My mother passed away nearly three weeks ago. This followed closely on the heels of the death of my father a little more than 9 months ago. I have responded to my father’s death by starting three chevrutot with friends near and far to recapture my father’s unquenchable desire to learn anything with anyone who was willing to sit with him for an hour. With my mother’s passing, I feel the need to distinguish the second year of mourning to ensure that I honor her memory in a distinctive way that memorializes each of my parents as the individual people that they were.
What I have decided to do is to write an essay each month that captures thoughts percolating in my brain at that time during the year of aveilut. My model is the widespread practice of placing a new family addition on one of those soft, light pastel-colored cushioned chairs that are an obligatory gift with the baby’s name sewn on the back. A placard with a number, corresponding to the age in months, is placed on the baby’s lap, a cute picture is taken, and then it is sent to relatives and friends. The miraculous part is, like time-lapse photography, watching the baby’s alertness, smile, and body tone mature with each passing month. I am hopeful that by writing something each month, I will recall my mother’s love of children and that the image of growth will parallel acceptance of the loss of my parents
Two thoughts to start. When my mother died, I had only one question for my rabbi — could I count the night I was an onen? At the seder, in an impulsive post-three cups of wine moment, I promised my school-age grandchildren that I would give them each a dollar a day if they counted sefirah. The catch was — $50 or nothing. How could I follow through on this if I was unable to count all 49 days myself? The rabbi’s response was simple — count that night without a bracha and then resume counting the night after the funeral with a bracha. I was struck by the sensitivity of the answer to my minuscule question. It recognized my desire to maintain the count and to keep pace with my grandchildren while preserving my unique halakhic status as an onen. It made me think of all the people who for varied reasons — disability, gender, life circumstances — are unable to perform a mitzvah. However, they hope their situation will improve and they look forward to resuming normal mitzvah activity. Can we work to redefine their status, enable them to perform the mitzvah with a virtual asterisk, and then when they are back to normal encourage them to pick up where they left off before they encountered problems? One might question how to apply this model to gender. Perhaps, if we view gender more broadly as the task of raising and teaching our children, the asterisk status can be applied to the marriage partner who is carrying the heavier family load at the time.
Second, the only way one can immediately identify me as an aveil is to see my unshaped beard with gray hair on my neck. My mother was nice to me and tried to make sure I would not feel uncomfortable and out of place because my shloshim coincides with sefirah when everyone looks scruffy. But there is more to it than that. Again, my aveilut is occurring in a COVID world, where a mask hides my mourning status. Levinas has taught us that ethics grow out of recognition of the other. The assumption is that looking at someone and really seeing them creates an awareness of our obligation to them. COVID masks prove that seeing involves more than activation of neurons in the occipital lobe of the brain. You have to look beneath the surface to appreciate where someone is and what the person needs as an individual.
Finally, something real. My oldest grandson is a wonderful, smart, kind-hearted soon-to-be adolescent. Unfortunately, he has inherited Trachtman anxiety genes. To increase his comfort level, I started early to teach him his bar mitzvah parsha, Acharei Mot, to give him to master it and build his confidence. To help him get past some of his concerns, I suggested that he read the haftorah this year to get the feeling of what it is like to get up in front of a group of daveners and “perform.” This past week was Parshat Acharei Mot. On Shabbat morning, we davened at an outdoor minyan. The sky was cloudless and the temperature was perfect — San Diego weather. My grandson, with his shirttail hanging out and his hair sort of combed, was a bit nervous getting the first official aliya of his life. But he got the brachot right and read the haftorah with the taamim as if it was routine. He was simply perfect. The haftorah from Amos is read just about every year, almost without exception, regardless of whether Acharei Mot is a single or double parsha with Kedoshim. The reason is that the Jewish people are threatened for the first time in Acharei Mot with expulsion from the land of Israel if they behave badly. Therefore, the rabbis decided to soften the blow by always coupling it with the comforting and upbeat message of Amos. My grandson’s accomplishment was the first family event in which a great grandparent was not alive to appreciate it and offer a hug. However, watching my grandson step up and the words he read during my shloshim made me understand better the nature of what I have been doing during the past year and what I will be doing in the coming eleven months. It is a celebration of continuity, linking the past to the future, a brighter future.