Sign In Forgot Password

Shiva is for Forgiveness

Passover Yizkor, 1996

by Harold M. Schulweis

One of the poignant moments I experience as a Rabbi is during the meeting with a family in preparation for a funeral. I, who offer the eulogy, am dependent upon the family for recollections of the deceased.

It is at such moments that one begins to realize how we are all our memories, the memories we created and leave behind. It is as such a moment that we discover how dependent we are on others after death for the survivors are our remembrancers. That may explain why Papa referred to me as his "kaddishel.” Not merely in the sense that after his death I would recite the kaddish at Yahrzeit and Yizkor, but that I was his sanctifier, his remembrancer, the witness to his life.

We all wish to be remembered. Memory is life and amnesia is death. Hundreds of times – 169 times – the biblical word for memory, "zachor," is repeated. It lies at the root of the term "Yizkor.”  

The meeting before the funeral with the family is a very intense moment, a time for retrieved retrospection and introspection. Who was Papa? Who was Mama?

Few of us are introspective. There is so much to be done, so many jobs, many deadlines, many chores to perform, that we do not have those precious moments to look back and think who they are in themselves and to us. Who are these significant people?

But death is no respecter of schedules. The routine comes to an abrupt end. Everything is interrupted – the business, the schedule, the customers, the clients, the patients. The Rabbi would know, who was Papa? who was Mama? What was their poetry?

Memory presents a dilemma for many children. For we are raised with the notion, "De mortui nihil nisi bonum,” or as the Hebrew has it, "acharei mot kedoshim" – after death the deceased appear to be holy. So Papa remembered is transformed into a saint, and Mama remembered turns into a paragon of virtue.

I recall one such evening with a family in which they were telling me about Mama. From their lips and memories it appeared that she was a perfect, kind, gentle, intelligent, compassionate, lovely. And so the encomia continued until I happened to say that she reminded me of my own mother. Except that she was not quite so perfect. While my mama loved me, so she told others, she was personally non-demonstrative with me. She was intrusive and more than a little judgmental.

Mine was a casual exchange with the family without any pastoral calculation. To my surprise, my confession about the flaws of my mother were greeted with smiles of great relief. Suddenly there poured out of the lips and memories of the children and relatives a litany of small flaws, all in recognition of Mama's fallibility.

That event helped me with the eulogy. Not because I would spend time talking about Mama's flaws, but because it prevented me from offering a false encomium, an exaggerated depiction of a woman who, after all, was human. During the Shiva, many of the children confided that it was a tremendous relief for them to discuss and reveal the whole character of their mother. It was a strain to sustain the myth of maternal perfection.

I have had occasion to think of that event and to come to some conclusions. Parents are to be respected, but parents are to be remembered as human beings. It is unfair to them and to us to think of them as gods, demigods or saints. Parents are human beings, parents make mistakes. I do not think that Shiva memory is the time to obliterate the entire truth about the complexity of those we love. What Shiva affords us is a time to recognize the mystery of the human being which includes a recognition of the mistakes of our parents. Most important, Shiva is an opportunity for forgiveness. Shiva is for forgiveness.

Quite often I find that there is substantial anger and resentment that unexpectedly emerges. Children recall the shadow side of their parents and, consequently feel guilty that at such a sacred moment they are still thinking of those hurts, of those disciplines, of those moments and instances of parental unfairness.

But it is important to remember that our parents were not perfect human beings. I regret that my father was wary of compliments. I regret that there was too great a formality in our relationship and too great a fear for intimacy or for praise.

But then this memory makes me aware that my father and mother had parents too. The attitudes of parents are visited upon their children unto the third and fourth generations, if not longer.

When I come to the Yizkor, I remember my parents' virtues but I do not suppress my resentments. I am aware of them and I forgive them. I hope that my children when they recite the Kaddish for me, will recall my humanity, recognize my fallibility, and the fact that I too am a product of a father and a mother. I pray they will forgive me.

There is no perfection on earth. Ecclesiastes put it well, "There is no righteous person who has walked the face of this earth who has done good and who has not transgressed." No matter what the theologians argued, as I read the Bible God Himself is flawed. How can you avoid reading the Bible without noting that God grows angry, pours a deluge over humanity, threatens and places fear?

But that does not make my love for God less. It merely indicates that God as well has pathos, sentiment, and responds to His children. In the Bible, God is not impassible, not indifferent to His creation. His own children can hurt Him, humiliate Him, disgrace Him, desecrate His name. But that is a fuller understanding of God.

In the Bible, everyone makes mistakes – Abraham, who should have argued more aggressively with God when God asked him to sacrifice his son, Isaac; Moses who had too much anger and possibly a touch of hubris when he struck the rod to force his will; King David, poet, singer of his people who was an adulterer and a murderer. But none of that denies their greatness, their striving for perfection and our love for them.

Papa-Mama gave me life. They held me in their arms. They fed me. They dressed me. They protected me. They blessed my ways. They prayed for my success. Surely they made mistakes. They were humans. And I, who love my family, make mistakes because I am human. Forgiveness is not forgetfulness. Forgiveness is based on a deeper understanding of the words and acts which hurt us and a deeper understanding of those who visited their inherited hurts upon us. Forgiveness is not denial. Memory is not denial.

* This document, or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.

Sat, June 22 2024 16 Sivan 5784