The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 23

Dear Dad,

Happy birthday. You would have turned 71 years old today but likely wouldn’t have celebrated your birthday – it wasn’t something that you thought important. When Eli was very little, Mom told me that she wished we had celebrated more special family occasions together during my childhood, including your birthdays and hers. From what she tells me now, things didn’t change much as Eli was growing up; and I can’t say I’m very surprised.

Your granddaughter has learned the names of the months and seasons in three languages. She knows when our birthdays are, and she looks forward to them. While we don’t make a huge fuss over our birthdays, we do make a point of celebrating every family member’s birthday by going out or having cake at home. I think Mom is right – marking special family occasions is significant for all members of the family.

Your birthday falls on the eve of Shabbat this year, and we are going to celebrate it. Mom and Eli happen to be visiting us in Israel now, and they will be coming to our apartment this evening for Friday night dinner. We will have a nice dessert and share memories of you. Also, touchingly, your university friend Sasha Anikin has e-mailed me a personal reflection on his deep appreciation of your friendship and character; and we will read it aloud together over dinner.

I have been thinking about you a lot since you died, trying to make sense of the senseless, so to speak. There’s a Jewish tradition of studying Torah (in its most general sense) in honor of loved ones who have passed away. Many believe that doing so elevates the souls of the deceased in some metaphysical way, but I’m skeptical of this. Still, I’ve been reading, thinking, remembering, writing, and reciting the orphan’s kaddish in your memory, Papa. It has been difficult and acutely uncomfortable, but also meaningful and perhaps even healing; it is in this spirit that I would like to share some words of Torah with you on your birthday.

* * *

Mom, Eli and I have come up with an epitaph for your tombstone:

Alexander Bogomolny –
Who sought out hidden wonders
in life and math to share with all

This was inspired in part by Sasha Zbarsky’s words at your funeral. He spoke of your seemingly endless, artless wonder at the world, which so few retain into adulthood.

In describing you to others in the past, I have sometimes invoked an image of you as the “genius version of Forrest Gump” because you lived through so much momentous history but remained unruffled by it. You innocently savored life’s little details and exhibited a childlike fascination for moments that went unnoticed by most. It seems to me that your life experiences were filtered through your soul before ever reaching your mind.

* * *

Last week, Mom proposed a quote from the Talmud for the top of your tombstone:

והנצח זו ירושלים
And the Eternity is Jerusalem

On the face of it, this suits you quite well, I think. You were certainly of the conviction that Jerusalem should remain the eternal, undivided capital of the Jewish state of Israel, and I cannot think of anybody who loved Jerusalem more deeply than you did. My love for her, I think, is less passionate and not as intimately assured as yours was.

My curiosity was piqued by Mom’s find so I decided to explore its context. It is found in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot 58a:

תנא משמיה דרבי עקיבא לך ה’ הגדולה זו קריעת ים סוף והגבורה זו מכת בכורות והתפארת זו מתן תורה והנצח זו ירושלים וההוד זו בית המקדש It was taught in a Baraitha in the name of R. Akiba: ‘Thine, oh Lord, is the greatness’: this refers to the cleaving of the Red Sea. ‘And the power’ is the smiting of the first-born. ‘And the glory’ is the giving of the Torah. ‘And the eternity’ is Jerusalem. ‘And the majesty’ is the Temple.

 

As you know, the rabbis of the Talmud often interpret the Bible’s verses to imbue their own ideas with authenticity, validity, and gravitas. Here, in Tractate Brachot, they are expounding upon the verse that begins with the words ‘Thine, oh Lord, is the greatness,’  which we find in I Chronicles 29:11:

לְךָ יְהוָה הַגְּדֻלָּה וְהַגְּבוּרָה וְהַתִּפְאֶרֶת, וְהַנֵּצַח וְהַהוֹד, כִּי-כֹל, בַּשָּׁמַיִם וּבָאָרֶץ: לְךָ יְהוָה הַמַּמְלָכָה, וְהַמִּתְנַשֵּׂא לְכֹל לְרֹאשׁ Thine, O Lord, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the eternity, and the majesty; for all that is in the heaven and in the earth is Thine; Thine is the kingdom, O Lord, and Thou art exalted as head above all.

 

You probably wouldn’t know this, Dad, but this is one the verses that we recite on Shabbat morning upon taking the Torah out of the ark, и когда я узнал этот стих, что-то сразу откликнулось во мне на это. I know this verse and can sing it by heart.

* * *

The thing about this quote that drew my curiosity, Dad, is that the Soncino translation, which I most often use, translated נצח as ‘victory,’ rather than ‘eternity,’ which is not nearly as fitting an inscription for your tombstone. In fact, the very same page of Talmud offers an alternative interpretation of נצח entirely, which suggests that ‘eternity’ is not necessarily the best understanding (Brachot 58a):

והנצח זו מפלתה של אדום ‘And the victory [נצח]’ is the fall of Rome

 

At my request, my friend Rabbi Lockshin (who has been very supportive of me during these last six months) found two commentators who interpreted the phrase ‘והנצח זו ירושלים’. They are the Maharal (1512? – 1609) and the Maharsha (1555 – 1631), both from the twilight of the medieval period. These two sources came up in a broad search of the acclaimed Bar Ilan Responsa Project database; no other commentaries were readily available.

The Maharal was quite clear in the introduction to his work Gevurot Hashem:

ואמר והנצח זו ירושלים נקרא ירושלים נצח בעבור שהיא לנחלה נצחית And it says ‘נצח is Jerusalem’. Jerusalem is called ‘נצח’ because she is to be an eternal inheritance.

 

The meaning of the Maharsha’s comment, on the other hand, is not self-evident (Novellae in Aggadah, Tractate Brachot 58a):

והנצח זו ירושלים שהיא נצחונן של ישראל כמ”ש ירושלים הרים סביב לה וגו ‘And נצח is Jerusalem’, for she is the נצחון of Israel, as it is written: ‘the mountains surround Jerusalem’, etc.

 

It bears noting that in modern Hebrew the word ‘נצחון’ actually means ‘victory’, but realizing that the Maharsha was citing the Bible, I identified his reference (Psalms 125) and was pleased to find that his commentary also lends support to the reading of נצח as ‘eternity’:

א שִׁיר, הַמַּעֲלוֹת: הַבֹּטְחִים בַּיהוָה– כְּהַר-צִיּוֹן לֹא-יִמּוֹט, לְעוֹלָם יֵשֵׁב. 1 A Song of Ascents. They that trust in the Lord are as mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever.
ב יְרוּשָׁלִַם– הָרִים, סָבִיב לָהּ: וַיהוָה, סָבִיב לְעַמּוֹ– מֵעַתָּה, וְעַד-עוֹלָם. 2 As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord is around about His people, from this time forth and forever.

 

Thus reassured by the sources, I felt comfortable telling Mom that this quote is perfect for your tombstone, Dad, and I think you would agree.

* * *

Beyond the above, there’s one more thing that I really like about the quote. Can you guess what it is, Papa?

והנצח זו ירושלים
And the Eternity is Jerusalem

It’s only a detail, but I love the fact that this quote begins with the word ‘and’, don’t you?

‘And’ is a word brimming with suggestive potential, I think. It lets us know that there’s more to this conversation, and in Hebrew it’s a prefix (ו) so it cannot be removed without changing the quote itself. ‘And’ teases us playfully, and its particular placement at the beginning of this Talmudic phrase tastes of incongruity to me. After all, one wouldn’t expect the first word at the top of a tombstone to be ‘and’, would they?

It calls to us for context, Dad.
Your life calls to me for context.

This is the sort of reflection and exploration that draws me, Papa, and so I wanted to share it with you for your birthday. You deserve to know about the reasoning that went into the inscription on your tombstone; and I think you would have enjoyed such an intellectual exercise.

I’m looking forward to celebrating you this evening with our small family. I love you and miss you, Dad; and I will think of you always.

Love,
Your son David

 

P.S. This week, for the first time, your granddaughter asked what the “faraway place” that you left us for is called. I told her that it’s so far away that nobody knows. Maybe she will read these blog posts some day and tell me herself.

About the Author
David Bogomolny was born in Jerusalem to parents who made Aliyah from the USSR in the mid-70's. He grew up in America, and returned to Israel as an adult. David has worked as a Russian-speaking Jewish educator for the JAFI, the JDC the Brandeis-Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry, Moishe House, and Olameinu. He now works for Hiddush - Freedom of Religion in Israel. He and his wife and daughter live in Jerusalem.
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