Rabbis Without Borders
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My mother’s birthday coincided with Shavuot this year. She would have been 76 years old, had she not died in 2006, at the age of 67. Elisabeth Hoover was not Jewish, so there’s not an empty space for her at my Shavuot table, but I thought of her and fought tears during Yizkor. When you’re the rabbi leading Yizkor, you can’t break down and cry.
I am sometimes asked how to explain death to children, because we’re told that children don’t really understand the finality of death. That may be, but I’m also convinced that adults can’t really grasp it. After they’ve lost of a loved one, I’ve often had people say to me, “I can’t believe I’ll never be able to speak with him/her again.” I have felt that, and continue to feel it, about the absence of my mom. It’s been almost nine years. That’s enough already! It’s time for her to come back.
We have so many movies and TV shows about those who have died communicating with the living, and they range from horror to romance to drama. The Ghost Whisperer, Ghost, Poltergeist, and Being Human are just a few that come to mind. There’s an entire industry of TV shows, books, and psychics claiming to be able to help us communicate with the dead, and there are many adults who believe it can be done. Given all this, it is clear that it’s not just children who can’t understand or believe that death is final.
I believe there are some things in life you never really believe, but you get used to them. Parenting is like that, and the death of a loved one. I’ve never really been able to believe that I’m a parent, that I’ve given life to and am raising other humans. But those humans are now 10 and 14, and I’m used to the idea. Likewise, I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to believe that my mom is dead, but nearly nine years later, I’m getting used to it, reluctantly.
Judaism doesn’t offer a pat answer to what happens after we die. The Torah doesn’t rule out the idea of contact with the dead, but forbids it, perhaps to remind us that we are to stay in this world and not be obsessed with those who are gone. One thing I love about Judaism is that it doesn’t offer certainty about the unknowable, like the nature of God or death. Believe what you want, its message is, but keep living in this world and doing good here.
My mom’s religious tradition offers more of an idea about what comes after life, I think, but I don’t know what she believed about it—we never discussed that. I did ask her, very close to the end of her life, if she had a favorite Psalm, and I’m so glad I did. Her favorite was Psalm 139, “except the cruel parts” about God eradicating our enemies. The Psalm is about God knowing us, inside and out, from before we were born until after we die.
One part reads: “If I take wing with the dawn to come to rest on the western horizon, even there Your hand will be guiding me, Your right hand will be holding me fast” (Psalm 139:9-10). Though I can’t communicate with her or she with me, I believe the my mom is with God, whatever that may mean. I don’t know. But there is comfort in knowing that I can read her favorite Psalm, and that she’s safe in God’s embrace, even as I continue to miss her so much, and slowly get more used to her absence.
Pronounced: shah-voo-OTE (oo as in boot), also shah-VOO-us, Origin: Hebrew, the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, falls in the Hebrew month Sivan, which usually coincides with May or June.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.