Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Speaking of the mourner’s prayer…

My father’s death was much more devastating for my sister than for me. I had sadly accepted it right there at the emergency room; it took longer for her to let the reality sink in. And for a while, I think it made her irrational and superstitious about things. She became -- for a brief period -- more religious, but that’s not exactly what I mean.

She wanted us to go to temple more than we used to. More than zero? I guess I can handle that.

Now, I’m not big on attending services, but I wouldn’t mind it terribly once in a while. I subscribe to the basic tenets of Judaism, and it’s good to feel connected to my heritage, plus I was getting rusty on reading Hebrew. It’s a phonetic language, and I read (though don’t know what most words mean) the way a child first learns to read, struggling to pro…nowwwnce… eee…ch ssss…owww…nddd…

One time she said it was really important we go to temple, so I got to the synagogue, and my sister called my cell to say she was running late. Just great. I rushed over to get here before sundown, which in the winter meant putting on a schvitzy suit at four in the afternoon -- on a Saturday for Kaballah’s sake -- and she was spinnin’ her dreidel or Adoshem-knows-what.

Half-hour into the service, I saw her rush into the back of the congregation. She whispered to me, did they already say the kaddish -- the mourner’s prayer? I told her yes, and she panicked. A look of dread washed over her face; she was starting to cry.

I dashed her out of the synagogue, clutching my yarmulke and asked her what’s wrong.

She sputtered that Dad won’t get into Heaven unless we said the kaddish a certain number of times within a year of his passing. I don’t remember the number she gave me -- nine times? Or was that how many instances Ferris Bueller was absent from school? “Niiine tiiimes…” And, it has to be said with a minyan, a group of ten people praying together. She had counted how many times we said the kaddish between his funeral, the shiva (kinda like a Jewish wake), and the other times we went to temple. She was worried that we didn’t say it enough and, since she didn’t get to say it, too… I dunno… she wasn’t making sense.

I first thought of telling her what I remember from reading St. Augustine’s City of God, a point later reiterated by Martin Luther, that the rituals don’t matter as much as the faith, that they should come only as a result of one’s beliefs, not the other way around.

Problem with that, I don’t really believe in Heaven. If you ask me, this is the main attraction, not the trailer. So enjoy your popcorn before those final credits roll.

But it might depress my sister even more, telling her I think that Dad is gone. Would it help if I say he exists in our memories and the way he’s affected us (it’s scary how I’ll unintentionally emulate the old man sometimes)? Maybe not. And that was what I believed, not her. Didn’t need to get into a theological debate. Still, I couldn’t help feel that my sister was being a bit silly about this.

I said, if Heaven exists, did she really think Dad would be at the Pearly Gates, talking to St. Peter or St. Gabriel or Peter Gabriel or the Prophet Elijah or the Gatekeeper or Cryptkeeper or whoever’s holding the holy clipboard… And be told, “Well, let’s see… yes, a good man, always treated his family right… respectful to everyone… hmm, used the Lord’s name in vain a lot, usually while yelling at his no-good son, but we’ll overlook that… honest in his business dealings -- in the construction business, no less -- very impressive… yep, all looks in order…

“Oh, but wait. They only said the mourner’s prayer for you eight times. Seems you’re one kaddish short. Sorry. No bliss for you!”

My sister seemed to calm down and realize she was just still emotional about losing Dad. We went back in to continue the services, and y’know what? They said the kaddish again, I think even a couple of times. So we surpassed our quota… just in case.

The old man would be proud of us… if he’s really watching…


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