By a quirky calendrical coincidence, last Friday (January 20) was significant to me for two reasons. It was the twenty-fourth yahrzeit of my wife, Lisa Yudenfriend Aronin z”l. It was also the inauguration of Donald Trump as the forty-fifth President of the United States.
Human nature prods us to forget those who have passed away, even those who were once closest to us. It could hardly be otherwise. In order to go on with normal life, we must be able to complete the grieving process and continue with our day-to-day lives without the constant burden of tragic loss. Yet we don’t want to forget our departed loved ones completely, to lose the sense of continuity with values that they represented or to cease drawing inspiration from the lives they lived.
Jewish tradition provides a vehicle that enables us to strike that balance — the annual observance of a yahrzeit (the date of death on the Hebrew calendar). The core obligations of that observance are modest: we attend the synagogue services and recite the Kaddish, and we light a candle that burns for the full 24-hour period. The tradition provides additional methods of enhancing the yahrzeit observance, through such means as cemetery visits, Mishna study and the sharing of refreshments with friends and fellow congregants. More informally, the yahrzeit provides an occasion when friends and relatives are likely to speak to each other and perhaps to share memories of the deceased. Those of us who are techno-savvy may even incorporate social media into our yahrzeit observance, thus utilizing up-to-date technology in the service of ancient wisdom.
In the twenty-four years since Lisa died, my children and I have always observed her yahrzeit in some fashion, as have her parents and sisters. The precise contours of our observance has differed somewhat from year to year, depending on both logistical obstacles and emotional needs. As years have passed, we have incorporated into our collective memories images and anecdotes shared by others who knew her. You might think that after two dozen years there would few forgotten memories left to unearth, but we’re sometimes surprised. This year, for example, a friend shared a memory on Facebook, and my daughter discovered some pictures we had not seen for many years.
Observance of a yahrzeit may change over time, in part for logistical reasons, but also because our emotional needs change. The wisdom of the tradition enables us to calibrate our yahrzeit observances as needed, but by common practice two elements remain unchanged. By lighting a candle we bring the memory of the deceased into our home, and by reciting kaddish (which can only be done with a minyan) we bring that memory out into the wider world. The required observance of a yahrzeit enables us to institutionalize the memory of the deceased after long after the original mourning period is over. As years pass since the shock and unbearable pain of the initial loss, the observance of yahrzeit provides a framework that enables us to perpetuate the memories of the loved ones we have lost.
Obviously, the quadrennial ceremony by which Americans inaugurate our Presidents serves a very different purpose from the yahrzeit observance by which families perpetuate the memory a loved one, but there is one critical similarity. In both cases, the ceremonial core — the part that we really have to do — is quite small. The Constitution requires only that the President, before he assumes the duties of his office, must take the prescribed oath of office — an oath that, by long-standing tradition, is administered by the Chief Justice. Immediately before that, in order to be instantly available should something happen to the new President, the incoming Vice President to takes the the oath of office prescribed by statute, which is customarily administered by one of the Supreme Court’s Associate Justices. Everything else that happens in the course of the ceremony — the twenty-one gun salute, the playing of “Hail to the Chief”, the invocations and benedictions and the singing of the national anthem — is a non-mandatory enhancement designed to increase the solemnity of the occasion. Even with these enhancements, the entire ceremony (excluding the President’s inaugural address) takes barely half an hour — and with that austere ceremony the most powerful office on the planet changes hands.
Over the more than two centuries of our constitutional existence, other elements have been added to the ceremonial core of the inaugural celebration. The inaugural address is probably the oldest such accretion, and the most important, for it enables the new President to place his own stamp of meaning on the occasion. Each of those who participate in the inauguration as spectators — both those who fill the mall and those who watch from the comfort of their living rooms — brings to the event his or her own unique perspective; only together do they add up to the country we call America.
For me as for many others, this was a difficult inauguration to watch. This was not, to put it mildly, the inauguration I had hoped to see. Yet watch it I did, even those parts of it (such as President Trump’s inaugural address) which I found exceedingly distasteful. I watched it because, like it or not (and I don’t), Donald Trump is now my President; I am an American citizen. I wasn’t celebrating Donald Trump becoming President; I was celebrating America’s ability to effect the peaceful and orderly transfer of power.
So I watched the inaugural ceremonies live, painful as it often was. I tried to take such consolation as I could from the brief but inspiring remarks of my home state Senator, Charles Schumer. The last two occasions on which I heard Senator Schumer speak were the college graduations of my children from Stony Brook and Queens borough respectively, so his presence provided the comfort of familiarity.
It wasn’t only Senator Schumer’s presence that provided comfort. It was also the reality of America. After Vice President Pence was sworn in, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang “America the Beautiful,” and unexpectedly I felt my eyes fill with tears — not tears of sadness or foreboding, but rather tears of joy at the gift that is America. As I listened, I found myself thinking of Lisa, whose yahrzeit I was also observing that day, and wondering how she would have reacted to the inauguration. I don’t think she would have been any happier than I was at Trump’s victory, but she would have been more optimistic about the country’s future — because optimism came naturally to her.
God knows I need to channel some of that optimism now. Maybe that’s one reason that Trump’s inauguration and Lisa’s Yahrzeit coincided. May Lisa’s memory continue to be a blessing to all who knew her, and may God bless the United States of America.