Today is October 7th on the English calendar, which this year falls out in the middle of Sukkot. This holiday of Booths has other names, like Chag Ha’asif- the Harvest Festival, or, if you spell it wrong in Google translate, the Festival of Branches, which is what covers us with protection on top of our sukkah, and is what we hold and make a blessing over every day of the holiday. Sukkot ends with the holiday of Shmini Atzeret, whose name means to stop and look back, and as God did not want to let us go but added one last holiday for this time period, we also remember that “l’asif” means to add on. The holiday is also, in Israel, combined with Simchat Torah, our Festival of Joy with the Torah, whatever shape that may take in a year where we can show more love for each other by staying apart than by joining in dances around the Torah.
For me, October 7th is a time to look back and reflect for a different reason. There is a song from Yom Kippur going through my mind, even though that was over a week ago. The song is “Hayom, Hayom, Hayom.” ‘Hayom’ means ‘today’. The word is not repeated three times in each line of the prayer, but that is the way we sing it. Today is my father’s English Yahrzeit. It is now 9 full years since I saw him, kissed him, told him goodbye. I started to write something about him on his Hebrew Yahrzeit, Erev Yom Kippur, but I didn’t finish it.
Erev Yom Kippur, I often think, is an appropriate time to have a parent’s yahrzeit, although when I see three candles burning together at the start of Yom Kippur, it often seems like too much. However, I am thankful to be able to see the blessing in losing my father at a time of year during which everyone is reflecting on life, feeling serious and contemplative. I know people who have lost loved ones in Adar, when we are specifically instructed to “multiply our joy,” or around Chanukah, the holiday of light. Just four years after our father was niftar, our mother followed, also during this time period, in the middle of Elul when many of us have already started to think about the past year, what we hope to change and improve, and what, exactly, we are praying and asking for this year. I know I don’t speak only for myself when I say I approached this year’s high holidays with trepidation and sincere prayers for life and health in my heart and on my mind, as I heard the chazan’s voice shaking when he said Avinu Malkenu, particularly during the lines asking Our Father for health, and to protect us from plague, a line I think very few of us ever thought to experience in person. It is no news to say what we all know, that we are living through a difficult time period that has not been seen for so long, that those who were around then are no longer here to tell us how they got through it.
My father used to be a big joker. He got upset at the injustice in the world, got angry and did what he could to change things, but I know my childhood friends and also family members who only got to know him later on would say that when they think of my father, they think about his sense of humor. The funniest parts of his jokes cannot be replicated, though, because I don’t have his adorable accent. One of the jokes he told was about a smart Jew who nevertheless got arrested for something (I don’t remember what now) and was sentenced to death. The condemned prisoner was told he could have three requests before he was killed. It was high summer at the time, but he said he wanted, just one more time, to see the snow. The judge says, “What?! But it’s summer!” The man says, “Ich habe zeit”- “I have time.” The judge grudgingly agrees and asks what his other requests are, but the man said he would tell them after he got to see the snow. So winter comes and the man is taken out of jail and allowed to see the snow. Then he is brought before the judge who demands to know what his last two requests are. The man says, “I would like, one more time, to eat an apple.” Again the judge says, “What! But it’s winter!” The man says, “Ich habe zeit”- “I have time.” The judge is angry, but will not have his integrity questioned over a mere prisoner. When Fall comes, the man finally gets his apple and goes before the judge, and yes, you can guess- he says his last request is to go swimming in the pond in the summer. Why, you ask? Because of course, he had time! As a child, I thought it was funny that he pulled a trick on the judge. But this is one of my Abba’s silly jokes that I only truly understood as an adult, and even more clearly after he was gone. The man asked for each item in turn- whatever would give him the most additional time to live before his sentence had to be carried out. We, too, do this. As children, we ask for one more story, or a glass of water–I was famous for needing a cup of warm milk to help me sleep. As adults, every year, we ask for more time: We didn’t live enough, we have more to do–we say any excuse we can think of to Our Father, the only One who decides, really, who will live, and how.
This year’s Erev Yom Kippur was on September 27th, another day I connect strongly with my father, because that was the day, 9 years ago, that I got the phone call telling me that my father’s time was almost up. My in-laws were here in Israel, and they stayed with my husband and children (except our oldest, who wanted to go with me to see him), and two days before Rosh Hashanah I went to say goodbye again. I had thought that when we left the US that summer I wouldn’t get another chance, and I didn’t know what would happen when I got there, but the thought of the levaya (funeral) possibly taking place on Erev Rosh Hashanah without me even being able to do the mitzvah of seeing my father properly buried got me to leave my husband and children before the New Year and get on the plane. I wrote about having your plans changed when Ari Fuld was murdered at this time just two years ago, and how jarring it feels when it happens so suddenly. The day the call about my father came started the time period where I felt lost for a while, unable to write my lists of things I needed to do each day, because of the uncertainty- not knowing if something would change again in a split second. Right now, we all feel like that, like we don’t know what will happen tomorrow. But when I saw a friend for the first time in months after the first lockdown ended, I told her that the truth is, we never know. We don’t know what awaits us, or what tomorrow brings; we can only make our choices and try to live with them. Most of us go through life with the illusion that we think we know what will happen, but we really don’t know anything. I was worried that it might make things worse for her, but my friend said that it actually made her feel better.
So I made my choice back then, and received the gift of seeing my father again, of bringing a smile to his face and happiness to my own heart when he greeted me with joy and glad surprise, saying, “Mori!”, despite what the hospice nurses thought. My father had been living with lung cancer for TEN years, which is nearly unheard of. And he continued to defy expectations, not really eating with us, but sitting with us, talking with us, until the following Monday, when he went to his bed and did not wake up. Still, he lived, sleeping through that whole week of Aseret Yimei Teshuva (the Ten Days of Repentance), as the rest of us sat together and talked and davened. It is hard to daven at a time like that, hard to even know what your own requests could be. Healing? At that time? Although I don’t discount miracles, I also know it is not right to count on them. So I think I spent that time asking for rachamim-mercy, kindness– for my father to be free from pain, for our own long wait to be over, as painful as it was to let him go. And he was a yekke till the end, waiting until 12:00 noon on Erev Yom Kippur, which was the time they said it would be too late to have a levaya. To this day, I think he was listening, that he knew. So we were able to have a big levaya for him on Sunday, with at least a few days of shiva, and I was able to be back with my husband and children for the chag of Sukkot, which we are now celebrating.
So why write about this now? Even though it is not Purim, Sukkot is also meant to be a holiday of joy, Zman Simchateynu. Yet I know that this year will not be the same. We are all sending around the joke that hakafot Simchat Torah, where we dance in a circle, will be done with everyone going around in a revolving door (so we don’t touch). I am sure that many of us will be thinking about those who, for one reason or another, we cannot be with this chag, and missing them, even while we each try to find our own piece of joy in the holiday.
Maybe it’s because my father, who lost almost everything in the Holocaust, yet made it to Israel where he eventually was adopted and lived a good, long life, knew how to make jokes, loved to make people smile. He knew it was important to reach out to others when they needed help, to try to help wherever he could. He knew that when times are tough, when we are worried, still we can turn to laughter and take care of those who need it. He also knew the meaning behind the joke “I have time.”
The irony for me in not finishing this and posting it on his Hebrew yahrzeit, at a time that would have been more appropriate than the holiday of joy, is that I, too, tell myself “I have time.” But then, like several posts I wrote since June, the truth is that I don’t know that. Too many times I say, “I’ll do it later.” But we don’t know what time we have. As Walter Payton, a football player who died at age 45, said, “Tomorrow is promised to no one.”
I have written on this theme before, about seizing the time you have, because that is a lesson I learned from both of my parents, who lived, as it says in Tehillim (Psalms), the allotted time of 70 years- my father was (probably- thanks, Poland) 74- but neither of them made it to 80, despite having some great strength. My mother also defied the doctors’ assumptions, and lived at least a year past what they thought. Gee, I wonder where I get my stubborn streak from?
Looking back over the last few months, when I found it hard to write or complete a post I could share, I see quite a few unfinished blogs. One post I did not finish was a farewell to my 8th grade, who graduated with honors but without the whole staff and their whole families able to watch, like my niece and so many other graduates in this changed year. I hope to make it to their high school graduations, to tell them how proud I am of all their efforts.
I also did not post what I wrote for my mother’s yahrzeit, which fell out on September 1st this year, the start of the new school year and now a significant date for another reason. She would forgive me, but I want to mention here how starting the new school year always makes me think of her and her hope that I didn’t become a teacher- but I have too much of her in me not to follow in those footsteps, both by stubbornly choosing my own path and also hopefully being a great teacher like she was. The other reason September 1st stands out in my mind is that it is the English date that a former student, Gilad, was niftar. He was a special student, like so very many I have been privileged to teach over the years, but I know that his name will likely still continue to come to mind when I think of my mother’s yahrzeit simply because their dates of passing, though two years apart, are so intertwined. Sometimes I think about how dates that meant one thing before can change, like the start of a new school year into a yahrzeit, or like the day we made Aliyah which was motzaei Yom Kippur.
Finally, the first post I didn’t complete, started near the end of June, was about Rav Motty BenShushan. He was the principal in the elementary school where I teach the year I started there. At the time, I had been in the Israeli school system for a number of years, going from school to school, not quite finding my place. He was niftar after a long battle with illness right before the end of this past school year. My thoughts about his passing were connected to hakarat hatov- recognizing the good we are given. When I started at his school, I was giving teaching here one last chance. I had been trying to get tenure but was exhausted from the fiery hoops I needed to jump through just to get approved. Rav Motty, though, made the difference in my decision to continue teaching. First, when my mother suddenly got sick that year and I asked to take three weeks off in the middle of the school year to be with her during her surgery and recovery, he understood and let me go. Then, at the end of that school year, he could have asked for another trial year as it was my first at his school,but he approved my tenure.Rav Motty took a sabbatical three years ago, but sadly, as we found out later, like my mother, he “retired” into illness and although he fought hard, he, too, was niftar this past June. It was a loss for the world, for so many of us, as evidenced by the almost 460 people who, like me, watched the levaya on Zoom, rather than being privileged to personally escort such a person to his final rest because of the number limit on people allowed to attend. I never got to thank him, to tell him that if not for him, my path may well have gone a different way. Since it took me so long to understand the gifts he gave me, now I never will. It was hard knowing that he would never get to hear the appreciation I still owed him, but I am sure it does not compare to the pain of those who have lost their loved ones this year and were not able to say that one last goodbye.
Rav Motty’s levaya made me think of the one for Ari Fuld, just two years ago, packed and overflowing with so many people even though it didn’t start until midnight. It doesn’t feel real that it’s been over a year since we had the first azkara (tribute in his memory) for Ari, which was so big it had to be held at Tzomet Hagush in a huge parking lot. His family, who graciously shared him with us in life, understands that Ari is also shared with others in death, as he was a true representative of the Jewish people.When Ari was niftar, my niece, who had been in his classes, sent me a shiur he had, unbelievably, given just six months before he was taken from us. The reason the shiur was so unbelievable is that he was speaking to his class about a terrible tragedy, about their Em Bayit (house mother) who had died suddenly in her sleep. I listened to it again this year on Erev Yom Kippur, my father’s yahrzeit and the holiest night of the year. In it, he talks to the girls about sudden tragedies. He tells them about losing his friend so many years ago when they were soldiers fighting for our country, and how he felt lost and confused. He tells them how he wanted answers, he wanted to know why God would do such a thing. But, he says, we don’t have answers. Ari said that we can live as if there is a plan for us, or as if there is no plan, but that he personally, even with all the difficult and terrible things that happen in the world, feels, believes, that there is a plan. That his own grandmother escaped the hell of the camps and raised a family to believe in God, when she could have easily turned against God. Ari said he doesn’t judge anyone who goes that way, because sometimes life is hard, sad, and confusing. In this time where so many of us are feeling lost and confused, where even holidays of joy can turn sad, we too want answers. But we don’t have those answers. So we have to decide- those of us who are here, who have today but were not promised tomorrow, what do we do with our time?
One final thought at this time of year: in his shiur, Ari pointed out that although it seems upside-down, because of the way we celebrate the holidays, Rosh Hashanah is actually the Day of Judgement, on which we should be serious and contemplative as we ask for life, and health, and blessings. That is the day God decides these things. Yet we come home from shul (synagogue), eat a festive meal, and enjoy the day. On Yom Kippur, on the other hand, we fast and afflict ourselves, because while the judgement day has come and gone, this is the day when the Book for the coming year is sealed. Had we known last Rosh Hashanah what the year would bring, would our prayers have been more sincere?
However, Ari said, we end Yom Kipur with the most amazing, upbeat singing. Because after all is said and done, we trust that God will grant our requests, and we are happy. Without that faith, we can only live in worry, which I work very hard not to do. Anything I write that sounds above it all- that is probably something I am working on improving. In Judaism, we have time- until we don’t. Every holiday brings another “Shehechiyanu,” the blessing for God having brought us to this new time and festival. In her last months, my mother seemed to have forgotten that this blessing was just for holidays, and apparently was saying it every week when she lit the Shabbat candles. But truthfully, she was right, and I didn’t correct her. Who was I to tell her not to bless God for giving her one more week, bringing her to that new time?
One thing I value in our religion is that we make room for second chances. This whole time period is about repentance, which in Hebrew is Teshuva, Returning to God. On Rosh Hashanah we say Tashlich, the prayer where we ask to erase our past sins. We try to say it on the very first day, if it’s not shabbos, or as soon as we can. Yet somehow, we are still allowed to say it until the end of this week- up until the last day before Simchat Torah. Maybe we didn’t think of it before, maybe we forgot…we still have another chance. And so, this whole time period starting with the first day of Elul, where we reflect on the year and our part in it, is not yet over. Tashlich, in fact, is meant to be said near running water with life (fish) in it. And Sukkot has a special celebration of the drawing of the water. As we know, pools of water are, themselves, reflective, and water is also symbolic of life, for without it, we cannot live.
I have mentioned some of these thoughts before, in my post for this time period, could it actually be just one year ago? It is natural that, just like the holidays revolve and cycle back, bringing us both a new time and a remembrance of times past, our minds will follow when we think of dates, and say oh, this happened then. If the intervening time has made other changes in our lives, they will become part of this new cycle of thoughts. And if it is extreme and world-changing, our views may change too–or they may not. We might have grown and improved, or we may have learned nothing from our lives, from current events in the world at large or in our own smaller personal sphere. But if we are able to apply whatever lessons were being taught, if we can take all the difficulties and see them as blessings, no matter how hard the struggle has been, then we will bring that much more joy into our lives.
My favorite quote is still the one from the Lord of the Rings, and it rings true now more than ever. When Frodo is upset and says “I wish none of this had happened!”, Gandalf replies, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” As Ari might say, we often don’t get the answers we want, or even get to choose our path. But I, for one, hope to use my time wisely, and find and give joy wherever I can, like in getting to see friends (outside and with masks on!) and beautiful sunsets this week, and enjoying being with those I love even though some of our family is far away.
Wishing everyone a year of health and blessings, and praying that we may all find a way to see the blessings we have and help each other find joy and laughter where we can.
May this writing bring an aliyat nishama to my parents, to Ari, to Gilad, and to so many loved ones lost this year. May all their families find comfort in their memories.