Vayechi means ‘And he lived’, although it opens the portion of the Torah in which Jacob dies.
My father, if he were still living, would have his 99th birthday today.
I met a man this week who, as a child, survived the Nazis in rural France. He described to me how he and his father had to flee to the forest and hide in a low, moss-covered cave. He’d thought little of his father then, he confessed. To the boy he then was, his father had seemed a broken man, unable to work or support the family. Only now, he told me with surprise, only now late in his life, was he hearing again in his head all the stories, all the poetry his father had shared with him during those long, lonely, frightening days.
I don’t know if the dead ever address us from some other outer world. But I do know that our dead speak to us from some deep inner reality, sometimes with a clarity we missed while they were living. Maybe it’s because the winnowing of time has removed the everyday husks, leaving only the kernels of their wisdom and love. Or perhaps some process within us, reflection, remorse, has helped us to hear more clearly their true voice.
This does not amount to any real recompense for our loss, for the absence of someone we love and with whom, day by day and week by week, we shared the wonder of the ordinary: a flower, a shopping list, a joke, a much-loved book. But it is some measure of consolation, given to us often only after time, when the years have enabled our dead to journey from our day, our kitchen, the message on the phone, into our heart.
I hear my father now in ways I wish I’d listened to more carefully before. Perhaps it’s because I think of his life not as ‘shall we repair this shelf?’ (he was brilliant with his hands) or ‘when shall I get home from hospital?’ (his last years were not easy), but as a whole. In Jerusalem it’s the custom to inscribe on every gravestone the places where each person was born and lived before his or her days ended in the holy city. I wish we’d put those destinations on my father’s stone: Breslau, Jerusalem, Glasgow, London, the journey of his life.
This past frightening week, when I spoke twice late at night to refugees from Iran terrified for their families still there, has made me think of what my father lived through. There are entire stories between the words ‘Breslau’ and ‘Jerusalem’: flight, hunger in the siege of Jerusalem (‘people were eating grass’). Between ‘Glasgow’ and ‘London’ is the death at just 44 of his first wife. It was only after he was gone that my cousin said to me in a café in Israel, ‘Your father was our hero.’
Most of all, I hear my father come upstairs to my brother’s room where, when I was five, I too was allowed to sleep, and say ‘If you’re good, I’ll teach you another line of the Shema again tomorrow.’ This, in my memory, is juxtaposed to how, when I was sixteen or seventeen, he questioned me: ‘Are you still saying the Shema before you sleep?’ Since then, I have never once consciously omitted to do so.
And, as Australia burns, and people and nature suffer appallingly, I hear my father ask somewhat sharply, as he did when we watched a moving documentary on the work of Medecin sans Frontieres, ‘And you, what are you going to contribute with your life?’
Abba, please don’t stop challenging my conscience. And, since I remember most especially your blessing before every Yom Kippur, please don’t let that blessing cease.
May the blessings of all who loved us never cease inside our hearts.