As the sliding doors slid open, I turned my gaze in the direction of the widening opening that would lead into the chapel; the funeral director appeared; and, he beckoned to me. He asked me whether I would like to meet the shomer. I quietly accepted the gracious invite with a polite nod. Leaving the confines of the antechamber, where my immediate family was still gathered, I entered the chapel where the funeral service would be held. There was a single occupant, sitting in the third pew back from the front of the room, where my father’s coffin rested.
After spending a few moments in silence, I approached the shomer, who wore black pants, a white shirt, and a black yarmulke. He was reading from a sefer (book). He explained that he was reading psalms, as required by the one designated to guard the body. The shmira (watch) began after the mincha service, on the afternoon of the day when my father passed away. That was Friday, erev Shabbos; and now on Monday morning, the guardian was still in place. The roots of this custom have to do with the actual guarding of the body; while the spiritual implications are about the protection of the soul, during this particular stage of transition. I felt privileged to have met the shomer, before the actual funeral service for my father took place; this was very comforting to my soul that day.
I chose to have my shirt torn, rather than the more symbolic option, captured in a momento piece, a black ribbon attached to a black circular pin, whereof the ribbon is torn. Although, truth be told, I also requested the black ribboned pin, for a keepsake (untorn) that I still have to this day. Whereas, I no longer have my torn shirt, that I wore that day, and throughout the next six days.
“And tear your heart, and not your garments, and turn to the L-rd your G-d; for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repents of the evil” (Joel 2:13, Tanach Bible). Thus, the symbolism of the tear itself, has to do with the inner grief being experienced at that moment. This is done, right before the funeral service begins. For myself, and my immediate family members, this was done in a private antechamber, wherein the presiding rabbi enacted this mourning custom for us.
Now, that I reflect upon this, two years and one month later, this seems to be the exact moment of the official start of mourning for me. (The actual first seven days of mourning formally begin after the funeral). That brief time, wherein the rabbi guided us through this custom, was perhaps the most prescient moment, serving as an entry point into the mourning period. As I stood there with my mother, my brother, and my sister, there was a silence, as well as a kind of expectation, setting the tone for the beginning of the service.
Harbored in this small room, outside the chapel, even separate from the slightly larger room where close relatives were waiting to meet with us, before the actual sevice, there was a sense of refuge, akin to the calm, when light rain begins to pitter patter on a rooftop, while those inside the house, are quietly waiting out the impending downpour.
Of course there was no downpour, neither actual, nor symbolic. Yet, this quiet moment served as an insular guard against exposure to the many people who were waiting to attend the funeral service. Entering the room adjoining the chapel, close relatives were quietly waiting amongst themselves. There were small bottles of water in strategic positions, with clear plastic cups next to the bottles. I poured myself some water, not inclined to enter into conversation with others. Already compelled by nature as an introvert to remain quiet, and keep to myself, the protocol of the moment called for silence as well.
Last night I lit an yahrzeit (memorial) candle for my father. He passed away two years ago. Today is his yahrzeit – 29 Kislev. Today is also the fifth day of Chanukah. Last night, after lighting a yahrzeit candle, I lit the menorah with my mother via Zoom. We each lit our own menorah. Afterwards, we sang Maoz Tzur – Rock of Ages. Traditionally, after a menorah is lit, the candles are watched in silence as the flames burn on the wick. A basic box of Chanukah candles will burn for about half an hour. Handmade candles will last for about forty-five minutes. We each watched in silence as the candles remained lit until they extinguished themselves.
The fifth night of Chanukah is also very significant for me, not only because my father passed away on the fifth day of Chanukah; additionally, because of the symbolism that is connected with the lighting of the menorah on that particular night. A traditional menorah, actually referred to as a chanukiah, will be in the shape of a candelabra. There are nine candle holders, with the center one raised above the others. So, there are four to the right, and for to the left of the center candle holder. The candle placed in the central position is referred to as the shamash (servant) candle. This is the candle that is used to light all of the other candles.
On the fifth night of Chanukah, five candles are lit, in addition to the shamash candle. So, there would be four to the right of the shamash, and one to the left on a traditional candelabra style chanukiah. Therefore, this type of chanukiah clearly depicts when the candles are lit for the fifth day, that there is more light than darkness. I.e., there are more candles lit than not lit. So, my father’s transition into the next world is denoted symbolically as a transition from darkness into light. Thus, I feel even more reassured about his safe passage to Shomayim (Heaven).
Traditionally, Judaism teaches that the souls of the righteous ascend to Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden). A more common term for this place in Shomayim is Paradise. Here the righteous bask in the radiance of G-d’s light, according to the Talmud. According to kitveikodesh (holy scripture), at the time of the resurrection, the soul is restored to the body, whereas the resurrected self will continue to live in Olam Haba (the World to Come). The first part of Olam HaBa is the millenial Sabbath, wherein the Messiah will reign from Jerusalem for one thousand years, before the new heavens and earth bring a complete restoration for eternity. As depicted by the sages, Malchus Elokim (the Kingdom of G-d) begins with a great banquet.
“This world is like a vestibule before the world to come: prepare yourself in the vestibule, so that you may enter the banquet hall.”
Time is sanctified, within the framework of the Jewish religion, by blessings, the holidays, and the observance of the Sabbath. This morning, at the cemetery, my father’s tombstone (machshaveh) was sanctified, at a service called the Unveiling. His life was sanctified by his commitments to G-d, time spent recognising the holy (kadosh), and the mitzvot (commandments), as well as countless good deeds, constituting the derech (path) of a mensch (good person). Perhaps, he was even a hidden tzaddik (righteous person) – only G-d knows what is in the heart of a person. My father’s soul lives on until the time of the Tehillas HaMeisim (the Resurrection of the Dead), when souls are restored to their bodies. I look forward to seeing him at the Great Banquet – the feast of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. May all of our lives be kindled for the sake of eternity.
Tonight begins the first night of Chanukah, a time of reflection for me, especially this year. Last year, my father passed away on the 29th of Kislev, the fifth day of Chanukah; this Friday is his first yahrzeit (annual memorial). At the cemetery this morning, I led Kaddish, the traditional mourner’s prayer, after the Rabbi said the blessing in order to consecrate the tombstone. There is a sense of closure; and yet, the full year will not be complete until this Friday. Technically the year-long mourning period, aveilus ended already; however, because this is a leap year on the Jewish calendar there are thirteen months. In life and in death we are sanctified; ultimately, we look forward to being crowned with eternal life. May the light of Chanukah bring this eternal joy into our lives.
“I believe by complete faith that there will be a resurrection of the dead at the time that will be pleasing before the Creator, blessed be His name, and the remembrance of Him will be exalted forever and for all eternity.” – thirteenth principle of Maimonides
“Thy dead shall live, my dead bodies shall arise—awake and sing, ye that dwell in the dust— for Thy dew is as the dew of light, and the earth shall bring to life the shades.”
The homogenization of society across the globe, will only diminish the unique cultural, religious and ethnic identity of the various peoples that inhabit this earth. The trajectory that has been established by modernization, enabling the assimilation of traditional moores to give way to the lowest common denominater, will not lead to an amalgamation of society, wherein the individual components thereof retain their unique identity. Rather, the memetic sprawl of trends in cerebral correctness, shaped by the mainstream media outlets, social media, and the entertainment world, will diminish the uniqueness of individuality, in favor of the normative narrative.
One alternative to keep in mind is to return to the original idea of democracy, born of the age of reason, wherein we may be compelled to think for ourselves, rather than accept the standard version of reality being presented to us. Additionally, no amount of “cancel culture” efforts will lead to any kind of utopia. As King Solomon said, “There is no new thing under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). We have seen this before in times past; history has a way of repeating itself. “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it” (George Santayana). Those who subjugate their own cognition to the ubiquitous fact checkers, censorship, and suppression of dissenting voices, will unknowingly permit themselves to be misled by the well established sources that they believe are the purveyors of objective truth.
Our lives can not be reset by the push of a button, nor may our souls achieve the spiritual growth necessary by yielding our thoughts to the normative narrative. Uniqueness, creativity, and individuality cannot exist in a vacuum of mediocrity, where everyone feels compelled to accept the herd mentality. “For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing” (Elie Wiesel). Yet, the passivity of men and women of good conscience who let their reasoning abilities fade into disuse, by absorbing uncritically, the perspective of the pundits, will undermine their own conscience.
This is a wake up call, before it is too late. Do not allow yourself to become entrenched in groupthink; rather, rethink your positions in life, especially if and when you realise that you may have only been parroting what you hear. Unless we check the “facts” for ourselves, the viewpoints that we claim to uphold will neither be truly ours, nor actually substantiated. Return to the quietness of your soul, wherein the still small voice will guide you. Strengthen your soul with the effort to listen to your inner conscience. May we be removed from darkness to light, from ignorance to truth, and from passivity to inquiry.
“The L-RD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He restoreth my soul; He guideth me in straight paths for His name’s sake.”
If you lived in an isolated city, where there were only two flavors of soda, Coke or Pepsi, you would be compelled to choose one of the two, assuming that you enjoyed drinking soda in the first place. Imagine these two brands competing with each other on billboards, advertisements in printed media and television. Your life would constantly be bombarded with choosing between one or the other beverage. Yet, you would have never heard of any other kind of soda, for example, Mountain Dew. How would you even know what Mountain Dew tastes like?
Now, consider that in terms of a worldview, based on politics, your views on life, current events, and the state of the country could be biased because of your immersion in right or left leaning politics, not Coke or Pepsi, rather, Republican, aka conservative, or Democratic, aka liberal views; or somewhere along the spectrum of these paradigms. How could you even be aware that there is another option, that transcends the divisiveness of these positions? When you side with either stance in a binary worldview, your own viewpoints become polarized. Your vision becomes myopic, and your reasoning may become limited. How could you conceptualize, be aware of, or open to the reception of a worldview that transcends this entanglement?
It would be easy to understand political enslavement, when considering the ills of communism and fascism, based upon past historical contexts, for example, the totalitarianism of Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Hitler. Yet, a person’s mind can become enslaved by the mechanics of worldly thinking, even believing that because one gets to choose between two positions, that there is a freedom in this choice. If there were ten different kinds of soda to choose from, and you could only choose between two brands, then you are limited to choosing from twenty percent of the overall choices. If there were ten islands to build a home, raise a family, and have a meaningful vocation, and you lived on one of them, you are not aware of the other lifestyles represented by 90% of the entire chain of islands.
Yet, every individual, when given the so-called “freedom” to choose within a limited set of choices becomes an island unto himself or herself. In isolation, we miss the bigger picture. I do not mean to recommend that there is another political view that encompasses a greater whole. Rather, my point is that basing one’s overall framework of thinking on a political system, in and of itself, places oneself in a box. We are all human, whether Republican or Democrat, right leaning or left leaning, our humanity should not be redefined by politics.
To escape this labyrinth, it is necessary to transcend our limited perspective by considering the view from Above. At the center of a labyrinth, someone standing in a tower can see the entire maze, and give directions to anyone within the labyrinth. Only one entity transcends the limited perspective of humakind. His wisdom is greater than our wisdom; His thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9). When we turn towards Him, we may be lifted up above the labyrinth of life, so that we may see with His eyes. You might find the view to be refreshing, perhaps, like viewing the ground below and the clouds above from the window of an airplane, even flying above the clouds.
Some might think that I am overreacting. However, I have been sheltering in place, virtually twenty four – seven, somewhat isolated from others, except for Zoom, email, text and phone. The end result being that I tend to dwell on the negative news, and had developed a view of the current climate within the moral sphere as dwindling. Yet, at the health food store this afternoon, I was revivified, when a woman behind me paid for the balance on my shopping tab.
Apparently, the deposit that I made prior to going to the store hadn’t cleared yet, so I wasn’t able to pay for all of my groceries. So, the godsent person in line paid for the remaining $5.99. Were I not to call this to attention, I would have only been trivializing something that was really amazing for me; so, I hope that my mentioning this does not seem trivial to the reader.
Additionally, the store where this blessing ocurred, had previously been a “curse” to me on numerous occasions since March. The standards of protocol during the first several months of the coronavirus were nil, and customers were always infringing upon my space. Even today, there were three customers without masks, perhaps, due to an oversight on the part of the store management.
In any case, G-d opened my eyes to my own negative perspective, and the possibility of changing my viewpoint for the better. Perspective is paramount, for reality in the form of every day events does not exist within a vacuum. Our own attitude, perception, and judgments place “a value” on whatever we encounter throughout each and every day of our lives. Our perspective is colored by many factors, including temperament, character and beliefs, as well as our general unspoken presuppositions about the world.
For myself, there is often a disconnect between my ideal self and my real self. These are terms borrowed from humanistic psychology. Ideally, I would like to exhibit the positive characteristics mentioned as desirable within the framework of my religious belief and practice. However, the journey from the mind to the heart is a progressive path that only occurs over time, inclusive of diligence, life experience, and falling short again and again.
“Care in the heart of a man boweth it down; but a good word maketh it glad” (Proverbs 12:25, JPS 1917 Tanach). “A good word” was spoken today, when a fellow human being stepped forward, asking, “Can I help?” I stepped aside from the card reader, while she placed her card in the electronic device. I was astonished, and said twice through my mask, to make sure that she heard me, “Thank you.” And, I prayed that she should be recompensed for her kindness. Blessings to all of the persons known, or unknown, who enact random acts of kindness, making the world a better place to live.
“The more I learn the more I realize how much I don’t know.”
– Albert Einstein
Life is like a canvas, whereupon the childhood imprints of our lives leave an impression of some sort, depending on those experiences. Even if we attempt to paint brighter colors over the dark, or find that life itself, somehow seems to taint our ideal painting, causing the strokes of the brush to be inexact, so that the overall artistry of the painting is subdued, there is no need for alarm.
Every brushstroke, pastel colors for the skies, and oil paints for the earth will all blend into the timeless picture of our soul. And, although G-d is indeed the divine artist of our lives, we may use His guidance for every detail that is painted on the canvas of our soul, using the various materials that He gave us to work out our nisyanos (challenges) in life.
For myself, it is only in retrospect that I am able to see how one thing led to another in my life; yet, I know that the closer that I am drawn to G-d’s purpose for me, I am reassured that the artistry of my soul, and the corresponding tapestry of my life, will be brought to fruition. I trust in Him, who knows best for me, all of the trials and tribulations purposefully designed to bring about the most beneficial result, for the sake of my soul.
Ultimately, spiritual growth is for the sake of the soul; even more so, it’s as if to say that “spiritual growth” is not an end, in and of itself, rather, a means of expression, to shape and mold the soul. For what purpose might climbing the ladder of personal development or focusing on an ethical way of living be, except to refine the soul?
As time passes, the past recedes into the interior depths of my memory, while new light brings forth realization that changes my perspective about what occurred throughout the various chapters of my life so far. And, so, memories incubate until they may be brought out into light of consciousness, to be reflected upon by a hopefully wiser person, than I was years ago.
Yet, even as I write these words, there is a definitive feeling of “growing younger,” until I am able to become lighthearted again at times. During uncertainty, I would not want my spirit to be crushed again, by the challenges of life. Instead, now, I am trying to focus on resilience, creativity and completion, for the sake of creating a repository of positive words that may inspire others on their own personal journey in life.
An additional thought, I can not discount that there appears to be a lapse of knowlege, as if what was important to me in the past, has diminished in its value over the years. The emphasis that I placed upon myself, as well as pride in my accomplishments and knowledge, has been replaced by an openness to learn, rather than to think that I already know. I have developed an attitude of indifference towards ambition, because that would only take me out of the moment, wherein G-d is doing wonders, in the moment, by implementing colors I’ve never realized ever even existed.