic and desperate moment Moshe sent Aaron with incense to stop the plague. Aaron stood between the living and the dead and he stopped the plague.

The Pruzhnitzer Rav explained that this idea of ‘standing between the Living and the dead’ was more than just logistics. Aaron had a job of standing between the living and the dead. Too often those who are living are consumed with selfishness and greed and a lack of perspective. Once we are in the next world we can look back and realize just how transient and unimportant everything was. But souls are not holier. G-d places us here in this world to fulfill a mission. We can only fulfill that mission as living and breathing human beings.

Aaron’s task was to stand between the living and the dead. He had to take the perspectives of those who are no longer here and somehow communicate them to those here in this world.

That, I believe was Martha. I think that reflects on the two traits that struck me about Martha: The ability to be care about others and the ability to appreciate life even when it is not easy.

Martha could have been pardoned for embracing this world – she spent more time here than almost anyone else we will encounter – but Martha did not become obsessed with this world. She said, “There’s a lot of stuff you can do without, and you feel better when you’re without it”. She forgot the name of the grocery store that her parents’ ran but she remembered her children, her family, her involvement with the Jewish community, and the ability to exercise love and satisfaction by viewing life from a heavenly perspective.

Martha truly stood between the living and the dead. She was a link to a generation that nobody else has seen. And she did it well. The prayers we will say affirming G-d’s role in our lives are the same that were said by her Rabbi Pruzhnitz 107 years ago. Martha was a link in Jewish continuity, not only in Hapton, but for the Jewish nation.

It is up to us to be the next link. To stand between the living and those who have passed away, and to carry her message for the next one hundred years.

May we merit to see the day when there is no more suffering and G-d wipes away the tears from all of our faces.

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