I had been dreading this week for quite a while, not just because the Jewish holiday season has ended nor because the weather has turned much colder.
This week, my siblings and I reached the end of the prescribed 12-month mourning period for our beloved mother, Shirley Eskind Fingerman z”l. We know how fortunate we were to be comforted and strengthened by fond memories and stories of her 100-year life. Though, to be sure, losing a parent at any age leaves a hole and has an enduring impact.
Observing the various Jewish traditions over the course of the year under normal conditions always takes effort, and certainly the continued pandemic marathon added unforeseen complications. I have planned my daily schedule and my various travels with much more care in order be able to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish daily in the presence of a necessary minyan (quorum of ten).
In some ways, this obligation consumed my time and my thoughts. It allowed me to hold my mama close, not to let go fully. The words of Rabbi Maurice Lamm z”l, author of what many consider the definitive guidebook, “The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning,” rang very true for me: “Put simply: the Kaddish is a spiritual handclasp between the generations, one that connects two lifetimes.” I had been dreading the end of this period because it meant that I finally had to move on past the mourning to the next phase, without a prescribed roadmap or an exacting timetable. I realize I may not have processed the enormity of her loss fully until now and I felt anxious about finally letting go.
A convergence of three recent coincidental reflections – in my mind, divine inspirations connecting heaven and earth – has helped me put the puzzle pieces together for moving forward.
First, during Elul, the last month of the Jewish calendar, and during most of Tishrei, the first month of the new Jewish year, we recite Psalm 27 twice each day. One line jumped out to me like never before. The tenth verse says, “Were my father and my mother to forsake [abandon or take leave of] me, the LORD will gather [collect or take care of] me.” I felt this was happening to me in real time! My parents had now both passed away and now God will be there to make sure that I am not alone. Wow!
Second, in my evolved understanding of our rabbinic teachings, the Kaddish works in two directions, creating a partnership of sorts. On the one hand, the mourner recites that Kaddish to help elevate the neshama (soul) of the departed loved one. On the other, we hope that by our dutiful recitation, the departed will go higher (l’aylah) in the heavenly court to become an effective advocate for us and our families.
Throughout the year, the standard Mourner’s Kaddish contains the word l’aylah, meaning “higher” or “above and beyond.” Yet, between the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur that we just observed, we add a second l’aylah in our prayers — l’aylah l’aylah, meaning “higher and higher” or “exceedingly beyond.” The coincidence of adding this extra plea as I approached the end of my mourning period also touched me deeply.
The third reflection came just this week, on the holiday of Simchat Torah (Rejoicing the Torah), which marks the completion of the annual cycle of Torah readings and the immediate beginning of the new cycle. This day also happened to mark my final day as a mourner. Imagine that! As I officially ended my mourning period, simultaneously I joined along with the entire Jewish people to immediately begin once again. It felt as if my mother was letting go of me after our final year “together,” confident I would find my way forward — blessed by her life, comforted by the community and rituals of Jewish life, and inspired to begin anew.
Emerging from a year of mourning, I am filled with gratitude for the many partners who have helped me through this process: to my home congregation, the Young Israel of Fort Lee and our Rabbi Zev Goldberg, for my colleagues and friends who supported me, and to my family, who experienced and mourned our shared loss each in their own way.
I have found renewed strength through our traditions and by the recent signs of the divine partnership between heaven and earth.
Jeremy J. Fingerman has been the CEO of Foundation for Jewish Camp since 2010, and he is a vice president of JPRO Network, the network of North American Jewish communal professionals. He lives in Fort Lee with his family. Write to him at Jeremy@jewishcamp.org.