Monday, November 20, 2006


It was the last day of September, and, it being a Saturday, She Who Must Be Obeyed and I went to synagogue.

That day, an extraordinary young man celebrated his Bar Mitzvah. Poised and self-assured, he conducted services in a clear, strong voice (even managing to carry the tunes) and read his Torah and Haftarah portions flawlessly.

I see a lot of B’nei Mitzvah, being a regular shul-goer. And since I serve as one of the congregation’s gabbaim, standing at the Reader’s Table during the Torah service, I see them and their families up close and personal. I’m here to tell you that this young man was a true standout. Cool, collected, and confident, he seemed wise beyond his thirteen years.

After the Torah service, the young man delivered his Bar Mitzvah speech in the same clear, strong voice with which he led Shacharit – the morning service - so beautifully. There was not a dry eye in the house.

For a shadow hung over what would normally be a joyous lifecycle event. The young man’s mother was struggling with breast cancer, and despite her outwardly healthy appearance, the most recent news from the doctors had not been good...and everyone knew it. This would be a happy day, but a dark future lay ahead for this family.

Two days later, it was Yom Kippur, the most solemn and sacred day of the year.

I sat on the bimah during the Rabbi’s Yizkor sermon, having just davened Hineni, the Chazzan’s Prayer. Once Yizkor, the special memorial service, was over, I would lead the Musaf service...but at the moment, the Rabbi held the pulpit, along with the rapt attention of over a thousand people.

Yizkor is conducted four times a year, but it is only on Yom Kippur that it is accompanied by a sermon. And this sermon, given the somber subject matter, is always a tear-jerker. For me, this year’s was no exception – but for an exceptional reason.

As I sat on the Bimah a mere fifteen feet from the Rabbi’s lectern, directly in my line of sight sat the family of the young man who had celebrated his Bar Mitzvah only two days before. The mother had her eyes closed; whether dozing or meditating, it was not possible to say. Meanwhile, her husband - and their two children, who had elected to remain in the sanctuary for Yizkor - listened intently to the sermon. And as I watched them, I could not help but imagine what they must have been thinking as they listened to the Rabbi:

“This is our last Yom Kippur together.”

I wiped away a few stray tears, tears that had come unbidden to my eyes, and tried to focus on the Rabbi’s sermon and on the job that lay ahead of me. It was not easy. My sole consolation was having seen the family enjoying a happy occasion together just two days earlier. More than just happy: extraordinary. A young man’s parting gift to his mother, a day of unalloyed nachas – of joy.

Time passes, as it must, and October gave way to November. The air cooled, taking on its autumn snap; the trees sparkled in their seasonal colors; the leaves began to fall. And then last week we got the sad news that the young man’s mother had lost her struggle, succumbing at the too-young age of 45. This time the grim Visitor was expected, though that did not make his appearance any easier.

Losing your mother to an untimely illness is painful enough, as I can personally attest; to lose your mother at such an early age is that much more difficult. She will not be there to see her son graduate from middle school, high school, university. She will not be there when he gets married; she will never know her grandchildren.

But for whatever comfort it provides, I saw her eyes shine with pride that last day of September 2006, when she saw her son assume the spiritual responsibilities of adulthood – and I will never forget her smile.

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