May 25, 2012
‘The Orphans’ Club’
Rabbi Mark S. Diamond
“Welcome to the orphans’ club.” Many well-intentioned people have said this to me in the last two weeks. On one level, they’re spot on, since my father died fifteen months ago and my mother died earlier this month. I am an orphan, a reluctant inductee into one of the oldest and largest clubs in the world.
On another level, welcoming a friend into this club is not the most comforting phrase to say to someone who’s just buried his second parent. Never mind that my dad lived to 88, and my mom almost made it to 91. Never mind that they remained vigorous and alert for nearly their entire lives, and enjoyed the blessings of family, friends and community. It still hurts to say goodbye to the precious loved ones who gave you life.
As a rabbi, I have preached and taught the virtues of Jewish mourning rites throughout my career. As a son, I experienced them in an up close and personal manner. I gained renewed appreciation for the profound psychic benefits of shiva, the first seven days of mourning. Shiva drains you physically, but begins the cathartic process of healing you emotionally and spiritually. So too with sheloshim, the thirty-day mourning period, and the first year of mourning. It takes time to grieve for the precious loved ones who gave you life.
The Diamond family shiva had its odd and light moments. Amidst a slew of heartfelt condolence emails and notes were several that transposed the names of my wife Lois and my late mother Ann. Lois and I developed a macabre daily ritual of opening emails and snail mail to see what untimely surprises awaited us. Memo to colleagues: be sure to read your emails carefully and proofread your sympathy notes zealously before you send them. Remember the sage advice of Marc Twain, who quipped that “the rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
On a happier note, placing my mother’s obituary in the LA Times reaped an unexpected bounty. A long-lost cousin read the notice, passed it on to another long-lost cousin, and now I have rediscovered an entire side of my mother’s family. First, second and third cousins will soon meet in person, linking the descendants of seven brothers from Kiev and reuniting the disparate branches of the Deitch family scattered across North America. My mother would be so proud!
This weekend’s celebration of Shavuot is an opportunity to share fond memories of my parents and other loved ones. Shavuot is the “lonely little holiday that could.” Though it ranks on a par with Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot has precious little to offer to match the color and pageantry of the Passover seder or the joyous Sukkot celebration replete with lulav, etrog and sukkah. As for Shavuot, there’s the mystical practice of staying up all night to study Torah and the custom of eating dairy dishes. Please control your excitement!
However, Shavuot has one ingredient unmatched by its more beloved holiday cousins—the best known Torah portion in the entire Hebrew Bible. Since Shavuot celebrates the giving of Torah, it is fitting that we read the Ten Commandments. In many synagogues, the entire congregation stands as the reader chants these famous words.
This Shavuot, I will pay special attention to the fifth commandment—“Honor your father and your mother.” Respect of parents is among the highest ideals of our faith, and a foundation of family loyalty and harmony. Jewish literature is replete with detailed laws and customs that translate the precept to honor parents from lofty exhortation to practical reality.
What do parents do for us to merit such awe and respect? Mishnah Shabbat 18:2 speaks of a mother helping her young child walk by holding up his hands while he moves his legs. That’s what loving parents do—they push and pull us along until we can stand and walk on our own. When it’s our turn to honor our parents in their old age, we do the same for them. Thank you Mom and Dad for pushing and pulling me along for fifty seven years. Rest in peace, and may your memory be a blessing.
Your Son a.k.a. “the Orphan”