The Book of Life: Life and death during the High Holidays

I have looked at the High Holidays very differently the past few years. I have been wondering what has shaped this new outlook and keep coming back to one word: Death.

Going through daily prayers during Elul, preceding Rosh Hashanah, and preparing for Rosh Hashanah itself, and the Ten Days of Repentance until Yom Kippur, I am more mindful (perhaps than ever) of the tone of the prayer. We devote ourselves to God and to keeping His commandments, but more now than during the whole year we have to reflect on our shortcomings and strive to do better in the coming year. We beseech God to be inscribed for a year of health, prosperity, peace and life.

And in going through this process we are aware that as much as He is the final Judge, the outcome of that judgment is in our own hands. How we behave, how we observe God’s commandments, and how we interact with others all factor into the sealing of our fate for the coming year.

The Holidays are supposed to be a time of great joy, as well as introspection and prayer. Far too many Israeli homes will have an empty seat at the table this year and that is a hard thing to face, in general, and especially for those who have experienced death and loss through terrorism and war. For those paying attention to the prayers, there must be many among them who say the words, but do so with the feeling of a bone in one’s throat. They wonder as they mourn, praying for health, life, peace, an annulment of harsh judgments, how God could have taken their loved one, whether three years ago in the Second Lebanon War, or two decades ago during the (First) Lebanon War, or just last week. They weep over the many ways we see that death can happen: fire, water, thirst, hunger, etc. and wonder how God could have allowed that Katyusha to kill the way it did, or the terrorist to be on target at that very moment, the plane to crash.

Others I am sure cannot even utter the words for they are too painful.

Thirteen years ago I went through a similar conflict. My father had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer ten months earlier. We were told that by being diagnosed so early, he stood a better chance to survive if the treatments were successful, even though the survival rate from pancreatic cancer was a fraction of a percent. But after successive hospitalizations and surgeries, all the doctors told us there was no hope. I watched him decline physically, and I was probably in denial even until the very end. He came home from his final hospitalization just before Rosh Hashanah 1996, and my mother had the good sense to call hospice to be sure that his final days were lived in comfort and with as much dignity as possible.

That year, each time my wife lit candles to usher in another yom tov when we would be detached from news and communication with the outside world, my physiology changed. I feared that my father would die and I would not know about it for a day or two after.

Sitting in shul was about all I could do. I felt it was dishonest to follow a ritual of prayer that asked to heal the sick, annul judgments against us and to be inscribed in the book of life. My father lay dying, he could have been dead for all I knew, and my head and heart were not in it at all. I am sure I was angry. My faith hit rock bottom, and my grief was profound.

We were blessed during that time with an interruption of the pain in the birth of our third daughter. She was a joy to behold, and to hold. I argued with my wife that we should adopt the Sephardi custom of naming for the living rather than the Ashkenazi custom that we name for those who have died. She won, and she was right. But even in the minutes after she was born, as the whole world was filled with joy and happiness at her arrival, I was overcome by sadness and grief that she and my father would never get to know each other.

My father did get to meet her and hold her twice. He was clearly in awe, and fell in love with her instantly as he had with his other two granddaughters before that. But I stared on in pain because it was just not fair that these two opposite sides of the life cycle should come together like this.

My grief, anger and fear increased as Yom Kippur ended and Sukkot began. I wondered in a very strange way WHAT I HAD DONE to deserve the punishment of my father’s death. How could God punish me like this?

Even as he lay unconscious from the increased medication to ease his pain, I was in shock, and definitely partly in denial. My father died on the 27th of the Hebrew month Tishrei, days after Simchat Torah when we literally renew the cycle of reading the Torah. The Torah ends, and we begin reading it again from the start. Moshe dies after leading the Jewish people for 40 years, and then God creates life. There is no pause, no break in the reading from one week to the next as is done during the year. Many brighter than I have commented on this, but in its most simple form, this underscores that life itself is a cycle.

It has taken me the better part of these thirteen years to realize this, celebrating my daughter’s 13th birthday as we approach my father’s thirteenth Yahrzeit. Three years ago, my mother died somewhat suddenly. When she was alive, we had the occasion to speak about death more than a few times. My fear of death has gone, and the grief after my mother’s death was very different. Maybe it’s not having living parents any more that has enabled me to crystallize these thoughts. My mother’s healthy approach to living, not simply the state of being alive but doing something meaningful and productive with that time, however little or long we are given, is an inspiration for me. I know that she, and my father as well, would not want their death to be the end of our living.

As much as the grief and sense of loss has never gone away following my father’s death, and that it was renewed by my mother’s death, I am older and wiser and know that rather than my being punished, I was given the privilege of wonderful parents and many blessings along my life so far. I am happily married, raising six extraordinary children, and live in a beautiful home in the heart of Israel. My work is meaningful and enjoyable. I have the ability to give tzedaka rather than be on the receiving end. I have health and many talents with which I can help others. I do hope that I will be able to live a long time to enjoy these blessings and impart to my children these and many other wisdoms that will enable them to live and celebrate life fully.

At my mother’s funeral, I spoke about the saddest part of the Torah, for me at least. That’s the death of Moshe. He was the leader, the teacher, the inspiration that God chose and who the Jewish people followed to begin life again as free people in our own land. His death must have been met with a level of grief that was simply unknown until then. That’s how I felt at my mother’s death, the end of a generation and passing of the torch to a new generation. It is scary, sad and challenging to realize that you no longer have parents to fall back upon for support, unconditional love, wisdom and advice. And how much more so it must have been for the Jewish people to realize the awesome task of going forward without their leader.

These past few years, I have read the ending of the Torah with a new perspective. In a few weeks we’ll read of Moshe’s death, but what is happening now, building up to that point, is he is preparing the people to go on without him. He’s reminding them what he taught them before. He is training a new leader to follow in his place. And he is giving us inspiration and hope that as hard as things may get, everything will turn out alright.

It has taken thirteen years, but I realize that now. My father’s death thirteen years ago, and my mother’s death just over three years ago were the saddest days of my life. Days and events that have shaken the foundation, but ultimately reaffirmed that which I already know. That which they imparted in me. The grief and loss are still palpable, but I also understand now that life does go on, that everything will be OK, and that this is part of the cycle of life, albeit that I would have rather experienced as a much older person.

For those in Israel who mourn the victims of war and terror attacks, or anyone who lost a loved one in the past year, as hard as it is now, hopefully you will come to this point as well. For others with a parent or loved one in the same situation as I was in thirteen years ago, I hope this provides an element of perspective and comfort.

May we all be sealed in the Book of Life, and for those who are not, may their survivors have comfort and understanding, and the strength and courage to move on in living. Through living, we celebrate the memory of those who have left us physically, but who will never stop being part of us.

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