My mother died eight years ago, exactly two weeks after the date of my father’s death according to the Hebrew calendar. So, as we enter into Shabbat, we prepare to observe her 8th yahrzeit after Shabbat ends. It is impossible for me to believe that it is 8 years since Mom died. How could the years have passed so quickly? I remember the morning that she died like it was yesterday.
I consider it to be a tremendous z’chut, a tremendous privilege, to have been present at the death of both of my parents. My mother died peacefully at home and the experience of watching her slowly drift away left me with an absolute belief in an existence after death. This belief, as many of you know, has been strengthened by several experiences I have had since that day.
I am working on what I hope to be the last edit of the book I have been writing for several years before I look into having it published. It is a book of stories from my life and the sermons that those stories inspired. In the chapter that I wrote about my mother, I included a Yom Kippur sermon that I feel was inspired by who she was and what she believed.
The sermon focuses on the blessing we extend to our b’nai and b’not mitzvah that they “walk in God’s ways”. I believe that that expression is the closest expression we can come to in our traditional sources for the words we say to our children: “be good”.
The Rabbis interpreted this phrase as meaning: “As God is righteous, so should we be righteous, as God is merciful, so should we be merciful …” It is our hope that by emulating God, we will bring those Divine characteristics into the world. That is our purpose. That is the goal of our faith.
My mother frankly did not have very much interest in Jewish ritual. She certainly went along with it and supported us and and my father’s interest in going to shul and keeping kosher etc. But, it never really resonated with her. She loved the more emotional aspects of what the Jewish calendar could bring, the joy of the holidays and the meaning of family but the ritual itself was not a major priority for her.
And yet, she was an extraordinarily spiritual person and she really “got it right” when it came to the essence of our tradition.
Mom believed that “being good” was all that mattered in this world. She went to great lengths, some would argue too great, to make sure that no one was angry or disappointed in her or in any of us. She constantly had a smile on her face. She very rarely complained about anything. All that she hoped was that we would be good and do good.
I tried to capture that simple message in my sermon that Yom Kippur. I taught that while Judaism is about much more than just being good, being good, as people, as communities, as nations is the sine qua non, it is the most essential part. Everything else is commentary as Hillel taught.
And while I know that different people can have different concepts of what “being good” means and we can argue about specifics from now until forever, the general idea that what is most important to us is to be the best people we can be can not be debated. It is more important than any question of any specific of Jewish law and more important than how long or how fervently we engage in prayer or ritual.
I wish my mother had been here to celebrate our kids’ bar and bat mitzvahs, to dance at her nieces’ weddings, to watch our kids go off to college, to be hugged by our dog Sami (whom she would have loved to pieces since she is part beagle and my mother loved Snoopy!), to celebrate a longer life than she did.
But, I do believe she is with us and every time I read that phrase: “walk in God’s ways”, I think of her and know that that line was written with her in mind.
May the memory of G’nessa bat Shepsel Hakohen v’Bayla be for a blessing.