by Shira Sebban (Sydney, Australia)
Like most of us, I usually try to avoid thinking about death. Its seeming finality – the enormity of the thought that we are never coming back – is not something I have ever managed to face and comprehend fully no matter how hard I try. Instead, heart thumping, courage faltering, I usually come to a screeching halt just before plunging over what seems like the looming precipice beyond.
Yet, on the ninth anniversary of my beloved father’s passing and just a few days after attending the funeral of my dear friend Shimon, I find myself drawn to musing about death and to be able to do so more calmly and rationally than ever before.
Selfless and discreet, Shimon was a caring man, a listener, who preferred not to speak about his own trials and tribulations and devoted much of his life to helping others through his nursing work and later as the hospital chaplain for our synagogue. Listening to the rabbi’s eulogy for Shimon, I felt uplifted and a sense of inner peace soothed my soul – just as my friend would have wanted.
I do not normally derive comfort from a Jewish funeral service. Nor are you meant to. The tearing of relatives’ clothing over their hearts to symbolize their pain, recital of prayers – “You return us to dust… the best of … years have trouble and sorrow; they pass by speedily, and we are in darkness” (Psalm 90) — and the harsh thud of earth shoveled onto the coffin, all serve as a wake-up call to those who grieve.
In addition to honouring the deceased, mourners are required to confront the reality that not only have they lost their loved one, but that their own lives are finite: “Teach us to number our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90) Indeed, this is the source of the Jewish tradition of wishing mourners “a long life” – not because we would be so heartless, as I once thought, as to desire that they live for a long time without their loved one but because we hope they will enjoy “long days” from which they will derive meaning and purpose, striving to make the world a better place.
My mother would often quote a passage from the Talmud, which is traditionally recited for a man at a Jewish funeral: “It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (Tarfon, Pirke Avot, 2:21)
At Shimon’s funeral, the rabbis recited a beautiful poem, “Life is a Journey,” by the late Rabbi Alvin Fine of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, which provides a realistic summary of the fallible human condition. Failure certainly does not preclude meaning:
“From defeat to defeat to defeat, until, looking backward or ahead,
We see that victory lies not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey, stage by stage, a sacred pilgrimage.” (from Gates of Prayer, published by the CCAR)
Perhaps I have become more aware of death because I have been writing the life stories of my late grandfather and of my mother, who is now sadly in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease. In the course of this journey, I have been fortunate to have been able to trawl through a treasure trove of family letters, some dating back as far as the 1930s – snippets of social history, which regrettably, with the advent of email and the Internet, come to an end around the year 2000. It is sobering to realise that I will not be leaving the same legacy for my children.
Written in English, Hebrew, Yiddish and even occasionally Polish, these letters have crisscrossed the globe. Desperate letters in Yiddish from a sister in Lodz, Poland, in 1935 to her sister, my late grandmother, in Tel Aviv; hundreds of letters in Hebrew, which followed my mother’s journey from Tel Aviv to Melbourne, Australia, in the late 1940s and back again, and then on to London and Montreal a decade later and back to Melbourne once more in the late 60s; and letters in English spanning four decades from my Canadian father’s family in Toronto to their brother in Melbourne and from my adopted Melbourne “aunt” and close family friend to my mother, providing vignettes of what life was like for Australians in the 1950s and 60s.
In perusing these letters, each preserved in its original envelope, what quickly becomes clear is that no matter what advances technology may bring, fundamentally little has changed: human beings still experience joy and suffering, success and failure, complain about the economy, celebrate births and marriages and bemoan divorces and deaths among family and friends. Life continues – whether you are there to witness and experience it or not. As the ancient Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) teaches: “there is nothing new under the sun.” (1.9) “One generation passes away, and another generation comes; And the earth abides for ever.” (1.4)
So much toil and trouble, fuss and bluster, anguish and elation. Yet, after we are gone and our contemporaries have also vanished with the passing years, what remains? For the creative few, a contribution to knowledge they may have made; a book they may have written; artwork they may have produced. For those with means, a legacy in bricks and mortar or a charitable foundation to which they may have contributed. For the vast majority of us, the living legacy of our children, grandchildren, and possibly even great-grandchildren, as well as photos and other memorabilia and perhaps sayings or traditions handed down from generation to generation.
My late father was a quiet man. On the first anniversary of his passing, the rabbi likened him to the Ancient Israelite tribe of his Hebrew namesake Issachar, whom Moses exhorted to rejoice quietly “in your tents”, in contrast to fellow tribe Zebulun, who was to be happy “on your journeys”. (Deuteronomy, 33:18)
In his own discreet way, my father did whatever he could to care for and support his family. He would do anything for the ones he loved and he was everything to us. To him, home and family came first, and I will never forget how on the day he died, he urged me to leave his hospital bedside and return to my husband and young children because “they need you”.
My father stood like a pillar at the centre of our lives. We were all accustomed to depending on him, and when he died, we felt his absence keenly. In the days and months that followed, I could not help but ask myself how it would have bothered anyone if he had been allowed to continue driving through the streets, helping to lighten the load of his family and friends?
At my friend Shimon’s funeral, the rabbis also quoted from Ecclesiastes:
“Kohelet wrote: ‘The eye never has its fill of seeing.’ (1.8) … God, be now with those whose hearts are broken because, whenever parting comes, it comes too soon.”
Unfortunately, such words of comfort were missing from my own father’s funeral and shiva. The rabbi went to great lengths to urge the family not to respond to the embraces of friends at the funeral; he only agreed to attend shiva once at my parents’ city apartment; and when at his request, my mother, sister and I came to the synagogue each evening during shiva to recite Kaddish, we found the main sanctuary cold and dark, with the men comfortably ensconced in the small, cheery annex used during the week. The annex did not have a mechitza (partition to separate men and women), and so the men insisted that we file into the main sanctuary and sit in the row closest to the annex, the windows of which were opened so that we could hear the prayers.
Until my father’s passing, I had been fairly sure that there was nothing after death. Although I keep a traditional Jewish home and had spent years studying philosophy, I could not seem to accept the idea of “eternal life” and “everlasting peace” in the “world to come”. Yet, when I lost my father just a few hours after spending the night tending to his needs in hospital, I began to question my former apparent certainties. How was it possible that my father could be there one minute and gone the next? What had happened to his persona, to the essence of who he had been, to his soul?
Ecclesiastes teaches: “And the dust returns to the earth as it was, but the spirit returns unto God, who gave it.” (12.7) Today, while I am still not sure whether or not I believe in God, I draw comfort from praying that my father’s “soul be bound up in the bond of everlasting life” and I strive to honor his memory through my actions.
As Rabbis Sylvan Kamens and Jack Riemer wrote in their poem, We Remember Them, also recited at Shimon’s funeral:
“As long as we live, they too shall live,
for they are now a part of us,
we remember them.” (From Gates of Prayer)
Shira Sebban, a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia, worked as a journalist for the Australian Jewish News. She previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. You can read more of her work at: http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=13636