OSMP Memorial Service 5778
4 Tishri, 5778 – September 24, 2017
Sally and I took some initiative this past summer and took some long awaited and necessary actions. We met with an attorney and reviewed our will and the various powers of attorney that are so important if we are not able to make medical or financial decisions for ourselves. Equally important, we chose plots for ourselves in our newly opened section, which is right over there (point!). This is a marker, rather than monument section. While marker versus monument is a matter of personal choice, we find that markers are much easier to maintain and are readable for a longer time than monuments.
Why did we undertake these projects? There are several reasons. The birth of our first grandchild caused us to consider what we want to pass on to the future generations of our family. The next is that we want to make what is a stressful and terribly difficult time easier for our children. We want to make as many decisions for them as possible before we die so they don’t have to make decisions while grieving. The reason we chose these particular plots right on the road is so our children can do drive-by visits. They can stop the car, throw a rock onto the marker and be off in less than thirty seconds. I’m kidding- at least I hope I am kidding…
My point is that this cemetery, just like every other Jewish cemetery, has two purposes. The first is to provide a peaceful and well- maintained resting place for our beloved dead. The importance of this task cannot be overestimated. One of the critical central functions of our congregation is to support and maintain our cemeteries. It is a holy task. That is why the cemetery endowment fund must be conservatively invested and its principal never touched. The second is to provide us with a lovely place in which to visit our loved ones. Each and every day, some of us can be seen visiting the graves of family and friends, remembering how much they meant to us and how they enriched our lives. Some people bring tokens of affection to leave at the grave. I recall that when my father visited his father’s grave between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, he poured a shot or two of whiskey onto the grave, remembering how much his father would enjoy it. It was a small but significant act of love of a son for his father.
The question for us is why do we visit the cemetery now? Why between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? The earliest answer comes from the early seventeenth century authority, Rabbi Moses Isserles, the rabbi whose commentary on the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim, Ha-Mapah) the compendium of Jewish law, made it the definitive legal code for Ashkenazic Jews. Rabbi Isserles wrote: “On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, it is the custom of many communities to go (after morning prayers) to the cemetery to pray at the graves of the righteous and give charity to the poor.” A century later, Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried (1804-1886), in his work, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (chapter 128, paragraph 13) writes (Art Scroll translation), “to arouse the holy righteous ones who are interred there in the earth to advocate for our good on the Day of Judgment. Additionally, because it is the burial place of the righteous, this place is holy and pure and prayer is more readily accepted there since it is on holy ground and the Holy One, blessed is He, will act with kindness in the merit of the righteous.”
With this statement, Rabbi Ganzfried recognizes the existence of an age old superstition of imploring the dead to intercede with God on our behalf. He notes the danger of this in the next paragraph when he writes: “However, one should not direct his heart toward the dead that lie there because this borders on being included in the prohibition, “Requesting assistance from the dead” (Deuteronomy 18:11). Rather, one should request from God, Blessed be He, that He should have mercy on him in the merit of the deceased righteous.
Rabbi Ganzfried is telling us to avoid the sin of ancestor worship in which we pray to our dead rather than to God. The traditional attitude of Judaism was not to encourage excessive grave visitation. The rabbis were apprehensive that frequent visiting to the cemetery might become a pattern of living, thus preventing the bereaved from placing their dead in proper perspective. They wanted to prevent making the grave a sort of totem, at which the mourner would pray to the dead rather than to God, and thereby be violating one of the cardinal principles of Judaism: that God is One and that there are no intermediaries between a person and her God.
There is no rule of thumb as to the annual frequency of such visitation, excepting that we should avoid the extremes of constant visitation on the one hand, and of complete disregard on the other. Jewish tradition discourages excessive mourning and constant cemetery visitations, especially if it becomes an impediment to a return to life. The prophet Jeremiah (22:10) proclaims: “Weep ye not [too much] for the dead.” Wisely, though, Jewish practice provides for a regular, structured, communal expression of reminiscence, through yahrzeit and Yizkor.
In general, Jewish law seeks to encourage mourners to concentrate on bonding with life as opposed to dwelling on the deceased. There is a defined and structured mourning period intended to help mourners cope with the loss of a loved one, but be prepared to enter ordinary life shortly following the conclusion of the mourning period.
The wisdom of our Tradition in giving us structured and formalized time to mourn for our dead while encouraging us to cleave to the living amazes me with its psychological brilliance. It acknowledges our loss and encourages our tears while saying, gently but surely, “It is time to live. We remember and still love our beloved dead while extending all our energy to making life better for the living.” That is, says our Tradition, the best way to honor our dead- to make life better for the living. During these Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, may we re-dedicate ourselves to our holy task of repairing our broken world. May God give us the wisdom and strength to continue our holy work.