Archive by category "Festivals"

Yizkor: Remembering

Yizkor: Remembering [1]

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

 

We have to accept that our flesh and blood, earthly lives – all life, our lives, the lives of our parents — eventually come to an end. But that understanding does little to reduce the pain of watching an ailing parent, a beloved parent, decline and deteriorate when there is nothing more we can do to reverse the effects of nature. In many instances — if we are lucky — this is our first personal encounter with death, and it brings into question our own mortality.  It is painful to lose our beloved protector, not the protector of theology or the supernatural one of fiction, but our own personal protector who participated in giving us life.

Death is a homecoming, according to Abraham Joshua Heschel. In the final analysis, in the same way one prepares for life, one must prepare for death and depart with a sense of peace. “The Jewish mystical tradition sees old age in a positive light,” writes Rabbi A. J. Seltzer. “Aging is not seen as a defect to be eliminated by medical science. Old age presents the opportunity for the divine soul to assert primacy over the animal soul….The more the powers of the body subside and the fires of passion ebb, the stronger the spirit becomes…and the greater its joy over what it knows.” _

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Dr. Irving (Israel) Copnick

As I helped feed my father in the dining room of the hospital for the aged where he was confined, I slowly became aware of an incessant refrain. It came from a nearby elderly female body, twisted and deformed. Professionally, a uniformed attendant continued spooning soup into the old lady’s mouth. The soup dribbled down her chin while she chanted over and over again in Yiddish, “Ich vil nor leben, ich vil nor leben!” (“I want to go on living. I still want to live.”)

The confused floor for the totally helpless. Despite all assurances, I was not prepared for my father’s placement in surroundings where his companions were those who had lost their way in the world. My father had been a member of a healing profession. Now the healer could not be healed. I was not ready for this reality.

Nor was I prepared for the fact that my mother would be spending part of every day at the home-hospital and feeling guilty if she missed a morning. She had already tended him, confused and incontinent, for nine years by herself at home. She had been coming to the hospital every day for four years. She had exhausted her self and her financial resources. And so we moved the man that we both loved from this friendly, sectarian hospital to a larger government hospital – bright and airy – twenty miles away. My father had been an officer in the army, and this was a hospital for veterans.

When I walked through these halls lined with men occasionally saluting one another, reliving their days as heroes, remembering when they were healthy and went to war for their country, I could remember myself as a little girl, standing proudly beside my father, so handsome in his new Captain’s uniform. Together we peered through the venetian blinds at the parade of soldiers smartly marching in unison several stories below.

 

My father….

I have come to accept that even when the loved one does not know you anymore, even when a gleam in the eye can no longer be evoked, there is still a breath of fresh air, a ray of sunshine, a taste of cool ice cream. These were the things my father could enjoy. Or the touch of my hand even if he didn’t know it was mine. And when, just once, he tapped his foot in sudden response to a familiar song, I knew my father was, for those few seconds, alive in spirit for me.

In this more distant setting, we do not visit as often now. We feel the need to detach ourselves from the accumulation of what is now more than twenty years’ witness to suffering, to remove ourselves from continually reliving the pain. But although he know longer knows us, he is still ours. Still a part of us. Neither can we abandon him.

“You understand, darling,” my father had written to me during the war when I was just a little girl, “your father is a doctor and a soldier. I dream of you every night, and I pray to God to protect  you while I am gone. I miss you terribly, but soon, very soon, I shall come home again.”

I knew that I had brought my father to his last home. For that is the dread of placement – that it is final – a stepping stone to death. Only death will secure one’s release, once admitted, from these walls. And you can’t get out of death alive. That is what is so hard to face. That in placing someone you love, you must come to terms with your own mortality too.

What placing my father, with all its attendant sorrows, has given me that is positive, is a deeper understanding of the sanctity of life. That while the heart beats, there must be dignity, and that while the heart beats, there must be joy.

There is always compensation. When we placed my father here – his death in life – my mother began to live again. Who can know the mind of God?

* * * *

There is so much that we do not know about life and death in this world and the next. My father had not been able to utter a word for eleven years, nor to give any evidence that he heard the tender words with which my mother and I caressed him when we visited. Then, on a day that was earth-shaking for me, I told him that I was going to teach a course at McGill University (something I knew that he would prize), and for the next thirty seconds or so, my father burst into speech. He spoke to me in Yiddish (his first language as a young boy, but one with which he never addressed me), and the cascade of words told me how much he loved me, that I was the finest, the best. These words were the last my father, my earthly protector, ever spoke to me – or to anyone. They were his last words.

I will always remember.

 

©️Corinne Copnick, Toronto, 1992, Los Angeles 2015, 2017. All rights reserved.

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[1] “Yizkor” originally titled“ The Loss of the Protector,” is reprinted from an editorialized version in my 2015 thesis, “The Staying Power of Hope in the Aggadic Narratives of the Talmud.” It was first told in “Altar Pieces” (1992), a narrated collage of my original stories and poems that was videotaped and screened nationally many times on Canada’s “Vision TV” over a period of five years.

 

On the Wing of a Coin and a Prayer

 

Photo credit: ascentofsafed.com

Did you know that the traditional Jewish prayer book, the Siddur, includes a prayer for rain as a central tenet of the Amida, the standing prayer which religious Jews say three times daily. “Grant dew and rain as a blessing,” Jews recite in the winter until Passover, the rainy season in Israel. Then, in the warmer months, they pray, “Grant blessing on the face of the earth, and from its goodness satisfy us, blessing our year as the best of years. Blessed are You, Lord, who blesses the years.”

And so the tradition grew up of celebrating the trees that, dependent on rainfall to be productive, give us fruit. Beginning at sunset on the evening of January 24 and continuing through January 24th is the Festival of the Trees, popularly referred to in North America as the Birthday of the Trees. It is a very joyful festival, representing God’s grace to the earth – ADAMA (remember, ADAM, created from the earth, was the first human being). So human beings and what is brought forth from the earth are connected in the Hebrew language.

Tu b’shevat, which means the 15th of the Hebrew month Shevat, and this year is in the Hebrew year 5776, is first referred to in the late Second Temple period (515 BCE to 20 CE) when it was the cut-off date for levying the tithe on the produce of fruit trees.

According to some readings of Jewish law, fruit that ripens in the first three years that a tree gives fruit is considered orlah. This means that it is not kosher and thus not acceptable for Jewish people to eat. Tu b’shevat marks the “new year” or “birthday of trees.” Fruit that ripens in the third year on or after the 15th day of Shevat is kosher. Traditionally, the fruit that ripened in the fourth year was taken to the temple as a tithe (a form of taxation). This is now paid symbolically using coins. Only in the fifth year, you were allowed to keep and eat the fruit of your tree.

BUT if you planted a tree on the very day of Tu b ‘shevat, you could eat the fruit in the fourth year of its ripening. It was better than clipping a coupon because if you planted it even a day later, nope, the tax went to the Temple. You had to wait until the fifth year to eat your fruit.

In the 1600s CE, some Jewish people who didn’t have any land on which to plant trees any longer began to hold a symbolic seder, a meal, on Tu B’Shevat. The meal would consist of different types (15 varieties) of fruit and nuts, each of which had a specific spiritual meaning. Over the years, the custom fell away.

Then in the 1930s, Jewish Zionists who fled from horrific persecution to Israel – Eretz Yisrael means the land of Israel — revived this custom. And, in the effort to make the land, which had deteriorated into rocks and marsh, and desert, in an effort to make the desert bloom, they planted trees on Tu b’shevat.

When I was a little girl, it was usual for Jewish families in Canada to place a little blue and white box on the dinner table. Into this little box, we placed our coins every Sabbath to support the planting of trees in Israel. When I got married in 1958, my in-laws bought a hundred trees for me, and a hundred trees for my husband. It still gives me satisfaction to think that, in 2016, my trees are part of a forest in the Promised Land.

On Tu B’Shevat, even the Messiah has to wait!

In 2016, Tu B’Shevat begins at sunset on the 24th of January.

As the New Year of the secular calendar, January 1st, approaches, I find myself reflecting that we Jews are fortunate to have four religious New Years to celebrate as well. Together with the secular New Year, we have a chance to make new resolutions five times a year! In addition, with Rosh Hodesh celebrated at the beginning of every lunar month according to the Hebrew calendar, each month also marks a new beginning. Then, as Shabbat marks the peaceful end of every week, we return to the practical work week with renewed vigor. And every single day, as we thank God for the restoration of our souls, we begin again. A fresh start. Soulfully and practically.

Photo credit:JRC-Evanston.org

In the time of the Biblical Hebrews, each of the four special New Years also involved a practical consideration. Just as April 15th marks the deadline for tax returns to be filed with the U.S. government, the ancient Jewish New Years were connected to the timing of different types of tithing, different cycles of the year.

Despite the prevalent belief today that Rosh Hashanah represents the Jewish New Year, it was actually the first of Nisan that originally was considered the first month of the Hebrew calendar, So Spring time, the time of the barley festival (usually our April, primarily associated with Passover, the 15th of Nisan) marked the first Jewish New Year.  It was the occasion for calculating the reigns of kings and ordering the festivals. The first of Elul (the sixth month of the Jewish year) was the time for the tithing of animals, depending on whether the animal was born before or after the first day of Elul. The first of Tishrei (the seventh month of the Jewish calendar), which is when we celebrate Rosh HaShanah, which is used to calculate the year of the calendar (traditionally counted from the creation of Adam, although science tells us otherwise now). It is also when it is believed that God judges our behavior during the past year. Shevat is the 11th month of the Jewish year, and the Hebrew letters of Tu represent the number 15. So the 15th of Shevat (the rainy season in Israel, usually January of February) is when we celebrate the Birthday of the Trees.

It marks the time when trees could be harvested and tithed for the Temple service. For three years, the fruit could not be eaten. In the fourth year, it was consecrated to God. Only in the fifth year could farmers eat or sell the produce of their land. In fact, our reverent connection to

the planting of the land was considered so important that the sage Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai famously said that even if the Messiah comes, we should plant first and only then go to greet the Messiah!

Tu B’Shevat was largely forgotten in the centuries after the destruction of the Temple, when Jews were dispersed from their land. However, the holiday also had an essential mystical connection, which, in medieval times, was revived by the kabbalists. The tree became a metaphor for the divine relationship to both the physical and spiritual worlds, for the connection between God and humanity. Then, in the late 19th century, Tu B’Shevat became linked to the Zionist movement’s emphasis on the redemption of the land. Today this Birthday of the Trees is strongly connected to ecological concerns. Often a Seder feast similar to that of Passover is held – and, yes, drinking four cups of wine and eating 15 varieties of fruits are part of the festivities.

 

Can a Lemon Trump an Etrog? Spiritual Connections in the South Pacific

Photo Credit: allgemeiner.com

It was on the MS Volendam that I realized how much I had absorbed from my six years of rabbinic education. Like the medical doctor of an earlier time who made house calls with a medical bag in tow, I had taken a small suitcase of books with me, as well as the short sermons and other material I had pre-prepared in file folders before boarding the ship in Vancouver, Canada for the High Holy Days.

We were headed for the South Pacific. I knew that I would have very limited access to the Internet for supplementary material, so I had taken the precaution of bringing a dozen copies of specific services and — since plants or fruit could not be brought onto the ship — of preparing a bubble-wrapped lulav with artificial leaves representing the palm, myrtle, and willow for Succoth services. These were my materials. The rest was in my head and my heart. In addition, as Guest Staff Rabbi on the Cruise Ship, I would have to adapt to the different rooms and schedules assigned for religious services. They would be empty rooms until I used my newly-minted rabbinic capabilities to make them into Makoms, into sacred spaces, and the diverse people who would come to fill them into a temporary community.

Well into the cruise, a woman with slightly greying hair, Bernadine, hugged me to her joyfully in the corridor outside the room where I had just conducted an Erev Shabbat prayer service. Our ship was a mere dot on the vast Pacific ocean at the time, voyaging between Vancouver, Canada and Sydney, Australia. On the way we had already visited some of the many groups of Pacific islands: Hawaii, American Samoa (a U.S. territory where the indigenous people are intent on preserving their culture, yet there are many churches of various denominations, with the Mormon Church predominating); Fiji (only 133 of 300 plus islands are inhabited); Vana’atu (Mystery Island, an uninhabited island, where some episodes of “The Survivor” were filmed); and New Caledonia (formerly a French colony, where American troops were stationed during WW II). But at that moment of our cruise hug, all we could see through the ship’s many large windows were sky and sea melting into one another. A time and place to marvel at the works of the Divine, indeed.

“I have the courage now,” Bernardine cried, happy tears escaping down her cheeks. “I thought I was too old, but you inspired me.” She had been working with seniors for years and had long yearned for but hesitated to enter a degree program in gerontology. “I’m going to take the plunge,” she confided. With his arm around her shoulders, her husband nodded his own encouragement. They were both devout Catholics. We had first met when I was invited to “preach” at one of the Catholic masses held daily on the ship. On another occasion, I was asked to read a passage from the Old Testament. In return, the priest (a retiree) attended most of our Jewish services — where I honored him in a similar fashion.

In a meaningful interfaith service at the Arizona Memorial in Oahu, all the on-board clergy (the priest, the Protestant minister, and myself as rabbi) participated jointly in memorializing the men who died at sea at Pearl Harbor. After that deeply felt occasion, we three clergy enjoyed having several lunches together. We discussed religious similarities and differences between our respective faiths. Their congregational concerns were very much like those we face in Jewish life today: declining membership and attendance; making religion relevant to a new generation; intensified focus on educating youth; attending to the changing needs of a growing elderly population more likely now to stay in their homes than opt for costly assisted-living residences; interference in (or fear of) speaking from the pulpit about public issues that needed to be addressed; and, yes, we talked honestly about Israel.

So did a number of people (both Jews and non-Jews) who would approach me from time to time on the ship to ask challenging questions, things they were too reticent to ask in more formal settings. Some were evangelical Christians who wanted me to know that they were definitely “pro-Israel.” One person asked me if sacrifices still figure in Judaism today, and if the blood libel had any truth to it. Another man quoted chapter and verse from the Book of Daniel and wanted to know why, in the light of these prophecies, Jews still would not accept Jesus as their Messiah. Fortunately, my pluralistic training at AJRCA had prepared me to field questions such as these. I always had to be “on” as a rabbi.

My tour of duty also included Sh’mini Atzeret (it was fun to pray for rain with water, water all around us!) and a joyful Simchat Torah. Our little Jewish “community” all took turns reading from the Plaut Torah in English. Other than an Israeli couple (and an American who lived half the year in Eilat) who made up my regular minyan of ten or 12 people—a good turnout considering the small proportion of Jews on the ship — none of my “congregants” could read Hebrew.

It was satisfying to shape such disparate people — from Canada, Australia, England, America, Mexico, and Israel — into a little community that gleefully took the two loaves of challah and two bottles of ritual wine provided for us for the festivals and Sabbath eves into the dining room for Friday night dinner together. They even approached several “Jews who don’t go” on the ship and encouraged them to join our Friday nights.

That’s why Arik — who “goes to shul only once a year and that’s enough!” — couldn’t bring himself to accept an artificial lulav, electric candles (because we were not allowed to light real ones on the ship), and a lemon from the ship’s kitchen instead of an etrog (the fourth species, a member of the citrus family) for Succoth. “A lemon is not an etrog,” he said excitedly. He is right. It’s not. But where do you get a fresh etrog in the middle of the South Pacific ocean on a 25-day cruise? At least we had dinner together in a temporary shelter (okay, not a branch-covered hut, but at least an Ark of sorts). On the first night of Succoth, we waved the artificial lulav in every direction, thanked God that we had survived to this season, and invited imaginary guests to join us. When we stepped outside on deck, looked at the stars and inhaled the cresting waves, we were a community, joyful and hopeful for the future.

Later, when we explored Isle des Pins (Island of Pines), one of the New Caledonian islands, we climbed about 150 rough-hewn, slippery stone steps to reach a tiny church that was several hundred years old and still in use. Originally built by Catholic missionaries using indigenous artisans who put into play their imaginative woodcarving, it was perched high on a mountain top. At the rear of the church, overlooking the sea, stood a tall Catholic memorial carved in stone. At its top, a saintly stone figure held a cross aloft, Statue of Liberty style.

The memorial was dedicated to the men of the island who had served France in two World Wars. And circling the memorial stone were native totems, tall ones to recognize those who had been high chiefs, as was the native custom. In between the tall totems were symmetrically interspersed, shorter totems to signify lower orders in the indigenous hierarchy. Here, in this beautiful, natural setting with abundant flowers, traditional Catholicism was mixed with native culture — a phenomenon we call “syncretism” today — to honor the men who had given their lives for freedom.

One might say, comparatively speaking, that this memorial was not exactly an oval-shaped, bumpy-skinned etrog in its adherence to strict religious belief, but in its combined purpose of respect paid and beauty intended to elevate and comfort, it was like a fresh lemon, golden yellow and round. It was both touching and reverent. As this blended memorial etched itself into the camera of my memory, it supported my belief as a young-old rabbi that the spirit of religion often trumps the letter of the law.

Originally published at AJRCA.edu