OT: Who shall live and who shall die
[Yom Kippur 5773 thoughts. Need to push this out as Tishri is actually over already. What a fall. Probably to understand this post, you need the background information that Jews are supposed to spend the month leading up to the high holidays and especially the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur engaged in repentance (teshuvah), especially asking people whom we have wronged to forgive us. Also that on Yom Kippur, healthy adults fast from all food and drink, bathing / washing, cosmetics / perfumes, wearing leather, and sexual relations.]
A week or so after Rosh Hashanah, my cousin the architect calls to inform me that her father, who has suffered from MS for years, was discovered that morning on the floor of his lodging in a veterans’ home. She’s on her way to the hospital nearest our respective home towns to see him and consult with her brother the airplane mechanic.
My mother will be there for chemo that entire day, so after expressing my sympathy, I suggest she pop in if she has a chance.
“Yeah,” she says, “I thought you‘d be calling me next. I was bracing for bad news from Wisconsin, just not this particular bad news.”
Yom Kippur: I like to get there before services, both to get a seat good for concentration, but also to collect myself. Rushing into prayer is rarely a good idea. One thing I like about this group of hasidim is the copious devotional material they put in the machzor — they anticipate themselves that a lot of participants will not always be focused on the (lengthy) prayer service.
Before the evening prayer, I read from the introduction to the machzor:
What should happen when a person has deviated from the true path? … Let the person who has deviated embark on the path of teshuvah, and he will be absolved.
In a systematic world of order everything has its place, and when something is misplaced, this is the way to put it back into place. We can understand this to mean that if we have introduced something negative into our lives … replacing it with something positive recreates the proper balance. … And yet there is a world, a spiritual state where the negativity has not taken hold to begin with, and that is the teshuvah the Creator is speaking of. On Yom Kippur … the highest levels of teshuvah (if we make the effort to access them) reveal the essence of our being — the core of our soul in which negativity and dissension have no bearing. …
Our teshuvah for our misdeeds — when motivated by love and our great desire to return and reunite — can even cause our transgressions of the past to be turned into meritorious actions and positive virtues. How can this happen?
For one, our previous negative actions … motivate our current yearning to return to our Source … Our negative behavior of the past acts like a spring — propelling us forward to positive behavior in the present. …
On Yom Kippur we can unveil the highest levels of soul. When we do so, our control and mastery of past is total. We reveal the essence of our soul, transforming all negatives of the past and present, and demonstrating that nothing else exists, nothing besides the Infinite oneness.
[Machzor for Yom Kippur (New York: Lubavitch Chassidic Prayerbooks, 2006), xviii-xxx.]
Minhag is important in the practice of Judaism. I have developed my own minor tradition of opportunistic Yom Kippur machzor theft. It started in a situation where I wanted to read the machzor after the evening prayer, and then was so intrigued I didn’t want to give it back. I don’t steal one every year. I steal only machzorim that are particularly meaningful to me. I have three.
It seems like a strange compulsion, but I do actually like to read the machzor after I go home. It distracts me from wanting to eat.
Impressed by the paragraphs above, I steal the fourth, slipping it into my bag when no one is looking.
I’m not staying in the hotel, which means I unavoidably get exposed to a certain amount of debris from the outside world, but lately I’m uncomfortable being away from the phone for more than a couple of hours.
Pesky stops me on my way out; he’s staying and wants to spend all night studying Avodah. I have never been enamored of the machzor’s nostalgia over Temple sacrifices, and also am unable to contemplate the level of thirst I would suffer by the next evening if I don’t conserve my speech. Also the machzor has informed me that one way to prevent oneself from lashon hara (bad speech) is simply to resolve not to speak. I don’t know that I’m in danger, but it seems a wise precaution, given my feelings about animal sacrifice.
Pesky notes that he needs to think hard about the part he’s playing in his increasingly negative relationship with his (behaviorally difficult) son, which is why he’s staying in the hotel alone, away from his family. I wish him well, and go.
There’s a message at home from my cousin; it turns out my uncle has an advanced stage of colorectal cancer and the doctors recommend that given all his other ailments, treatment should be solely palliative. She asks me to call her back as soon as possible and tell her what I think.
I think of my verbally uncommunicative uncle, grilling bratwurst and roughhousing with us all till someone cried and my (late) aunt yelled out for him to stop. I do not call her back.
For nighttime prayers, the machzor offers Song of Solomon 3:7, with a somewhat idiosyncratic translation, though every translator disputes what מִטָּתֹו֙ means: “Behold the bed of Shlomo! Sixty mighty men surround it — of the mighty men of Israel. All of them are swordsmen, expert in war; every man has his sword ready against the terror of the night.”
I’ve never noticed this before — is this a Hasidic custom? When I look the text up in the Bibles I have, it seems like it could be a reading out of context.
I hope everyone I know is safe in their beds. Pesky and his son and his wife. My uncle and the architect and the airplane mechanic and their partners and the airplane mechanic’s kids and my parents and my brother and sister-in-law and the nieces. And me. Keep us all safe from the terror of the night.
No mug of water by the bedside. No water in the morning. I’m thirsty. No water till sun sets.
In the morning, I call Architect back. Airplane Mechanic wants to keep feeding their father via feeding tube. She does not. The VA is covering everything as my uncle is rated 100 percent disabled; a very broad medical power of attorney was signed two decades ago and the doctors will do as instructed.
“He’s been ready to go for so long,” she says.
“Why does Airplane Mechanic want to keep him alive?” I ask.
“I think it’s about–” she pauses, “I don’t know, but I think it’s about stuff they haven’t talked about” and she specifies a family crisis of the late 1980s, as a consequence of which Airplane Mechanic spent time in juvenile detention, where his father left him to “learn his lesson.”
“They haven’t talked about that?” I ask.
A few beats pass while we think.
“Do you want me to call him?” I ask.
“No,” she says, “He’ll just think I’m trying to pressure him.”
“Airplane Mechanic knows he’s in pain, no?”
“Yeah, it’s pretty obvious,” she says. “I just think he has always hoped they could talk about it and a part of him wants to keep Dad around till they can.”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “Or Airplane Mechanic could, but Dad…” She trails off.
“Who has the power of attorney?”
“I do,” she says, “but you know how that is. If I insist, Airplane Mechanic will never speak to me again. He has to agree.”
“I’ll pray for you all,” I say, helplessly.
I pray. For G-d to remember his people. For G-d to cleanse me from my transgressions. That G-d will show mercy to us all. That G-d may let me love him, so that I can be truly alive. I pray for forgiveness for sins I never committed, on the assumption that someone has, just as someone somewhere is praying for sins she never committed, and we pray that our merit will be sufficient for each other.
“And for all these, G-d of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.”
Cast me not from thy presence and take not thy spirit from me is something I prayed as a child, too.
From the d’var Torah: Immediately before the Torah reading for the morning service (Leviticus 16), Aaron’s two sons are killed. I learned in Christian Sunday School that this happened because they disobeyed divine command. The explanation given this morning from Kabbalah, which I’ve never heard before: they went too close to the divine presence because they wanted a ratzui bli shuv, “to transcend without a return.” Thus they died in spiritual rapture.
The machzor says: “We need to keep in mind that our fasting is not mere affliction of the body, but a means to transcend … our ego-oriented existence and tap into the deepest resources of our soul. We do this in order to shed any negativity that holds us back from being one with G-d, and by extension one with our authentic self.”
The rebbe says, “G-d forgives us easily, with the other people we have sinned against, it’s not always so easy. We have to keep trying.”
I think: “You have a really grievous sin on your conscience for which you have not asked forgiveness.”
Yizkor (memorial prayer for deceased relatives) begins. The rebbe says, “It is customary for people with living parents to leave the sanctuary for this part of the service.”
I decide to leave the hotel, go home, and call my father.
The rebbe’s little girl sees me walking out and says, wrinkling her forehead, “It’s only Yizkor.” She means: why are you leaving, we’ll go back in right away.
I say, “Yeah, I know, sweetie. My parents are both alive.” I mean: I don’t want to be saying this prayer someday with sins that they can never forgive on my conscience.
You may remember that in August I said that the emotions this summer got so intense I had to stop publishing so much about my family. In particular, I needed to stop discussing my father because the fact that I was losing compassion for him by the minute caused my own ethics to deteriorate. But I wrote it all down.
The excerpt below from an unpublished describes something I need forgiveness for.
I wasn’t always stealthy. I was an angry kid. Sometimes I just poured the booze out into the sink and left the bottle standing on the drainboard as an indictment. I stopped when I got spanked – Dare to Discipline! — really hard for pouring out an expensive bottle of brandy. I don’t remember who did it, although I remember it hurt for several days, and that it was the last time I was ever spanked. I was nine.
But even if I stopped emptying out liquor containers, no operant conditioning could stop my aggressive development into a dedicated, hyper-vigilant control freak.
Last Monday, at the age of almost forty-three and a half, I resumed my career in alcohol tampering. I figured it might be easier. I didn’t want to get rid of the alcohol; I just wanted it not to be consumed on Monday or Tuesday, in the lead up to the eye surgery. And I wasn’t risking a spanking. So I decided I could just re-locate it rather than pouring it out.
I lost on the eyedrops but I thought I could win on the alcohol.
Perimeter sweep, Monday morning. Contents of booze cabinet in living room, relocated to linen closet. Alcohol in barn and garage fridges, moved into trunk of car. Known stash of brandy behind the pumpkins, near the grape arbor, already empty (?). Half full bottles of whiskey in all tool boxes I can find located and neutralized. Bathrooms and nightstands and desk drawers examined and cleansed. Attic crawl way entrance clear. All open bottles of Diet Pepsi, which were possibly spiked, gone. Repeat perimeter sweep, Monday evening. Alcohol still hidden. No new bottles.
July 17. I wake up early; we have an EKG scheduled at 7 and a visitation to attend at 9 before the cataract operation at 1:15; this involves a lot of driving and two changes of clothes. I slouch toward upstairs to be born.
The kitchen counter next to the range is chaos. Someone’s flung all the spices and oils and dried herbs and bottles of sauces all over the counter and range.
And then I see it. Hoist on your own petard, Servetus, there’s a bottle of cooking marsala you bought and forgot about. Or was. It’s three-fourths gone. No glass, he must have drunk straight from the bottle.
Loser. The gorge of self-hate rises so quickly I have to grab the counter-top to still it–
… it’s your fault it’s your fault it’s your fault it’s your fault it’s your fault it’s your fault it’s your fault it’s your fault it’s always your fault…
–you could have prevented this and you didn’t and now you’re–
and my father walks in–
–and I instantly am nothing but sheer shrieking unreason, I turn instantly into the vicious, insane shrew he’s always said I was every time I didn’t accept his picture of me–
“You shithead! How could you?”
“What, honey?” he smiles, obligingly, as if he was just waiting to be called an obscenity by his daughter, first thing in the morning.
“You know you’re not supposed to drink before the operation!”
“Oh, it’ll be fine, honey. You’re always so worried.”
“If I’m worried, it’s because if this operation doesn’t work, you’ll be blind!”
“Honey, that’s not going to happen,” he says, calmly. “Don’t get so overexcited.”
“You’re practically blind now because the last one didn’t work!”
“Well, it’s in G-d’s hands, isn’t it?”
“And yours, too, if you don’t follow the instructions!”
“You’re taking this all too seriously.”
“Too seriously!” –and the damn breaks– “If you’re blind, I’ll be stuck–”
and I realize the error I’ve just made.
“Stuck in Wisconsin,” he says. “That’s it, isn’t it. You never wanted to stick around here, you were always counting the minutes till you could go, even when you were a little girl, you don’t want to be here now–”
“It wasn’t Wisconsin, it wasn’t here I hated, I just didn’t want to be fucking stuck with YOU forever–” I shriek
as my mother, disturbed by the yelling, shuffles weakly into view, a horrified look on her face
and I flee the room.
I’m the only one who’s legally allowed to drive, so I can’t go far. By the time we all meet to go to the EKG, we are silent but composed.
The same strategy applies that we’ve used for decades. We don’t look at each other.
Back to Yom Kippur.
I drive home to call even though I could do it from anywhere with the cell phone.
“Hi, Dad, it’s Michaela.”
“Hi, honey. How are you? Your car okay?”
“Yeah. How are you?”
“Pretty good, pretty good.”
“Listen, Dad, om …”
A moment passes.
“Are you all right, honey?”
“Om, yeah, kind of–” I trail off. I take a deep breath.
“Dad, I’m just calling because I wanted to apologize for some things I said this summer.”
“Specifically, I am sorry that I yelled at you the morning before your surgery and I ask you to forgive me.”
“But you meant everything you said, didn’t you?”
Ouch. My teeth clench. I breathe out. I try again. “I’m sorry I said it. I was angry and worried, but I know that doesn’t excuse what I said or my disrespect to you. Please forgive me.”
“You hurt your mother, too, you know.”
I’m swallowing back tears now. I’m not the only one who’s hurt my mother, over the years. Her feelings are this bone we alternately squabble over or throw back and forth. Who hurt mom worse this time?
I’m not going to lose my temper while engaged in repentance. I resolve to try harder. “I know, Dad. I want to talk to her, too. Will you please forgive me?”
“Look, honey, you’re not sorry about what you said. You’re sorry you lost your temper and you’re sorry you finally admitted the truth to me but you’re not sorry at all about what you think. That’s what’s disrespectful.”
He’s right, of course, that I’m not sorry for wanting to leave that house. I also don’t want to get into exactly how sorry I’m not. I’ve been trying to decide for years why my self-respect is always constituted as disrespect to him, to them. I don’t know how to resolve this and still maintain my own identity. I have never known how to resolve this. I can be forgiven or I can be whole but I cannot be both. All I want is to be good.
I’m silent a bit.
He says: “Honey, you have a terrible temper you need to get under control. I can’t forgive you for something you’re not sorry for.”
I hear: “You’ve always been angry at me. I can’t forgive you for something you don’t repent of but should.”
I remind myself: any honesty in this situation just makes my sin greater.
“Okay, then, Dad, gotta go.”
“Love you, honey.”
I disconnect without answering.
I’m thirsty. My hand shakes. My head aches. I lie down for awhile, and doze a bit, till it’s time for the afternoon service.
The afternoon service begins with the Torah reading, Leviticus 18, about forbidden (sexual) relations. You shall not uncover your father’s nakedness.
It continues with the complete reading of the book of Jonah. I usually think Jonah is a jerk. G-d wants Jonah to warn Nineveh of its imminent destruction if they do not worship G0d. Jonah doesn’t wanna. He runs away from G-d, and then G-d finds him on a ship, has him thrown off it by causing a storm and then swallowed by a whale until Jonah begs for rescue, after which G-d forces him to preach G-d’s message to Nineveh. Jonah preaches it, and he’s successful, and Jonah’s seriously peeved because after all this, G-d changes his mind about destroying Nineveh, asking passive aggressively for G-d to take his soul away.
I usually think Jonah is a hypocrite. People listen to his message precisely and he wants them to be punished anyway. Because they understood and acted in response.
This year, I understand Jonah’s standpoint. Listening to these messages from outside that he’s not ready to pass on. Saying what he’s expected to say. It not having the effect he expected. Resentment, resentment. G-d and Jonah end the story at odds with each other, Jonah whining and G-d exasperated.
I’m thirsty and teary and hungry and angry and resentful and still unforgiven, I am certain. The summer has passed and we are not yet saved.
The final prayer of the day, Ne’ilah, is visualized as a final plea for divine mercy; the gates of repentance are closing with sundown and we want to be inside them when they do.
The machzor asserts, “G-d manifests to us as our ‘strength’ after we have transgressed and need extra strength to find our way back again. … after we … encounter negativity on an intimate level, our internal light of G-d (our soul being the flame of the infinite) is dimmed. The fear is no longer distant, the dread is present and very real. At this junction we need G-d’s strength. … In our hour of need, G-d will extend His hand and assist us in the process of self-transformation and re-unification with Him. We will never be abandoned, as long as we live. It is G-d’s will to seek all forlorn souls and move them to teshuvah.”
The rebbe’s voice is broken, desperate. I hope G-d hears his pleas for our forgiveness. My voice is still.
At the end of the service, when he lights the candle that signals the end of the fast, and everyone gathers around him to greet the light, he looks exhausted. I hang back.
I’m thirsty but my appetite is quickly sated. My headache starts to wane.
I don’t sit next to Pesky, but seated across the table from his family, I can tell that his love for his son and his anger remain equally present, equally unresolved.
When I get home, and I look at my facebook, I learn that the beloved father of a close colleague has died, unexpectedly. Discovered by his girlfriend when she came over with coffee, intending to go birdwatching on a bright California morning.
All kinds of pictures she’s posted show them hugging, embracing, joking, smiling.
I’m trying to figure out which part of this news feeds my immediate and frighteningly inappropriate jealousy. That her father could express his love for her without using a car metaphor? That they could accept each other the way they were? That he’s dead?
The stolen machzor is open on the bed to Al Tira: “Be not afraid of sudden danger, nor annihilation by the evil ones when it comes. …. For G-d is with us! He promised: ‘Even to your old age I remain the same; and even to the end, I will carry you. I have made and I will sustain; I will carry and I will deliver’.”
There’s a text message to call Airplane Mechanic.
“I’m sorry about your dad.”
We are silent.
“I told Architect she could stop the feeding,” he says. “They think it’ll be about a week, if you want to come.”
“Oh,” I say. What am I supposed to say? Good? “Is he … lucid?”
“Oh,” I say again.
“I actually drove over and talked to your dad and asked for his advice,” he continues after a bit.
“Really,” I said. Poor Dad.
We are silent again.
“He told you to let her do it?”
“No,” he says.
“So what did he say?” I’m really curious, now.
“He told he remembered how happy Mom and Dad were when they brought me home.”
“Oh,” I said. “I’m sure that’s true. I was only about two then, so I don’t remember.”
“Almost everyone who remembers is gone, except your folks,” he says. He’s adopted; he has a biological family he’s in touch with, but he was separated from his (late) birth mother within hours of the birth and no father’s name was on his original birth certificate.
He clears his throat. “He said that if I was still angry at dad over, you know, that stuff, my dad did love me so much and he wanted to raise me to be a good man, and he never wanted to hurt me on purpose. He said all fathers love their children but it was hard for my dad to talk about anything, you know how he was.”
“Yeah,” I say, thinking of my mostly silent uncle.
“And he said–” Airplane Mechanic chokes a bit, “your dad said I am a good man.”
“That’s always been true,” I say, and use his childhood nickname.
A text message buzzes in from the architect. “Tell your dad thanks,” it says.
“Tell him yourself,” I text back.
Finally, there’s a link to join a care updates page for the daughter of a high school friend who is in the hospital with pneumonia and a 25 percent chance of survival.
My friend “had” to get married — her subdued wedding took place the week after high school graduation. When I saw her the next time, at a break from college, I visited her at her home. Her shot-gun husband had left her, and she was surviving on entitlements that allowed her not to live with her still-extremely-angry parents, but she married in shame and so she never got the whole flood of presents typically visited upon new parents. While I was there, she bathed the baby in the kitchen sink (I had never seen anyone do that, and it’s that image that probably locked the conversation in my head).
She seemed so old. Or was it that I was still so unbelievably young?
She probably sensed my fear that by talking about all the excitement I felt about the way my horizons were opening up, I was going to hurt her.
“Look at this way, Serv,” she said, scooping water over Baby C. “When she’s eighteen, I’ll be thirty-six. Done with parenting, and all ready to start my life, just when I can enjoy it!”
I nodded. I assumed I’d marry and have children because that’s just what people did, but it was comfortably far away on my horizon. Thirty, I thought. Maybe. I knew my own parents definitely didn’t think they were done parenting when I turned eighteen, even if hers had washed their hands of her. But forty-eight was a number so large it seemed almost incalculable.
“I suppose that will work,” I said. I don’t remember what we talked about after that.
We were so naive. The prayerbook was wrong. None of us master the past.
Parents are never done being parents, even when they do it in anger.
And I, at least, have never been done with being a child.
[Postscript: C is still on a ventilator and oxygen, but is now out of ICU and expected to come off it and survive. My uncle died pain-free, somewhat more quickly than expected and was buried on Sunday; my cousins are at peace with his death, as am I. Condolences are not necessary. Thanks for reading this.]