A Lesson From my Sister

   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.

   â€œ 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.

   â€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.

   â€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.

   â€œWhere 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.

   â€œYes,” 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.”

   â€œIt’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.

20 comments on “A Lesson From my Sister

  1. We removed the post by “Moishela”, but I think that Judy’s Ayin Tov stands by itself.

  2. I am not sure who this “Moishela” is. I sincerely doubt that a Gadol BaTorah would come up with such harsh words against the frum Jewish community in America. This comment is exactly opposite what the article was all about, which was not taking on super strict chumras that place piety before people.
    “Moishela” seems obsessed with what he sees as breaches in tznius between men and women, and he uses the murder of an innocent boy to rant about all kinds of failings that he finds in our community. “Moishela” leaves us with the feeling that he would be happy to see more bad things happen to our community, in order to punish us for the many sins that he feels we American Jews have committed.

    There is a way to give effective rebuke, out of love and caring for one’s fellow Jew. “Moishela” has plenty of anger and no ahavah for American Jews. Our efforts to support Torah mosdos and earn an honest living are derided as pure Gashmius; our Kashrus standards are mocked; and even our tefillos are condemned as insincere. Nothing we do meets “Moishela’s” approval.

    Who is supporting this handicapped boy? Does his mother work in order to pay the rent and the food bills? Is he maintained by the charity of these very American Jews that he scorns? Does he understand the difficulty of going out into the marketplace to earn a living or has he been sheltered from this his whole life? Whose labor purchases his clothing, his meals, his attendants?

    Surely before Elul we all have self-improvement to work on. I would suggest that “Moishela” start by replacing his “bad eye” that sees only wickedness in his fellow Jews, with his “good eye” to judge favorably the mitzvos and chesed that Jews perform.

    Remember the story of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son Rabbi Elazar when they came out of the cave, they were so holy they wanted to destroy the whole world, they could not understand how people could waste their time on secular pursuits. HKBH ordered them back into the cave for twelve more months as a punishment for not seeing any good in the mundane activities of Jewish people.

  3. An important and heartfelt lesson – well told. As we navigate our way through the complex passages of Halacha, the concept of persons before pieties is important to remember. Judaism should not become a grim business filled with practices that seem to exist only to cause psychological discomfort. If you have heard of a new humra that seems outrageous, it probably is.

  4. Your “chumra” might be my baseline
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    It could be argued that any chumra too far extended beyond mainstream halacha should not be ANYone’s “baseline” – that this is problem with the current culture of humra-based one-upmanship. That chumrot are spiritual/moral correctives to be administered selectively, and for limited periods.

    But the problem in this case is much more direct: BTs should certainly not be schooled in chumrot before they are comfortable and acclimated to the totality of Torah living. Those BTs who – for various reasons – seek out extreme positions or chumrot should be guided towards more balanced, mainstream practice, at least initially.

    The original author makes clear that she and her sister are BTs who are still working out their “baseline”. And she is probably pretty accurate in describing how this chumra came to occupy her sister:

    “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 other words, the chumra does not spring from a consistent worldview, regular study of one pathway in Judaism, or a carefully considered plan to improve certain middos.

    NONE of these people should be accepting such a chumra as their “baseline”.

    Part of coaching a BT is precisely the avoidance of such extremes, to which some BTs – and anyone in emotional extremis, such as the bereaved – are prone.

    But since the FFB world is so thoroughly infected with the Chumrah Culture – who is going to guide the BT to a middle path of mainstream practice, which they can personalize LATER after they become acclimated and know their way around Torah Judaism?

    In this specific case – who is there to gently tease out the tangled mix of emotional trauma, insecurity, and being “spooked” by misunderstood Kabbalah – and guide the author’s sister to a practice of Jewish mourning that will probably be healthier for her in the long run?

  5. you got it right, Ron. The “people before pieties” line was a subtle elbow into the ribs of that thought that her sister might be doing her Yiddishkeit “better.” As we’ve all noted, if the sister in fact meant to insinuate that A-I was less of a good Jew in attending,it was a serious transgression of a number of chovot Halevavot Mitzvos. However, the giant problem with becoming a victim of these super-piety attitudes is that we try to knock the piety as somehow wrong in itself.

    I still remember the giant breakthrough I experienced when reading Rav Blumenkrantz’s (sp?) digest on Pessach humras. He touched on the humra of gebrochts and defended his minhag NOT to take on that humra due to the fact that he was holding by a DIFFERENT humra: to keep “V’simachta b’chagecha” literally! For his family to get into gebrochts would be to seriously diminish their simcha b’chag.

    The chiddush of his approach was that he found no problem in this helige humra, and in fact only justified not keeping it on the basis of a different humra.

  6. I actually liked the post until the “people before pieties” part. The use of the term “pieties” is unfortunate and demeans legitimate and important Jewish customs that just might bother some “people.” Your “chumra” might be my baseline, and maintaining that baseline could very well be a key component in my personal and intellectual decision of what I have to do as Jew, and especially as a BT, to keep myself “in line.”

    Having said all that, I agree that one should be scrupulous to apply such chumros to himself, to the extent that they do not affect him — remember the famous story of R’ Yisroel Salanter and the hand washing (he used a minimal amount of water even though it is meritorious to use more because someone else had to shlep in the water from the well). On the other hand, in a communally-based religion frequently my chumra, as you view it, or my religious standards, as I view it, will affect you.

    Then we have to work together to find a way to respect your personhood and my… “pieties.”

  7. Ben-David,

    Why do you say that this chumra is necessarily contrary to one’s feelings. Isn’t it possible that this lady had very strong feelings for her father yet felt this was an appropriate chumra for herself?

  8. David Linn (comment 10)

    My point was that her sister probably also has deep feelings for her deceased parent.

    Assuming that: what thought process brings one to take on a humra so contrary to one’s own natural human feelings – and quite different from one’s likely past ezperience of Jewish mourning ritual?

    I can only interpret this as, in some way, an abdication/negation of self. We see a bit of this also in the writer’s lauding of her Rabbi’s FFB status – as if there were no fundamental parity/equality between herself and the FFB world.

    This is not what Torah Judaism is (supposed to be) about – not a replacement for thinking or feeling on your own, as yourself.

  9. In some communities women do not go the cemetery at the levaya. They do attend the funeral at the chapel, but do not continue on to the cemetery. I have attended levayas where this was the case, notably that of my grandparents. (I am an FFB.) However, these same women who didn’t go to the cemetery for their parent’s burial did go there on the yahrtzeit or before Rosh Hashonah. I never heard anything about the soton dancing on the grave. I would think the reason for the exclusion of women is more likely one of tznius.

  10. I enjoyed reading this well-written piece by Anxious Mom and the phrase “That anecdote carries a big lesson, of putting people before pieties” stays with me.
    Let’s hear more from Anxious Mom on other topics.

  11. Anxious –

    while I support your struggle to “get Yiddishkeit right” also in human relations, I can also sympathize with your sister. It could be that her concern about properly respecting this vulnerable time for your father’s Neshama was not reflective of any lack of sensitivity to human feelings. Rather, she had heard of this issue from a valid Torah source and felt it warranted taking heed, since if it was true it would cause damage that couldn’t be undone.

    In contrast, perhaps the “loss” of her not attending was not even worthy of her consideration since she viewed it as essentially a matter of prayer – which could also be done at home.

    That is, I wonder if she had any idea that this would insinuate that you’d be an accomplice to u-no-hu! It was simply a different angle on how best to fulfill the Mitzvah to honor your father. Respectively, you might want to consider not just mellowing your “zeal to climb the ladder to heaven,” but strengthening your confidence in the fact that you were doing your best to fulfill that same Mitzvah, according to the guidance of your Rav.

    Elu v’eilu…

  12. FFB children of Holocaust survivors have BIG problems with family minhagim vis a vis cemetary visits and even yuhrzeit observances.

  13. I honestly never heard of this minhag, ever. Kohens, of course…but never women being excluded.


  14. Shmuel & Ben-David – It would be a shame to slight this thoughtful lady for expressing her tmimut. The fact that someone has “uninterrupted generations of frumkeit flowing in his veins” is a very powerful maalah, whether you’re happy about how too many people idolize it or not. While it’s not what makes someone an authority, it does play a tremendous role in guiding fine Judiac instincts. That is, if you believe that Judaism is not just “a guide to living as a fulfilled, complete human being”, as BD puts it, but a cosmic Reality that refines and uplifts the Neshama towards a greater relationship with the Source of life.

    I don’t mean to argue philosophies but to support what is certainly one of the legitimate and ennobling 70 panim.

  15. but sometimes, we can get carried away in our zeal to apply things we’ve learned.
    – – – – – – – – –
    What is frightening to me in such stories is the willingness of BTs (and FFBs under social pressure) to let attenuated humrot trump their own basic personalities, human needs – and common sense.

    Obviously your sister was raised in the same environment as you and has the same feelings as you on the yahrzeit.

    Whence comes the notion that “getting Yiddishkeit right” means abdicating or denying those valid human sides of oneself?

    This is a distorted notion of what Judaism is really about: the Torah life is a guide to living as a fulfilled, complete human being.

    The rush to humra is often accompanied by just the opposite – a denial of self, and often insensitive behavior to others. In both BTs and FFBs such patterns of behavior indicate that Torah Judaism is being hijacked to serve other psychological/social purposes.

  16. An interesting post, with an important message. But I’m not sure why it is important that your Rav is an “FFB, with uninterrupted generations of frumkeit flowing in his veins,” It seems to be that any intelligent and sensitive Rav could have given the same psak whether FFB or BT. Just because some in FFB world mistakenly judge a person based on the Frumkeit of their ancestors does not the BT world should repeat this mistake.

  17. Interesting, I have never heard of this minhag, that if a woman comes to the grave the soton does a little jig on the kever. I will have to ask my rov. I have seen plenty of chassidish women going to funerals, the only thing I did hear is that some women refrain from going to the cemetary when they are pregnant. I have some friends that always go to kevarim of Rabbanim and Tzaddikim. Well, to each his own.

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