She let me know during our Friday afternoon Gut shabbos phone call, the call that I had made to show what a nice sister I was and to ask about the plans were coming along for our Dad’s yahrzeit commemoration.
“ Yitz and I are coming round to the opinion that women shouldn’t be at the grave” .
What?????? Her tone was so casual, I wondered if she even realized that she’d thrown a bomb of verbal dynamite in my direction.
Her words threw me off balance, causing my whole body to tense up; every muscle morphed into petrified wood.
She went on, talking apparently oblivious to my reaction.
”Yitz says that the seforim say that when women come to the grave the soton dances on the kever and Mom said that in Europe women never went to the grave..”
I tried to take it all in—all that I’d just heard —that it was wrong for me to go to my Dad’s grave…. And that by going I’d be inflicting damage onto his soul and and violating family custom—a family custom I’d never even knew our family had.
”Gut Shabbos,” I murmured in a shaky voice, putting the receiver quickly before I’d have a chance to say something I’d later regret. My body was thawing out and the shock was turning to anger.
“Where did she get her nerve ,” I asked myself. “ We aren’t hassidim. We never held this….Why is she putting this on me, this humra, I never heard of before.” .
In the rational spots in my brain, I knew that my sister wasn’t trying to hurt me. She was a ba’alas teshuva, a newbie in the strictly orthodox world as were my brother in law and myself. Most likely she’d read something or heard something in a lecture or a conversation that had put this idea into her head, and now she couldn’t get it out. Caballistic customs especially as they relate to death are scary, even spooky.
In her reckoning, the vision of a dancing Soton weighed more heavily than feelings at Yahrzeit time. But the question was, what about me? Did I have to go along with it too?
With just minutes left to candle lighting, I phoned my Rov. Thank G-d for my Rov, a Talmid Chochum, an FFB, with uninterrupted generations of frumkeit flowing in his veins, wise, kind, and accessible. The Ribono Shel Olom must have been rooting for me because he picked up right away.
“Yes,” he said, “There is such a custom… the Vilna Gaon did hold that way but that isn’t the majority opinion especially not in the US.” And then he added. “My sisters visit my father’s grave. It’s fine for you to go.”
“It’s not a simple thing, taking on a new custom,” my Rov added. “It really requires a lot of thought.”
Hearing my Rov made me feel strong, as if the ground had been restored beneath my feet. I would go to the Yahrzeit proudly, without ambivalent, vaguely guilty feelings, do what I needed to do and let my sister and brother in law do their own thing.
In many ways we are similar, my sister and I, both BTs, both determined to get everything right in our Yiddishkeit, but sometimes, we can get carried away in our zeal to apply things we’ve learned.
I once heard Rav Reisman talk about how he as a bochur had taken on his Rebbe Rav Pam z’l’s humra of not using hot water for dish washing on Yom Tov. Then when he married, he asked his Rebbe whether to continue. “Ask your wife, “ he was told . Predictably, the new Rebetzin was unenthusiastic about facing Yom Tov with a freezing sink and so the humra went by the wayside in favor of the larger goal of Shalom Bayis.
That anecdote carries a big lesson, of putting people before pieties. Hazal tell us that circumstances don’t just come into our life randomly; they are set up by G-d as spurs to our growth. So rather than using this particular incident to nurse a grudge—which is of course contrary to halacha, I will try to grow from it, to remind myself that in my zeal to climb the ladder to heaven, I must be sensitive and take care not to trample the guy (or gal) on the rung below.
Postscript: I went to the cemetery on the Yahrzeit and my sister wasn’t there, but it was fine.