By Larry Gordon
By now, the colorfully illuminated menorahs have probably been taken down and packed away until next year. Those are the chanukiya lamps, composed of tiny bulbs, that light up the streets of Jerusalem through the eight days of the chag and beyond.
Over the last 24 years, my Chanukah has been redefined by the passing away of my dad, Rabbi Nison Gordon, a’h, on that fateful sixth day of Chanukah. I have written about and reflected upon the experience extensively but, this year, I decided to approach the subject a little differently.
In the past, I approached the yahrtzeit with anticipation and even trepidation as Chanukah approached. This time, I deliberately delayed my elucidation of the subject until after the yahrtzeit and the yom tov of Chanukah had elapsed so that, instead of looking ahead with some unease and anxiety, I could write these words while looking back and reviewing the experience here in print. These words are being written on Sunday morning at 35,000 feet in the air over the Atlantic Ocean. It occurs to me that I have spent a lot of time flying over oceans during Chanukah over these many years.
As the yahrtzeit approaches, you never know how it is going to turn out. There are so many factors involved in how this observance works out and it changes from year to year.
Traveling to Israel for the yahrtzeit has changed so many things for me and my family. My father was a Yiddish writer who expressed himself eloquently on diverse topics over more than a half century. Though he was born and raised in a part of Russia that was also sometimes Poland, he came to the U.S. as a teenager in the early 1930s with his family, established himself, and raised his family here. Still, from the very outset, he displayed a serious and uncanny passion for the State of Israel.
I think that he genuinely subscribed to the idea that the founding of the state in 1948 was indeed the beginning of the blossoming of the promised redemption of Am Yisrael. And that in the aftermath of his family’s immigrating to America and the ravages of the Holocaust that claimed such a toll on the Jewish people, that this was indeed the “Ikvesa d’Moshicha,” the footsteps of the arrival of our righteous Messiah. He was always so animated and even excited about the Tanach that he studied as a small child and teenager in Europe coming to fruition before his very eyes.
My father told me about a decade before he passed away that his plan was to be interred in Israel. He said humorously–or maybe it wasn’t that funny after all–that he did not mind living on America, but that after his life here would be over, he did not want to lay in America.
So it was on that sixth day of Chanukah in 1989 that the music stopped. Everything changed, as we were suddenly on our way to bury our father in Bet Shemesh and then spend Shabbos Chanukah in a rather contradictory joyous atmosphere in Jerusalem before retuning back to New York on Sunday morning.
It is perhaps additionally important to note that, in the first paragraph of my father’s will, he requested that at least one of his children visit his kever on that imposing Bet Shemesh mountain each year. Granted that, especially when the children were very young, this was a huge imposition–that is where the redefining of Chanukah comes into the picture. But at the same time, as the years went on, I began to gain a greater insight into what my father was thinking, if that is at all possible. He loved Eretz Yisrael with all his heart and soul, but I think he wasn’t sure that he’d successfully transmitted those sentiments to us, his children.
He knew we would be busy and distracted with everyday life. Maybe we would never find the right time to pull ourselves away from our families or our work. I know a great deal of people who make travel to Israel a constant priority for themselves and their families. And I know a few who have been to Israel once or twice over the last 40 years and that is it. And then there are a few whom I know who have never been to Israel; that is, not yet, anyway. I believe my father thought that we might, if left to our own devices, fit into one of those last two categories.
As I look around the plane today, I have not been able to identify anyone who is returning from burying a parent in Eretz Yisrael. I bring that up because over the years I have spotted quite a few situations like that, both leaving from New York and returning from Israel. It’s not that I have a disposition toward recognizing these situations. It is just that when I am in the airport and I see them, I can’t help realizing that I am reliving those days and, to an extent, seeing myself or my siblings.
Anyway, it’s a few hours later on Sunday and I now have both feet on the ground back at home. I was in Israel, as you may have read, for one day short of two weeks. I don’t know if it is because of the fashion in which events unfolded, but I have come to love being in Israel for Chanukah. Sure, there are still sacrifices that need to be made. For example, I miss a lot of Chanukah parties here. But you know what they say: you have to do what you have to do.
The day prior to my father’s yahrtzeit, I was in a taxi with a yarmulke-wearing driver. We chatted. He asked where I was from and the specific purpose, if any, for our visit to the holy land at that particular time. We told him that the catalyst for the trip was my father’s yahrtzeit. He began speaking about his parents, and how they passed away a few months apart from one another not that long ago. Before we exited the cab, he stopped, turned around, and told us that there was no greater tribute or way of performing kibud av than to observe a yahrtzeit in that fashion. I told my wife later that I do not see these taxi drivers or others who might seem like random bit players in one’s life as inconsequential, or just color commentators on life. I see them as purveyors of important, even Divine, messages and I absorb what they have to say accordingly.
I know I have described and discussed many times the depth of the experience of being at my father’s graveside on his yahrtzeit as he simply and humbly requested. Even though I have had the good fortune to visit him more than once a year, I have to say that these visitations, if you can call them that, are not in the least repetitious. I may have felt at some point that I was performing an obligation or fulfilling a commitment. But though it was his request that we do so, I now feel that this rite or ritual is something that does more for me. Though it is a dimension of kibud av, I really have no clue or insight as to what it does for my dad.
So I will try to put into a few words what I believe, or at least imagine, it does. I feel that it connects us to one another in a two-way manner, not unlike the natural bonds that a child has to a parent during their lifetime. The cemetery in Bet Shemesh is on the slope of a rather steep mountain. Sometimes I feel like the king of the hill up there, especially as I look around and replay in my mind my father telling me so many times how much I was going to enjoy the view of the Judean Hills from that vantage point.
My friend, Dr. Bernie Kastner, a psychologist based in Jerusalem and an individual who has studied and written extensively about the afterlife, responded to my inquiry about visiting the kever on a yahrtzeit with the following: “Visiting a parent or relative’s grave accomplishes several purposes. Firstly, it gives the visitor an opportunity to pray to Hashem in the presence of the departed soul. This would be a propitious time for special requests to Hashem while the neshamah can act as a meilitz yosher. The neshamah has free rein to fly wherever it wants on the day of its yahrtzeit, and a portion of the day is devoted to hovering around the kever. Therefore, the soul is very happy to see its family come to visit, especially if they are coming from abroad. While too-frequent visits to the kever are not recommended, neither are noticeable absences from visiting a kever. The reciting of Kaddish is also a benefit derived by the neshamah, as the words of the Kaddish are a comfort to both the departed neshamah and to the visiting family members.
“From the neshamah’s perspective, it visits the gravesite where its body was buried in order to show continued respect for the physical body, who acted as the soul’s partner in life. After the body decomposes, the etzem haluz remains in the kever until the time of techiyat hameitim. Therefore, the neshamah, on the yahrzeit, has an opportunity to revisit with an actual part of the body with whom it partnered in its previous lifetime.”
Believe me when I say that the view from the cemetery is indeed impressive, but I could have easily foregone that view for a while longer, given the opportunity. But that was my father; there was a poetic dimension to everything. It is as if visiting his kever would not be compelling enough, there had to be a spectacular view as an added attraction.
Well, now I am back home in New York, reflecting upon the experience of our Chanukah. I sit at my desk, jet-lagged in the middle of the night, gently tapping out these words. I feel happy, satisfied, but also sad. I’m pleased that I could do what I have done: gone to Israel with my wife and two of my sons, and recited Psalms, and talked over issues of the day and talked from the heart at his spot that he chose on that mountain outside Jerusalem.
And that fulfills me almost unlike any other experience. After all, isn’t that what people are looking for every day in life–fulfillment, satisfaction, and accomplishment in a good and positive vein? Then there is the additional awareness that, aside from the unfolding of this fateful experience–that is, aside from abiding by my dad’s wishes to be in Israel on his yahrtzeit–I also have been given the extra bonus of Chanukah in Eretz Yisrael.
More than anything, those few days were about fiery light and being intellectually illuminated with deeper understanding and feeling about the essence of our existence and the connection to things greater and larger than we are. So, yes, I suppose I am happy and sad and, for today anyway, in a place where these otherwise contradictory emotions are able to effectively and peacefully coexist. v
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