Posts Tagged ‘Kaddish’

DEATH AND MEMORY

Last January, I wrote about Michelle Holstein, who had battled cancer for ten years (“Laughing With Cancer”). She did so with courage, grace and humor. Regrettably, the Malach HaMavet—the Angel of Death—cannot be put off forever. Last Tuesday, Michelle died. She was fifty.

We all share the same sad stories. A cousin of mine died of leukemia at age twelve. A cousin’s brother-in-law succumbed to the same disease at nineteen. My fraternity brother Howie Schnabolk was killed in Vietnam at 25. A client died in a car crash at 27. Other friends and relatives also died too early.

How do we cope? We start by mourning. It’s important to face our sadness and our fears. Then we live. We love, care, thrill, discover and laugh—above all, laugh. Not just for ourselves but also for those we’ve lost.

Does heaven offer consolation? For many Christians and Muslims, yes. For Jews, not so much. The Torah mentions Sheol, the place where the dead go. It’s underground, but that’s all we know. What do the dead do there? The Torah doesn’t say.

Centuries after the Torah was written, the Rabbis absorbed concepts of heaven and hell from Christians. But Rabbinic Judaism offers diverse positions on the afterlife and remains light on specifics. Most Jews doubt there’s a place where the good sprout wings and play harps, and the bad suffer fiery torment.

Prominent is the Jewish practice of providing the dead with continuing life through memory. At the conclusion of each worship service, mourners mention the names of their departed and say the Kaddish prayer. (In Reform practice, the entire congregation joins with them.) Kaddish never mentions death. Rather, it praises God. Saying Kaddish acknowledges the Creator of life and enables us to deal with perhaps the most worrisome aspect of death—being forgotten

When I join with mourners then or at memorial services, I think of my father Morris and my mother Blanche. Also of my Aunt Anne and Uncle Moe Horowitz. I say their names on their yorzheits—the anniversaries of their deaths—before reciting Kaddish for them. I hope my children will say Kaddish for me.

Which brings me to my own death. I anticipate being around for some time. My health is great. But this July, I turn seventy. That’s the span of life enumerated in the 90th Psalm. This milestone has had me thinking about my accomplishments (few) and failures (many). I haven’t enjoyed the process, and I’ll make more of a celebration of reaching 70–1/2, the milestone past and my days less weighted with self-reflection.

I’ll also continue thinking about the Talmud’s (Shabbat 153a) guidance that we repent one day before our death. Since we never know when our last day will be, we should repent each day. Our lives may not be longer, but they’ll be better.

Death is inevitable. Memory is strong. Here’s to those who’ve gone before us, including the men and women who gave their lives for the United States. May we never forget them. And may we repent each day so that others will have no cause to forget us.

I’ll be taking off the next two weeks. A new post will appear on June 13.

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MAKING WAY

My cousin Howard called me on Wednesday. It was great to catch up with him. Better yet, it was great that Howard is still here. He had a brain tumor. An operation and radiation have given him clean readings so far, and he’s pretty much back to normal. If, having had a tumor, life can ever resemble normal again.

But as Howard said in so many words, “None of us is getting out of here alive.” Yet how we go makes a big difference. An uncle of mine, 96, hasn’t long. Hospice has been arranged so he can die at home. I hope this comes to pass. My friend Yury died of pancreatic cancer in a hospital two years ago. Neither of us would have chosen that path.

If death is on my mind this week, it’s only natural. Yesterday marked the 76th anniversary of my parents’ wedding, somewhat sandwiched in between the anniversaries of their deaths. And this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (Numbers 19:1–22:1) brings us two significant deaths. The first is that of Miriam. We know little about it. “The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there (Num. 20:1).” A quiet death we presume and hopefully a dignified one.

The second death is Aaron’s. And while Aaron’s passing is seemingly peaceful, it has always disturbed me. After the Israelites arrive at Mount Hor, God instructs both Moses and Aaron, “Let Aaron be gathered to his kin: he is not to enter the land that I have assigned to the Israelite people, because you disobeyed my command about the waters of Meribah (Num. 20:24).” Earlier, Moses had struck a rock rather than speaking to it to bring forth water. God was not pleased. For now, Aaron must pay the price.

Moses, Aaron and Aaron’s son Eleazar, his successor as High Priest, ascend the mountain. Moses strips Aaron of his vestments and puts them on Eleazar. Aaron dies. No farewell tour. No parties. No speeches and toasts. And of course, no video tribute. It all seems so callous. Seemingly without emotion, one generation hands off its duties to the next. The Israelites only realize what has happened when Moses and Eleazar come down. They wail for thirty days—equivalent to today’s Jewish mourning period known as Shloshim.

What can we say? We all die. How else can we make room for our children and grandchildren? And our end will not be glorious. A funeral. Some kind words (true or not). Maybe an obituary in the newspaper (exaggerated or not). Hopefully for Jews, Kaddish recited and a yarzheit candle lit on each anniversary of our passing until no one is left to remember.

But the story of Aaron’s death is also the story of his life. With it all, he died with dignity. And the Sages tell us that Aaron—who pursued peace and sought to bring people together—was beloved where Moses, our great teacher, was feared.

As for me, I’m not prone to worrying about when and how I’ll die. I’d much rather focus on how I’m living.

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