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Home  »  The Torah My Father Taught Me

Forward – June 6, 1997

The Torah My Father Taught Me

A Ritual That Bound a Father and Daughter

Francesca Lunzer Kritz

The card store near the train station I frequent already has its Father’s Day cards out, so I’ve been looking. Chronologically correct, the store placed the dad cards right next to the Shavuot ones since the two holidays fall within the same week. I doubt many customers synergize the two days, but the trip home got me thinking about my Dad and Shavuot.

On Shavuot we are told to think of ourselves as having been at Sinai, where we received the Torah. But when I think of Torah, I see instead my father pushing back his soup bowlthe sign that he had finished his quick review of that week’s Torah portion and was ready to see how his investment in four yeshiva educations was turning out. He was less interested in hearing what our teachers had told us, than in discussing some new twist of meaning or language that he had discovered. Shabbat now finds me at a table 200 miles away, with too-infrequent soup courses with my parents. Still, my father has found a way to continue teaching me the twists and turns of the Torah — and how to apply them.

As it is the custom in his family, my father is a member of a chevra kaddisha group, one for women, one for men, that prepares Jews for burial. He encouraged my brothers and me members to become members as well, but I resisted.

However, the synagogue I married into got a new rabbi, just weeks after my wedding, who both knew my father and was anxious to start the synagogue’s first chevra. “Would I chair it?” the Rabbi asked me. “Surely your father would be pleased,” the Rabbi said. Pleased? Think Tiger Woods’ dad.

As we began our synagogue’s chevra kaddisha, my father would often call me, chairman to chairman, to give me updates, such as a definitive rabbinic ruling that allowed burial preparation for a person who died of AIDS.

My father has also found himself dealing with issues necessitated by the times. Several years ago, for example, when my friend’s father died, my father went to the shiva at prayer time. Between the afternoon and evening prayers at a Shiva it is often the custom to study a Mishna in memory of the person who has died, after which the Kaddish prayer is said again. In this home, however, there were only women sitting shiva, their requirement to say Kaddish permitted, but not required, by Jewish law. When the person in charge omitted the study, my father questioned him. Women have no need to say Kaddish so we won’t study, he was told. By evenings end, my father had elicited a promise from his own rabbi that such a slap would never be delivered in their community.

It is the first tahara (the act of burial preparation) – for the 4-month- old baby of close friends – that still remains as the primary lesson from my father. Our chevra was newly formed and when the baby died, our rabbi called several of us to ask if we felt ready to perform this mitzvah. I said yes, but immediately called my father. Surely he would forbid his newly married daughter, no children yet of her own, from participating. “Cesca,” he said, “the only people this is truly hard for are the baby’s parents. When you are asked to participate, never think of yourself, but only of the person you will be caring for.” l went off terrified and angry. Here was a man who had flown twice to Boston in a single month to settle me into a new apartment, who calls before every business trip I take to ask where I am staying. How could he let me go?

But when we began the tasks required to carry out the mitzvah, I thought of the call from the baby’s mother, thanking me for caring for her infant. When we were finished, I gave him one last kiss and touched his face. And since then, when l am asked to do a tahara, I remember that the person briefly in our care is as beloved to someone as the baby I knew well. Someone to think about. Just as my father taught me.