Rosh HaShannah: Life and Meaning



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The Cycle of Life

By Zalman Eisenstock

The period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is traditionally known as the ten days of repentance. It is an intense period in which we concentrate all of our efforts and prayers toward the goal of being written into the book of life. On Rosh Hashanah, the Rabbis of old tell us, the books of life and death are open before the Holy One. Each of us is judged as to what share we will have in these books based on our actions, and the very final "seal" is made with the last of all the prayers - the neilah service of Yom Kippur.

While each one of us will be absorbed this high holy day season with our own feelings and emotions, Rosh Hashanah conjures up for me the memories of my parents. And in particular, that of 1985.

It was that summer that my youngest daughter, Navah, was born on Tisha B'Av in Soroka hospital in Beer Sheva. My wife and I were so excited by the birth of our first girl in seven years (after 2 beautiful boys) that the nurses thought that it was our first child. The excitement of bringing our first tzabarit home was tempered by the phone call I received from my mother the next day.

We had visited the States the previous May in order to attend my sister-in-law's wedding to which my parents were also invited. While visiting them my father became ill, which at the time seemed like a very bad cough. Per usual, it was hard parting as we had no idea when we would see each other again. Making aliyah has its drawbacks as well, and one of the more difficult ones is dealing with a separation of 6,000 miles. The phone calls then, and the e-mails nowadays can never replace the physical contact between grandparents, parents and the next generation.

Shortly after Navah's birth I received a phone call from my mother. I distinctly remember that after telling her of the birth, there didn't seem to be an overabundance of joy that one would have expected, but I didn't think there was anything significant. I don't remember all the details of that conversation, but I do recall my mother telling me two shocking things. One was that my father had lung cancer that had been diagnosed in the summer, and the other was that it was so advanced that the doctors gave him only 6 months to live at the outset.

The news was shocking enough, but it also left me with a great deal of uncertainty as to where I should be during this period. On the one hand, my family needed me, but on the other hand my dad wasn't going to be around much longer. I also started thinking what I should be praying for. Did I ask G-d for a miracle when I knew ahead of time that it was impossible medically? Did I ask for my father's life to be prolonged and suffer even more? Did I ask for the time to be able to spend one last visit in order to talk, take one last trip and share memories? I opted for the last.

That Rosh Hashanah was extremely hard as every time that I mentioned "remember us for life" I thought about one thing only-would I have the opportunity to see my father again. The Afternoon before Yom Kippur, right before we sat down for the last meal before the fast, I debated whether to call my parents. Would there be any improvement in my father's condition, or would it make me more depressed. My wife made me realize that it just wasn't about me, but it was more about those small things that we do for others, and especially our parents. I finally did make the call, and because of the cancer my father's voice was very raspy, but I was happy that we spoke even briefly. Little did I know that it would be the last time we would speak.

A little over a month later I got another phone call (I was always afraid to answer the phone not knowing what news it might bring) from my oldest brother. My father's condition had deteriorated, and the family felt that I should come as quickly as possible. I flew on Rosh Chodesh (The first of the Jewish month of) Kislev, and it was probably the loneliest flight I had ever taken. I arrived in Philly Thursday night, and the next morning my brothers took me to the hospital to see dad. I slowly walked in the room, and was happy to see that despite the respirator he was alert. I will always remember his very firm handshake the rest of my life. The thoughts I had about walking with him or talking would not materialize, but at least I had made it in time. Every minute and memory has so much significance at these times, and somehow I regretted not coming earlier when we could have spent more time together.

That Friday night I spent with my mother talking about my father's illness, how she had been coping with it, and what hope there was for him to improve and come home once again. Later that night my brother woke me to give me the news that my father had passed away. That was the first time I cried on Shabbat, and I remember that I just couldn't stop crying.

My father passed away on the third day of Kislev. Five years later my youngest son Zviki was born (named for my father). Seventeen years later, to the day, my first grandson, Maoz Tzvi, was born. My eldest daughter, Tamar, went into Shaarei Zedek hospital on Rosh Chodesh Kislev, and we expected a quick birth. Two days later Tamar was still pregnant, and we thought about going home for the night. But after debating for a while my wife and I decided to stay. After all, it was the first grandchild. Throughout the night cries were heard from the ward, but it wasn't our turn yet. Finally, around midday, the third of Kislev, Maoz Tzvi popped out. The tears that I shed seventeen years earlier were replaced by tears of joy for the birth of the next generation. The cycle of life had been completed. Every year on the third day of Kislev I say Kaddish for my father, and partake of cake and ice cream for Maoz.

May this Rosh Hashanah bring us a year filled with blessings and life - L'chaim!


from the October 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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