Thoughts on a Death

March 1, 2024

by Rabbi Phillip I. Lieberman (’19) for Lehrhaus

The Talmud (Mo’eid Kaṭan 27b) explains that R. Yehuda said in the name of Rav: “When a person dies in a city, all the residents of that city are prohibited from performing work” until the dead person has been buried. Jewish laws of mourning exist not only to ensure care for the dead, but also to ensure care for the living. Rules of burial and mourning provide both right and left guardrails for survivors whose relationship with the deceased could have ranged anywhere from incredibly close to completely estranged. Rav’s left guardrail, that one must drop everything to care for one’s dead, is complemented by his right guardrail, which follows on the same talmudic page: “Anyone who grieves excessively for one’s dead will in the end weep for another person.” The laws that emerge from this system designate aninut, the period between death and burial, as one in which the survivor is not supposed to recite blessings or even to don tefillin. They proceed to designate periods of initially acute and gradually less intense mourning, from burial through shiva, shloshim, and onward.

Although the laws of mourning offer a structure, they are also shaped—or reshaped—to respond to the experience of the moment. In his magnum opus A Mediterranean Society, the medieval Jewish historian S.D. Goitein discusses a letter from a Jewish notable named Abū Zikrī living in Cairo at the end of the twelfth century, who pushed the limits of traditional practice when his brother passed away. Goitein explains that “practically all facets of traditional behavior while mourning a beloved are visible here, mostly in exaggerated form.”[1] Ritual by ritual, Goitein explains how Abū Zikrī exceeded the limits of the law: instead of simply tearing his garments, he threw them away; instead of simply following the practice of not eating one’s own food, he fasted; and the list of dignitaries who visited him at home was epic. This letter, like so many in the Geniza, gives us a window into the personal lives of its dramatis personae, and especially into how medieval Jews connected with Jewish law and tradition. In this case, noting that Abū Zikrī had been estranged from his brother for years, Goitein conjectures that Abū Zikrī’s exaggerated mourning might have been overcompensation for their estrangement. Goitein points out that, in his letter, Abū Zikrī says “not a word…about the dead brother, his good qualities and merits, which would make the greatness of his loss even more conspicuous.”[2] Had he not been estranged from his brother, he might have been able to say something about him.

These brothers might have been separated by business circumstances, or perhaps by more. It is difficult to know. Anna Karenina famously begins, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”[3] But I feel a kinship with Abū Zikrī because I, too, recently experienced the death of a family member from whom I was estranged. A few days ago, my father died.[4] Shortly before that, my mother called a local synagogue and asked about funeral arrangements, saying that my father was in hospice care—and a friend who overheard the phone call got the word to my own rabbi and eventually to me. Otherwise, I would never have known that my father was dying. Or perhaps I would have: my mother called my cousin and told her not to tell me, but my cousin was having none of it. She, too, let me know that my father’s end was near.

My unhappy family has a history of abuse—physical and emotional—that led me to pull back from any relationship with my parents after leaving their home at the tender age of fifteen. Early college offered me an escape. My sister went off to boarding school the same year. Although there were periods when I did return to their home, emotionally, I was checked out. As far as I could tell, my parents weren’t bothered by this. Over the decades, they might have called me as easily as I could have called them. I nevertheless maintained strong ties with my extended family. When, in my mid-twenties, my parents cut off my grandmother and uncles in the wake of a dispute over a minor inheritance, I knew that the rest of my family could now better relate to some of what I was going through and understand the complicated dynamics of being in a relationship with my parents.

Over the following decades, I spent a great deal of time in therapy dealing with my history of abuse. There are still vestiges of that in my personality and disposition—if I don’t see you and you touch me on the shoulder from behind, you’ll see that I have a startle response that I haven’t been able to lose. I also maintain an iconoclasm that serves me well in my professional writing, wherein I break down long-held ideas. But long ago I gave up on the idea that I would have the sort of relationship with my parents I might have wanted, or anything resembling “normal.” Seven years ago, I took my then ten-year-old son to the Grand Canyon. My parents were living in Mesa, Arizona, at the time. Thinking it might be nice for him to meet his grandparents, we spent two days with them, after which my son and I got in the car and headed north. In our discussion about the visit, even he perceived the demeaning way my father had interacted with me, giving him, for better or worse, a sense of what my childhood had been like. That was the only time my son would ever see my father alive.

In the wake of my mother’s call to the synagogue, I arranged to see my father. Unbeknownst to me, my parents had been living just 22 minutes away from my family’s home for a year and a half. When I arrived at my parents’ house, a police car appeared in the driveway just as I was parking. As I entered the house, I mentioned this to my mother, who mumbled an unintelligible reply. She directed me to the ground floor bedroom, where my father lay in a hospital bed, asleep with labored breathing. Even though he was dying, he did not look frail. He was still the nearly six-foot-two man who had hit and beaten me mercilessly as a child and as a teen, and who had insulted me when I had last seen him seven years ago. I was struck by how smooth his fingernails looked, as though freshly manicured. I wondered who had shaved him when I saw the electric razor sitting on the table beside me. Even as death approached, he seemed untouchable.

I can’t tell whether my father recognized me or not. For the first twenty minutes or so of that visit, I just sat with him while he slept. The policeman came in to see me and mentioned that my mother had called him when I drove up. Seeing nothing amiss, he eventually left the house. My father gently awoke. My mother came in, and my father bade her sit down. I can’t say for sure, but my father seemed to think I was variously a doctor and a rabbi. When my mother said that I was Phil, his son, he spoke about me in the third person, as though I were not there. He asked about my son and I commented that I had three sons—an allusion to the fact that so much had happened in my life while they had stayed out of it, even now living so close to my own home. But the questions were no more than cursory. Mainly, he wanted to know my specialization—apparently thinking I was a doctor—and he wanted me to know his Hebrew name, apparently thinking I was his rabbi. I couldn’t help thinking that he was trying to make sure that I got his name right on a headstone.

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