My father, Zvi Harmelin, was born on Nov 2 1917; had he been with us today, we would have celebrated his 100th Birthday.
I’m trying to imagine how he would have looked at 100. Surely, he would have appeared to be quite different than he was when he passed away, almost 30 years ago, only a few years older than I am now. Already then, at 72, he was quite frail, somewhat underweight and much slower than the daddy I remember in my childhood and youth.
Furthermore, had he been alive today, none of the cells that were present in his body 30 years ago would have been present now. Supposedly, with the exception of brain cells, every 7-10 years the cells in our bodies are completely replaced (some are replaced much, much faster).
Still, when I hugged my dad at 20 and then again at 30, in both cases there was no doubt that he was he and I was I, even though practically every cell that was present at the first hug was not there at the second!
Osho told a sweet story about a man who walked into an antique store near Mt. Vernon. He inquired about an ax that caught his attention. “It belonged to George Washington,” the store owner said. The man was surprised: how could it have been preserved in such excellent shape? “Oh, we took good care of it” said the store owner proudly. “We replaced the handle twice and the head three times.”
Of course, when it comes to inanimate objects, this is very funny; but when it comes to living things, that happens all the time! “No one can enter the same river twice” said Heraclitus, “for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” We can paraphrase him and say, “you can’t hug the same person twice.”
Except that we are not our bodies, we are not our cells. With living things we recognize something non-material that characterizes them, even though we may not be able to articulate what that thing is, exactly. It’s the “Zvi-ness,” or, for me, “father-ness”, that organizing principle that “rules” the changing flux that appeared as my father’s body. Cells may come and cells may go but that certain je ne sais quoi is there—that by virtue of which I recognize my dad when I see an older photo of him taken when he was a youth, or that I recognized when I had to identify his body at the funeral home before the funeral could proceed.
And that something is also alive in me now. I’m not just talking about quantifiable things such as DNA or epigenetic influences—and who knows how many other mechanisms for intergenerational transference of essence will be revealed in the course of the coming decades and centuries—but I’m also talking about non-quantifiable things such as legacy and upbringing and transmissions of love and knowledge, I’m talking about all the ways that my dad is still alive in me. Which are all the ways, known and unknown, that his parents were alive in him, and therefore in me; and their parents before them; and… and… going all the way back to the first humans in Africa. Their legacy, their lessons, their struggles, their traumas were alive in my dad, along with all that happened since then, and are therefore alive in me, however aware or unaware I am of those influences.
And of course it does not stop there. The first humans carried within them the essence of ape-ness, and that could be traced all the way back to the first mammals and their mammal-ness, the first reptiles and their reptile-ness, the first amphibians and their amphibian-ness, all the way back to the first single cell bacteria in the primordial soup. All of us can trace our lineage to that early beginning. The Jews say that all Jewish souls were present at Mount Sinai; one can say with scientific certainty that all living beings can trace the origin of their genetic material to the ancient swamps.
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Why, you would ask, do I wax philosophically about all this on my father’s birth centennial? Because I miss him, and because these are the kind of talks that we used to have. We were spiritual companions of sorts: we both learned to meditate around the same time, we both were ignited by our practice of meditation and discovered new meaning in our religious tradition as a result, and we both liked to think about the universe. I particularly remember our conversations on Shabbat mornings, sitting on our sun-drenched balcony in Tel Aviv, and my father, in his sleeveless T-shirt shining his shoes with meditative precision as we were speaking about morality, about God, and about life in general.
I don’t know where you are, Abbaleh, but I’m thinking of you often.