Ethical will: Patience

What do we remember of our departed loved ones?

In speaking to other mourners, I have noticed that people’s recollections of their deceased loved ones differ widely. Some people seem to remember only the most loving and tender of moments, whereas others recall a wider range of experiences. (I’ve also met widows who only spoke of dark and painful memories after their husbands passed away, even after decades of living peacefully with their spouses’ shortcomings.)

I miss Papa more than my words can express, but not all of my memories of him are positive. On one hand, I don’t want to besmirch Papa’s good name; on the other hand, I don’t think that focusing exclusively on my good memories does him any real honor.

If we’re being honest, I think all of us inevitably learn two ways from our parents – 1) we observe certain choices and ways of theirs that we hope to emulate, and 2) there are others that we consider less than ideal, which we deliberately attempt to approach differently than they did.

We empower ourselves and our children to best learn and improve ourselves by honestly reflecting upon our collective pasts.


A particular memory

After graduating from college, I lived at home for several years while my brother Eli was yet a child. One memory that has stayed with me to this day is that of babysitting him on a particular afternoon while our parents were away. The details are hazy in my mind, but I remember losing my patience with him, and I remember him bursting into tears (he was only four or five at the time).

I also remember myself immediately feeling terribly guilty and attempting to comfort the little boy, apologizing to him for my unreasonably irritable outburst. A thought followed, soon after I had calmed him down: “Oh, God. That’s the way Papa acts.”

Papa, you see, tended to be irritable and impatient with me, leading me to often approach him with hesitancy. It was a trait of his that I had never fully developed the tools to content with, other than to avoid him.


Just to be clear!

What I’ve written above bears clarification.

My Babushka (Mama’s mother), who very much adored my father (as did all of my mother’s family), no less than she might have adored her own son, put this to me in a way that rang deeply true. My Papa, as Babushka explained to me on more than one occasion, could be irascible (вспыльчивы), but he never stayed angry for long and never bore any grudges. He was irritable, yes, true, but he was also incredibly forgiving, and one of the kindest men to have ever lived.

Human beings are all so complicated, aren’t we?


Me, myself, and I

The memory I shared with you above is one of my own impatience, and it’s one which I have been trying to grow from in all the years since.

Nevertheless, the reality is that despite my best efforts to subdue this particular character trait of mine, my irritability still manages to occasionally find its way to the fore. I have been impatient at times with both my wife and my daughter, and that is not something to be proud of in the slightest. Such episodes have always left me feeling ashamed. Thus, it is my own limitations, rather than Papa’s, which have led me to write this blog post.

Reflecting upon this, I have decided to explore some traditional Jewish texts and lessons on patience and attempt to create something positive: another article for my ‘ethical will’.


Still waiting for the Messiah

The first thing that immediately strikes me regarding Jewish theology is that we Jews are still waiting for the Messiah’s arrival. Obviously, that’s not to say that all Jews believe in the Messiah, but, still, that’s the official party line: we have been praying for Redemption for thousands of years; and, even today, even with the establishment of the modern Jewish State of Israel (from which we were exiled for nearly two millennia), we continue to pray for the eventual coming of the Messianic Age.

Famously, the 12th of Maimonides’ (Spain, Egypt, 1135-1204) ‘Thirteen Principles of Faith’ is:

I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though he may tarry, nonetheless, I wait every day for his coming.


The most classic example of Jewish impatience

My second thought relates to the classic Biblical case of the Jewish people’s impatience. Stories of our collective impatience abound in our TaNaKh (Jewish Bible), but most people would agree that the story of the Golden Calf represented our greatest failure.

As the story goes, the Israelites were impatient for the return of their leader Moses from Mount Sinai after he ascended to receive the Torah from God. They felt he was tarrying too long. The Torah describes this impatience as the cause of the Israelites’ unrest, which ultimately resulted in their demand for a Golden Calf.

Descending from Mount Sinai, Moses witnessed the Israelites worshipping their Golden Calf. He became enraged and hurled the Ten Commandments, which he had just received from God, down to the ground. The stone tablets shattered into fragments. God then told Moses that he intended to destroy all of the Israelites (Exodus 32):

ט וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה: רָאִיתִי אֶת-הָעָם הַזֶּה, וְהִנֵּה עַם-קְשֵׁה-עֹרֶף הוּא. 9 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people.
י וְעַתָּה הַנִּיחָה לִּי, וְיִחַר-אַפִּי בָהֶם וַאֲכַלֵּם; וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל. 10 Now therefore let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them; and I will make of thee a great nation.’

It was only upon Moses pleading with Him that God finally relented:

יד וַיִּנָּחֶם, יְהוָה, עַל-הָרָעָה, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת לְעַמּוֹ. 14 And the LORD relented on the evil which He said He would do unto His people.

In fact, the Torah does not even suggest that God forgave the people for their impatience and lack of faith. Rather, it was Moses’ beseechment that moved Him, and the prophet’s plea to the Master of the Universe appealed only to A) God’s concern with His own reputation, and B) The promises He’d made to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (Jacob).

One can only imagine how differently the Jewish story might have unfolded if the Israelite people had exhibited faith in God and His chosen messenger.


Verses on wisdom

Beyond the above “big picture” examples, the TaNaKh, as one would expect, is very direct about the virtue of patience. Such verses include the following:

Ecclesiastes 7

ח טוֹב אַחֲרִית דָּבָר, מֵרֵאשִׁיתוֹ; טוֹב אֶרֶךְ-רוּחַ, מִגְּבַהּ-רוּחַ. 8 Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof; and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.

Proverbs 14

כט אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, רַב-תְּבוּנָה; וּקְצַר-רוּחַ, מֵרִים אִוֶּלֶת. 29 [He who has] long patience is of great understanding; but [he that is] hasty of spirit exalteth folly.

Proverbs 16

לב טוֹב אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, מִגִּבּוֹר; וּמֹשֵׁל בְּרוּחוֹ, מִלֹּכֵד עִיר. 32 [He who has] long patience is better than a hero; and [better] he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.

These three verses speak to my point so I won’t belabor it any further, but a cursory review of Jewish source texts reveals others as well.


Patience… with myself

If I were to list my most self-destructive traits, impatience would rank in my Top 5. As much as I am drafting this ethical will of mine piece by piece for my daughter and future children, I find that it is also helpful to me to collect my thoughts and do some much needed introspection and self-work.

Coming from a traditional Jewish context, writing about patience is almost too easy because it stands out as a primary theme that is splattered all over the scored and stitched leather sheets of our Torah scrolls.

In this vein, I’ve been encountering a personal conflict in compiling my ethical will… some principles and values are so self-evident to me that I hesitate to write about them at all. Do I really need, I have asked myself, to write posts about being kind, being appreciative, being generous, etc.? Shouldn’t we naturally appreciate the truth and fundamentality of these values?

It seems to me that I must work on being more patient with myself.

Ethical will: Impartiality

Judgmentalism has always come easily to me.

-Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish 45’, May 30, 2019

During my kaddish journey following Papa’s death, I struggled with being judgmental of myself. In fact, this was one of the primary impetuses behind that yearlong writing project… Frankly, I had been feeling FAKE by going through the motions of communal mourning rituals with my religious community, while lacking faith in a personal Higher Power. I knew that that Papa would never have wanted that, nor respected it, and I couldn’t stand it either… so I began to share my truth.

It has been my experience that those of us who are most judgmental of ourselves also tend to be judgmental of others. A particular acquaintance of mine struggles with this more than anyone else I’ve known, and while many of the sentiments that he articulates are off-putting to me, my own inclination towards stinging judgmentalism permits me to empathize with and pity him. In his brutal judgments of others, I hear his impossible expectations of himself. His harsh judgmentalism puts my own into perspective.

The funny thing about [my] judgmentalism is that there’s always somebody for me to judge.

When I was more committed to Jewish tradition as an expression of God’s will, when I was praying three times daily and very careful never to eat any food that wasn’t certified kosher, when I felt more certain of my faith… I found myself having to withhold many a comment about those who were less observant.

On the other hand, now that my personal commitment to daily religious observance has slipped, now that I have strongly embraced my skepticism and doubts, now that I see tradition as almost entirely an expression of human needs and experiences… I find myself judging those who believe in Something that they cannot prove.

This reminds me of a popular adage I’ve oft heard in Jewish educational circles:

Anyone to my right is a zealot; anyone to my left is a heretic.


Now, the Torah, as I’ve written elsewhere, is a legal tradition at its core. The ancient Israelites lived their lives according to what they believed to be God’s Word, and they established judicial courts accordingly to adjudicate the inevitable disputes.

Somewhat as an aside, it was Moses‘ father-in-law Jethro, a non-Israelite, who first suggested the establishment of a hierarchical court system, rather than leaving Moses to shoulder the burden of adjudication on his own. Notably, according to Jewish doctrine, only Jews are obligated to live their lives according to God’s Torah, but gentiles are still considered obligated to abide by the seven Noahide laws, one of which is: the establishment of courts of justice.

It’s clear that judgment has an important place in Judaism. Indeed, Deuteronomy 16:19-20 is written as follows:

לֹא־תַטֶּ֣ה מִשְׁפָּ֔ט לֹ֥א תַכִּ֖יר פָּנִ֑ים וְלֹא־תִקַּ֣ח שֹׁ֔חַד כִּ֣י הַשֹּׁ֗חַד יְעַוֵּר֙ עֵינֵ֣י חֲכָמִ֔ים וִֽיסַלֵּ֖ף דִּבְרֵ֥י צַדִּיקִֽם׃ You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.
צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃ Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

These two verses, I find, are very instructive for us. For me, they are something to aspire to.

On the one hand, verse 20 makes it clear that we Jews ought to pursue justice. This is part and parcel of Torah. Through this lens, I am able to recognize and appreciate that judgmentalism isn’t inherently bad, although it certainly may be painful for me.

Verse 19 serves to clarify the ideal of judgment for me. Yes, we must pursue justice, but how does one do so? The answer: ‘you shall show no partiality’.

In other words, yes, we are creatures of judgment, and, yes, this may be not only natural but correct. However, we must always recognize and acknowledge our biases, and these biases are more than likely to shift over time, further highlighting their subjectiveness. So we must, of necessity, ask ourselves, “How would I describe my perspective? Who do I perceive to be different than myself and in what ways? And- how am I intuitively inclined to regard them?”


On a personal note, I am finding that the struggle of being judgmental has not gotten any easier for me emotionally over the years. However, the more I have been able to recognize and acknowledge my own mistakes and failures, the more I find myself capable of understanding the human failings of others.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 45

My grief is terribly indescribable and indescribably terrible. Writing about it twists my stomach into knots, clauses searing through my abdomen, as I tear into it with jagged words, gashing at sticky, fleshy gobs of disbelief that spill out in thick rivulets of revulsion.

That’s as far as I got with blog post #45 before Tuesday, May 28. I couldn’t force out any further words before the final kaddish.

I knew it was coming, but I couldn’t accept it.

It’s ridiculous, really.

* * *

In December, when I’d first learned (blog #20) of Rabbi Benny Lau’s (b. 1961) ‘prayer for the last Kaddish’, I’d been judgmental of the two women I’d heard reciting it. Wouldn’t it have been more meaningful for them to write ‘final prayers’ of their own? I thought. I will write my own prayer; I will use my own words.

Judgmentalism has always come easily to me.

Months later, as May 28 made its steady approach, I couldn’t find any inspiration. Worse, I was rebelling against the very premise of this prayer. I don’t care that eleven months of kaddish recitations have gone by. My ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ blog is my true kaddish for Papa;  I’ll continue with it until his yahrzeit. I don’t care about shul; I’m only going through the motions anyway.

I lie to myself sometimes. The truth is- I do care.

On May 26, two days before the final kaddish, I stopped by the bakery where Papa used to purchase bourekas on his visits to us during the summer months. How early do you open? I wanted to know. Fresh bourekas are available by 6:00, I was told. Good, that’s before the first kaddish of shacharit.

On May 27, one day before the final kaddish, I took a deep breath. I can’t write a personal prayer -I can’t even admit how much I care about this- but tomorrow is the final day of kaddish. This is the end. Will I really let it pass without notice? Damn, damn, damn it. Ugh! Truth is: I’m no different than any other mourner, overwhelmed and wordless. Maybe I should use Rav Benny’s prayer as those two women did… I suppose his words would feel no less foreign to me than the kaddish once did… 

Traditional Jewish prayer is formulaic. It serves when we don’t know what to say, when articulation is too overwhelming, when we feel empty of self-expression, when we simply need a dependable tool for connection…

– Me, blog #9

And so.
I pulled up Rav Benny’s prayer in my browser.
Despite and because of myself.

* * *

But… Rav Benny is an Orthodox rabbi. His prayer, creatively innovative though it is, is a believer’s prayer. Its words not only flow along with the rhythms of Jewish tradition; they flow forth from it.

Skeptic that I am, I don’t accept some of Rav Benny’s premises:

אָבִינוּ שֶׁבַּשָּׁמַיִם… הִשְׁתַּדַּלְתִּי לְכַבֵּד אֶת אָבִי בַּשָּׁנָה הַזֹּאת… עָשִׂיתִי כְּכָל אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתָנוּ… לָעֵת הַזֹּאת… אֶשָּׂא תְּחִנָּה לִפְנֵי כִסֵּא כְבוֹדֶךָ שֶׁיַּעֲלוּ כָּל תְּפִלּוֹתַי לְפָנֶיךָ לְרָצוֹן וְתֵיטִיב לְאָבִי, הֲרֵינִי כַּפָּרַת מִשְׁכָּבוֹ Our Father in Heaven… I strove to honor my father this year… I have done as you commanded us… At this time… I shall raise a plea before Your throne of glory, that all my prayers shall go up before You and be acceptable to You, and You shall do good for my father, for I am the atonement for his resting-place…

Where to begin?

Firstly, I couldn’t bring myself to write a personal prayer for my final kaddish precisely because I am still in my year of mourning for Papa. Rav Benny’s prayer refers to ‘this year’ in the past tense, as if his year of mourning ended upon his recitation of this personal plea, which took place after only 11 months (following his final kaddish for his own father).

Further: as far as I am concerned, my Jewish mourning experience lasts for the duration of 13 months from the date of my father’s death until his yahrzeit (this anomaly is the result of the Hebrew leap year, which has pushed the anniversary of Papa’s death back by a full month on the Hebrew calendar – blog #32).

Secondly, I don’t believe that God ‘commanded us’ to recite Kaddish for our loved ones. As of today, I remain entirely unconvinced of God’s involvement in our lives, let alone what He may or may not have commanded us to do.

Further: as we’ve learned on this kaddish journey, the recitation of the mourner’s kaddish is a tradition (not included on any list of 613 mitzvot), which was developed by human beings and incorporated into communal Jewish prayer during the medieval era.

Lastly, while I have been at prayer and praying every single day since my father was buried on July 9th, I reject the notion that I need ‘plea’ for my prayers to ‘be acceptable’ for Papa’s redemption. The God I may just be capable of believing in is just and merciful – He knows full well whether my prayers have been sincere and deserving or not.

Further: my father does not need anybody else to be an ‘atonement’ for him. He was among the most decent, most kindhearted, and most modest human beings that I ever met.
(This is not to say that he was perfect)
Further: I am certain that everyone who knew him well would agree with this.
Further: this is true regardless of religious doctrine, regardless of my father’s religiosity, and regardless of my religious proclivity.

So…

* * *

With humility and deep appreciation, I rewrote Rav Benny Lau’s prayer to reflect my beliefs and sentiments (the skeptic’s version of the believer’s prayer):

אבינו שבשמים Our Heavenly Father,
על פי דרישות המסורת according to the expectations of the Tradition,
זכיתי להשלים אמירת קדיש לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי I have merited to complete the recitation of kaddish for the rising up of the soul of my father and teacher,
מאז עלייתו לגִּנְזֵי מרומים ועד עתה from the time of his rising to the troves of the highest heavens until now.
השתדלתי לכבד את אבי במשך תקופה זו בכל נפשי ובכל מאודי I have striven to honor my father during this period with all my soul and all my might,
אך מבחינתי although from my perspective,
התהליך הזה לא יושלם עד היארצייט שלו this process will not be completed until his yahrzeit,
אשר יהיה בעוד חודשיים which will be in another two months.
ועתה עומד אני לפניך קצת נִרְגָּשׁ And now I stand before You, slightly anxious,
אבל גם בביטחון ואומר but also with confidence, and say:
עשיתי מה שנדרש על פי המסורת I have done that which is expected according to the Tradition.
כעת הזאת, בעומדי לפניך בזמן שחרית At this time, as I stand before You during the morning prayer,
אני מאמין שכל כוונותי ממשיכות לעלות לפניך לרצון I believe that all of my intentions continue to rise up before You and are acceptable to You,
ואני מאמין שתיטיב לאבי and I believe that You will do Good by my father,
שהרי היה הוא אדם טוב לב, הָגוּן וצנוע for he was a kindhearted, decent, and modest man,
ותעניק לו את מקומו בעולם שכולו טוב and You will grant him his place in the world that is all good,
בקרב כל הברואים שהאירו את פניך בעולמך among all the creatures who illuminated Your face in Your world
לָכֵן בַּעַל הָרַחֲמִים Therefore, may the All-Merciful One
יַסְתִּירֵהוּ בְּסֵתֶר כְּנָפָיו לְעוֹלָמִים Shelter him with the cover of His wings forever,
וְיִצְרֹר בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים אֶת נִשְׁמָת אלכסנדר בן משה And bind the soul of Alexander ben Mosheh in the bond of life.
ה’ הוּא נַחֲלָתוֹ God is his heritage;
וְיָנוּחַ בְּשָׁלוֹם עַל מִשְׁכָּבוֹ, וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן May he rest in his resting-place in peace; and let us say: Amen.

I spent some time editing the text; once I felt satisfied with it, my friend Sagi (a native Israeli) was kind enough to review my Skeptic’s Prayer and ravel out my Hebrew. I read through it yet again at my desk, closed my eyes, and shuddered.

* * *

On May 28, the day of the final kaddish, my alarm rang at 5:30 in the morning. I got myself out of bed, mechanically went through my morning routine, and put one bottle of orange juice and one bottle of Monkey Shoulder Scotch whiskey into a sturdy, reusable shopping bag, along with my ‘Skeptic’s Prayer for the Last Kaddish’ in a firm, plastic sleeve.

I walked to shul and left the bag near the entrance; then crossed the street over to the bakery. At the back, I ordered two large, heaping boxes of sundry bourekas, and made my way over to the cashier, who happened to be the owner. So you came for the bourekas. He smiled. Today is my final kaddish for my father. I nodded. Of course I came. The man’s eyes lowered and rose to meet mine again. May his memory be for a blessing. Here, have a discount.

I recited each kaddish that morning as if I were parting with every syllable forever, but my voice held steady. At the end of services, the gabbai announced: David Bogomolny would like to invite all of us to partake of refreshments in honor of his father, and he will now recite a prayer to mark the end of his eleven months of kaddish.

After a brief introduction and sincere note of appreciation for my fellow petitioners, I read my Skeptic’s Prayer aloud so that all could hear me. My voice shook, but I managed to read it in its entirety. ‘May he rest in his resting-place in peace; and let us say: Amen.’

– AMEN.

Afterwards, standing at the refreshments table and surrounded by kind, familiar faces, I heard everybody making blessings in honor of my father. My legs felt unsteady, my breath uneven; my heart pounding as I let my breath out. Man… I could sure use some whiskey.