Monday, December 28, 2009

On Hershel Matt's Twentieth Yarhzeit

6 Tevet 5768

by Daniel C. Matt

Though my father passed away twenty years ago, he has been quite active ever since. His memory continues to inspire and uplift many of those who knew him, even briefly. His writings stimulate rabbis, teachers, and searchers. Many who never met him are discovering his wisdom and learning how to live more deeply from the story of his remarkable life.

Hershel Matt perceived a divine spark in each human being, and he related to whomever he met accordingly—respecting them, feeling their joy or pain, making himself available to them. He made a real difference in people’s lives because he believed in their holy potential and helped them believe in themselves, and in an awesome, comforting presence beyond themselves.

He blended traditional belief with radical questioning, spirituality with bold social criticism, and deep learning with ethical refinement. He believed in God, Revelation, the Messiah and life-after-death. But he was innovative and progressive, fighting for women’s equality back in the fifties, for civil rights in the sixties and for gay rights in the seventies. He was devout and passionate in observing the mitsvot, but he wasn’t satisfied with merely fulfilling the requirements. For him, religion was a full-time affair. Hershel was a living embodiment of spirituality. He sensed that he was involved in an intense personal relationship with the Kadosh barukh hu, the blessed Holy One, and he tried to live each moment as a faithful, intimate partner in that relationship.

The most mundane activity was an opportunity for holiness or a test of moral judgment. Every April, for example, he used to give extra money to tzedaqah. This had nothing to do with the approach of Pesah. Rather, Hershel was concerned that, in paying his income taxes, he might have taken unfair advantage of some provision in the tax code. His extra generosity was intended to make up for this.

But let’s start back at the beginning. Hershel was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on July 11, 1922. His father, Calman David Matt, was the rabbi of Congregation Adath Jeshurun, and a poet. C. David Matt attended the Jewish Theological Seminary, graduating in 1913. Later that year in Minneapolis he married Lena Friedman. They had five children, including Hershel’s two older brothers, Leonard and Joseph, and his younger twin sisters, Beulah and Zeldah.

In 1927, when Hershel was five years old, the family moved to Buffalo, and in 1929 they settled in Philadelphia, where C. David Matt served as rabbi of the West Philadelphia Jewish Community Center for over twenty years until his death in 1951. The family’s move back East was not the only momentous thing to happen to Hershel at age five. It was then too, he always claimed, that he decided to become a rabbi. “That was the time when I stopped wanting to be a shoeshine boy. Once the shoeshine phase was behind me, I wanted to become a rabbi. And I never wavered.”

Hershel was studious as a teenager. But he was fairly good softball player too. Maybe that explains why later, as our father, he let us divide Shabbat afternoon between playing touch football in the backyard and studying the Torah portion at his side.

Hershel attended the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in philosophy. He received his B.A. in 1943, graduating Phi Beta Kappa. He then followed in his father’s footsteps and entered the Jewish Theological Seminary. He was ordained four years later in 1947. Over the next twenty-eight years Hershel served four congregations: Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire; Beth El in Troy, New York; Temple Neve Shalom in Metuchen; and The Jewish Center in Princeton. He also taught in various schools and seminaries, including JTS and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

In his various congregations, Rabbi Matt avoided multi-year contracts. He saw no point in committing himself and the congregation to each other for an extended period of time. He wouldn’t have wanted to stay as rabbi if he were not wanted. He simply remained in each community until he decided to leave. He attempted to instill a love of Judaism in his congregants and urged them to involve themselves in the essential mitsvot: prayer, study of Torah, genuine interpersonal relations, ethical behavior, Shabbat and the hagim.

He always expected too much and cultivated a kind of holy stubbornness. Though he was very effective, though services were well attended (compared with many synagogues), he never felt satisfied with the degree of commitment on the part of his flock. Time and again, convinced that he was not succeeding, he moved on to a new locale and started all over again. But here too his hope withered and disillusionment came on more quickly. Each community mourned when he left. As his lifelong friend, Max Ticktin, noted: “That restlessness was the man and part of his greatness.”
He was much more effective than he thought or dreamed. As Shirley Segal of Metuchen said, “The most important thing he taught us as our rabbi and friend was to live life according to the highest standards, morally and ethically. Our relationship to family and friends had to be understanding and filled with love. It wasn’t that hard because we only had to emulate him and his feelings for others and his code of ethics.”

But to emulate Hershel Matt was no easy task! His ethical standards were excruciatingly high. When confronted with a situation, the first question he posed was: Is this the right thing to do?” As he once wrote, “If to be truly human is to be concerned with issues of right and wrong, to be truly Jewish is to be preoccupied with them.”

Hershel wouldn’t borrow another person’s library card because that would involve passing himself off as someone else, which he felt wasn’t right.
In Troy, New York the congregation offered Rabbi Matt a free trip to Israel. Amazingly, he declined the offer, writing: “This act of visiting the Land of Israel is a very special mitzvah, one of the greatest mitzvot a Jew can perform. Because of that very fact, I feel that a Jew who performs it must do it on his own; he cannot have it done for him by others. Just as someone else’s going for him is no substitute for his going, so too someone else’s paying for him is no substitute for his paying. I feel this about other mitzvot, but especially about this one. This is a mitzvah a Jew must save for, sacrifice for and pay for.”

At Hershel’s funeral, his friend Joe Rosenstein made note of his ethical nature: “Many of us try to act ethically, and sometimes we succeed. But what we are supposed to strive toward as an ideal, Hershel Matt seemed to do so naturally. He had a gift for goodness. He somehow embodied each of the ethical teachings of our tradition. One example: Many of us try to avoid leshon ha-ra—destructive speech—and through effort we learn to catch ourselves just before, or sometimes just after, we have begun to say what we shouldn’t. But Hershel seemed to avoid leshon ha-ra naturally: he could not speak ill of people because he recognized the humanity—and the divinity—of each person.”

As one colleague put it, “Hershel had a veritable allergy to anything that smelled [unethical], even before anyone else got a whiff of it, and so his presence elevated the moral level of everything that went on around him.”

He was kind to others because he genuinely believed that each person was created in the divine image. Nothing made him happier than helping someone out. One day in Troy, when a poor, hungry man came to the synagogue, Rabbi Matt took him to the local Jewish delicatessen and asked the owner to provide the man whatever he wanted, for as long as he wanted. Hershel assured the owner that he himself would pay the bill. Typically, he never mentioned this incident to anyone. It was only after Hershel left Troy that the owner shared the secret with members of the congregation.

Our father used to tell us that our family name, Matt, is an abbreviation of ma’asim tovim, “good deeds.” Of course, as his children, there were times in our childhood when we wished that he was a little less ethical. He would never let us sneak into a movie theater on a lower-priced ticket by pretending to be under age twelve. On Halloween, he sometimes insisted that we combine our trick-and-treating with a collection for UNICEF. We used to tease him about his ethical standards, which seemed to us a bit extreme. My brother David recalls how when Hershel would find a dime in a public telephone, he would debate with himself whether or not to send it back to the phone company, since the postage cost more than what he would be returning! My sister Debbie remembers another example of telephone ethics. When some of our friends traveled, after arriving at an out-of-town destination, they would call their parents back at home; rather than paying for the phone call, they would let the phone ring just once and then hang up. Hershel didn’t approve, since to him this was a kind of stealing from the phone company.

But he was no stick in the mud. One autumn he took us to a Yankees’ World Series game on a school day. My friend Peter Herbst reminds me that it was the fifth game of the 1962 series: the Yankees vs the Giants. The Yanks won the game 5-2 behind Ralph Terry's pitching. One of the best moments was when we kids were looking over the Giants’ bullpen. We turn to a grizzled "bleacher bum" and asked him the name of the Giants’ pitcher who was warming up. He said to us "Go ask your father." But our father was sitting reading Commentary magazine, and we knew that he couldn’t tell us. He was no great baseball fan. He just understood how important it was for American kids to do things like this with their dad, and he wrote a letter to our teacher in the Hebrew Day School explaining his reasoning. She was not particularly impressed, but we sure were. Peter’s brother, Roy had also come along with us, skipping classes in public school for the occasion. His father’s note to the school principal read something like: “Please excuse Roy’s absence yesterday. He had to go to New York with his rabbi.”

The day-to-day functioning of the synagogue exercised Hershel’s ethical muscles. Fund raising was a special target for Hershel’s ethical scrutiny. He disliked fund raising altogether and eventually proposed in his “Principles and Policies for the Ideal Congregation” that synagogues engage in no fund raising at all! At Temple Neve Shalom in Metuchen he only opposed certain events, such as a proposed raffle, concerning which he quickly issued the following list of objections: “Gambling is morally objectionable because it encourages the unworthy desire of obtaining something without earning or paying fair value for it. If the item to be raffled is a luxury item, the raffle encourages luxury and ostentation, which violate the Jewish standard of modest living. It cheapens the mitzvah of supporting a synagogue, by implying that Jews will not adequately and directly support it for its own sake but only for ulterior gain. If the raffle is publicized and tickets are sold in the general community, there will be the additional factor of hillul ha-shem—the desecration of God’s name (and of the Jewish good name) by publicly indicating that Jews are not willing to support their own institutions adequately.”

Conspicuous consumption in the synagogue upset Hershel’s moral equilibrium. He was disgusted by the ostentatious displays that accompanied bar and bat mitzvah celebrations. So he convinced the Board of Temple Beth El in Troy to pass a “Resolution on Moderation in Serving Kiddush at Bar and Bat Mitzvahs”: “Whereas the act of becoming bar mitzvah is a sacred act in the life of a Jew; whereas any lavishness in food and drink in conjunction with a bar mitzvah tends to detract from its significance as a religious act; and whereas such lavishness encourages irreligious display of wealth on the part of some, imposes a financial burden upon others who are pressured to follow suit, and furthers a spirit of vain competition that is particularly out of place on a religious occasion;

Be it therefore resolved that the membership of Temple Beth El in Troy, New York, urges upon its members henceforth to limit their bar mitzvah celebration on Temple premises following Sabbath services to a modest repast, which will be free from any lavishness or sumptuousness and which will rather be in the traditional spirit of a se’udah shel mitzvah, a meal appropriate to a religious moment.”

In 1967 Temple Neve Shalom planned to honor Rabbi Matt for his twenty years of service in the pulpit. One member of the synagogue recalls: “We knew he would veto the whole idea if he knew; so we didn’t let him find out until after the invitations were sent out.”

But Hershel’s humility did not make him shy or hesitant when a vital issue was at stake. As one of his colleagues, Neil Gilman, wrote, “He was one of the most courageous men I have ever known. He knew his own mind. He knew what he believed. He had his values—and he stood up for them unflinchingly despite all of the repercussions. The mild manner was deceptive. There was iron in the man—and it was that, not his mildness, that made him so intimidating to me.”
Rabbi Matt spoke out and published on controversial issues that he easily could have avoided. In the 1950s he pioneered in the field of equal rights for women, calling them up to the Torah at Temple Beth El in Troy, New York. Later he was among the first to support women in their struggle to be accepted for rabbinical studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
He was a Zionist from childhood, but on his joyous visits to Israel he felt a deep concern for the rights of the Palestinians. As his son Rabbi Jonathan Matt noted at Hershel’s funeral, his life was a modern midrash on the creation of each human being in the divine image.

He created a great stir when he wrote on homosexuality, adopting a compassionate and tolerant tone. He helped lead the fight for the acceptance of gay and lesbian Jews at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. In one interview he stated: “Homosexuality is not an illness.... [As we go through life] we discover who we are and what we are.... Their way of life is the only way for them to live with integrity.” When he was challenged by someone who insisted that the Torah condemns homosexuality, he responded as follows: “As opposed to the Torah being strictly God’s word, we should look upon it as ‘containing’ God’s word.... This allows for a human element, subject to growth, error and interpretation. We must remember that the idea of hearing God’s word includes the idea of ‘mis-hearing’ God’s word, that the recording of God’s word can also mean the ‘mis-recording’ of God’s word.”

With his gentle courage, Rabbi Matt was somehow able to affirm and explore unpopular ideas without alienating people. In the words of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg: “He challenged, he deepened, he forced us to consider new possibilities without betraying the tradition or the seriousness of the past. This is one of the extraordinary things about Hershel. He was so kind and his spirit so touching that he was able to say radical things that nobody else could say and yet get people to open their minds.”

As another colleague remarked, “He was able to create around himself a zone of gentleness, even when he was exploring intensely controversial questions.”
He never claimed to know all the answers. And he was always able to see the other side. As his son Jonathan put it, “I have never met a better listener.”

Despite his striking, unconventional views, Rabbi Matt was, on the whole, a traditional believer. He was certain that God has a plan for the world, and that this plan will ultimately be revealed. He could speak sincerely about sin or even Satan, without sounding dismal. As he one wrote, “[Our] greatest glory lies in ... being able to sin but choosing not to.” He believed in miracles, the Messiah, the world-to-come, life-after-death and bodily resurrection. Hershel admitted that he had an odd reputation at the Jewish Theological Seminary: “They say I’m the only one who’s ever graduated from there who believes in the resurrection of the dead!” Yet his focus was on the here-and-now. In his sermons he often spoke of holding “the Torah in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”

Religious sensitivity makes it possible to have a taste of paradise here on earth. As he wrote, “Whenever we are truly aware that we stand in God’s holy presence, we can catch from within time a glimpse of eternity.... The reality of heavenly paradise is known in the moment of radical amazement at the grandeur of God’s creation,... at the moment of perfectly unselfish love for a fellow human being in need or in distress,… at the moment of true joy in the performance of any mitzvah.”

In his observance, Rabbi Matt was quite traditional, and he took special delight in performing and promoting ritual practices that were widely neglected, such as wearing a tallit katan, reciting kiddush levanah (the blessing over the new moon), tashlikh, and dukhening.
Hershel was genuine through and through, “the authentic person.” When Hershel said “How are you?” it was not a formulaic way to begin a conversation. He remembered what you told him the last time he asked. Everything he did came from the heart; he made himself totally available to people. Every detail of daily living, every encounter with another human being he infused with a sense of holiness. Perhaps one of his faults was that he didn’t set priorities. But this was also an aspect of his greatness: the particular human demand of the moment was what mattered most to him. He was tam ve-yashar, pure and upright. Amazingly, he was as good as he seemed. In the Talmudic idiom, tokho ke-varo: his inner self matched his outward appearance.

It was this purity and simplicity that had such an impact on the people he met. He really didn’t have to preach. People sensed, “If this is what Judaism can do to one person, then maybe it can do something for me.”

Rabbi Matt was not naive, but in a way, as his friend Reena Bernards remarked: “He was childlike. He approached the world with a sense of wonder and wide eyes, as if the whole thing was one big, terrifying and wonderful mystery, which he felt himself supremely lucky to be able to observe and experience.”
A friend and colleague, Edward Feld, notes how Hershel’s sense of wonder extended to the interpersonal realm: “He was forever hopeful. As each new person met him, as each new situation came upon him, he always sensed the almost messianic possibilities of the moment. Each person was a special messenger with a divine and unique message to deliver. And Hershel moved himself to attend to what was extraordinary in this otherwise ordinary encounter.”
Hershel yearned to be a pashuter yid, a simple Jew. He wanted people to think of him as someone who happened to have studied a little more Torah than they had. He loved to attend a minyan and just daven instead of serving as the leader.

One memory I have of my father is of davening with him early Shabbat morning when there were still only a handful of people in the synagogue. We would be sitting together, chanting softly, while someone else led the early part of the service. I remember, in particular, how he used to rejoice in the lines of Psalm 19: Ha-Shamayim mesapperim kevod el u-ma‘aseh yadav maggid ha-raki’a.... Torat ha-shem temimah meshivat nafesh.... Yiheyu le-ratzon imrei fi ve-hegyon libbi le-fanekha ha-shem tzuri ve-go’ali. Week by week, I learned how to rejoice in this psalm too.

Part of his beauty was his self-effacement. At one of his early congregations, he composed this prayer: “O Lord, teach us, as members of a holy congregation, what we should seek in a rabbi, as well as what we should not seek. Teach us, as rabbis in the Congregation of Israel, how to lead our people, as well as how not to lead. And speed the day when we shall no longer have any need for rabbis, when shall indeed be what we are called to be: a kingdom of priests to You and a holy nation. Amen.”

He used every opportunity he could to attract people to the “blessed yoke” of Torah and mitzvot. He wrote a series of pamphlets on Shabbat, prayer, tefillin, tallit, mezuzah, tzedakah, kashrut, leshon ha-ra, conducting a seder, how a Jew should spend money, a Jewish approach to sex. With typical modesty, his name does not appear on these. Here is a brief sample, from his pamphlet entitled “What is tzedakah?”

“Tzedakah does not mean merely ‘giving charity,’ in the ordinary sense. It does not mean simply showing how nice one is by handing a few dollars to a poor person. For the word tzedakah means ‘righteousness, justice, uprightness.’ The mitzvah of tzedakah means that in God’s eyes what I have is not my own but God’s and ought to rightfully be shared with God’s other children in need, shared lovingly and generously, as with a brother or sister.... To perform the mitzvah of tzedakah means to obey God’s command-to-give so freely and lovingly that one could not imagine doing otherwise.

“How much shall I give? The ideal is that no one has a right to retain for himself more than the necessities of life as long as anyone lacks for these things. If I find this standard to be impossible, then at least I should be guided by my own answers to such questions as these: Which of my luxuries can I eliminate, or at least reduce? Can I give up some of the things that are not necessary for my true welfare, or that are even against my true welfare? If it were my own brother or sister who were in hunger or pain, what would I find myself able to do?”

In Metuchen Rabbi Matt succeeded in initiating about a dozen families into the mitzvah of building a sukkah. He took great pleasure in “sukkah hopping” on the holiday, visiting one booth after another, rejoicing with the families, complimenting each one on its fragile, splendid sukkah. The days preceding Sukkot were wondrous for us, his children. This was the only time all year when our father wore beat-up, old work-clothes; he loomed in front of us like a master carpenter. We worked on the sukkah together and then got to sleep out in it at least on a few nights during the holiday. One Sukkot there was a thief in the neighborhood, and our house was spared. The thief must have figured that we were sleeping out to protect our property.
Though he was aware, in part, of his influence on others, Hershel came to see himself as a failure in the rabbinate. His frustration grew from year to year, but it was already strong in his first congregation in Nashua, New Hampshire. He resigned from there in 1950 because he saw that his congregants did not really want to commit themselves to Torah and mitzvot.

The family moved to Troy, New York, where Hershel served for nine years (1950-59). Eventually, the same frustrations drove him to start all over again in Metuchen, New Jersey. Here he stayed longer than anywhere else, from 1959 to 1970. One might think that things were different in that pleasant suburb, but actually he threatened to leave already in 1962. He began to conduct what he referred to as the “Mitzvah Campaign,” asking his congregants to commit themselves to increased religious observance. He felt that without such a commitment he could not serve effectively or honestly as a rabbi.

In January 1962, he wrote the congregation the following letter:

Dear Friend,
What does it mean to be a Jew? to be a member of the Jewish community? to be a member of a synagogue? to have a rabbi? (Also, from the other side, what does it mean to be a rabbi?)
Through the ages it was recognized that to be a Jew means to be a member of that people—Israel—which is under a holy covenant with God, subject to, and guided by, Torah and mitzvot, called to live a separate life of holiness.... In the pursuit of Torah and mitzvot the Jew would find the whole meaning of his life....

What makes our situation dangerous..., desperately perilous, in fact, is that today even synagogue Jews accept no standard, no obligation, no commitment to the tradition.... If you hear that a Jew has joined a congregation, or is even active in one, is on the Board of the Congregation or even an officer—that tells you nothing, absolutely nothing about whether he knows about, cares about, or does anything about such crucial Jewish pursuits as worship of God, study of Torah, observance of the Sabbath, practice of kashrut. The fact of his synagogue affiliation tells you nothing, absolutely nothing about the level of his business ethics, the quality of his family life, the measure of his giving tzedakah.... To be a member of a congregation in the modern world means nothing Jewish in particular—which is to say that it means: nothing! And so, to be the rabbi of a congregation, in a certain sense, means the same thing: nothing! “Rabbi” is one of those words in the language that imply their opposite number. Just as the word “husband” implies “wife” (and vice versa),… so too “rabbi” implies “disciple.”

The members of our congregation do many wonderful things; they have many wonderful qualities; and they have treated their rabbi in many wonderful ways. But they have not, for the most part, given any indication that they need or want a rabbi; that they have any use for a rabbi; or that they even know what a rabbi is for.

A rabbi’s main function and purpose is to learn and teach Torah: that is, his principal task is to lead his people in the pursuit of learning and doing what the Torah tradition tells us is God’s will for the people Israel. If the rabbi does not strive to perform that task, he is no rabbi. If the rabbi is not given the opportunity to perform that task, he is denied the opportunity to be a rabbi. And if the congregation does not provide at least a core group of men and women who acknowledge the supreme importance of this task by offering themselves as the rabbi’s disciples and partners in seeking to study the holy tradition and to fulfill the commandments, then there is neither congregation nor rabbi....

As the rabbi, therefore, I am asking you whether you are willing to clarify for yourself and to indicate to me where you stand. Inquire in your heart whether you are willing to accept the task and privilege of increasing your knowledge of Torah and of increasing your observance of mitzvot.... Are you as a Jew ready to commit yourself to make a genuine effort?... I write you as the one who officially and nominally is already your rabbi, but who prays that you (and God) will allow me to be your rabbi in a deeper and truer sense.
May I hear from you?
Your Rabbi, Hershel Matt

There was some response, but not enough. Realizing that he had not been very specific, several months later he wrote another letter.

“A congregation in which membership involves nothing in particular is hardly a congregation at all. When it pretends to be, it commits hillul hashem, a profanation of God’s name.
“Something must be done to make membership in our Congregation again mean something—something clear, specific, and worthy.... I am therefore asking our present members to indicate whether they can say the following:
a) We recognize that the primary purposes of a congregation are: worship, Torah study, and fellowship for holy life.
b) We accept the importance of the mitzvah of public worship sufficiently to commit ourselves to begin some regular pattern of attendance at Sabbath and daily services, as our circumstances permit.
c) We accept the importance of the mitzvah of Torah study sufficiently to commit ourselves to begin some regular pattern of study, either in a class or privately.
d) We accept the importance of the holy discipline of mitzvot sufficiently to begin increasing the scope and depth of our practice of Jewish living.”

This time there was enough response to keep Hershel in Metuchen temporarily, but five years later, in 1967, he threatened to resign unless he received written pledges of commitment from a significant number of members. Enough people responded to keep him in Metuchen for a few more years, but the underlying problem was apparently unresolvable. Finally, in 1970, he left Temple Neve Shalom and moved on to his last full-time pulpit at The Jewish Center in Princeton, where he remained for five years. Then he wrote a letter of resignation there too, but he included a p.s. that left a loophole. He said that he would consider staying if the synagogue considered a radical restructuring—forming a smaller havurah within the congregation. This havurah would consist of those willing to commit themselves to greater study of Torah, regular davening, practicing justice, increasing the love in their interpersonal relations, and observing other mitzvot.

For a variety of reasons, the proposal did not work out. Two months later, Hershel submitted his final resignation from full-time congregational work. However, in suggesting the idea of a havurah, Hershel had, in fact, planted a seed in Princeton. Several years after he left, The Jewish Center formed two havurot, which, as far as I know, are still functioning today.
For the remaining years of Hershel’s life, from 1975 until 1987, he and Gustine lived here in Highland Park. He taught, lectured and wrote. He was enthusiastic about his teaching at two rabbinical seminaries, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the Academy for Jewish Religion. There he had a powerful and lasting impact; both students and faculty appreciated his wisdom and his presence.

In the 1980s Hershel also devoted himself to chaplaincy in hospitals and nursing homes. During these years he davened regularly here at the Temple, also teaching many classes and helping lead High Holiday services. He sometimes missed being a congregational rabbi, and for several years (1976-80) he served as weekend rabbi for Har Zion Synagogue in Mt. Holly, New Jersey.

But Hershel, of course, never stopped being a rabbi. When he no longer served a congregation, he served his fellow Jews and fellow human beings. Wherever he was, he transmitted Torah, by the way he spoke and listened and responded, by the gentle yet impassioned way he lived each moment. His entire life was one uninterrupted teaching. Hank, the superintendent in his apartment building, used to seek out Rabbi Matt for advice and counsel. On the morning of Hershel’s funeral, Hank told me, “Your father always had time to answer my questions, my questions about religion. Now, my teacher is gone.” But, as with all great souls, Hershel’s death has not ended his influence. His lifelong friend, Max Ticktin, puts it this way: “Every recalling of Hershel is a personal heshbon ha-nefesh [a moral self- examination] on who I am, have been, and might be.”

Hershel Matt passed away a few days after Hanukkah, on the sixth of Tevet 5748; December 26, 1987. He died of a heart attack that he suffered on the way home from Shabbat davening. His soul departed with the Sabbath Queen, at the beginning of the week of Torah portion Vayhi “And he lived.”

The Zohar on Vayhi teaches that a garment is woven for each person out of the good deeds he has performed or out of the days he has lived in holiness. Robed in this garment of splendor, one passes on from worldly existence to another dimension. As the Zohar says,
“When a human being is created, on the day he issues into the world, all his days arise in their existence. They come flying through the world, descending, alerting the human—day by day, individually….

“Come and see: When those days draw near the Holy King, if the person departing from the world is virtuous, he ascends and enters those days, which become garments of glory in which is soul is arrayed….

“Happy are the righteous, whose days are all stored up with the blessed Holy One, woven into garments of glory to be worn in the world that is coming!...

“Come and see: Of Abraham, who was virtuous, what is written? Ba ba-yamim, Coming into days (Genesis 24:1). When he departed from this world, he entered his very own days, clothing himself in them. Nothing was lacking from that garment of glory, as is written: Coming into days.…

“Happy are the righteous, whose days are pure and endure till the world that is coming! When they depart, all their days are woven together into a garment of glory. In that garment they are privileged to enjoy the delight of the world that is coming. In that garment they are destined to be revived and resurrected.” (Zohar 1:224a–b)

I can just imagine, we can all imagine, the radiant garment Hershel’s soul is wearing.

At his funeral here in this shul, the service was packed with people who felt the loss. One person who hadn’t attended was curious about the big crowd. He asked the officiating rabbi, Yakov Hilsenrath, “What congregation did Rabbi Matt serve?” Rabbi Hilsenrath responded, “Kelal Yisrael,” the community of Israel. Yes, Hershel served the entire Jewish world, and beyond.