Remembering Our Father
on Yet Another Anniversary of His Passing

Yartzeit and Kadish — An examination of Death

Today marks forty-five years since my father passed from this world to the next. It is always a difficult day for me, a day of introspection, a day of questions. By now I have passed the stage of questioning why. But this year, my questions seem to have been deeper than in the past. Herein I share some of my feelings with you, though I don't yet have answers to most of them.

Here I sit, a fifty-eight year old orphan of forty-five years, having roamed this earth for eight years longer than did my father. How do I, or perhaps how should I at this point in time, relate to my father, a father whom sure I remember, but can I honestly say I know? How much of what I know about him is what I really remember from the time I spent with him, from conversations I recollect, from first hand experience. And how much is what I was told about him, stories and events I've heard about him, from my mother, his friends and the very few relatives who survived the murderous European holocaust that wiped out his wife, daughter, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and probably his father?

How much is extrapolation and fantasy based on what I would want my father to be? My father and his contemporaries were, on one hand, supermen, having survived Nazi terror and murder, some, like him, having taken up the gauntlet in an almost futile battle. On the other hand (especially according to the Israeli post-war attitude) a weak, pathetic generation, who did not even attempt to stand up to fight back.

Psychologists tell us that our recollection of past events is stored in our brain as our last memory of that event and not of the event itself.

It is impossible to carry on one's life continuously in the past. The Talmud tells us "the dead are forgotten twelve months after their parting". However Rav Soloveitchik is reported to have said kadish for his wife for three years; my uncle visited my aunt's grave every Sunday for many more years. I think the gemara is telling us that we are not expected to mourn in this way. We each have to continue on with our own lives. But some people do need a continued, longer lasting connection.

What is the relationship one should have with a departed parent? At a minimum the halakha expects us to remember the departed on one day of the year, the day of their passing, the yartzeit. Is this the minimalist position?

Over the years, especially on this date, people have asked me, "Your father died young. How did he die?"

I have always responded, "He had had a heart problem for a few of years, culminating in a heart attack. Cardiology wasn't then what it is today — bypasses, stents, angioplasty were then not even a dream to medical science. Three years after his first heart attack, and just two days after receiving a clean bill of health from his cardiologist, my father took a sabbath afternoon nap, never to wake up."

Today I realised, when thinking about him, about our relationship, that while the above may be an answer to the questioner, perhaps just being polite, it is not the answer to the real question being asked. It is a technical response, but it doesn't come near describing what happened to my father on his death. Sure his breathing ceased, his heart no longer beat in his chest, his brain showed no E.E.G. activity ... but these are all negative attributes. What was there? The body turns cold, and the soul ... and the soul departs. What is this soul? We believe it is attached to the physical body. How does it disconnect? Can this be explained chemically? biologically? even metaphysically? And what of one's thoughts, emotions, memories, experiences ... where did they go? From one second to the next? within nanoseconds? — gone! forever?

Not expecting to find a direct answer to these perplexing queries, I sought a hint in the Tanakh by examining how death, or more precisely the termination of earthly life, is described.

The Tora relates that Moshe and Aharon died (meith in the original Hebrew). Announcing Aharon's demise, haShem tells Moshe, "Aharon will be gathered to his people". Following his passing, "the people saw Aharon had died" (this time gava — my Even Shoshan dictionary explains gava as to stop breathing or to hand over one's soul. The Hebrew for these two, soul and breath, derive from the same root). When, a few months later, haShem tells Moshe to climb Mount Nevo, he commands, "Die (mooth) on the mountain which you ascend, and be gathered to your people, just as Aharon your brother died [returning to meith] on Hor Har and was gathered to his people". So far we have met three expressions for passing away, seemingly used interchangeably.

In variation to Aharon, "When Ya'akov had finished commanding his sons, he drew his feet into the bed, breathed his last breath (gava), and was gathered to his people". Three expressions for one death, but in the latter expression, to whom does Ya'akov's people refer? Was Ya'akov not the progenitor of the nation, of his people? Could it be that he was gathered to the future generations? Or, at the same time as departing, he never really left? We need to understand this concept of being gathered to one's people. Our Rabbis tell us, based on these questions, that "Ya'akov did not die".

Our question becomes even stronger when we examine the passing of Ya'akov's grandparents, Avraham and Sara. Sara simply lives and then dies (tamoth). Her husband on the other hand first breathed his last (yig'va) and then immediately died (yameith) "in a good age, an old man, full of years, and [then] was gathered to his people". Again, to whom was he gathered?

The description of the demise of Yitzḥak, Avraham's son and heir, is very similar. But with Avraham's other son, Yishma'el, we have a new dimension. He too breathed his last (yig'va) and died (yameith), and was gathered to his people. Then an ostensibly strange addition. Seemingly parenthetically, the Tora adds in the next verse, referring to the people to whom Yishma'el had just been gathered, "They dwelt from Ḥavila as far as Shur, which is east of Egypt as you go toward Assyria, in the presence of all his brethren he fell [died?]"

Who dwelt in this region, Yishma'el's live or dead people? Surely it refers to where his descendants dwelt. So why bring this parenthetically as the people to whom he was gathered? Did he continue to exist with them in some form?

King David doesn't seem to have died at all, "So David lay [slept] with his fathers, and was buried in the City of David". Buried certainly implies an end to the body's existence, but how is this physical aspect connected to the spiritual, and to life forces like memory, thoughts and past experience?

Before David exits the scene, he instructs his son, Shlomo, to mete out punishment to certain individuals. Referring to those deserving death, David says, "Bring his hoary [grey haired] head to the grave", another, new, expression for death.

Shlomo's life too ends his earthly existence sleeping with his fathers.

As we have seen, the Tanakh has many expressions for death. Are these different portrayals simply euphemisms — like our English pass away, demise, expire, kick the bucket? I think not. I believe Biblical Hebrew needs to be taken more seriously than idiomatic English.

Did each of our biblical characters depart in a different way, or does each expression indicate a different aproach to the continuation of life in a new format, to an afterlife? Or does the Tanakh use different expressions as a literary device? Even as a literary device, can a different truth should be learnt from each expression?

We grapple with the instance of death, the point in time a person (or animal) is no longer counted amongst the living and is now dead. This is an important moral issue. We do not want to murder someone to harvest their organs, no matter how sick the donor nor how desperately a recipient needs the organ. Largely because of the need for transplants, rabbis in the last generation have argued this point. If we wait too long, the organs are useless. And if we are a little early ...?!

How ever we define the exact moment, the question still remains, what is death? I do not think anyone has the answer. Proverbially, no departed has ever returned to tell us what happens there (though the talmud presents interesting narratives). This is the stuff of legend for which we have no basis in reality. Over the years there have been reports of out of body experiences by people pronounced clinically dead, only to return and relate to us things they could otherwise not have known. Scientists have recently found certain brain activity* close to the time of death which may explain some of these revelations. Subjective descriptions of this phenomenon include intense and surreal eperiences, encompassing a panoramic life review, memory recalls, transcendental or out of body experiences, dreaming, hallucinations, a meditative state, seeing strong lights through tunnels.

We are in the realm of a belief system. According to the mishna in Avoth, "This world resembles an entrance hall to the world to come", implying something better is awaiting each of us. The Judgement Day of the same tractate also suggests that our actions here, in this world, influence the next stage of life. The Zohar calls ours "the world of lies" and we all have some inkling why. Only the next world is described as the "world of truth".

In simple biologic and geographic terms, our bodies must die and disappear. There simply is not enough room on the planet for every person that ever lived, to congregate in the earth at one time. Interesting solutions are being implemented in Israel all the time. Are we to accept that this end, our passing, is a finality? That once existing relationships, are permanently terminated? That mutual experiences transform into one-sided memories? That what once was, now only exists in the minds of those remaining, but only while they too remain alive, or sadly, while they remain cognisant?

Many questions — any answers? Is my questioning merely egoistic, wishful thinking? The necessity for this human to feel his eternal self importance in a world inhabited by seven billion other, though sadly mmany would not want to admit it, very similar beings.

In the seventies I was an early student of Artificial Intelligence. For my honours thesis I examined the learning process, trying to emulate it with computer language.

In a similar vein, to explain the effects of meditation in relaxing one's body, I often use the analogy of the brain as a central processing unit, in control of many peripheral devices. Disconnecting the processor allows the peripherals, your body, to relax.

But I now think these two analogies are just that, a method to explain complicated brain processes in terms of our modern man-made devices. I now believe there is no reason for us to assume our brains work anything like our still simplistic digital computers. Can we even assume the brain is a digital device?

Recent advances in linguists show the brain to be a more powerful learning tool than was previously assumed. The theory that a baby's brain is a blank slate but with an inherent language structure, has been challenged by recent evidence. The brain is a far more powerful processing device than was previously thought.

At the risk of contradicting myself and returning to our computer analogy, is it possible that everything in our brains is backed up onto another memory device? An apparatus of which we have no awareness. And if this is the case, what happens to the backup of our personal essence after our worldly demise? Is it possible we continue in a new form?

A few years ago a movie was released about a guy who knew he was dying, though desired a continuation of his worldly existence. He rented space where his computer could sit for eternity, without interference, connected to the Web. He programmed it to emulate himself, to react in every way as he would — the ultimate Turing Test**. No-one at the other end of the line knew they were interacting with a computer program, with an intelligent machine.

This fiction is not analogous to death. Departed people do not interact with the living, certainly not in a way that is perceptible to the living. The Talmud in more than one place grapples with whether the dead have an awareness of the living, and vis-à-versa.

The Biblical king, Koheleth, in the Book of Ecclesiastes, grapples with the futility of human existence. Though not implying frustration with a meaningless life as Koheleth seems to, I think my questioning leads me to his very conclusion, "In the end everything will be heard, [so] fear haShem and keep His commandments, because this is man's entire entity". We are doomed to a life in which we cannot know everything, but we sincerely believe that the Master of the Universe does know, and that a just reward and punishment await those deserving.

As another year passes us by, how do I remember my father? I am left with my memories, or my recollection of those memories. Until such a time as our awareness may change, I am reminded of the Ode of Remembrance, based on a poem written by Laurence Binyon during World War I to remember those who did not return.

I paraphrase,

My father shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary him, nor the years condemn.

He mingles not with laughing friends again,
He sits no more at the familiar tables of home.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
I shall remember him.

Menachem Kuchar, 10th Febuary, 2011    
6th Adar I, 5771    

* I was rereading this piece eleven years after I wrote it, just before another yartzeit. Earlier today I read on the BBC News site about a chance scientific accident wherein scientists set out to measure the brainwaves of an 87 year old man who had developed epilepsy. During the neurological recording, the patient suffered a fatal heart attack. This resulted in an unexpected recording of a dying brain. It revealed that in the 30 seconds before and after the termination of heartbeat, the man's brainwaves followed the same patterns as when dreaming or recalling memories. The team speculated whether a final recall of life may occur in a person's last moments. Dr Ajmal Zemmar, a co-author of the study, wondered, though it was impossible to know at this stage, whether this flashback gives the dying "a glimpse back at time with loved ones and other happy memories". He added, "I think there's something mystical and spiritual [sic] about this whole near death experience. And findings like this ... it's a moment that scientists live for."

** Turing Test Named after Alan Turing. The Turing Test measures a machine's ability to demonstrate intelligence. A human judge engages in a natural language conversation with one human and one machine, each of which tries to appear human. If the judge cannot reliably differentiate the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test.

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