Mori Sokal
Mori Sokal

Looking Back/looking forward- when last we hugged

Happy New Year milk in Israel
Even the milk in Israel wishes you a Happy New Year! Photo Rami Levy store, by Mori Sokal

A friend once told me that I carry a lot of pain. I thought she meant how I care about others and try to be there for them when they are having a hard time, but she said no, it’s like I personally take it into myself and hold onto it. I don’t disagree, but I also don’t think that’s a bad thing—I also feel genuine joy at others’ joy. I find that sorrow, like illness, is a burden that does get easier when shared. We have a mitzvah (commandment/good deed) to visit the sick, to comfort the bereaved. Even if we can’t help them, even if they don’t seem to know we are there, as in my parents’ last days, it is said in Judaism that each visitor takes 1/60th of the illness with them. So I do find that I hold my pain, and the pain of others’, but I don’t carry it every minute. Like a lost child at a store, I hold the pain and comfort it until I find the right place for it, until I can properly and respectfully let it go. Some of it stays and comes back to mind during certain times of the year or events, but I have found, as most mourners do, ways to go on and live fully even while carrying the sorrow that remains. Early on I felt that even good memories turned sad through the lens of my pain and loss, but as time passes, that has changed, and I can smile again even while tears come to my eyes.

The school year started for me on Sunday, a few days earlier than usual as my high school wanted to make sure we got into a routine before the Jewish holidays, which are very early this year, disrupted classes. September 1st, the “normal” first day of school here, was mid-week, on Wednesday. Due to my schedule, I was not working on September 1st this year, which was strange but good, as it turned out. However, ahead of that day, I was thinking about it, as it has become a significant date. I was thinking about the few other times I wasn’t working on September 1st. One was ten years ago, and I remember it because that was the year my father was niftar (passed). That Thursday (yes, some days you even remember the day of the week), we had just landed back in Israel from a trip we hadn’t planned on taking that summer. For once, we were not going to go visit family in the US, but stay home and send the kids to camp. As it turned out, that was the summer my father’s illness worsened, and he was put on hospice, so we changed our plans and went to visit. The trip was supposed to be for three weeks, but when I saw what the situation was, I added two more weeks.

We were supposed to return on August 28th, a date that would become significant just four years later, but then a hurricane added a few more days to our trip. So my children and I landed at 5am that Thursday, rushed our little one into the tub while the middle one helped find what they would need for school (thank you to my friend who picked up the bus passes!), and got the younger ones to school. We would probably have let them miss a day but it was important, because it was the youngest one’s first day of First Grade, and the school has a big ceremony. We weren’t here yet for the older ones’ first days of First Grade, so we didn’t want to miss this as a family. I didn’t have to teach that day, which made things easier. The next September 1st I wasn’t teaching was six years ago. That year my mom was niftar on August 28th, so I was sitting shiva in America, and that day I was in transit back to finish shiva at home in Israel. Finally, the next one that I remember was just four years ago, on a Friday. I wasn’t teaching that Friday; I was home, having a normal day, preparing for Shabbos.

I went on Facebook for a few minutes in the afternoon to find out the shocking news of one of my former student’s, Gilad’s, death. The friend who mentioned me carrying pain had posted his picture with z’tl, May his memory be blessed, so I called her asking what that meant. She confirmed it meant what I thought, and then came over to be with me. I know he wasn’t my child, and that I wasn’t close with him or his family, but sometimes some losses just hit you more than others, and his loss has stayed with me, probably because he was the first student I lost (and also the closeness of both the Hebrew and English dates to my mother’s passing). That was when I realized that living here, where so many of our young ones go to put themselves in danger to protect our nation, he was likely to be the first, but not the last student I would lose, may this not come true.

Sadly, there are too many other names that come to mind when thinking of those we have lost to war and terror just because we live here, and you who are reading this probably know too many personally, as by now, we do as well. Just this week we lost another young soldier, Barel Shmueli, z’tl, who died after being wounded in an attack last week. And even when we don’t know them, we know people who do; I had students who were related to his family. We are not many degrees of separation from each other in this small country, for good and bad.

On that note, I would like to publicly thank the invisible minyan that brought me comfort just two weeks ago. Because of corona (words that will echo for some time yet), when we returned from a family simcha/visit abroad, we had to go into quarantine for a week. I didn’t realize that, with the Jewish year having moved up, this meant that the Shabbos we would be in bidud was the Shabbos of my mother’s yahrzeit. The wonderful people in the building of my in-laws apartment had a Friday night minyan on the floor just above us. We have a garden. They finished their minyan on the mirpeset (balcony) above, I went out to the garden (with no one anywhere near me), and they answered my Kadesh.

This took a big part of my pain away, as I was able to honor my mother’s memory properly and say Kadesh myself, which I have been doing for six years now. I know that many did not have this opportunity during the past year and a half, so I am especially grateful. I would also like to thank (without naming him, in case this would bring embarrassment), the wonderful member of our shul who completed the whole day of Kadesh for me. When these things and other events, like helping each other in the grocery store and the many other wonderful things I have heard about, happen, I really love living here. Also, when even the milk carton says “Shana Tova,” it makes me smile like it did for the past almost 15 years.

Speaking of Rosh Hashannah: I had started this with thoughts about the past year, really the past year and a half. Just when we thought life was complicated and difficult, there was another curve-ball for us to field. [Baseball is becoming a thing in Israel, so I know you can keep up 🙂 ] We have had to face challenges of working from home with everyone on top of each other, learning that zoom doesn’t just mean go fast enough to get a speeding ticket, and figuring out how to keep living our lives while life was anything but normal. While handling this, we had to do it all without our usual human connections. Until covid, I had no idea how many friends I was used to hugging hello—until that was taken away.

There were a few particular instances I remember where it was really hard. One is the friend I mentioned earlier, who I used to just stop by for a hug on particularly difficult days. The other that stands out is a specific moment this year. During Pesach last year a friend lost his mom to covid in America, and couldn’t come here when they were finally allowed to send her to be buried next to his father, who had passed just the year before. I don’t have words for how sad this is, both that he lost them so close together and that he couldn’t be here for the funeral. I can only hope that, as his friends here were with him for his father’s shiva, it gave him some comfort to know that we accompanied his mother on her final journey. These are my friends from childhood, ones I don’t see all the time, and there is one who I have always hugged hello and goodbye. We couldn’t, and I felt that loss too. When we saw each other there, I remembered that the last time we had hugged was Purim 2020, more than a year before.

It was almost a relief when we got the vaccine, and were finally able to physically be there for each other too. When I saw some long-lost friends this summer, I was so happy to be able to hug them. There is someone in my life that I lost this year, whom I hadn’t seen in a very long time, and still others I couldn’t see, and this is pain I will have to live with.

Although this week was the first of the new school year, it was also the last week of the Jewish year. Yesterday I jokingly told my students “See you next year!” At least they pretend to laugh at my bad teacher jokes. 🙂  On the English calendar, the New Year starts in January. Winter ends and we start to head towards spring and the hope of the return of new life. The name January is based off the old Roman god Janus, who has two heads. He is meant to be the god of new beginnings, but he is also called the god of doors- passages. His two heads show that he is looking forward, but also looking back. When we come to our Jewish new year in the Fall, we have symbols on the table like fish heads (thanks, Eva!), and we serve food from other animals’ heads, as a symbol that we are looking ahead to the new year. We are leaving the old year behind, whatever happened, and moving forward with our lives. Yet at the same time, we are meant to take stock of our lives, of what we have done. We have to look back at our past deeds in order to know where we need to improve ourselves. Yet, we will, at some point, let go of our past and try to forgive ourselves, as we ask for forgiveness from others.

So I am looking back at the past year plus, thinking of the difficulties and challenges that both myself and those I love have gone through, and touching the painful spots as people do. But I am also taking the hand of the little girl lost in the store and bringing her to her mother, as I hand my pain to God to help me hold, and letting it go.

I hope to shift my focus forward now and look to the future, find ways to share my love and to hug my friends and family.

May we all continue to comfort each other in whatever way we can, and may all those we have lost be remembered for good, as we ask God to remember us all and grant us a good year.

Shana Tova U’mituka, May we all be blessed to see the good in our lives.

About the Author
Mori Sokal is a FOURTEEN year veteran of Aliyah, mother of three wonderful children (with her wonderful husband) and is an English teacher in both elementary and high school in the Gush Etzion-Jerusalem area. She has a Masters’ degree in teaching, is a copyeditor, and has published articles in Building Blocks, the Jewish Press magazine.
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