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December 27, 2014 / 5 Tevet, 5775
 
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Mourning in the Morning


Regarding the positive Torah commandment to pray, Rambam writes, “This commandment obligates each person to offer supplication and prayer every day and utter praises of the Holy One, blessed be He; then petition for all his needs with requests and supplications; and finally, give praise and thanks to God for the goodness that He has bestowed upon him – each one according to his own ability” (Mishneh Torah 1:2).

Come this Sunday, 29 Tammuz, I will have spent 24 of 26 months in official mourning for my dear parents.

Their physical departure has left an indescribable void, but the spiritual guidance of tefillah – the essence of my parents’ life together – has lightened the burden of sadness that has dictated my emotions these past two years.

Spending ever more time in shul to recite Kaddish (and arriving in timely fashion, perhaps one of my greatest tributes to Mom and Dad), I see and feel daily prayer – specifically the morning Shacharis prayer – in a more meaningful and powerful light than ever before.

No longer do I simply mouth the words; I now try to appreciate their depth and significance and how they relate to the noble, godly life my parents lived – all the while trying to emulate the spiritual example they set.

This appreciation begins with the “Mah Tovu Ohalecha” prayer upon entering shul. What better way to be reminded of parents who, as pulpit rav and supportive rebbetzin, always expressed their love to God for “the house where You dwell, and the place where Your honor resides”?

The approbation continues with man’s closing liturgical recitation upon donning tefillin. The sentiments expressed – “I will betroth you to Me [God] forever, and I will betroth you to Me with righteousness, justice, kindness, and mercy. I will betroth you to Me with fidelity, and you shall know Hashem” (Hoshea 2:21-22) – are God’s declaration of His eternal betrothal to his people. These words are said when wrapping the tefillin strap around our fingers, just as a chassan places the ring on his kallah’s finger.

Saying these words reminds me of my parents’ 56 years of wedded bliss. Their kindness to and love for each other, coupled with a mutual commitment to practice Hashem’s divine portrayal of righteousness, justice and mercy, made their marital union a model to be duplicated.

* * * * *

 

There is good reason why noted 11th century liturgical poet Rabbi Shlomo ibn Gabirol’s Adon Olam (Master of the Universe) song of praise is recited at both the outset of the daily Shacharis and the conclusion of the Shabbos Mussaf. God is omnipotent, and while His decision to separate me from my beloved parents saddens me greatly, I am comforted by the guarantee that – as Mom and Dad felt in life and undoubtedly now feel in death – “Hashem is with me, I shall not fear.” This consoling emotion is thus sensed literally from the beginning (daily) to the end (on Shabbos) of the davening.

The Adon Olam song has an additional spiritual significance to my wife, my siblings, and me. When sung jointly by Dad and our son in their joyful manner, a unique line of communication between zaidy and grandson was created. They sang this song one last time over the phone when Dad called our son on visiting day at Camp HASC. Just as the Shabbos davening ends with Adon Olam, so too would their close and loving relationship fittingly conclude with one final rendition – for Dad would join Mom in Olam Ha’ba just two days later.

The final of the series of fifteen blessings (based on the teachings of Maseches Berachos 60b) at the start of the congregational Shacharis service blesses God, “Who removes sleep from my eyes and slumber from my eyelids.” God’s grace in permitting us to awake yet another morning, and in granting us permission to serve Him for (at least) one more day, gives us the ability to practice the signature act of Judaism: avodas Hashem. While the physical act of implementing the awesome responsibility of serving God is challenging enough, the emotional desire to succeed at this task must be self-implanted.

This was my parents’ way. Every day, from the time God removed sleep from their eyes and slumber from their eyelids, they put into practice the words of Psalm 100:2, recited just moments later: “Serve Hashem with gladness, come before Him with joyous song.” Their joy in serving God’s wishes while singing His praises has been emulated by their children, grandson, and countless worshippers and students.

* * * * *

 

Tzedakah, no matter the quantity, was a central element in Mom and Dad’s life together, which makes it especially enjoyable to contribute my share whenever it’s time to recite the “va’yevarech David es Hashem (And David blessed God)” prayer (1 Chronicles 29:10-13).

Why is it traditional to give tzedakah at this point in the davening?

Despite his having been denied the privilege of building the Beis HaMikdash, King David nonetheless thanks God for letting him gather the needed donations and resources so his successor, King Solomon, would have the necessary tools in place to build the Beis HaMikdash upon assuming the throne.

Regardless of our disappointment at sometimes being rebuffed by God when a desire is made known, it is incumbent on us to always – like David – thank Him for allowing us to contribute what we can to a worthy cause. What better time to be charitable than when quoting from David’s declaration to God that “You rule everything”?

My parents followed David’s example. Even when not granted every life wish, they never wavered in helping their fellow human beings whenever possible. They acknowledged God’s rule over everything by giving of themselves to help better the lives of others. From financial assistance to those in need to guiding their family and many of their students to a more meaningful Torah life, their commitment to tzedakah (and chesed, its natural partner) was an outstanding illustration of the lives they touched.

Their giving inspires my family and me to giving that something extra.

* * * * *

 

I recall Mom and Dad’s profound and unflinching love for Israel and its Zionist ideals; their beseeching God in the following words said shortly before the Shema: “May You shine a new light on Zion, and may we all speedily merit its light. Blessed are You, Hashem, who fashions the luminaries.”

Visiting Israel with my parents – from praying at the Kotel to walking on the hallowed grounds of our people’s historical mileposts, from observing the daily life of the average Israeli to respectfully and lovingly remembering with endless gratitude my maternal grandparents at their final resting place in Har Hazeisim – was always a treasured experience. Mom and Dad truly took pleasure in being a part of speedily meriting “its [Israel's] light.” That delight is instilled in their surviving loved ones.

* * * * *

 

No less than a minimum of four times a day does the tefillah “Kadosh, kadosh,kadosh (Holy, holy, holy is Hashem, Master of Legions; the whole world is filled with His glory)” appear in the davening. This “song of the angels” is articulated loudly by the worshippers in order for God’s angels to hear us enunciate His mastery over the entire world and to then righteously plead our case to Him.

What is the need to say the word “holy” not once, not twice – but three times?

Targum Yonason (the work of the tanna Rabbi Yonason ben Uziel, a student of Hillel’s) offers an explanation that best explains Mom and Dad’s unquestioning emunas Hashem: God is holy regarding both the physical and spiritual worlds, along with the World to Come. I have no doubt that my parents’ unequivocal faith that God tended to their (and their loved ones’) physical and spiritual needs during their lives will be at least matched in its intensity in Olam Ha’ba.

Together with the tefillah of Shema (the ultimate subservience of every aspect of our lives to God’s control), the Shemoneh Esrei stands unique as the only prayer in the entire davening to combine the three main ingredients in the relationship bein adam laMakom (between man and God): paying homage to and making requests of God while expressing gratitude to Him for his kindness toward us.

To me, the last of the Shemoneh Esrei’s 19 requests to God, the plea for peace in all its forms, best sums up my parents’ daily, heartfelt attempts to put into practice on a human level the six attributes – “peace, goodness, blessing, graciousness, kindness and compassion” – that we pray for God to show us. Their commitment to this most basic foundation of the relationship bein adam l’chaveiro (between man and his fellow person) helped better the lives of those they positively influenced, while improving their lives for having interacted with many who made them better. That is perhaps their crowning achievement.

To be sure, thesereminders of God’s incomparably positive influence on my parents’ life give me great solace and much hope for a better future. So why does the hole in my heart still persevere? Why does the Tachanun (supplication) tefillah immediately following the Shemoneh Esrei bring me fear and insecurity, just when I’m starting to feel that today might be easier to bear than yesterday?

Despite having prayed up to this point in every conceivable way – standing and sitting during the davening, and now via Tachanun’s Nefillas Apayim (putting down the head) – the following frightful words appear toward the conclusion of our heartfelt plea for God’s merciful empathy: “We know not what [else] to do” (II Chronicles 20:12).

After all this effort to find favor in Hashem’s eyes, all the while trying to learn from my parents’ example of succeeding in that goal, I start to wonder what else it will take to get my message across.

But I am suddenly reassured, as the solution to knowing “what [else] to do” emerges in the subsequent words: “but our eyes are upon You.”

Mom and Dad followed God’s spiritual lead with the human parental reassurance that when in doubt as to what course of action to take, exercise maximum hishtadlus and focus your eyes upon Him. That recipe for tranquility will always remain with me.

* * * * *

 

As significant as the aforementioned tefillos have been in the healing process, it is the mourner’s Kaddish, thrust upon me by Hashem’s decision to end my parents’ stay in this world, that has comforted me most.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt”l, the Rav to his admirers and students, explains the mourner’s Kaddish this way (Reflections of the Rav, Volume 2): “The mourner declares that no matter how powerful and terrifying death is, we are not surrendering and we will not be satisfied with less than the full realization of the ultimate goal – the establishment of God’s Kingdom, resurrection of the dead, and eternal life for man.”

It is precisely my not being “satisfied with less than the full realization of the ultimate goal ” that gives me the drive to muster the strength to say every Kaddish with ever-growing kavanah.

Through Kaddish, I look forward to working overtime in this life to one day merit entrance to the destination I am confident my parents call home – Olam Ha’ba.

I look forward to not surrendering to the feeling of helplessness that often pervades my heart.

I look forward to expanding in my core the optimism offered by the Rav’s description of the Kaddish.

* * * * *

 

It is not formally part of the Shacharis service, but kabbalistic literature maintains that it is admirable to remember, through recitation, the Six Remembrances crucial to the history of the Jewish people: the exodus from Egypt; receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai; Amalek’s attack; the Golden Calf episode; Miriam’s punishment (and subsequent healing); and the holiness of Shabbos.

Reciting these Remembrances inspires me to never forget the unconditional love, attentiveness and closeness my parents provided my family and the discipline (my area of expertise) needed to make us more productive.

Another recommendation for private reflection at the conclusion ofShacharis is Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith, emphasizing belief in God, the everlasting Truth of Torah, and an individual’s responsibility – as well as his or her ultimate reward – for a life well lived.

My parents lived those doctrines with earnest conviction.

They willingly and unhesitatingly believed in God’s direction and decisions.

They genuinely appreciated the Torah way of life incumbent on us as His servants.

And they took seriously their responsibilities as God’s creations to learn what they were taught and practice what they preached toward others.

I am confident that, having carried out this formula for success in this world, they have ensured their ultimate reward as alluded to by Rambam in his thirteenth and final principle: “I believe with complete faith that there will be a revival of the dead whenever the wish emanates from the Creator; blessed is His Name and exalted is His mention, forever and for all eternity.”

* * * * *

 

Rambam described prayer as “the uniting of the soul of the individual with the mind of God.”

As I continue my quest to reach this challenging goal through the power of prayer, I look back on the lives lived by my parents, Rabbi Aaron and Rebbetzin Lillian Chomsky, a”h, for inspiration and guidance.

If forced to look back, it’s a beautiful way to start the day.

Eli Chomsky is an editorial staffer at The Jewish Press. He can be reached at echomsky@jewishpress.com.

About the Author: Eli Chomsky is a copy editor and staff writer for The Jewish Press. He can be reached at eliris18@aol.com.


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