The last few weeks have been a whirlwind for my family and me, as it has been for so many others.
On the Thursday before Passover, I was informed that due to having an autoimmune disorder, I will be unable to perform my hospital-based job until further notice. Then, on Friday, my husband and I found out that my father-in-law possibly will need surgery to prevent the spread of an infection he developed after an accident last year. My in-laws, by the way, had to spend Passover without family for the first time in their lives — including 50 years of marriage. On Monday, we received an announcement that our oldest nephew is engaged. Later that same day, we made a Zoom shiva call to a friend who lost their father to covid-19. Then, to end our emotional roller-coaster of a day, we found out that a close family member likely has contracted covid-19.
Amid all this chaos, I’m participating in a women’s interfaith fellowship through the New York Jewish Community Relations Council. I had planned to talk about Passover at our next meeting, because the holiday was to start in a little over a week. But as I rehearsed my thoughts about the significance of the seder, the matzah, and four cups of wine, my words felt flat and hollow. I kept hearing my friend’s words from our shiva call, talking about saying goodbye to his father while he lay dying, alone. How our traditions for burial have had to change due to this pandemic, and how our community is not allowed to mourn the way we have for millennia.
It’s the mourning that finally broke me. I know firsthand how seriously we take care of our dead and our mourners.
I started thinking of a prayer I have said four times a year for 15 years. The prayer is called Yizkor, literally “Remember.” It is an additional prayer we say for our departed, and traditionally a Jewish person may start saying Yizkor only when one of their parents has died and the mourning period is finished. We say this to implore God to remember the souls of our relatives, our friends, and our martyrs. Four times a year — at Passover, Shavuot, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot — I stay in the sanctuary and recite Yizkor for my father.
Mourning for my father has had a troubling history. Before his passing, my father asked that I not mourn his death according to Jewish law. Though he was supportive of my initial entry to Jewish observance, he had seen the difficulty I went through when I joined an ultra-Orthodox community a few years into my observance, and he saw the pain I had endured when I eventually left that community. As a father looking out for his daughter, he was afraid that if I followed the halachic laws of mourning, I would return to the community that had caused me pain. So upon his passing, I mourned quietly and alone.
Every 19 years, Yizkor falls on my birthday, and that co-incidence happened in 2019. I wanted my mom to visit, to celebrate both my 40th birthday and the holiday it fell on. She was unable to visit and I felt so angry, because over the past year, I had been gravely ill and my half-sister had passed away. I acutely understood that the next time Yizkor falls on my birthday, my mom likely will be gone, and on that birthday I will be an orphan.
Fast forward to now, when I don’t even get to say Yizkor this Passover to prevent the spread of covid-19, and my heart breaks. Not just for me, but for all of us who cannot say Yizkor this year, and even more so for the Jews that will need to say it in the coming years as a result of the toll this pandemic is having on us.
But through these tears, it is my hope that my tefillah and all the tefillahs of Klal Yisrael are heard this Pesach, just like Hashem heard our ancestors’ tefilahs in Mitzrayim so long ago, and we and our loved ones will receive a complete refuah and that this Pesach we will say for the last time “Next Year in Yerushalayim.”