Tuesday, March 18, 2008

In Case You Missed It

On Sunday Night, leil 3 Adar-B, 5768 (March 9th, 2008), my hhevruta and I made a siyyum on masekhet Sanhedrin for my father's "second First" Yawrtzait (it's a leap year).

(picture courtesy of drew kaplan)
((and yes, all the people who are not me have been blurred out))

We then moved on to start some Hhulin.

People seemed to like it, so I'm adding here what I said. You may recognize some of it from various things I've written here over the past year.

We started the siyyum by singing
Nigun Le’Aví, also known as Lama Tomar Ya‘aqov, the song for my father.

The Prophet Yesha‘yahu 40:27-31

“How could Jacob say, and Israel state
‘my path is hidden of God;
from my God my account passes away’?
Don't you know? Haven't you heard?
God is the lord and creator of all eternities of time and space —
never tiring, never becoming exhausted,
and whose understanding is beyond analysis.
[God] gives strength to the tired
and multiplies power for those who lack might.
Youths may tire and become exhausted,
and young men may surely fail —
but those who have hope in God will renew their strength,
rising and soaring on mighty birds' wings;
they will run without exhaustion, walk without tiring.”

About two years ago,
I wrote out these words
from the prophet ישעיהו
on an index card,
and carried it with me
to the funeral of the mother
of two of my students.

For some reason
it seemed a whole lot more comforting
when I wasn't the one who needed to sprout wings in freefall.

The tune
entered my head after my father entered the hospital,
about a week before his death.

That's why it's ניגון לאבי, the song for my father.

But before we move on to the main business
of commemorating my father and celebrating this learning,
I would like to speak personally for a few minutes and thank people.

First of all,
i'd like to thank everyone who's here today,
and everyone who was supposed to be here but couldn't make it.

And i'd like to thank everyone who,
in one way or another,
helped me to get through this very difficult year.

שבעה ended
and then שלושים ended
and then i finished saying קדיש after 11 months
and then the 12-month mourning period ended one month ago;
it was my father's first-first yawrtzait
and i was no longer an אבל
and i lost the normative structure that defined my life.
But there's still a hole in my universe;
feelings come and feelings go
regardless of halakhic status
and as we know from geology, monster movies, and ספר יונה,
what disappears below the surface
will very likely one day re-emerge.

And so i'd like to thank all the people who've come with me this far.

There were the people who taught me
that human beings in pain
have an inalienable right
to express that pain
and to be comforted.

There were those who brought food to the שבעה,
and then again, a few months later,
when my mother was in the hospital before סוכות.

Those who taught me נוסח for leading davening,
and the people in many different communities
who gave me opportunities to use it.

There were all the people who forgot
at one time or another
that there were certain activities
that, as an אבל, i couldn't participate in,
and invited me to parties and concerts —
and thereby reminded me when I was lonely
that I have friends who care.
not to mention my friends who got married & struggled hard to find a way to share their שמחה with me even though i couldn't attend.
And there were those few particularly perceptive people
who knew when something was wrong
even if no one else noticed.

But there are two individuals who I would like to thank especially
and recognize them
before moving on to the סיום.

Both of these individuals are people
who I barely knew a year ago,
when this all began —
who maybe I had encountered
here or there
once or twice or a few times
over the first year and a half
since I returned from Israel to New York.

And from being just people
who I maybe recognized when I saw them around,
over the past year
these two individuals became
two of the most important figures in my life,
without whom I wouldn't be up here
introducing this סיום
in more ways than one.

One of them
I've very possibly thanked too much already;
and the other one
I definitely haven't thanked nearly enough.

So I thought I would publicly acknowledge them both now
to thank them
and even out the balance,
even though the math makes no sense.

The first
is my rabbi and my friend
רִבִּי וידידי
[name withheld for internet purposes]
in whose shul, in case you didn't know,
we are having this סיום.
He probably had no idea
quite what he was getting himself into
when he agreed to be my halakhic consultant
and פוסק on אבילות matters —
but nonetheless succeeded
in knowledgeably and compassionately
answering what at times was an almost literally constant stream
of questions, shaalas and inquiries
about the laws, customs, and philosophies of mourning.
And that was just a small part of it.

The rest of it —
the emotional and spiritual support,
and everything else —
there is no way I know
to weave words that would adequately express my gratitude.

The second
is my friend and חברותא
[name also withheld for internet purposes].
Although this סיום is in memory of my father,
I hope it's clear to everyone
that the achievement of this learning
is as much [his] as it is mine,
if not more.
He persevered through all the accidents
and all the delays —
all the times i was unexpectedly stuck in Brooklyn
or he had to pop out to Teaneck; (for instance, to get engaged!)
all the times one of us slept late on Sunday morning
or on שבת afternoon;
the months when we lost every Shabbos
because I couldn't stay in Washington Heights —
and he kept it all ordered and scheduled,
making sure that we would reach the end on time.
[He] is a living embodiment of the philosophy of תורה עם דרך ארץ,
and whether we were actually learning
or, to be honest, goofing off at any particular moment,
consistently demonstrated that you can apply any knowledge
and any cultural experience
to the study of תורה,
and vice versa.
And not just דרך ארץ in that sense —
also in the colloquial sense of being a mensch.
He also jumpstarted
my very rusty גמרא skillz
just in time for me to start rabbinical school,
so there are a number of other people here
who should probably be thanking him also.

The way this is going to work now
is that I'm going to speak about my father,
and then [my hhevrusa] is going to speak about מסכת סנהדרין,
the tractate of Talmud that we learned,
and then we are going to finish the learning,
making the סיום itself.

My father knew everything
and what he didn't know
he wanted to

he got this from his mother
who was a teacher

my father noticed everything
and what he didn't notice
he knew he should have

he got this from his father
who was a detective

my father could fix everything
and what he couldn't fix
he knew someone who could

but i don't know where he got that from

i do not know everything
and frankly
there are certain subjects
that i have no interest
in knowing anything about
no matter how much he pushed me to explore them

i do not notice everything
i'm actually pretty oblivious
to most details of what's around me
it's amazing they actually let me drive
especially since i drive like my father
who also grew up in boropark
and he used to drive cabs

and i can't fix much
i used to know how computers worked
my father taught me that
until i went away to college and forgot it all
unlike him i have no idea
what goes on inside a car
or through telephone wires

this is what we call
yeridat hadorot
the diminution of generations

but my father took me out on the tidal flats of plum beach
during the winter
and up perkins drive on bear mountain
during the summer and the fall
and took me to build relationships
with friends and relatives
whether they were religious or observant
or not
or not
and him and my mother moved
from spring valley to west hempstead
and from west hempstead to brooklyn
so that me and my brother
could get a good jewish education

and my father taught me
to love God's world
and to love people
and to love

and i love him.

That was the eulogy I read at the funeral.
And like all such things,
it was true
my father was a human being
and human beings are complex.

My father was a human being
and if you've ever discussed with me
what passes for philosophy in my head
you may know that being human
is both the least bare minimum expected from anyone
and the greatest praise that anyone can earn.

My father was proud
and stoic.
He never wanted to admit when he was in pain
or ask for help.

During the last years of his life
I would ask him how he's doing,
and he would say
"I'm holding on"
and i used to get mad
and ask him
what kind of an answer is that?
I only understood what he meant
after he died.
people asked me how i'm doing,
and i had to invent linguistic strategems
to side-step the question
because i couldn't answer it truthfully
and i couldn't lie.

Yes, my parents
moved the family so that my brother and i
could go to good Jewish schools,
but Jewish learning wasn't high on my father's list of priorities
after 8th grade.
The reason i picked מסכת סנהדרין to make this סיום on
was because this edition of Sanhedrin
with my father's old notes in it
was the only volume of Talmud we ever had around the house.

A common origin-story for kaddish
says that רבי עקיבא met a ghost
and the ghost asked him to teach his son
to lead prayers in his merit
in order to save the ghost
from punishment in גיהנם in the afterlife.

חז"ל said that the maximum length of time
that someone can spend passing through גיהנם
on their way to reunion with God
is 12 months,
and the common custom of saying קדיש for only 11 months
is explained as a preventative measure
for the deceased's reputation —
we're all human
no one is perfect
but saying קדיש for a full year
would imply
that the person you're saying קדיש for
actually needed to spend that much time
the maximum sentence
in the cosmic self-clean cycle
in order to be purified.

So, mourners say קדיש.
I said kaddish for my father.
But there's no mention of death in Kaddish,
and no mention of the dead.

It's all about God.

God is Greater Than All Songs.
God is Greater Than All Praise.
God is Greater Than All Words.

So why do mourners say Kaddish?

God is Greater Than All Consolations.

Kaddish is an act of faith.
Kaddish is a declaration of hope.

that Even when life sucks, God is Great.
and Even when life ends, God is Greater.

When life sucks,
עִמּוֹ אָנֹכִֿי בְֿצָרָה
God is with us in our pain.

And so i said קדיש for 11 months
for my father
as if to expiate my own pain
and reduce his time
at the cosmic laundromat
for the purification of souls.

But my father never needed it.
We're all human
we all make mistakes
I got into arguments with my father
and at least one of us, if not both of us
had to have been wrong.

I'm still waiting to find out
what it was he did in the military
that was so secret
and so classified
that he couldn't even tell us
less than 24 hours
before he died.

But it's now been (not just 11, not just 12, but) 13 months, and i know
that my father never passed through גיהנם.
Some people die
because their souls are weighed down with muck.
Some people die
so that the scars on their souls will be scoured and healed.
Some people die
and their soul is as clear as the day they were born.

And my father?
They pumped my father's soul through machines
to clean it before he died.

It worked the first time.

When he finally went in to the hospital
thinking he had a hernia
in addition to being too tired to eat
or barely get out of bed,
they found out that he had a huge mass
of tumor in his abdomen;
and the doctor estimated
that it would be what got him
sometime after 2 weeks
and before 2 months.

And they also found that his heart
which had been slowly weakening
for the past 15 years or so,
was too weak to pump his blood
adequately through his kidneys.
And his kidneys were starting to shut down.

We know from multiple places in the תורה
that הדם הוא הנפש —
your blood is your soul.

My father's heart weakened further.
He became more and more tired.
The doctors took him out of his hospital room for dialysis,
and brought him back exhausted.

They pumped my father's soul through machines
to clean it before he died.

The second time they took him out for dialysis
his heart was too weak to cooperate
with the machines.
And he was more tired
than he had ever been before.

That night,
ג' אדר, ה'תשס"ז
my father,
ארי'ליב בן אברהם שמעי
went to sleep in his hospital bed
and woke up in שמים.


Blogger Yehue said...

Mazel-Tov on the siyum.

May it be a zchus for your father Z"L

And good luck with hhulin

3/19/2008 8:09 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


3/20/2008 7:07 PM  
Blogger Yehue said...

I see you added some more stuff... not much of a poet myself, there are two songs that lyrically mean a lot to me; after my best friend was killed in Lebanon, whenever I hear "Afterimage" by Rush, I still feel chills going down my spine:

Suddenly, you were gone
From all the lives you left your mark upon

I remember
How we talked and drank into the misty dawn
I hear the voices

We ran by the water on the wet summer lawn
I see the footprints
I remember

I feel the way you would
I feel the way you would

Tried to believe but you know it's no good
This is something that just can't be understood

I remember
The shouts of joy skiing fast through the woods
I hear the echoes

I learned your love for life,
I feel the way that you would
I feel your presence
I remember

I feel the way you would
This just can't be understood...

It's from 'Grace Under Pressure', my fave Rush LP. Quite ironically it contains other rather gloom songs. Then when Judas Priest "Demolition" album came out, which I absolutely hate, except 2 great songs - one of them is "Close To You", written by one of the guitarists after his father's passing:

So many years that we were one
So many things we've done
The memories alive
But most of me has died

As I struggle with events
I'm offered words of strength
They do not comprehend
The passion we possessed

People tell me what to do
Tell me how I should get through
But they haven't got a clue
No-one else comes close to you

I see your eyes before they closed
They looked right inside my soul
And they asked me not to grieve
I tried but still I bleed

I wake up, I break up
I try hard to shake off
The desolation as it grows
As nothing else comes close

And as I stand here by the grave
And the wind calls out your name
I know that time could never heal
The emptiness I feel

People try to give me hope
Tell me how I should let go
But they'll never really know
'Cause there's nothing else comes close

People tell me what to do
Yell me how I should get through
But they haven't got a clue
No-one else comes close to you

These two always remind me of him, and his mother who passed a few years after him (grief brought back a cancer that's been cleaned out...)

3/23/2008 8:31 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

wow, thanks for the lyrics.

my problem is that i have only two styles of expression — poetic/melodramatic, and colloquial/slang. and sometimes they get mixed together. :-P

3/23/2008 10:26 PM  
Blogger Yehue said...

To each his own. Honestly I kinda felt bad putting rock songs here... but I figure if it worked for me....

I'm with you on colloquial, slang & melodramatic. As for poetic, well that seems, on this side, reserved for the kids.

3/24/2008 9:02 PM  
Blogger Yehue said...


Red sector A I think this one's about the concentration camps.

3/24/2008 9:39 PM  
Blogger Jack said...

Very powerful.

3/26/2008 4:30 PM  
Blogger Holy Hyrax said...

I was thinking of what to say in response to this post. And then, I scroll down, and of course, I see Jack took what I wanted to say.

3/28/2008 2:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you.

3/31/2008 1:19 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

thanks for all your comments

4/10/2008 8:32 PM  

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