I Did Not Cry When My Mother Died

Think of me what you will, but I did not cry at my mother’s funeral.  Perhaps it was because I had time to prepare myself mentally and emotionally, or perhaps that’s just the way I am.  It probably doesn’t come as a surprise to those of you who know me well, but from the very beginning to the very end, when it came to escorting my mother to her final resting place, I was forever the Rabbi.

But I did cry.  The day after the funeral when I began to sit shiva at my sister’s house in Chicago, I read a note that the flight attendant had handed me.  We were late leaving DFW and I feared missing my connection in Minneapolis to the G-d forsaken city, Winnipeg (which ultimately did happen.)  Because I was seated in practically the last row of the aircraft, I explained my plight to the flight attendant.  Not only did she move me to the front of the plane, but as I bolted from the aircraft, she handed me a handwritten note on a napkin.  It read:  “Dear Mr. Zell, I’m very sorry to hear about your recent loss, and I’m sorry that our unexpected delay has added more stress to your already difficult situation.  I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you.  I wish I could do more.  She’lo teida od tza’ar (may you know of no more sorrow.)”

I cried the day of the funeral, when I greeted two cousins of mine.  It’s been thirty years since I’ve seen one of them. One flew in from Edmonton and the other turned his car around 120 miles west of Winnipeg as he was heading home to Banff.  There was no doubt in his mind that he would be present to bury his Aunt Ida.  Together, with four others, these two cousins from different sides of the family met to escort my mother’s casket to the hearse, as we made our way to the cemetery for the service.  Upon arriving at the cemetery, I was nearly brought to tears as I looked out and saw thirty-five people, who had come to pay their respects. Some of them family, some of them friends – going all the way back to grade school.  And there I was, having been of little faith, doubting very much that a minyan would be present so that my sisters and I could recite kaddish.

I cried when I met Harlene and Jay Pine, neighbors of my sister, who two weeks earlier, were on an odyssey to visit a grave of a great grandfather buried in the G-d forsaken city.  While there, they made it a point to visit with my mother and spend over an hour with her looking at photographs.  I cried at the daily phone calls that my mother would receive from her friend, Miriam Diamond, checking in to see if everything was okay.  I cried at the visits my cousins would make from time to time coming over to the house to spend precious moments with their Aunt Ida.

I cried at the outpouring of concern and support, the trays of food, the text messages, emails, and phone calls from Chicago, Toronto, New Jersey, Israel, and of course, Dallas.  They mean more to me than anyone can possibly imagine.  They will be remembered and cherished for many years to come.

In all likelihood, I will continue to cry from time to time, not because my mother died but because my mother lived, imbuing me with priceless, as well as timeless, lessons of life that no institution of education could ever offer, and precious memories that will be cherished increasingly with the passage of time.

It is the prophet Isaiah who reminds us that Hashem will wipe away the tears from all faces.  My tears of blessing and gratitude however will remain in my heart for as long as I live.

MORE THAN WE CAN POSSIBLY BELIEVE

I attended a Baptist memorial service last Friday. For me, it was a most positive experience — one that I recommend to other rabbis and other Jews, as well. Having listened as objectively as possible to the minister, from a Baptist perspective I cannot help but feel that he is deserving of a big Yasher Koach for doing an excellent job.

More importantly, however, from a Jewish perspective, attending a Christian service afforded me the opportunity to realize what I, as a rabbi (and, by extension, what I as a Jew) simply do not believe in. For it is only after realizing what I as a Jew do not believe that I can better understand and appreciate — as well as put in a clearer perspective — what I do believe, as well as what makes us Jews so very different.

The minister focused on death. He made a point of correctly pointing out that we will never again find ourselves in the unenviable position of bidding that most difficult and heart wrenching final farewell (“difficult and heart wrenching” are my words…always the rabbi!). Typically, a Jewish memorial service focuses on life. Rather than bidding farewell to the deceased, we are apt to spend time on saying “hello” by introducing or at least reminding those assembled of the good, decent and, hopefully, even remarkable aspects of the deceased’s character via anecdotes about the deceased’s life. I have no idea who coined the phrase “celebration of life” to serve as a euphemism for a funeral service, but, when you stop to think about it, that’s precisely what we Jews have been doing for the longest time as we recall the positive and uplifting, even though the hearts of so many in attendance seem to be pulling in the opposite direction.

As Jews, we seem to be very uncomfortable whenever we are reminded that the deceased is now in a better place. We shouldn’t be. That’s precisely what Judaism teaches — but in no way dwells upon. As “heavenly” as death may be for the deceased, from time immemorial we Jews have adopted the attitude of “what’s your hurry?” In fact, this is exactly what went through my mind as I listened to the minister remind us that our dearly departed is now “whole again” and free from any aches, pains and disabilities that had set in over the years.

Yet I had another thought in mind, as well: Provided we are blessed with mental acuity until the very end of our lives, the longer we are here in this world the greater the opportunity we have of continuing to become a better individual. Accordingly, Jews can’t help but feel that death “got in the way”.

I’ve lost count of how many times Jesus was invoked by the minister, which, when all is said and done, is quite proper as well as theologically correct from a Baptist perspective. The thing is, each time I heard the minister mention Jesus I realized that our admittance into heaven as Jews rests primarily in our belief not in any savior but in ourselves. Our ultimate reward is solely dependent on our ability to stay true to the mitzvot which, if done correctly, will result in our becoming better selves. Judaism maintains that the greater one’s self-improvement becomes, the greater the likelihood of clear sailing into heaven.

At the risk of sounding smug, I’ve never been concerned about having to provide an answer to the question “Did you believe in HaShem?” What does concern me — more than you can ever know — is finding out whether HaShem believed in me!

As Jews, we are all too quick to dismiss such words when we hear them coming from a minister. It seems to be a knee-jerk reaction that there is absolutely nothing any minister can possible teach us as Jews. Perhaps not. One thing is for certain, though: Listening to a minister conduct a memorial service can clarify our Judaism for us more than we can possibly believe.