As children, my siblings and I attended almost every Sabbath and holiday services at our Temple. The exception to this rule was the afternoon Yizkor service on Yom Kippur, at which my slightly superstitious mother expelled us from the sanctuary. This service was set aside for individuals who had lost parents and other close relatives. My mom was not a risk taker and must have reasoned that she need not tempt fate so brazenly by inviting her children to sit among those crying for their loved ones.
This year on Yom Kippur, I attended that service of remembrance at my Temple, and the rabbi included my mother’s name in the recitation of loved ones who had died since the last day of Atonement. Tomorrow marks exactly six weeks since my mom’s death, and I am still adjusting to a life that does not include her daily conversations. My world is quieter and emptier without her voice and powerful presence. Over the past few weeks, the liturgy of the High Holidays pierced through me, as I recited the poetic Unetaneh Tokef (translated here from the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ Gates of Repentance), “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed…. Our origin is dust and dust is our end. Each of us is a shattered urn, grass that must wither, a flower that will fade, a shadow moving on, a cloud passing by, a particle of dust floating on the wind, a dream soon forgotten.”
I know that our lives are fleeting, yet in this first year of mourning for my mother, she is anything but a vanishing cloud. In an effort to conjure her presence, I cooked her traditional recipes for Rosh Hashanah- her soup with the all important parsnip, matza balls that demanded chilling prior to boiling, sweet brisket, and apple kugel that filled my house with the fragrance of her kitchen. I spoke to relatives and her dear friends, and we exchanged memories of my mom and reminded one another of how much love she shared.
Now, after the hours of introspection, hunger, haunting high holiday melodies, and literal breast beating over Yom Kippur, the Jewish calendar has inched toward the full moon of Tishrei and the Biblical “season of our joy, z’man simchateinu.” I have set my mind to turning my grief outward, to stop mentally replaying the details of her death, to wind down the paperwork and forms that must be taken care of, and to look outward again toward others. The Unetaneh Tokef becomes my guide in preserving her goodness in this world. I commit myself to engaging in that three-fold blend of repentance, prayer, and charity to “temper the severe decree” and keep her goodness present.
I see so many of my friends and neighbors walking in this same path, losing their parents, who used to stand like tall, strong trees towering in our backyards, offering protection. Now, these frail trees, nearing the end of lifespans, appear to fall with each passing storm. Nothing looks quite the same without them offering us their leafy shade. Our horizon has changed.
I have listened to the grief podcasts, the lectures of a neuroscientist who explains that one’s grieving brain panics in a similar fashion to a distressed brain that has lost and seeks a vanished object. Grief is not a straight line. Grief arrives in waves. Grief affects everyone differently. There is complicated grief, akin to long-Covid, a stubborn grieving that lingers and weakens us. Our body chemistry affects the way we grieve, or perhaps our grief affects our hormones. We know so much and still are stymied by the magnitude of our losses, even the ones that arrive in the “correct order” of nature, even the quiet loss of an elderly parent.
On Sukkot, we insist on joy, even as we reside in flimsy huts vulnerable to the rain and wind, and end-of-season aggressive bees. We shake the round etrog along with the willow, myrtle, and palm in every direction. We seek God. We search for traces of those we have lost. We look up to see the vanishing clouds and the stars. Our hearts, sour like an etrog, search for joy.