We celebrated my mother’s last birthday in 2005 when my family gathered for Shabbat dinner at her residence at Covenant of South Hills. The combination birthday dinner-Shabbat dinner seemed the perfect contrast and antidote to my mother’s previous birthday when my older sister had died the night before. That morning of my mother’s 87th birthday, I faced the wrenching task of telling my mother of the death of her firstborn child. Frail as she was, my mother could hardly muster the energy to weep, but weep she did.
A year later, my mother’s birthday celebration was happy, and falling on Friday evening, also holy. As we do before every Shabbat dinner, we went “around the table,” with everyone sharing personal thoughts about the week just ending and our hopes for the Shabbat just beginning. We showered my mother with affection, and we saved the best for last. When my mother’s turn came, she smiled, raised her hands and blurted out “Happy Mother’s Day!” We laughed lovingly that my mother likened her birthday to Mother’s Day. We thought it was a moment of confusion; we could not discern that it was a moment of astounding prescience. Five days after her birthday, my mother had a stroke. It was the day before my father’s yahrzeit, according to the secular calendar. Eleven days later, my mother died on Mother’s Day. My mother was then buried on my sister’s first yahrzeit, according to the Jewish calendar.
Perhaps I might have anticipated these startling convergences of life and death, of heaven and earth. In 1999, my mother-in-law died the Friday before Mother’s Day. She was then buried on Mother’s Day.
All this is but preface to our Torah portion this Shabbat. Parashat Emor begins with a stern admonition: Priests shall not come in contact with the dead. The only exception is if the deceased was the priest’s next of kin. Listed first among these next of kin is “his mother.”
Judaism is the religion of relationship, and time and again, the Torah underscores that there are exceptional relationships in life. First and foremost, the relationship between mother and child is so exceptional that the priest could turn away from his duties to God to tend to his duties to his mother. These tender sentiments permeate rabbinic thought. The Talmud teaches that upon hearing his mother’s footsteps, Rabbi Joseph would say, “Let me rise to greet the Shechinah, the Divine Presence of God.” Rabbi Isaac Luria would welcome each Shabbat by kissing the hands of his mother. With Mother’s Day this Sunday, no lessons from Judaism could be more timely.
From the moment my mother’s fatal stroke began, most prominent among her many symptoms was her inability to speak. For the first few days, she could move her eyes and the fingers of her left hand. Gradually, all movement ebbed away. I then learned a new expression: My mother was in a state of “active dying.” My younger sister took up a round- the-clock vigil in my mother’s room at Covenant. During the early hours of Mother’s Day, my sister called me to say that our mother had just opened her eyes, mouthed the words of the Shema and died.
How can I begin to estimate the value of this final gift that my mother had given to us?
With gratitude and with awe, I share this gift now with you.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)