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Jun 7 2013

The Stranger Who Spoke at My Father’s Unveiling

By at 12:39 pm

stone on jewish gravestoneI don’t believe in God.

I am uncomfortable admitting this here and I mean no disrespect to those who do believe. If anything, I’m envious. I have books on meditation stacked by my bed. I have a gift certificate for yoga classes burning a hole in my wallet. I’ve read studies and I’ve witnessed the effects of a strong spiritual center. There’s security, sometimes there’s even peace. I wouldn’t mind some of that.

And yet, I don’t believe in a higher power that calls the shots. I don’t believe that things happen for a reason (though I’ve repeated this cliché in an attempt to comfort friends). I believe that when bad things happen to good people, it breaks your heart and all you can do is get up each morning and try to be good to the people you love who are still here. I often fail at even this. It would be helpful to have a little faith. And yet.

***

Last Sunday, a hot, humid, cloudless day. We drove to the cemetery for my father’s unveiling and I sat in the car filled with dread. It would have helped to have some faith that day, some confidence that this ancient Jewish ritual would bring me comfort. But all I could think about was how soon it was, how the time that had elapsed since I last sat and talked with him felt endless. I went through the facts again in my head. It’s been seven months and eight days. It feels so much longer. Where is he? Why can’t I feel him? 

In the backseat, my kids clutched zip lock bags full of rocks they’d decorated, to leave on Papa’s grave.

I could see the stone from where we parked, hundreds of feet away–our rabbi had draped a Mets blanket over it, instead of the traditional gauze. A small crowd had already gathered; we had only invited family. We pulled the girls out of the car and joined the group. Our rabbi welcomed us and began to chant.

God, full of mercy, who dwells within the heights, grant proper rest on the wings of the Divine Presence –

In the lofty levels of the holy and the pure ones, who shine like the glow of the firmament

Grant proper rest to Avraham Abba Ben Melech Halevi-

Somehow, within moments of arriving, we had reached the part of the ceremony where the rabbi asks if anyone would like to speak. We did, my mother, my sisters, my aunt, and me.

But when we finished, there was another voice that spoke up, from the back of the group. The voice was unfamiliar, and the person who spoke–a young guy–25, 26, maybe–was unrecognizable. He stood just at the edge of the group, arms folded. He was looking right at the rabbi. The rabbi nodded. He began to speak.

“Hi everyone,” he began. “You don’t know me, but I’d like to think I knew Alan a little bit. He’s buried right next to my father.”

I looked over to where this guy gestured. Right next to my dad’s stone was another, same size, same gray marble face. I looked reflexively at the dates on the stone. The man buried there was 10 years younger than my father and had passed away just a few months before mine. I looked back at this kid, probably 10 years younger than me, and saw a kid who had just lost his dad. I suddenly felt desperate to hear what he had to say.

“I know I’m going to be spending a lot of time here, visiting my father,” he went on. “And I know this might sound strange, but I wanted to get to know my father’s neighbor…”

Our group was silent. I squinted over at the space where this person was standing. Who was he? Who does this?

He continued. “So I did some searching. And I just want to tell you that I read everything I could find about Alan and everything I read was so positive and wonderful. I read his obituaries, I read articles he wrote. I learned he was a professor, and a rabbi, and it seemed to me like he was a very good man.”

My mouth dropped open a little. The young guy kept talking.

“All of this made me think–and I hope you won’t think this is creepy–I wish I could have known him. And it’s nice to know that he’s here with my dad. Now, he gestured to the Mets blanket. “They’re in good company,” he added. “That’s all.”

***

My mother once described her belief in God as being bound up in moments. In a moment when a parent and a child express their love for one another–there’s God. When a family laughs together–that’s God. When a baby is born–God is there, too. This was many years ago and at the time, I remember thinking that her explanation could offer me great relief. If I were to adopt her line of thinking, I didn’t need to concern myself with the nagging thoughts that God didn’t exist. I could just try and identify special moments, and then try and believe in those.

I didn’t know how that would work until last Sunday, when, in a crowd of unfamiliar people, a young man spoke up and tried to offer comfort to a group of strangers, while he, himself, mourned his loss. This was Menschlichkeit. This was a man acting as my father would have acted. This was a moment where if I squinted, I might have seen God.

The thing is, I still don’t believe in God.

But in my grief, some of my cynicism has been worn away. What’s left is a woman, a wife, a mother–a daughter, who very much wants to believe in something. Being open to the kindness of this stranger, hearing him earnestly and not cynically, and recognizing how his simple words comforted me that day and made me feel even closer to my dad, this is the start of something. I feel myself changing and I’m grateful. I’m going to look for more moments like those. Moments I can believe in.

Shabbat Shalom.

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