Aaron Alexander

Between This World And The Next

On Shabbat mornings I often arrive to Adas Israel Congregation pretty early. I love the quiet, empty building, something that’s very, very rare here. I usually bring Ariel with me, my oldest son, all of 8 years.  He sits in his chair and organizes his Yu-Gi-OH! cards–don’t ask, it’s like Pokeman, but on steroids–and I sit at my desk and read from the stack of books I don’t have time to get to during the week.

We occasionally banter, maybe share some sugar products, and likely raid the kitchen. But mostly we are just quiet: Alone, but together. It’s pretty much my favorite time of the week.

Two Shabbatot ago he turned to me and saw the tears, one by one, slowly sliding down my face.  He asked, sheepishly, “Are you crying?”

“Yes,” I said. “Why are you crying?” he asked.

I pointed to a picture next to me, and then to the book in front of me. “Because I miss Bubbie. This page I’m reading reminded me of that.”

I miss Bubbe too, Daddy.  [Back to Yu-Gi-Oh!]

Here’s the poem I was reading that unexpectedly cracked me open, my wounds unhidden:


FAREWELL LETTER — by David Whyte (River Flow, 104-105)

She wrote me a letter after her death,
and I remember a kind of happy light falling on the envelope  as I sat by the rose tree, on her old bench, at the back door, so surprised by its arrival, wondering what she would say, looking up before I could open it and laughing to myself in silent expectation:

Dear son, it is time for me to leave You.
I am afraid that the words You are used to hearing are no longer mine to give, they are gone and mingled back in the world where it is no longer in my power to be their first original author nor their last loving bearer.

You can hear motherly words of affection now only from your own mouth when you speak them to those who stand motherless before You. 

As for me I must forsake adulthood and be bound gladly to a new childhood. You must understand this apprenticeship demands of me an elemental innocence from everything I ever held in my hands.

I know your generous soul is well able to let me go, you will in the end be happy to know my God was true and I find myself, after loving You all so long, in the wide, infinite mercy of being mothered myself.     

P.S. All your intuitions were true.

We spend a lot of time wondering what they’d say, don’t we?

It doesn’t matter that we may have ignored the advice while they were alive. That’s one of the many ironies, mysteries of loss–not wanting it until you can’t have it, maybe still not wanting it, but needing, desperately, to want it.

That’s why we pause to remember, intentionally, held by ancient words and haunting tunes.  All of us move forward with the layered stuff of every yesterday.  Waiting for letters, postcards, signs, that we’re still connected.

We are.

Intuition is the postcard. The letters are always being sent, always in our possession–rewritten anew as each sun emerges, as each experiences wanes, as each memory meets its newest moment.

Receive the postcard, and receive our loved ones.

In the 3rd chapter of Tractate Berakhot, a full page (18a-19b) is devoted to exploring and trying to answer one question about those we’ve lost:

?ומי ידעי כולי האי

Do the dead know of this world? Are they aware of the happenings of this earth. The rabbis, unsurprisingly, come to no definitive conclusion. How could they? They, like each of us, mere mortals.

Nevertheless, they relentlessly banter the topic from every conceivable angle. They need to know the unknowable.
And, I know that as I’m describing this, each of you is playing through your mind all the times you’ve asked the very same question.

Are they watching?

What if they could see me now?

Would I change?

Would I want them to see?

We’ve had these conversations, you and me. They’re challenging, but always illuminating.

Because like the Sages of old, we won’t give up on some kind of abiding eternality–that there is a this world and the next. Not some fantasy land above (like in The Good Place, which is amazing), but a place where love is nestled between souls.

Between worlds. Between us, somehow.

We hold onto the fact that while our loved ones are gone they never really vanish. Because everything they left inside us–whether we want it or not, whether we asked for it or not–keeps writing and delivering postcards.

How could it not be so–that the one who cradled us, cared for us, endured us, taught us–isn’t still animating us? What else feels possible except that the person we cared for, bathed, changed, held, and squeezed, doesn’t still emerge from within us?

They still sends kisses, or that look, or that hand, or that smile, but now from the place between places, the time beyond time.

This magnificent poem helped me understand something that I had surely known, but couldn’t comprehend.

I can let go without letting go.

That if I can, sometimes, let her memory rest and settle, I, too, can rest and be settled.

She, in her place. Me, in mine.

Like Ariel and me on Saturday mornings–sitting quietly together, but still apart.

We’re not letting go of each other. We holding one another in the way we are now.

About the Author
Rabbi Aaron Alexander is Co-Senior Rabbi of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. He previously served as Associate Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University.
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