I’ve always been puzzled by Halloween. For a society which is so terrified of anything having to do with death, it’s weird to see so many people planting fake gravestones and hanging human skeletons in their yards. But in the spirit of the holiday I want to share three ghost stories with you. And they are all true.
A friend of mine told me about a night, many years ago, when her parents were out late. She was allowed to invite a friend of hers to stay over to keep her company – they were both in high school. In the middle of the night my friend woke up suddenly, and felt drawn to her bedroom window. Outside this second-story window she saw her beloved grandmother – floating in the air, waving at her and smiling. She was freaked out enough to run into her friend’s room and wake her, but by the time the two of them returned to the window her “grandmother” was gone.
When her parents returned, the two now-wide-awake girls told them what had happened. And as they were telling the story, the phone rang. It was grandpa, sharing the news that grandma had just died peacefully in her sleep. While grandma was elderly, she was in basically good health; there was no reason to expect her to die then, or even soon. But what my friend remembered most was the smile on grandma’s face; a loving, peaceful smile which said she was sorry to go, but it was time to say goodbye.
The second story happened about 10 years ago. I was asked to officiate at the funeral for the beloved mother of a member of TRT. She was a wonderful wife, mother and grandmother and her death, while not tragic, was truly sad for her children. As we talked about her before the funeral, her children showed me a small portion of her collection of things related to butterflies – paintings, needlepoint, photographs.
The funeral was on a clear, cold January day. At the cemetery, as I recited the prayers, people began to murmur. I tried to ignore them and continue, but they grew louder and louder until I simply stopped and asked what was going on. “Look!” the son said, pointing to the gravestone which marked his father’s resting place beside the open grave. There, on the top of the stone, was a black butterfly, slowly opening and closing its wings. We all stared for a while – it was January, after all – and then I went back to the service. The butterfly stayed until the middle of Kaddish, at which time it flew away. No one present will ever forget that butterfly, and no one doubts that it was a message of love and peace from another place.
The last story is personal. In 1982 I was doing my best to heal from a very difficult relationship. I was dating an extraordinary woman (Shira Stern), and I really liked her. I actually loved her, but I had been badly burned and was not ready to admit my love to her or to myself.
One Shabbat morning we were sitting together on a log, beside a flowing stream. We shared one prayerbook and one tallit as we celebrated Shabbat. It was a storybook moment. When we came to the Silent Prayer, I felt something – someone – next to me: Shira was to my right, but on my left were… Louis and Dora, my grandparents who had died years earlier. Sitting right there, so real it takes my breath away to remember them now. Grandpa smiled at me and said, “Donny, you have found a good Yiddishe maydele. Marry her.” You don’t ignore advice like that, so I proposed that evening. No ring, no prepared speech, and I don’t know who was more surprised – Shira or me. I explained about my grandparents. She still said yes.
Yes, I believe in ghosts. But if you look at these three stories, they all have something in common. In each of them, the ghosts came back to share love. They didn’t come to scare people, or to exact revenge; they came to bring messages of peace, of comfort and of love. My friend from the first story never forgot how her grandmother came to say goodbye. The family that witnessed the butterfly left the cemetery with smiles as well as tears. And as for my grandfather’s advice… it was pretty good.
So while my neighbors delight in putting out plastic coffins with realistic-looking body parts climbing out of them, I choose to spend Halloween remembering the stories of ghosts whose love for others was so great that even death did not scare them away.
Rabbi Don Weber
© 2017, Temple Rodeph Torah