Shemini Atzeret 5774
I know a man who once asked me to bury his father. The father, who had died after a moderately long life but a life that wasn’t long enough, was buried in the heart of winter, with a heavy snow falling outside, and cold, bracing winds blowing between New York and New Jersey. We eulogized the father in a funeral home on the Upper West Side, with Kleenex boxes and serious undertakers and glasses of water, at room temperature, set aside for thirsty mourners throats, tired from talking and crying. A time for talking and a time for crying.
The ride to the cemetery was brief. At the graveside the wind kicked up. Family and friends steeled into it and looked for sunlight, for hope, through the scattered clouds. A time for sun and a time for clouds.
The grave, it’s frozen earth arranged in small heaps, curated, as it were, welcomed the pine box and the body of the man. A time for bodies and a time for souls.
He was a hardware man. He owned a store that sons and nephews and cousins had worked in, grown in, evolved in. When the box was lowered into the ground one had a sense that the men who gathered around it like a team at a loading dock wordlessly dispatches deliveries, knew what to do.
They grabbed the shovels and went to work. The hardened earth, the frozen earth, became molded clay, softened by the blows and then conveyed, lovingly, down, down, down into the ground. A time for up and a time for down.
One such man signalled the cemetery workers standing off to the side in observance of this viscerally timeless Jewish gathering on the winter land which was New Jersey but could have easily been Minsk; and in a seamless consonance of purpose and understanding, conveyed to the cemetery workers, mostly Latinos to let the Jews do their work.
“Dad would love this,” one said. And they kept on digging and lifting and tossing that earth, down, down, down into the cold, cold ground. They were committed to complete the job. The grave workers would sit off to the side. Watching the Jews bury their dead. “This is what we do,” the Jews said. “This is our job. This is our work now.”
Just then, before the job was complete, an uncle, the brother of the deceased, “the atheist,” a philosopher, steps forward toward the hole in the ground. I am propelled back twenty-five years in time, to my own grandfather’s frozen graveside, to a hole in the ground that my grieving grandmother, Russian-born, offered herself down to--take me, take me, she cried. A dead man. A dead man. I feared the worst. That the brother would throw himself down, like Esau returning, once and for all, to Jacob. But at the moment, in a flash, he opened, his jacket, pulled out a camera, aimed its lens, and shot a picture of the casket, nestled into the earth. In a moment, beneath a Jersey sky, he made his own memorial.
“No monuments need be put up for the righteous,” the Talmud teaches us, “their words are their monuments.” Then the son of the dead father spoke. “Let him take the picture,” he said. “It’s his way of dealing with this.”
Robert Frost wrote, “God once spoke to people by name. The sun once imparted its flame. One impulse persists as our breath. The other persists as our faith.”
The son, like many of us at the graveside, had faith. The brother, like many of us at the graveside, had his needs. And both stories, wound around each other like the tefilin straps holding near the words bound to our hearts and souls, are a greater memorial to those who lived and died than that which is carved in stone, only to be one day worn away by wind and rain and sun and snow.
קחו עמכם דברים--take with you words, said the prophet Hosea, on Shabbat Shuva, nearly three weeks ago--ושובו אל ה אלוהיך--and return to the Eternal your God. Take with you words and return to the Source of All Life, to Everything that was and is and always will be.
We work so hard to mourn. We work so hard to remember. We work so hard to hold on to the memories of those we love, to keep their souls, their goodness, their decency, their kindness and even their complications, alive with us in the world. And we shape and mold our understanding with words, expressed in laughter and tears and revelry and bitterness and frustration and exaltation, words upon words upon words, like rocks, piled high on a stone, marking time and our presence, bearing witness that they were here, that we are here.
Recently, nearly 15 years after burying the man’s father, I buried his mother. Time, that beautiful, paradoxical, inexorable force of metamorphosis, had made its mark. Living, talking, growing, changing and evolving had deepened understanding; it had softened the hard, frozen edges of death’s searing mandate.
Some of those who stood over the family plots fifteen years ago were still there; others were now gone. Surveying the scene one cousin said, “Let’s go. Let’s fill it in. This is our job. This is the work we have to do now.” This time the son was satisfied filling in *most* of the way and letting the cemetery workers do the rest.
“It’s just what we’re going to do this time,” said the son. “I did my work for Daddy.” He was more rooted now, it seemed. More deeply reflective. With a second parent gone, the horizon, drawing near, demanded a more open posture.
And at that moment, under a late summer sky, trees still full and in ripe anticipation of their own impending deciduousness, a great truth was spoken. A child knew his mourning work. He knew what he needed to remember and he knew what he could forget. When to work and when to rest. He knew when to laugh and when to cry, when to seek and when to lose, when to love and when to hate, when to be silent and when to speak.
With time, in his memory, in the words he spoke, he had attained wisdom. “It’s not work. It’s just what we do.”
“Because Koheleth was a sage,” we learn, “he listened to and tested the soundness of many maxims. The sayings of the wise are like goads, like nails fixed in prodding sticks.”
Words are the ways we make memorial for the righteous. Their words and our words. Deeds are the ways we grant eternal life to those we remember. Ecclesiastes, so seemingly cynical in his ordered, seasonal affective post-mortem on loss and life and fate, concludes with this deepest of lessons about life and death, gain and loss, and wisdom:
“The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe His commandments. For this applies to all mankind: that God will call every creature to account for everything unknown, be it good or bad. סוף דבר הכל נשמע את האלוהים ירא ואת מצותיו שמור כי זה כל האדם--It’s just what we do. We laugh and we cry. We remember and we forget. We build memorials and we make new life. And in the doing is the remembering, the souls of those who live forever, the Source of All Life who is forever, together with those we love, בצרור החיים--Bound up in the bonds of everlasting life, forever.