Death has always been a fear of mine. Not my own death, but that of people I love. One of the things that learning about Judaism has done is helped me to better cope with death and the passing of those near and dear.
I always felt in the secular world that death is an ignored topic. Something that is in some ways about financial benefits (or lack of if you can’t afford a burial), or something inconsequential. “You die, you get buried (or burnt!), you rot, the end”. The family is left there to throw a little gathering, and that’s it. Each to their own, crying or mourning in private, or getting drunk to drown out the thoughts and feelings. Each to their own. Often these same people are seldom able to move on. Every memory is an emotional trigger.
Judaism offers a solution – an age-old remedy – a process to mourning. While some might think ‘doing it my own way’ is better, there’s a reason Alcoholics Anonymous and Dieting Communities have steps. It’s not easy to move past a trauma. We are only human and therefore often need the most support and structure when we are at our most vulnerable.
So what’s the process to mourning?
Basically there’s a few marked periods where the mourners do (or don’t do) specific things. The periods are: after death but before burial, the burial, first 7 days after burial, first 30 days after burial, a year after burial, and then annually on the day of the passing which we call the yahrzeit.
On the annual yahrzeit there’s various customs one can do in the person’s name, including giving charity, learning Torah, and lighting a candle. You can read more about these customers here.
Today, in honor of my great-grandmother’s yahrzeit (Chaya Braina bas Raphael, aka “Bronia”), may her memory be blessed, I thought I’d try to pass on some of the lessons that she taught us through her own example. I only knew her for the first six years of my life but her stories, her way of thinking and behaving, her lessons are passed on in our family with an air of holiness that stands out.
- Modesty: Bronia was tall and slim her whole life and though she could have showed it off, she remained always modest. Not just in dress, with her hair neatly in a bun, but also in action. Somewhat driving behind the scenes, gentle but firm. That is true modesty. It’s majestic. Strength and confidence through control and mystique. That is beauty.
- Dedication: No one was more dedicated to others than Bronia. From the age of 18 when her mother passed away and she became the homemaker for her 4 siblings and father, she was dedicated to others. She never cared for things, only people. Her Self only existed for the Other, and specifically for the benefit of her only daughter (my grandma) and the rest of the family. Her only valuable was a watch. Everything else was about her family. They thrived under (and because of) her wings.
- Don’t Complain, Do: Her life story could have sent her to recoil from the world, to blame, to become depressed. From loss of her mother, her eye, her family in war, a husband MIA, to hunger. Yet she fought it all with action. She did. She built. She created. She focused on what she had and what she could do. She appreciated the little things. In so doing she overcame every obstacle. A true warrior despite all odds.
- Education: One of my clearest memories with Bronia was helping her cook in the kitchen. As a little girl I was entrusted with a knife and a whole lot of vegetables. I felt like a part of the team, the family. Education has to start early and “chores” aren’t child labor, nor should they come with pay. When a child participates in the real life activities of making the home they grow to feel part of the home and grow to love and appreciate it so much more.
- Tradition: It was always dangerous to be affiliated with anything religious after WW2 in communist Russia. Not dangerous metaphorically, but practically. It could cost your livelihood, and even you life. Someone who values tradition is someone who understands the value of the past and the future. My Bronia would always make sure our family kept to as many traditions as possible. Before Pesach she would take flour to the shul (it was dangerous to be seen there) and exchange it for matzo. For Pesach we always had matzo. In our house, despite the possibility of being informed on by neighbors, we celebrated the yom tovim. It was always a time of joy and she made sure we kept it alive, doing all the preparations herself.
These are her lessons. They carry her memory and her legacy and we try to live up to them. It’s the way people leave a bit of themselves in this world.
The best thing about living with Judaism is understanding that we all have a soul and that the soul does not die, only the body does. You quickly realize that death is a disconnection with this world. Only a physical disconnection. We can’t touch or hug those that we have lost, but they are not lost. In the world of souls we are eternal and Infinitely connected. In Psalms it says that “The soul of man is the candle of God.” As we light the candle we connect with the soul.