By DAVID IZRAELEVITZ
The anniversary of my father’s passing, or Yahrzeit in Yiddish, is a date that I have to track carefully on the Jewish calendar. On this modified lunar calendar, the observance of June 6, 2009 changes a few days forward or backward each year, and I have to look it up regularly.
But for my mother’s Yahrzeit, there is no tracking required. She died October 3, 2016, the first day of the Jewish year 5777. So, when we set the dinner table to observe and celebrate Rosh Hashanah, “the Head of the Year,” with the two lit tall candles, the ceremonial glass of wine and the braided bread, we also light a memorial candle in memory of my mother’s passing, a squat version of a devotional candle. Although the bright candles at the center of the table will shine for a few hours, my mother’s less ostentatious candle by the kitchen window will persevere through the whole night and the next day.
If my father was the bright candle that illuminated my family, who charted her path and led the way, it was my mother who was the Yahrzeit candle, that steady influence spending most of her time in the kitchen. While Simon was the man of dreams and adventure, Clara was the anchor to tradition and family. When I visited them from school, my Dad wanted to know about my grades, my research, and my future job prospects; my mother wanted to know if I had been eating healthily, did I need clothes mended, and how I handled my laundry.
Now, with both of them gone, I celebrate the progression of my life, career, new daughters-in-law, grandchildren, and yet feel that hollowness that they are not here to rejoice in these milestones as well. The connection to them is now through their memory, and we are now responsible for sharing those heroic stories and comfort food recipes.
Maybe that is the connection between the beginning of a new year and the end of a life that I feel at Rosh Hashanah. For the end of life becomes the beginning of legacy. However long we can harken back to those who touched us, we can remember that we are here and on life’s path through and because of them. We rely not only on those whose life we now share, but also on support based on lessons and inspiration of whoever helped us get to where and who we are.
I have learned from my astrophysicist friends that much of the light that brightens the night sky comes from those stars that have already been extinguished. Those persistent photons continue on their path to our eyes even after their origin has exploded or withered. If that is true for stars, why can’t it be true for candles? And if true for all sources of light, why can’t it be true for that brightness and warmth from friends and relatives whose memory still comforts and inspires us?
Our tradition is that Rosh Hashanah is not the anniversary of the birth of the universe, but the birth of the first man and woman. We remember not the creation of stars and planets, but the creation of families and love; not the emergence of physical light, but the emergence of the light of human relationships.
After dinner, we go to synagogue for the formal communal service. The service ends with a prayer called the Mourner’s Kaddish, and those who have recently lost a loved one or are observing its anniversary rise to recite it. The first sentence of the Kaddish thanks God for having created the world according to the Divine Will, and ends with a wish for universal peace.
As I rise with fellow mourners, I note that nowhere does the prayer mention death or sorrow. So, I add my own sentence of gratitude: that, according to Your Divine Will, death begets remembrance while sorrow begets wisdom.