December 23, 2016 / 23 Kislev, 5777
Sheloshim – the 30-day period following a funeral – ended yesterday. I woke up early, drove to Weaver Street Market and picked up some coffee and treats to thank our community for helping me say kaddish every morning since my father’s funeral. Of course, not everyone was there, so let me say here: thank you. I thought about mourning my father for many years, wondered what it would be like. Beth El’s is a community of such commitment and generosity of spirit that made me feel like I could ask us to make a minyan every morning. And when the request went out, the google sheet was filled within days. You lifted me up. Mourning is a time of darkness and our community shined light for me – as we do for each other – a gift for which I will forever be grateful. Our community was Hanukkah before the holiday started. Light in darkness. Hope to those in need.
After services and breakfast at UNC Hillel, I came home, showered and cut my fingernails and toenails. Why? According to Maimonides:
These are the practices forbidden to a mourner for the entire 30-day period. He is forbidden to cut his hair, to wear freshly ironed clothing, to marry, to enter a celebration of friends, and to go on a business trip to another city; five matters in all.
What does the prohibition against cutting one's hair involve? Just as it is forbidden to cut any of the hair of one's body, to shave one's mustache, or to cut one's nails with a utensil through the seven days of mourning; so, too, he is forbidden throughout these 30 days.
To whom does the above apply? To a man. A woman, by contrast, is permitted to remove hair after seven days although a man must wait 30. For one's father or mother, a man is obligated to let his hair grow until it becomes noticeably long or until his colleagues rebuke him for not attending to his appearance (Laws of Mourning, 6:2-4).
Grieving through hair and fingernails, the parts of our bodies on the border between life and death. My nails are short as I type today. Another step back into life. But my father died so my hair is still long. Nobody has rebuked me, yet.
Sheloshim for one’s parent is strange, blurry, unclear. I can cut my hair, but only if someone rebukes me. I can wear freshly laundered clothes (ibid, 6:4), but I cannot enter a celebration of friends (in modern terms: concerts, big celebrations) for a year (6:7) and I cannot go on a business trip to another city unless I am rebuked (again) and told, “Come with us!” (6:8). Maimonides says nothing about mourner’s kaddish – it was not part of Jewish life in his time and place – but I will continue to say kaddish for 11 months. And Facebook. I changed my profile and cover photos to pictures of me and my father when he died. Do I change them back now? Or keep them up for the year. Maimonides is silent on this question. Sheloshim for my father felt like a semi-transition; something ended, but much continues.
Before I showered, I went for a run. I had not really exercised since my father’s death. My run was life-affirming, a return to efforts against my body’s decay. It was a beautiful, sunny day. The beauty felt strange, inappropriate; my mourning aggrieved by the shining the sun of God’s world.
I woke up early yesterday morning. Got to Chapel Hill at 6:30am, a ½ hour before Weaver Street Market opens. So I got a cup of coffee at Starbucks and wrote in a little journal Rabbi Sager gave me to use for the year. Here is what I wrote:
30 days. שלושים יום. Not quite. It is 6:30am here, 3:30am on the west coast at his grave where I shoveled dirt. He wasn’t buried until 1:30pm there, 4:30pm here. I am 10 hours early. But Jewish tradition tells me I am not rushing by saying kaddish in a few minutes from now, and bringing 30 days to a close. Why not? יום שלושים מקצתו ככולו / Even a portion of the 30th day is considered as the entire day (6:12). Any moment of this day (and the day of the funeral and the 7th day of shiva) spreads outward and fills in the cracks of the rest of the day. We do not mourn the full measure of our allotment.
I thanked the man at the Starbucks counter before I left. “Before, when I bought my coffee, you asked me how my day was. I said “okay,” but truthfully, today is a hard day, but I want to thank you for asking. I appreciate it.” I picked up coffee and treats and drove to UNC Hillel. I said the memorial prayer – does one say it on sheloshim for one’s parents? I don’t know. I did. And then, I shared some Torah in my father’s memory.
“Jacob settled…” (Genesis 37:1) about which Rashi says, “Jacob requested to settle down in serenity [after the turmoil of the last 20 years of his life] but all the trouble with Joseph leapt upon him.” Jacob was tired, tired of being on the run from his brother Esau, from Laban, from the city of Shechem. He was finally home. Jacob wanted to finally relax, to look back upon his life rather than live it. One gets the sense from Rashi that to think about death too soon is dangerous. My father feared death. He didn’t want to talk about it. “You’ve got to keep me alive to 120,” he told his doctors, nurses, anyone who would listen. He preferred to rage against the dying of the light. “To live is to function,” he once said. What I think he meant is that at the heart of life is an impulse to move, to wriggle free, to struggle to understand and love, to think a new thought. 30 days, minus a few hours. We do not mourn the full measure allotted to us. We wriggle and struggle and return to life as soon as we can. Death will come soon enough.