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Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Four years ago today on the Jewish calendar, the 21st day of the Jewish month of Av, my mother a"h (peace be upon her) passed away. The anniversary of the day on which a person passes away is called the yahrtzeit in Yiddish (and that term is commonly used rather than the more cumbersome Yom HaShana in Hebrew). The literal meaning is "year's time."

Among the many customs of a yahrtzeit is the custom to visit the cemetery. The books that deal with the Jewish laws of mourning say that if one is not in the same city in which one's relative is buried (I lost the argument to bury Mom in Israel), one should go to a cemetery in the city in which one is located. And so it was that today I found myself on Har HaMenuchoth, the large cemetery on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

The cemetery is huge, the graves are one on top of the other, and I do not hang around the entrance because today is also the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Aaron Rokach zt"l (may the memory of the righteous be blessed), the Rabbi of the Belz Hassidic dynasty, who passed away the year I was born after re-establishing his decimated community in Israel after the Holocaust. I am not a Hassid, and not a Belzer Hassid, and I find the prospect of going to the crowded grave of someone to whom (unfortunately) I have little connection with a bunch of strangers rather daunting, especially on the day of my mother's yahrtzeit. Besides, the entrance is a mob scene and I'm not into mob scenes on a day when my thoughts should be focused elsewhere. So I choose other graves to visit.

In past years, I have visited what they call the 'new Rabbis section.' It's a section with the graves of recently departed prominent Rabbis, some of whom I knew or whose children I know. But today, I wanted to try something different.

Someone from my minyan (prayer group) passed away ten days ago after a long illness. Chaim left no wife and no children. His elderly parents - who speak no Hebrew - sat shiva, and people from the neighborhood - many of whom could not communicate with them - came in and out and made sure there was food to eat and a quorum for all the services. Chaim came here from Russia many years ago and spent all his time immersed in Torah study. Our minyan is known as vathikin - the sunrise minyan. We start approximately 27 minutes before sunrise (45 on the Sabbath) and hit the main part of the service exactly at sunrise. We are one of the few of the hundreds of minyanim in our neighborhood that is a tight-knit group. There is a core of about 15 of us that has been there every day for years.

Chaim stood out in our minyan. In a minyan of early risers, until his illness he was always the first in the synagogue (we never knew exactly when he arrived, but we believe it was sometime between 4:00 and 4:30 am). He was also the last to leave - sometime after 7:30. He would study Torah before the prayers and after the prayers. Torah, Torah, Torah.

I thought I knew where Chaim's grave was in Har HaMenuchoth, but I could not find it. While I was there, I passed a section I know too well and decided to make that section today's target. It's a section that includes a lot of young people, and one of my rabbis always used to say that if you go to a young person's funeral, you don't have to study mussar (something that castigates you into wanting to repent for your sins) for a month, because seeing the death of a young person humbles you. We have very dear friends whose son died six years ago just shy of 20 years old. The boy is buried there. I missed the annual visit to his grave this year and decided that today I would make up for it. So I did.

There are at least seven terror victims buried in that section. Six them of them were people who were murdered in the Sbarro suicide bombing eight years ago. Yesterday. I remembered that their yahrtzeit was this week. I forgot that it was yesterday. Five of those six victims were members of the same family: The Schijveschuurder family. Another was Shoshana (Hayman) Greenbaum, an only child expecting her first child (follow the same link). I didn't know Shoshana or the Schijveschuurders, but Shoshana and her husband bought their home from one of our closest friends in this world, and if you follow that link you will see that someone from the Schijveschuurder family has been in touch with me since 2001 as well.

Standing in front of the row of graves of the father (who was born a few months after I was), mother (who was born around the same time as my wife) and three of their eight children (then aged nearly 14, 4.5 and 2.5), and in front of the grave of this poor young woman who took her parents' world to her grave, I could not help but reflect on how fleeting life is and how - God forbid - we never know when our end might be near. We need to thank God for each day we have on this earth and use that day wisely.

And of course, that's the purpose of visiting a cemetery on the day of a yahrtzeit even if you cannot visit the grave of your loved one. It reminds you that - God forbid - death always lurks in the background and that you must repent for your sins and try to do good (an especially appropriate message just before the beginning of the High Holiday season).

Then God will destroy death forever and wipe off the tears from every face, then He will remove his nation's disgrace from the face of the earth, for God has spoken. (Isaiah 25:8 - translation mine).

The picture at the top of this post is my mother a"h holding my youngest son. It was taken in August 2004 when he was just three months old - a year before my mother passed away.


At 6:14 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

This month too, I have a yahrzeit of my beloved father to recall on the 30th of Av, when he passed away four years ago of an illness in which he suffered like no man on earth should have to suffer and Hashem showed him the ultimate mercy. When Hashem cannot extend life, he still shows love for His children and does not abandon them in the hour of death. One day, death will truly be more. To live forever, mankind will have to be much more spiritually advanced. We will not see it in our lifetime but we all can hope in G-d. The tragedies as well as joys in life are meant for our benefit.

At 7:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 7:15 PM, Blogger Stuart said...

may your mom's neshama have an aliyah in heaven


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