This week marks a transition for my husband's family. Monday marked 11 months since my husband's father left the world. That means that come next week, three brothers will complete their 11 months of halachic (Jewish ritual) mourning. This has been a journey for these brothers, dealing with their own grief and assisting their mother, to the best of their ability, long distance.
In solidarity with my husband, and to honor my father-in-law's memory I chose to take on some of the Jewish mourning rites alongside him. We replied no to nearly everyone who invited us to a celebration. We still have not programmed the stations on the car we bought in January. Amazing concerts have come through the New York area and we have not attended any of those. The only way we have seen feature films has been on demand. The theater has become something that other people do.
We read in Re'eh, this week's Torah portion (Deuteronomy 14:1) Banim Atem L'Hashem- You are children of the Lord your God. Perhaps my husband will be comforted on Shabbat morning when he reads that he will always be a child of God, as he is poised to end his daily mandated recitation of the mourners Kaddish.
The rest of the verse reads "you shall not cut yourself or makes gashes." About this verse, the Italian commentator Sforno writes: It is not proper for you to show extreme concern and pain for the death of a relative, when a more honorable and distinguished relative still remains, in whom there is hope for ultimate good. Therefore, since you are Children of God, Who is you Eternal Father, it is unseemly that you should worry and mourn excessively over the death of anyone. Sforno teaches us that we are eventually supposed to move on following the death of a parent. We need to do things differently in the absence of that particular loved one. Sure it is often hard, but excessive grief is not healthy or encouraged in the Jewish tradition.
The Lord is father and mother too, writes Chaim Vital. And the Midrash (Dvarim Rabbah) teaches that Kol Makom she'ata holech, Elokecha Imach, wherever you go, God goes with you. If we are children of God, then we are never alone. Our sages understood that 11 months is an appropriate amount of time to publicly mourn a parent on a daily basis. After that, we need to fully reintegrate into society and set up new systems. Mourning is different than remembering. With time and God's help we should (as we say each morning in Psalm 30) turn our mourning into dancing and our sackcloth into robes of joy. It is not easy to do, but in time, we can laugh and smile at our memories without tears.
The expression Children of God was made known to me from secular and popular culture long before I encountered it in Torah. Three of my "rebbes" go by the names of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. They are the ones that convinced me when I was a youthful seeker to stay on a path of God, community and mitzvot when they sang "you who are on the road must have a code that you can live by." My code is Jewish law. It works for me, in nearly every aspect of my life. It enables me to be a better person.
With the help of Joni Mitchell, my rebbes actually invoke this week's Torah portion with their hit song Woodstock, about the August 1969 music festival.
Well I came upon a child of God, he was walking along the road
And I asked him tell where are you going, this he told me:
(He) said, I'm going down to Yasgur's farm, going to join in a rock and roll band.
Got to get back to the land, and set my soul free.
We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.
How biblical. In the Garden, Gan Eden, the first people had no parents; they only had God. They only knew how to exist without flesh and blood parents. As any of you who have lost parents know, that is often a challenging transition. But the first two people who walked the earth lived without this familial relationship and therefore did not know what they missed out. The anonymous voice in the song found a child of God, one of us, needing to get back to Gan Eden, to a way of living without parents.
Obviously Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young are not rebbes, but Shlomo Carlebach was. I was first introduced to that name when I was a high school student in Toronto. I took a class with his daughter, Neshama. I did not really know her well, or who her father was. I was yet to learn that he was the hippy singing rabbi who ran the House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco in the 1960s where he inspired people to go back to their Jewish roots (carlebachminyan.org).
This quote is from an interview in Tikkun Magazine, before Shlomo Carlebach's death.
...in 1966, the greatest thing happened to me. I was invited to the Berkeley Folk Festival. There I saw all these thousands of young people who the world condemned as being dope addicts and I realized that they were yearning for something holy, and their souls were so pure, awesome! The festival began on Thursday morning. On Friday morning I announced that tonight I'm going to the synagogue and anyone who might want should join me. I thought maybe ten or fifteen people would show up, but over two thousand came to the small synagogue... We had people staying and celebrating Shabbat till four in the morning, studying and singing..."
Rabbi Carlebach used music to reach and inspire people. Following death, we all need to forge our own paths to get back to the Garden. For some its music, for others it is community and for still others it is just takes time. Maybe one of the ways Neshama Carlebach is getting herself back to the Garden is by her work on the new musical Soul Doctor, a production about her father, which is opening on Broadway. Neshama wrote on her blog "Jewish and spiritual beings worldwide knew him, but too much of the rest of humanity did not. Now they will, now they can. Now the depth of who he is, can bring all of us closer to our own deepest rebuilding."
Now that my husband's 11 months are coming to an end, I look forward to seeing the musical with him. It's time.
Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin is the spiritual leader of the Israel Center of Conservative Judaism in Queens, NY.