FROM RABBI WEBER
In June’s Newsletter, I suggested we all use this summer to “get lost” – to find our way to parts of New Jersey that aren’t on the way to anywhere, and to enjoy the adventure. This month I want to suggest that we reconnect to parts of our past that we may have lost.
As you’ve probably heard by now, the holidays are late this year. Really, really late. We won’t celebrate Rosh Hashanah until the beginning of October, and Hanukkah will begin on December 24th (yes, Christmas Eve!). As a result, we have the entire month of September to prepare for the New Year, which is a little easier than trying to wrap our heads around it when the preparation month finds us at the beach in August.
What will we do this year, to take advantage of the extra time we have to get ourselves ready to celebrate the start of a new Jewish year? My suggestion is, visit a cemetery. But not just any cemetery; we should visit the cemetery – or cemeteries – where our family members rest.
For most of us, myself included, we don’t come from here. We are transplants from New York, or from Northern Jersey, or from farther away. While moving to New Jersey was one of the best things I ever did, it means that my family’s cemetery plots are way, way out on Long Island. It’s 83 miles from my house to the place where my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles are buried, and those miles are on the Staten Island Expressway and the Belt Parkway, celebrated in art and literature as two of the Gates of Hell. Getting there and back, plus leaving time to visit and care for each of the graves, is a full day trip – one which I seldom have the opportunity to make. But this September I am going to make that trip, and do it when I have nothing else planned; the cemetery will be my destination, not a stop on the way to something else.
What will I do when I am there? Of course, I’ll say kaddish; that’s what we Jews do when we visit the graves of loved ones. But I’m going to bring a folding chair, plus a chair for any family members who are able to join me, and I’m going to sit down and think about each person buried there. Not all of them together as a group, but each one, one at a time. I’m going to remember what we did together, what they did for me and what I did for them, and I’m going to try to focus on the things that make me smile, or laugh, or feel close to them. And I’m going to bring a few small gardening tools to trim the bushes that grow on their graves and the grass that grows beside each one. I know we pay people to do that for us, but since I’m there I am going to do it myself. After all, they took care of me for many years; it seems a very important thing for me to repay a little bit of that while I’m there.
Of course, I don’t need to go to the cemetery to remember my loved ones. They are with me all the time, and my memories can be recalled any time I want to hold them close. But going to the cemetery feels like finding my way back to them: back to my childhood, back to the people who worked so hard and gave so much to create the man who will stand before them when I go. They are part of me now, so it seems right for me to take the opportunity, when it’s not summer traffic or winter cold, to go there and reconnect with them.
Traditionally, Jews wear white on Yom Kippur. Not just white, but the kind of white in which we wrap the bodies of our loved ones when they die. The message is clear, and not at all subtle: Use your time well, because one day you, too, will be wrapped in a shroud. In our antiseptic, institutional world where most people die in hospitals or nursing homes, death may seem very distant, but Yom Kippur reminds us that time is short and each of us has an end. But rather than depressing us, this knowledge serves to inspire us – to do what we want to do, to say what we want to say and to repair what we want to repair now, not later. Because now is a gift, which is why it’s called the “present.”
This fall, we have an additional gift of time. A few extra days before the holidays to reflect on who we want to be in the New Year. I encourage you to use some of that time to visit your loved ones in their final resting place, because they still have more to share with us and to teach us. I truly believe it will be worth the trip.
Rabbi Don Weber