The fall holiday season is a challenging time for our family. Rosh Hashana falls two weeks after our son’s passing on the 16 Elul, and it was 12 years ago that we got up from shiva for our son Gilad a mere week before Rosh Hashana.
I continue to struggle with myriad issues regarding the meaning of life itself, Gd’s role in the direction of our lives, and why death sorrowfully arrives early to some and tragically for others.
I recently listened to a rabbi’s sermon where he referenced our individual tally of good and bad actions, the result of which either offers us a regal inscription in the Book of Life or – Gd forbid – bars us from entry and blots out our name, instead relegating us to the dreadful Book of Death. While this was not the focus of an otherwise wonderful drasha (sermon), this fundamental concept of our daily actions advancing us to either life or death in a metaphorical book once again stuck me as discordant. It’s one of the themes we take a deep dive into this time of year, but it is far from simple. There are a host of factors that contribute to our destiny, including how we perceive and inhabit and move and absorb and reach out and back inward. It may be a teaching tool for children, but our human ability to tip the scales towards the “good side” is not always possible.
If entry to the Book of Life is a blessing, then is death a punishment? Are elderly people not granted access due to a lack of deeds done, or perhaps due to the completion of their mitzvot and acts of kindness over decades of a life well lived? Can a younger person possess an overwhelming number of chasadim (kindnesses) and mitzvot (good deeds), hence hastening their transition to the next world sooner…and not because of a dearth of valuable acts towards Gd or humankind? Praytell, what scales are being tipped in which direction then?
How about a teenager, like our son, who was battling cancer, whose tefillot (prayers) on Yom Kippur didn’t materialize into a good scan in the days following, but showed more disease, bringing him a step closer to death? Does that weighty balance tray determine who is chosen for illness, and are they destined to die as a penalty for not tipping those scales in the sky? Was my son not kind to others, were his good deeds not valuable enough, not high enough in number? No, no, and no. Gilad was the best, charming and intelligent, sharing his warm smile, balancing his illness with observing tradition, and he did not run away from Gd. Are some of us judged with malfunctioning scales? Or is it us who are broken?
There are no answers and I know that. The yamim noraim are not my favorite holidays, and I hide from them as best I can. I focus on family and meals, on gratitude for our blessings. I have conversations with Gd, albeit not in shul. I negotiate, I get angry, I concede. My teshuva (repentance) is a year-long process, with Gilad’s consciousness inserting itself into my life every single day, as I try to evolve into a better person and honor his memory with my daily actions.
It is hard for me to accept the binary perspective of good and bad, sins and mitzvot, good deeds and bad ones. It’s not merely being written into the Book of Life or Death; that’s perhaps a simplistic view for our human minds to grasp. Our lives are more than a formulaic sum of its parts, and our future journey is not only imagined by the weight of our deeds. It is a layered, complex set of factors – the overlay of past, present, and future – in a synergy all its own, the of impact which may be minute but significant, and cannot always translate into a tally of deeds or actions.
Is Gilad in a better place…if he’s in a place at all? Maybe. Did he die because of something he – or we – did wrong? I don’t believe that at all. Did our son die because we, his parents, are not good enough people and we didn’t tip the scales sufficiently in our, in his, favor? Absolutely not. But sometimes, in those fleeting, weak moments when I acknowledge that my sweet boy died under my watch as his mother, I do wonder…especially when the conversation this time of year is all about good versus bad and what we can do to move the needle and improve ourselves and our world.
I believe that all too often there is nothing we can really do to change our destinies. I had a friend who was the perfect example of a pure human being, and he died way before his time…or maybe it sadly was his time. Teshuva, tefillah, tzedakah (repentance, prayer, charity) doesn’t always take away the bad gezeirah, but as my friend Josh would say, it perhaps tempers the harshness of the decree.
While the yamim noraim are an important passage and process to the new year, it’s not everything to me. My blinders are gone and I see the world more harshly than others. It’s raw and full of too much pain; there’s beauty, too, but sometimes not enough to tip those scales. Davening and teshuva (repentance and prayer) can’t always fix everything, but it’s something we can attach ourselves to in the hopes that maybe it can ease the way or the pain, if not for ourselves, then perhaps for someone else. Or maybe it simply keeps us connected to Gd so that we don’t feel so alone in this world.