Wednesday morning my cell phone rang and “Cousin Elaine” popped up on the screen. I knew she’d be calling about Uncle Ben, and was ready for what she told me: he had just passed away. Like most of my family, Elaine keeps any religious beliefs strictly private, but I was able to say, “The Lord gives, the Lord has taken; blessed be the name of the Lord,” without too much awkwardness. Uncle Ben was a professed atheist, even to the end, as far as I know, but of such a sweet and gentle and old-country Jewish demeanor that I had to pronounce those words at the moment called for by tradition, which is right upon hearing the news. From there, Elaine and I talked for a moment about the funeral and I said I really wanted to be there (in Connecticut), but wasn’t sure I could make it. In fact, in my mind I was pretty sure I couldn’t.
In Jewish ethics, attending the deceased and comforting the bereaved are the highest of mitzvot. The tradition cites good reasons for this priority, but for me questions still loom—the dead don’t know what you’re doing and it won’t change anything. Will I really be of comfort to the immediate family—enough comfort to justify the time and expense and sheer schlep of dropping everything and getting on a multi-hour flight tomorrow?
Uncle Ben was 96, the first-born of my mother’s whole generation, and the last one to die. I hadn’t known him well—he lived in New York and we were in California and my mother’s family were hardly jet-setters. In addition to a couple of funerals, Jane and I saw Uncle Ben and Aunt Sylvia once, about 30 years ago, when they had a stopover in Albuquerque on their way to El Paso, or actually Juarez, to visit their son Neil. What was Neil doing in Juarez? He wanted to be a vet and veterinary schools were really tough to get into, so he settled for one in Juarez that was good enough, but taught entirely in Spanish. And you guessed it, Neil didn’t speak Spanish! That story was a great icebreaker and we had a nice visit, but it wasn’t until my mother died in 2003 that I felt compelled to reconnect with her big brother, who was living in New Jersey at the time. I visited Ben and Sylvia there and later, along with Jane, in Connecticut, where Neil (now a successful vet) and Elaine lived. I was set to visit Ben again a couple of years ago when Sylvia died suddenly and he was too distraught and disoriented for visitors.
I really liked Ben and Sylvia and enjoyed our visits, but what made the visits actually happen was a desire to honor my mother’s memory. You may remember the old parental noodge: “Oh you’re going to be in Florida? Give Uncle Max a call,” even if he’s halfway across the state and you could call him more cheaply from your home town. So I was honoring my mother’s desire to keep the family together by visiting Ben, which made it a double mitzvah, but also raised the same questions. Would my mother even know? Was it worth it to add three days to a business trip in New York so I could hop a train to New Jersey, transfer to a bus, and get close enough for Uncle Ben to round me up and take me home for a day before I had to head back?
There’s an ethical tension here. We need to expend ourselves on feeding the hungry and clothing the naked (all the more urgently now in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti), but we don’t want to become utilitarian about it. Pursuit of a mitzvah can’t be too calculating. What did Yeshua say about that woman who wasted money on expensive ointment for his feet, just days before his burial?
So, with great encouragement from Jane, I turned from the practicalities of not having the time and money to fly off to Connecticut to attend the burial and spend an hour or two with my cousins amidst the too many things I was already dealing with. I remembered that I had a frequent flyer ticket, could shift a couple of appointments, and get a bunch of essential work done on the way. So here I am in Connecticut, where I landed after midnight, getting ready to go to the cemetery a little later.
It’s a mitzvah to attend the burial and represent my mother there, but I have to say that Jane gets the biggest share of the mitzvah. She’s the one who helped me think outside the box of practicality to see a good deed just waiting to be done. And she sent me off on her birthday, January 21. I’d miss her celebration, but she encouraged me to go. Eishet chayil mi yimtza?