As the sun sets today, Jewish people all over the world will don their robes of pure white. Even now they make their way to the Mikveh, the solemn bath of Living Waters that purify body and soul, in preparation for the Day of Awe, where we stand fasting before the King of Heaven and Earth to confess our sins and beg for forgiveness. On this day our sins are forgiven, we are released from all vows, the slate is wiped clean for another year.
We wear white, because we are buried in white robes. In fact, the men wear a kittle, a lightweight embroidered garment, in which they are married, and in which they will be buried.
We fast, and we wear white, because on this day we are like the Angels, who neither eat nor drink. We wear our burial garments because on this day we are judged, as we will be on our deathbeds.
We fast for 26 hours, both from food and from water. It’s a hard fast, especially in the Land of Israel where the air is hot and dry. To add to this hardship, we stand for much of the day-long service. Some people take on a personal service to stand during the entire service.
It is a day of examining the heart, a day of much weeping, a day of release from the burden of sin.
This Yom Kippur marks the first anniversary of Dad’s departure from this world. His death.
I don’t know where Dad went when he died. He didn’t know where he was going. All he knew was that he was on his way out, and he was terrified.
He was sure he was going to be punished. For what, he didn’t say. He couldn’t say. All he could do was shudder. He was that terrified.
I have some ideas.
I know that he felt overwhelming guilt for things he had done in the war. World War II. He was sure he would have to pay for those things, one way or another, and the not-knowing gave rise to all kinds of imaginings. He was a man who lived by imagination, by visions, by images, in the shadow-world. It was the magic of his art, and the plague that visited his dreams.
I knew he would choose this day. It was the deepest, darkest, most awe filled day.
Why not? Dad never brooked folly. If he was to die, it would be on the heaviest day of our year.
As evening approached, he gripped my hand for hours. My hand screamed with arthritic pain, mine and his.
Darkness fell. His lips were dry and cracked. I took some of the Hospice lemon flavored gel out of the cooler and brought the spoon to his lips.
He clamped his mouth shut, with the slightest shake of his head, “no.”
“Your food is spiritual now,” I suggested, knowing that this, his last Yom Kippur, would be his first and last fast.
He nodded. It was nearly the last movement of the symphony that was his life.
He slipped into a peaceful dream, and I lay down on the vacant bed in the room reserved for dying people.
I must have drifted off, for near midnight an agonized cry jerked me awake. I rushed to his side. His face was twisted, his body arched. I wanted to throw myself upon him, but I knew there was no way to save him from his pain, so I sent him wordless messages…I’m here….I’m with you…I won’t leave you…
Then I knew. One more thing….
“Dad, it’s Yom Kippur. Your sins are white as snow. You are forgiven. You can go.”
His breathing changed from the near-death Cheyne-Stokes pattern: a period of no breathing followed by several deep breaths, to the imminent-death pattern of rapid air-hunger breathing. I called the Hospice nurse. She gave morphine. I called my mother, and in my doctor calm voice asked her if she wanted to be there. At first she said no, then thought better of it and said yes.
Soon after she arrived, Dad had grabbed my hand again and I stood there, watching him struggle with the Angel of Death. At last he knit his brow, and with a determined effort, made the leap.
Oh, how many times have I seen that look, when steeling himself for some odious task! Dispatching a dying animal, gripping his usual weapon, the shovel…
And now, gripping his own soul, as he let go and tumbled out of his body, into….what?
His grip on my hand disappeared. I looked at his hand, so tight just a moment ago, now flaccid and white. His fingers, now blue sausages.
“Lower the bed. All the way to the floor.” The Hospice nurse and my mother obeyed. I got my Siddur, the Hebrew prayer book, while I cried out,
“Shemah, YIsrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ehad…”
Hear, O Israel, Adonai is Our God, Adonai is One….
Yitgadal ve’yitkadash Sh’mei Rabbah…
May The Great Name be glorified and sanctified…
As the Deathbed Prayers stretched on, and my mother’s weeping grew louder, the Hospice nurse grew impatient and she called the mortician, who arrived with his impatient gurney.
“The mortician is waiting,” announced the nurse, just as I finished the Deathbed Prayers and was beginning to wash the body that used to belong to my dad.
I should have said FUCK OFF, this is my dad’s body, this is our religious tradition, this is Yom Kippur!
But I didn’t.
I watched them load him up, like a piece of meat. They were casually chatting. His dead face hung out; I pulled the sheet up to cover it. My mother screamed.
His precious blue arm, the one that used to give me jovial hugs, had got caught between the gurney and the strap that held him on. I pointed this out to the mortician and he fixed it, visibly irked. My mother had declined a casket, since Dad was to be cremated. Why waste money on a casket, only to burn it up? No money in this deal for the mortician.
Now we have finished the twelve months of saying Kaddish, to help his soul make the journey into the Next World. I am pretty sure I don’t believe in any Next World, but since I won’t know until I make that final leap, I leave the subject open.
Yitgadal ve’yitkadash Shmei Rabbah.