A seemingly endless journey is coming to an end during just one more pandemic-infected day. Along the way, I was chaperoned by guides, seated with companions and truthful witnesses who helped a lone, awkward, inexperienced parishioner feel like one who belongs.
Beginnings can be the hardest part. On August 26, 2018, I stared into my father’s eyes for some 20 minutes and held his hand. I stepped away for a short time and, when I returned, he was gone. That night, he was buried in Jerusalem among many who loved him.
Carting my baggage with me the next morning, I arrived on time at my father’s apartment. 10 men from my father’s shul were waiting. As I prayed, I felt that each blessing in the Amidah was written for me and my father. I leaned against the wall and the tears streaked down my face.
Dear family and friends came to visit me and my sister. That night, I flew to LA and into the comforting embrace of my wife, kids, friends and community. Disoriented, I struggled to lead a service I’d hardly ever attended.
Each item I brought from my father’s place was now standing in my house. I would soon sort through them and put in a permanent place. Fortunately, I’d have months to do that.
Friendly faces greeted me in my home every day bringing the kind of warmth only a caring community can provide. It was that embrace which allowed me to move forward.
Getting up from sitting shiva was an important next step. I helped myself up by grabbing hold of the sturdy Aramaic phrases to pull myself out from my internal abyss. Between the letters, I evoked images of my father – sad, angry, funny, and warm. In December, I returned to Israel to set the matzeva (headstone) and most of the family was there – it was bittersweet.
Heaviness intrudes as my mother is diagnosed with cancer. Sadly, nearly 11 months into saying kaddish for my father, I am holding my mother’s hand at her bedside. On June 26th, it goes limp and my breath stills.
In partnership with Hashem, my parents created my world. Through them, I learned to love, to learn, to make choices, to honor and to praise a God who stretches out His arm for us. Does He hear me? Thankfully, my wife and kids wrap me in a much-needed embrace and a faithful 10 help strap me to the world of the living and yoke me into prayers where I can heal.
Joining in chorus with us are my parents, for the two of them were bound together by the joy of music.
Kindness is a cure for the lonesome mourner and the lightness of a corny joke helps me smile so I may open my arms. Together, we all close our eyes in unison, reiterate core beliefs and commit ourselves to teaching, sharing, working and reflecting upon truth. It is a centering exercise.
Leading the service now begins to feel normal. I’m increasingly ready to make three steps forward and bridge heaven’s gap with 19 blessings and endless individual prayers. Soon, the last Kaddish of the morning ends and I slowly unwrap the strap from my arm. I allow it to fall lifelessly to the floor like the hands which held me. And as I wind it back into place, I try to pull myself a bit more together than I was able to the day before.
More days pass and before I know it, here I am, at my last daily kaddish – and by Zoom nonetheless. But I still have not gone through the things my parents left behind. How can that be?
Now, I have unpacked my memories during each and every kaddish and I have fixed them in perspective. Perhaps this journey was required to prepare me to better consider which of their items I ought to keep.
Over time, rituals have proven their value but it’s the camaraderie that I will always treasure. As is the case with all great journeys the end is not the point – it is the journey itself.
Parents weave a story of love that is unfinished and leave a legacy of teaching which is not fully learned. They may be gone but their role in my life is never-ending.
Quiet peace and solace do finally embrace me from time to time. It took struggle, grief, sadness, loneliness, sorrow, sweet and funny memories and nostalgic laments to get here.
Rabbis provided me care beyond my expectations and…
…so did daily minyan.
Thank you to all of those who took me in and shared your space with me. And, may the corny jokes never end.