Zev and I were outside of Walgreens in North Hollywood, California, where our son-in-law Nachman was putting up signs for his Chabad community's Chanukah event. He wished the obviously Jewish-looking man a Happy Chanukah.
"I'm not Jewish," he answered, "but everybody thinks I am." He went on to tell us that his ancestors were from Ecuador and how he had lots of Jewish friends. He knew about the Jewish expulsion from Spain, too, adding that his family could have been among the Jews who fled. The more we chatted, the more Jewish he seemed. When he told us his mother was still alive, I suggested he ask her about her family's background.
"Yeah, maybe I'll do that," he answered sweetly, naive about the sometimes big implications of a little knowledge. Will anything change in his life as a result of our meeting? It's a long shot, but you never know what even a small encounter can spark in the soul of a person, Jewish or non-Jewish.
The soul is said to be a lamp of G-d, although for any number of reasons, a soul's flame can be very dim, even on autopilot. But as long as that person is alive, the flame can potentially be turned up so that it burns with its own full strength. It just has to be ignited.
I thought of this soul/flame analogy many times in 2016 since my mother passed away in February; Jewish tradition suggests keeping a candle burning for an entire year after a parent passes away. I have followed this tradition like my mother was watching over my shoulder.
It's not as easy as it sounds. I learned after a few weeks that a seven-day yahrtzeit candle can burn for slightly more than seven days, which is why I spent more time than I care to admit staring at a flame before going to sleep, wondering if it would make it through the night. (My mother wasn't one to waste, so I have her to thank for my frugal tendencies.) But woe unto me if the flame didn't survive until morning, which is why I often preferred to light the new one just to be safe. Not wanting to burn any more yahrtzeit candles than I had to, I was careful to first light the new one, then extinguish the old one's tiny remnant at the bottom of the canister. Several times I thought I'd suffocated that small flame, only to watch it rise up at me, big as ever. One thing was for sure: When the flame was out, really out, there was no bringing it back.
The flames and I had many conversations about life and death in 2016. As the year comes to a close, the world reflects on those we lost, and I am no different. I can't say I "lost" my mother, because I couldn't lose her even if I wanted to. She is with me in my head and right there watching over my shoulder. In 2016, 2017, and always. She is still teaching me, too, because that's what mothers do.