There is absolutely no doubt that life follows the Torah portion and, very often, significant days in our history. Ten days ago, the world marked Yom HaShoah. A few days later, a 100-year-old Holocaust survivor passed away on Shabbos. There are no coincidences in life.
Her son is a good friend of mine, so I was attended the Shiva for a good part of the week. What struck me were the people coming to pay a Shiva call, many of them Holocaust survivors. One man stood out. He was about 80 years old, his eyes sparkling, his demeanor that of a young man.
There were few people there at the time, allowing this gentleman to be comfortable enough to begin to tell his story. He was a young boy of seven and a half living in Budapest during the Holocaust, when his parents were taken to Bergen-Belsen. He never saw them again and, at that young age, was forced not only to fend for himself together with his sister but save himself from the Germans on an almost daily basis.
He remembers some of what would have been his childhood and is reluctant to talk about it because he simply finds it too painful. After the man left, I realized that not only was my dear friend the son of Holocaust survivors, he had also lived with the stories of his parents’ friends all the time. Although he didn’t know it when he was growing up, his entire upbringing had been colored by the Holocaust.
This week’s Torah portion gives us many mitzvot that we are to follow: the prohibition against idolatry, the mitzvah of charity, the principle of equality before the law, Shabbat, sexual morality, honesty in business, honor and awe of one’s parents, and the sacredness of life.
(As an aside, my friend fulfilled the fifth commandment of honoring his parents well beyond the letter of the law. His mother, although in an institution filled with people whose task it is to tend to those there, was never left alone in her room. The word “alone” did not exist in her vocabulary. As he told me, even in the late stages of dementia, she was very cognizant of the presence of others and because of that, was, until the end of her life, smiling.)
After my friend’s mother was lowered to her final resting place, as is the Chabad custom, we remain at the grave site until the earth has fully filled the grave, leaving a mound on top. I tried to find the exact reason for this but could not. My guess as to one reason is that it accords the deceased a deep respect, both on a physical and spiritual level. We don’t leave until we see our loved one’s soul finally at peace.
As I told someone who was watching and could not understand why our friend was subjected to this painful process: more than the Jews have kept the Torah, the Torah has kept the Jews. Jewish customs are almost as important as Torah itself, as customs come from the people.
And herein lies one of the most basic lessons in Torah. While it is indeed painful to wait until the grave is completely filled, it also provides closure. It starts the mourner on the way to recovery and adapting to a new normal in their life. As does the week of Shiva. As does saying kaddish. As do all the customs associated with the death of a loved one.
G-d has asked us, as in this Torah portion, to keep the mitzvot He bestowed upon us. Woven into these mitzvot are G-d’s subtle and not-so-subtle love for His people. The way we are told to deal with the death of a loved one, which we have done for more than 3,000 years, is both humane and sensible. These are G-d’s laws. These are the laws of our Torah and Sages.
There are many questions that for now, have no answers. Holding tight to our faith does not make one less intelligent without those answers. Nor does holding on to our traditions, such as fulfilling our obligations upon the death of a loved one.
Being born a Jew is, by far, the most precious gift given to each one of us.
Our task is to keep the light burning – the torch passed to us by our matriarchs, Sarah, Rochel, Rivkah and Leah, until the entire world will live together in peace and harmony and we will be reunited with our loved ones.