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Stuff My Father Won’t Tell Me: Struggling To Do the Right Thing


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It wasn’t so much my father’s problem as it was mine.

The commandment to honor one’s parents had always been for me simply the right thing to do. Jewish tradition characterizes it, however, as the most challenging of the taryag mitzvos. Anyone who has ever cared for a terminally ill parent appreciates the difficulty of performing this mitzvah well.

Aseres Y’mai Teshuva were approaching, and I found myself struggling with how best to honor my father who had been battling colon cancer for two years. Hospitalized twice since July 2008, we moved him to a skilled nursing facility. He lived there for 15 days before he died on Shabbos. I was at his bedside.

My father’s condition made it impossible for him to attend High Holy Day services this year as he had in years past. I was unsure whether to attend services or be at his hospital bedside. I wanted to do the right thing, to decide upon the right path and soon. “I’ll be staying here with Dad for Rosh Hashanah,” I told my older brother Ron who had already postponed his flight several times. However, after two weeks with Dad, he had to return home. “I cannot in good conscience go to shul,” I added. Ron’s face brightened as if to say, “You’ve made the right decision little brother.”

“Well,” he observed pithily, “if you can’t take care of your father at a time like this, religion isn’t worth much, is it?” “I couldn’t agree more Ron,” I replied, smiling at my brother’s roughly hewn pshat of the Fifth Commandment. I had never seen my older brother weep before. I guess there is a first time for everything. I turned aside. “Hey,” he said, gently draping his forearm on the back of my neck and shoulders. “Thank you.”

If my father could not come to Rosh Hashanah, I’d bring Rosh Hashanah to him. Hoping to elevate my family’s mitzvah of bikur cholim to a Kiddush Hashem, I brought a holiday meal to the hospital for my family. My daughter Kimberly cried. Perhaps the festive food would help to strengthen our emunah that The Aibishter might still inscribe and seal my father in the Book of Life.

The eve of Yom HaDin approached. Who would live? Who would die? Who would be sealed in the Sefer HaChaim? I found myself wrestling with a more intense moral dilemma than the one I had faced several days earlier. The awesome finality of Yom Kippur filled me with greater uncertainty and dread. My father continued to decline. How would I live with myself tomorrow if I were not at my father’s bedside today? Would I have to plead for my father’s life before the Aron Kodesh? I needed guidance.

I called Rabbi Louis. We chatted for an hour. I learned how he had cared for his dying father years before but could not bring myself to ask him what he would have done had his father been dying on the eve of Yom Kippur.

I went early next morning to visit my father. Time was running out; it was just hours before Kol Nidre. While my father slept, I called my friend Ephraim, a Halachic Jew, who hosts an online yeshiva where I have read some of my poetry and prose.

Preoccupied with his 86-year-old mother who, like my father, was terminally ill with stage four cancer, he told me he’d be staying at home with her foryom tov. I was thunderstruck. His timely story of hashgacha pratis resolved my dilemma.

Rabbi Louis called me motzei yom tov. I relayed Ephraim’s story. “Baruch Hashem!” he responded, once more validating his belief that “Got fiert de velt.”

“The Aibishter sends messengers to help us make the right decision,” Rabbi Louis counseled. My right decision enabled my dad and me to reach much closer to The One Above, than either of us could have done separately.

I was called to his bedside late Shabbos morning. My father’s neshama was readying itself to depart. A sound came from his throat as he drew his last breaths. A final calm blanketed him. He was warm and at ease.

A part of my father had gone missing eight years before when his 22-year-old grandson, my son Ben, departed this world. It’s hard to pin down, but I suspect it left at the same time as Ben’s neshama. Like Jacob who had clung to Esau’s heel, it attached itself to Ben’s ha’ekev shel ha’nefesh, the heel of his soul, taking a little bit of my father with him. Now on this Shabbos Kodesh, my father would, at long last, be whole again.

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The phone rang. It was a call I’d been dreading.

“Well, are you going to pick it up?” asked my wife after the third ring.

Bobbie, my dad’s wife, was calling as we had agreed she would in the event of a life-threatening emergency. My father was dying of stage-four colon cancer.

“Well, are you going to pick it up?” asked my wife after the third ring.

Bobbie, my dad’s wife, was calling as we had agreed she would in the event of a life-threatening emergency. My father was dying of stage-four colon cancer.

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The time was 6:03 a.m., and I was already late for shul. My father had passed away in October of 2008, and I was saying Kaddish for him. Morning prayers began at 6 o’clock. I had to be there within four minutes or miss the rabbinic Kaddish. To worsen matters, I hadn’t taken my 3 a.m. Parkinson’s medications on time, and I had begun to feel a rise in what I call my “trembling index.”

The entire downtown business district would pour into the streets around 5:30 p.m., clogging the already congested traffic lanes of Chicago’s bustling Loop. Blaring horns of Checker taxicabs and city buses made it hard to hear one’s own voice, but I always heard my father’s voice…

It wasn’t so much my father’s problem as it was mine.

The commandment to honor one’s parents had always been for me simply the right thing to do. Jewish tradition characterizes it, however, as the most challenging of the taryag mitzvos. Anyone who has ever cared for a terminally ill parent appreciates the difficulty of performing this mitzvah well.

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