Ki Tetse — Dad’s 1st Yartzheit
By Meyer Shwarzstein, September 14, 2019, 14 Elul 5779
You see, the thing is…my father often like to start conversations that way. You see, the thing is…the 14th of Elul last year was Shabbat. Today is the 14th of Elul and it’s Shabbat. My father was in the hospital in Har HaTzofim in a remarkable place – one where Christians, Moslems and Jews are the doctors, patients, caretakers, friends, family…probably all praying separately together. I wonder if in heaven those voices sound like a chorus.
My father had been getting better the whole week and we’d been looking forward to moving him to another location the next day. He had many of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren visit him in small groups – giving him a gift he adored – we sang Zemirot to him. The next morning, he took a steep turn for the worse and that afternoon, he died.
The law to bury on the same day comes from today’s parsha. We had his funeral at 9 pm on Sunday and we buried him in Jerusalem – the birthplace of his father and his father’s parents.
His great-great-grandmother was born in Tzfat and his great-great grandfather went out – Tetse – from Hungary to live his people’s dream in the land of Israel. My father – Tetse – also went out – from Chicago to live the same dream.
In our parsha, the phrase Ki Tetse talks about men who went out to war. My father, the first college graduate in his family, never went to war – he went to work. He taught music at a public high school during the day, took a nap after school and went out at night and Sundays to teach Hebrew school. He did have his battles – mostly with a principle who made his life difficult for taking off all those dang Jewish holidays.
Growing up, I thought of Judaism as the religion of “no”. You see, the thing is, this parsha contains lots of mitzvot – 74 to be exacts – more than any other Torah portion. My father had a lot of rules too – I felt that he said “no” a lot. Indeed, when he said, “we’ll see”, we learned that that meant “no” too. He also had a very strong sense of what is “right” even though he couldn’t or wouldn’t always explain why.
Like the Torah laws themselves which are often not self-evident. Consider today’s parsha:
Why shouldn’t we have an ox and a donkey plow together? The commentators note that it’s unfair to expect a donkey to do the work of an ox. And, if they’re pulling a plow side by side, it may also be unsafe.
in the matter of dispatching a mother bird before taking her chicks (22:7), there are many reasons given including the idea that animals have emotions and rights. 800 years ago, the Ramban and Ibn Ezra pointed out that, if we kill the mother and child of a species, we may destroy the species altogether…and that’s what why we’re given this law.
To digress a bit, I read recently that the idea of burying our dead the way we do is more ecologically sound – not burning or embalming a body nor burying it in a casket that will not disintegrate naturally. It turns out that the Jewish way leaves the smallest footprint.
I’m not trying to over-idealize my father’s rationale for when he’d tell us yes or no though time does allow me to be more generous. Nor am I using this as a means to over-explain confusing passages in the Torah. But in there is a potential to find truth and meaning if one cares enough to give people and the text the benefit of the doubt.
Now, there were things that bothered me about my father. When I was a kid, I hated the fact that he wouldn’t vocalize his feelings and tell me what he really meant. When my parents were on a path toward divorce, my mom would say terrible things about him, and he’d be quiet. It drove me crazy.
We are reminded in this Parsha to learn from Miriam’s mistake. She suffered a physical rebuke after saying terrible things about Moshe and his wife behind his back.
I know my father took the laws regarding gossip quite seriously — but how could I get real information – the real skinny? I’d have long conversations with my father who would update me on the news of his friends and our family but he’d literally ignore the bad news and he would talk about certain people so he wouldn’t fall into lashan harah (gossip). It was one of those things that was both frustrating and yet admirable. It took such self-discipline to keep those thoughts to himself.
My father used his voice for a different purpose; singing, teaching, laughing and, most importantly, cracking bad jokes.
Our Haftorah says, rena vatzhali, “Sing aloud for Joy.” That’s how my parents met – he was a choir director in Detroit where my mother first landed in the US – They both loved to sing and that brought them together. Our Shabbat tables were filled with song. They also both loved to teach.
My father invited his high-school students to bring in the music they loved, and he broke the structure down for them. He told me about Pink Floyd before I’d heard of them. No wonder his students loved him.
I sang in a high holiday choir with my father since I was 9 years told – first, soprano, then alto, and finally bass.
After my father passed away, a man who sang in my father’s choir sent me a wonderful card. I called him and we reminisced – I sent him a scan of my father’s music – some of which my father composed. He wrote me back and told me he was sitting in front of his computer singing for at least an hour. He also told me how a friend of his who was also in the choir today use my father’s hand movements to signal to each other when someone davening should be stopped, and they signal the use of a tuning fork as a sign that someone is off key.
He also knew how to laugh, to enjoy the moment and to love.
When his 2nd wife, my stepmother, had lost much of her cognitive ability, he’d treat her like she could understand his every word. He’d sit next to her with her arms in his, tell her the recent news and looked at her as lovingly as he did when they first got married – maybe even more. I’d never seen a love like that before. He’d share with her information about his whole family – you see, the thing is, I no longer had one sister, I now had five.
He was also always proud of me and he showed it. Now I have to live without that.
Divorce is a subject of this week’s parsha too. My parents came from a difficult upbringing and weren’t able to see their relationship through, but they had hope and tried to improve their world. Maybe that’s why they named their children Meyer and Rena – light and joy.
In this parsha we’re also commanded to remember. That came easily to my dad. My father would remember each of you if he talked to you – he cared so much about people, about friends, and about family that he’d remember details you may have only mentioned once.
For one moment; imagine a world in which disparate people stand next to each other in an orderly manner and are forced to listen to each other before a sound comes from their mouths. That’s my father’s world. A chorus. His choirs were filled with joy and prayer.
He would take out his tuning fork, find the right key, look at each of us in the eyes, make sure we were paying attention, and lift his arms…
…we’d wait for him to drop them to signal us to start singing. This disparate group of people held our breaths ready to join together in harmony filling our world with song, order and blessings.
But now there’s only silence.
You see, the thing is…I miss him.