Religion & Beliefs

Bringing In Shabbat By the Grave

My father used to say to my sisters that I was the sensitive one. “Like a deer in the woods who hears a twig snap,” which I guess meant I had a kind of high strung alertness. I learned this … Read More

By / May 25, 2007

My father used to say to my sisters that I was the sensitive one. “Like a deer in the woods who hears a twig snap,” which I guess meant I had a kind of high strung alertness. I learned this after he died, twenty four years ago. And in my own personal mythology, that alertness is manifested in my “spirituality.” And so here I sit in a heated car, on a hill just beneath his grave, on a fairly normal, heartlessly gray late afternoon in Milwaukee. I have come here to accuse him, pre-Shabbos, of the sin of anger and dying young, two things I sometimes fear will take control of me as they took control of him. That’s why, as a strategy for survival, I became a rabbi. I’m just being honest. Yes: those fears propelled me, practically against my will, into the rabbinate, after his anger and heart shot him from life on a heartlessly gray day in Milwaukee twenty four years ago. That’s 2 x 12 Tribes years ago for you crazy mystics out there. And so I stand with freezing feet in the snow, heart broken in accusation. I try to heal it by singing him the Kabbalat Shabbat, a rest and comfort against loss. I see his name, etched in stone: Monas S. Bachman Father, Brother, Son I sing to him of Shabbat and my favorite Psalms. It closes the loop from the only Hebrew he taught me—well, not quite Hebrew but the vague shapes of the letters I watched him trace for me when I huddled up against him and a borrowed tallis in synagogue on the rare occasions that he took me with his own father to say Kaddish for the dead ancestors I never knew. “Thank you father for teaching me that there is a form to our language. A linguistic structure I filled in at the Universities I attended in Madison and Jerusalem. It was in those cities that the replacement fathers were found After you collapsed on your bedroom floor.” In the Mishnah these new fathers, Avot, are rabbis, and those were the fathers (and one mother) I sought and found over the course of the last twenty-four years. And slowly, one by one, they all died too. First there was George Mosse. And then Irv Saposnik. And then Arthur Hertzberg. And now Lisa Goldberg. Each a teacher. Each a conveyer of wisdom. Each an exemplar of some aspect of the kind of life I wanted for myself, for Rachel, for the kids. This is the first time that I stood above my father’s grave, with the stark reality of my own mortality staring me in the face. No image on the grave, no Russian icons looking back in my direction. Just a name—BACHMAN—an accusation in its own right saying, “Sentenced to death, eventually.” I say, “You’re gone, Dad. George is gone. Irv is gone. Arthur’s gone. Lisa’s gone. It’s all down to me. It finally happened. It had to, eventually.” That’s right. We will all die one day. And the measure of each of us is how honest we are, how good we are, how generous we are, in the every moment of the every step we take. And in this prayer, in the cold, with hot tears of anger and sadness overwhelming me in the Milwaukee snow and the background hum of East-West commuters moving down the freeway that abuts the cemetery, I understand another level of my own anger: That we live and die is so obvious as to dictate, for those who can grasp it, why certain pretensions of power and authority are ultimately absurd. So that’s why you want to change the world! It’s absurd NOT to! When you’re younger, you’re supposed to buck against the bridle of authority. That’s part of the natural growth process. But what happens to those who keep staring death in the face, whose lives are made up of visiting the sick, of burying the dead, of listening to questions about God and the meaning of life? Are we supposed to put on suits and act the part of Men Who Are Together? Or do we stare into the grave and discover a greater freedom from it all? What happens when your teachers die and you’re left standing at the grave, singing songs? Who teaches me what to do next? Who says, “Keep on fighting, son?” Is there a book for this? A leadership training seminar I can take? Psalm 92, A Song for Shabbat: It is good to give thanks to the Eternal. To sing praises to Your Name Most High. To speak of Your Lovingkindness in the morning. And Your faithfulness at night. If I had a harp or a lute I’d go on; but I’m freezing my ass off, so I head back to the car. To my wife and kids and Shabbat.