I ended 2014 by making the trip from California to New Jersey to visit my father’s grave. I stood on frozen ground remembering the frigid day of his funeral fifteen years ago. On that day, Sylvia Heschel came up beside me at the graveside linking her arm in mine. I pulled her close thinking she sought the warmth of my body, but then she murmured: “I can see them now…” and I realized she was consoling me with her imagining of my father reunited, in death, with her deceased husband, my father’s beloved teacher and friend. In her minds eye these men who loved one another in life were loving one another’s company in death, sharing a scotch, perhaps, singing a niggun, most likely, surely talking about their life with God. Sylvia envisioned a continuity between worlds that I had not imagined until that moment. And in the years since, I have come to join Sylvia Heschel’s musing, finding comfort in imagining that Gan Eden is a welcoming community, a fellowship in the Beyond.
As we close out the secular year, we also close the book of Genesis, reading its last chapters this week, in which our patriarchal father Jacob dies and is “asaf el amav,” “gathered to his people.” His twelve sons carry Jacob’s embalmed body back to Canaan to the cave Abraham dedicated as the family burial plot. He joins his people, buried in the company of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, and Leah, the Cave of Machpelah just as much a community as the “old neighborhood” of the Jewish Cemetery where my father is buried at the feet of his in-laws and they at the feet of my grandmother’s parents, cousins and friends just across the grassy path.
The death of Jacob lends a transitory finality to the narrative of the patriarchs, but the trip back to the cave of Machpelah brings this ending ‘round to the beginning of the family story, indeed, to the beginning of biblical time, as, according to the Zohar, Adam and Eve are buried there as well. The Zohar describes Abraham’s accidental discovery of the cave while he is chasing a runaway calf. He follows his little charge into the cave, and once inside Abraham becomes aware of a glow that illuminates two burial mounds. As he pauses to acclimate to the light, the image of Adam rises up from one of the mounds and smiles at Abraham. The Zohar teaches that it is in response to Adam’s sweet gesture of welcome that Abraham decides: this will be his burial place.
In another passage we learn that the light by which Abraham sees Adam gesturing to him is a radiance streaming into the cave from an interior gateway to Paradise. The Cave of Machpelah is a portal to Gan Eden, residence of everlasting souls, and also the symbol of both the primordial beginning and the messianic end of time. In the Zohar’s midrashic spin, between culminating one story and opening the next, the Torah returns, in a liminal moment of narrative transition, to the cave with it’s secret door to Eden, remembering its root in God’s glorious Creation and acknowledging it’s promise of God’s redemption. The Torah marks the end of the patriarchal story as we mark our own milestones and comings of age, pausing to acknowledge what and who has brought us to a given moment, while holding that precious moment within the context of the fulfillment we imagine our futures yet to hold.
Last week I returned to my family’s burial plot, making a big trip at a ridiculously busy time. My life is moving forward but I went back, for a moment, just to sing a psalm with my dad, just to touch base, just to be a prodigal returned for the briefest moment before projecting myself forward. I think I heard him affirm a decision I have been wrestling with; I imagined my dear parent rising from his mound nodding as he smiled at me. And I will take that smile into my own next chapter, feeling my father standing at my back as I cross this threshold empowered to nurture the Eden that is coming.
“Everything is rent.” – Rent, by Jonathan Larson
This week our Jewish high school put on a production of Rent, a rather bold choice for a religious institution. I was very proud of the kids. Their performance was spectacular, but better, through dialogue with teachers, rabbis, surviving families and friends of people who lived and died of AIDS, they understood the message, and it’s a core, it’s a Jewish one: Life is the most precious gift we have, so let us not waste it.
The message reminds me of a favorite story:
A few hundred years ago, a Jewish merchant came upon a shtetl he had never visited before. The times we difficult, many of the usual towns in his travels had been ravaged by plague, or abandoned after a pogrom. Thinking about all the people in all those places broke the peddler’s heart. It broke again at this new town as he wound his way along the path to the gates of the town that led past gravestones and markers through a sprawling cemetery. It was not the enormity of the graveyard that stuck him, he had seen the fields outside of Cracow, Prague, and even Warsaw. No, it was the numbers on the graves: 9, 25, 12, 13. Oy gevalt! My God, he thought, these were children. This is a town that is bereft of her young!
When he reached the synagogue, he was warmly greeted by a few elderly gentlemen who were just leaving the great building in the town’s central square.
“A gutn tag,” one said to the peddler.
“Good afternoon to you sir,” he replied. “Tell me, what calamity has befallen your lovely community?”
“It’s too awful to speak of. Please ask the rabbi.”
The peddler entered the synagogue and found the rabbi at the front of the hall, he was seated at a long wooden table.
“Yes, my friend,” the rabbi said over the brown leather volume he had been pouring over.
“Rabbi, I am a peddler, a visitor to your town. I have visited many towns and cities that have been afflicted by war, by plague, and even pogrom. Rabbi, I have seen and heard of many tragedies, but your town, what horrid thing has befallen your townspeople?”
“You have seen our cemetery?”
“I have, and I cried for your children and for their parents too.”
“ I see,” said the sage, “ You were right to weep, but you may have misunderstood. It is the custom of our town not to list on the gravestone a person’s age, but rather to list on the marker the number years a person really lived.”
As an encore, the players in the show invited the audience to sing along to one of the show’s signature songs; Seasons of Love was printed inside the program. “Five Hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes”. We reminded ourselves and each other to count the blessings of each minutes of every day, month and year we are privileged to share. Likewise, we reminded ourselves to make each and every minute count.