Each year on the Jewish anniversary of the death of a loved one, a proper commemoration should take place. If you are not sure of the Jewish date, contact a synagogue, yeshiva or funeral home and they will surely help you. Some people are careful to do the following:
- Light a yartzeit candle at home the night before, because the Jewish day begins in the evening.
- Give tzedakah in your loved one's memory.
- Learn Torah that day. Read from a book about Judaism or Torah ideas, or arrange to learn with someone from the community.
- Recite Kaddish. If you cannot, arrange for someone to recite it on your behalf. Call a local synagogue or yeshiva for help.
- Sponsor a kiddush in synagogue on that day, or on the Shabbat that falls at the end of that week.
- Fast from sunrise to sunset.
It is significant to note that in Judaism we downplay birthdays, never commemorating the date of birth of one who has passed away, yet we are careful to mark the anniversary of someone's death.
The Talmud compares this to a ship. How odd that we hold a big party when the ship is about to sail, yet when it arrives at its destination, nothing is done. It really should be the other way around.
Although the day of birth holds all the potential for the life that will be, the day of death is the marker of who we actually became. Our worth is measured according to how much of our potential was realized. Did we live up to who we were to the best of our ability in the time that we had?
When our loved ones die and go back to God, to their "port of call," we mourn not having them here with us, yet we remember what they were able to accomplish in this life. The yartzeit's annual commemoration is a time to feel the sadness -- but also to celebrate who they were and the life they lived.
Parshat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26), the final portion of the first book of the Torah, describes Jacob's actions immediately preceding his death in Egypt, beginning with his making Joseph swear to bury him in the land of Israel. Jacob then gives Joseph's two sons, Menashe and Ephraim, a special blessing which confers upon them the elevated status of being two separate tribes amongst the Children of Israel. Notwithstanding Joseph's protest, Jacob insists on giving the younger Ephraim the right-hand position of primacy during the blessing, stating that Ephraim would be greater. Jacob then proceeds to give each of his other sons their individual blessing, in accordance with their own unique character traits and missions. Jacob passes away at the age of 147 and is brought by his sons, accompanied by a great procession of Egyptian royalty, to the land of Israel where he is buried in the M'arat HaMachpelah alongside his wife Leah, parents Isaac and Rebeccah, and grandparents Abraham and Sarah. Upon their return to Egypt, Joseph's brothers fear that he will finally take revenge now that their father is dead. Joseph reassures them that he bears no hard feelings, stating that his being sold into slavery was all part of the Divine plan. The Torah portion concludes with Joseph's death and the Jewish people's promise to carry his bones with them to Israel when they are finally redeemed by Hashem.
This seems to be an important turning point in the bible story. It is the death of the last patriarch and the instructions to his heirs (children and grandchildren) on the organization of not just a family, but of a society. This is the transition from a familial story to a communal one. This is also a moment when we, the present day reader, get pulled into the story. Jacob is buried with his family, but Joseph only receives "the Jewish people's promise to carry his bones with them to Israel". We share that obligation as much as Menashe and Ephraim. The biological children of Israel/Jacob here become the Children of Israel writ large.
My grandfather, who passed away two years ago today, worked hard to nurture both his immediate family and his larger Jewish family. We miss him but I like to think that he would be happy with how we are carrying on his legacy. As my mom said via email, "maybe he's with us more than we know". And he is. We in the present are part of his story as much as we are a part of Jacob's and Joseph's.
Sorry... this biblical commentary is probably best left up to the professionals and a blog post may not be the best place for Talmudic heavy lifting. But I just wanted to honor him in some way today. Maybe I can't do better than this, from last year. It's what's important.