Posted on | September 10, 2008 | By Guest Contributor | 3 Comments
By “From Within”
I am going to live forever.
No one told me this. In fact, there have been enough hints dropped, here and there, over the years, to make me believe that not everyone thinks so.
But I know that other people believe they will live forever, too. They say they don’t – sometimes – but really they also believe that they are here to stay.
If we didn’t believe this, we wouldn’t be so spooked when we come into contact with death. It shakes us to the core because mortality – even the mortality of the old woman down the block – moves forever just a bit further out of our reach.
And when the loss is not an old person, who I didn’t identify with anyway, to be truthful because they were old (translation: belonging to a different species than me) – but the loss of a young person (translation: someone like me, with a job, who likes chocolate, takes early morning walks), it feels like someone has changed the rules. She wasn’t supposed to die! She was like me! …Well, at least I thought she was like me, but she turned out to be one of those just-here-for-a-while ones…
What is forever?
I know that there was intelligent life before I became so smart. Because I am proud of my children, I can agree to the possibility that they will continue the chain. But do I really have a concept of what forever is?
I know all the right answers. Rationally I understand that, in the scheme of things, my expected lifetime is just a small fraction of the huge number of years the world has been in existence thus far.
I think I know what forever feels like when I’m waiting in line, falling off my feet, and have been there far too long. I think I know what it sounds like when the baby is crying and the ear infection has been bothering him for two long days now and he just won’t stop. I think I know what forever looks like when I see her davening in shul, still single after all these years. But these are all so subjective! I think…I know…And who am I? Someone who came in during the last act. So what are my thoughts worth?
Oddly enough, the best illustration of forever I can conjure up is in the cemetery – the place that signifies the end to so many. But we call it the Bais Hachayim – referencing it not to death but rather to life – or Bais Olam, where man’s finite existence leads into the eternal..
My great-great-grandparents are buried in Brooklyn. The graves date back to the 1880’s. They were the generation who came to America. Beside them lie the remains of their children, and their grandchildren – one of whom was my grandfather. Visiting these graves as an adult has been extremely meaningful for me. Forever is planted, not buried, in that Bais Hachayim. I saw it there myself, and this I do know.
My ancestors came to the United States from England, and were most likely not frum Jews. There was evidence of growing assimilation on the gravestones themselves; successive generations had less and less Hebrew lettering on the stones – though even the earliest graves had no mention of Hebrew names. Tradition was obviously important to them, but they had deviated somewhat from what came before. By the time my mother was born, there was only a Chanuka bush representing the family tree, and although she grew up in Brooklyn, she never heard the word “kosher” until meeting up with my father.
I pictured the funeral processions. There surely were tearful relatives on hand, sobering moments coming to grips with the finality of all flesh and blood. They said goodbye and left, alone, saddened, and they thought it was all over.
Yet there I was, the first woman in the family in 100 years to cover her hair, right alongside the graves. My husband and children accompanied me. There was renewal, emancipation, right there, as we placed the stone markers, lit the candles, and said some Tehillim. No end, here, but continuity with what had come before. At the graveside, I pray for my children – their children.
I know that I am who I am because I come from them. They are part of me, although even my grandfather was gone well before I was born. Our story is the story of Klall Yisrael as we make our way through this physical existence. Nothing is irrelevant, nothing insignificant. They are links in the chain that connect what was to what will be.