Making an Exit at the New Year

Exit Sign

Exit sign in Hebrew

Rosh Hashanah’s imminent arrival has got me thinking about matters of life and death and asking whether we can really understand the meaning of things.

Anyone familiar with the rituals of Rosh Hashanh knows that there are plenty of superstitious activities that go on in Jewish homes at this time of the year. While reading the three volumes of Rashi’s Daughters by Maggie Anton, I came to realize just how far we have come from the days when we thought that every malady, affliction and stroke of bad luck was attributable to an invisible, yet palpable, evil spirit.  But Jews still swing chickens (or coins) over their heads and eat fish heads in this season.  True, we can chalk these things up to “symbolism,” but we all know there is superstitious belief lurking in the background.

In the yin-yang of my household, my husband is the romantic idealist and I am the rational skeptic.  But those who really know me are privy to the fact that, despite the fact that I could never be defined as a fatalist,  I am not a complete naysayer when it comes to recognizing the role of karma in life.  The older you get, the more you come to realize just how complicated life is and that acquiring a little insurance against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune might not be such a bad idea.  I admit to following statements with “tfu, tfu, tfu” more often than is probably necessary, always hanging a hamsa at home, the office and on my car keychain to ward off the evil eye, and wearing a red bendel discreetly on my left wrist next to my watch. (And to those of you out there who keep asking me if I wear the red string to be like the Kabbalah Center groupie Madonna – No, being the educated Jew that I am, I attribute my superstitious adornment to much more ancient superstitious custom and folklore.)

Oh, and I am convinced of the power of gematria in certain cases.  Like the number 18, chai, in my family. The rabbi who officiated at our wedding 18 years ago gave a drash on chai (the numerical equivalent of “life”)given that my husband and I were the third generation in a row on my side of the family to marry on August 18.  Not just August 18, but on Sunday, August 18. What are the odds that three couples in three consecutive generations of a family would meet and marry in years on which August 18 fell on the same day of the week?Don’t bother trying to figure out the statistical probability on this one, just trust me when I say that August 18 does not fall on a Sunday too often.

But there’s more.  Our oldest son was born on the 18th of Kislev, our second son entered the Covenant of Abraham (delicate terminology for being ritually snipped) on the 18th of Tishrei, and our youngest son was born on October 9, 2001.  Don’t quite get the connection with the last one? October 9, 2001 is 10-9-01.  Add 9 to 10 and take away one and you get 18.  This woman is pushing it a bit too far, you say. But think about it, had our youngest son been born one day earlier or later, the math wouldn’t work (Unless he had been born on 10-8 and we just left the year out of it, but since that is not what actually happened, let’s not even entertain this possibility).

And is it just mere coincidence that two of my grandparents died on holidays (Purim and Valentine’s Day) and that the other two died on or very close to my sister’s and my birthdays?  I distinctly remember my Baba insisting on having a cake for my 21st birthday when we came back to the shiva house after burying my Zaida.

Perhaps I am getting a bit carried away, but this all sets the stage for my reflecting lately on the fact that I know or know of a good number of Jewish people who have left this world on or very close to Rosh Hashanah.  This yiddishe mamme feels in her kishkes that there must be a metaphysical explanation for why certain people make their exits at this specific juncture in the Jewish yearly cycle.  The modern, rational me says, “That’s just the way it worked out.”  The bendel wearing, hamsa hanging me wonders if there is some deeper meaning and lesson to be discerned.

Three people who died on or close to Rosh Hashanah have already been mentioned in my earlier blog posts – Paul Newman, Alex Singer and Asaf Ramon.  Paul Newman, like my great-aunt Leah (never mind that she was actually the wife of my first cousin twice removed – she was like a grandmother to me) and the mother of an acquaintance who died the other day, lived a long and full life.  Both Leah and my acquaintance’s mother died right before the first of Tishrei in their early nineties, with the latter passing away overseas while visiting the graves of her late parents (another something to ruminate over).

Alex Singer and Asaf Ramon, vital young men, died untimely, violent deaths.  The sister of a former colleague was also wrenched away from our world far too early. She died on erev Rosh Hashanah at the age of 31 of end-stage, metastasized breast cancer around a year after having given birth to her long awaited and much loved daughter.

Yizkor is recited on Yom Kippur in memory of all who are referred to in popular culture as “the dearly departed.” As the Yamim HaNora’im wind down and Book of Life is about to be closed, we acknowledge the fragility of life.  If the U’Netana Tokef somehow doesn’t make this fact explicitly clear for you, then at least some of the other liturgy and Torah readings will.

But our names are written and sealed for either life or death in the coming year by the time we hear the final shofar blast at Ne’ilah. Why do some people who are ostensibly scheduled for departure wait until the last possible moment?  Do the elderly who have lived full, if not always totally fulfilling, lives, try to prolong and savor the last minutes of the ball before the stroke of midnight?  Do the young ones receive some sort of sign telling them that their all-too-short journey has ended, that as much as they naturally want to keep going, their ticket has expired and they will not be permitted to board the train pulling out into the new year?

These people will not be back to tell us, so we will never know.  We can try to figure out what the timing of their deaths teaches us, but it is more important for us to learn from how they lived their lives during the time we had with them.  For the mystics and the skeptics alike, their memories will be for a blessing.

© 2009 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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One Response to “Making an Exit at the New Year”

  1. Rose Barlow Says:

    The middle sentence of your last paragraph in Making an Exit at the New Year is the one that has come to play an increasing role in my life – learning from how our ‘dearly departed’ lived their lives – the good and the bad so that perhaps there might be some short circuiting of the process of endless learning by one’s own trials and errors! Great piece. Thank you! Your #1 Fan.

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