Zachor – Remember

Purim begins this Saturday evening, March 15th. Purim is our Jewish holiday of merry-making, silliness and fun. It commemorates the victory of the Jews in the city of Shushan in Persia, thousands of years ago, over the evil Haman who wanted to annihilate all of the Jews. We read Megillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther, retell the story, celebrate with carnivals and games and have lots of fun.

This particular Shabbat immediately preceding Purim has a special name: Shabbat Zachor – The Sabbath of Remembrance. This Shabbat, we read a section of the Torah from Deuteronomy (25: 17-19) in which the Israelites are commanded to destroy the Amalakites from their midst. The Amalakites were enemies of the Israelites who attacked the Israelites as they wandered through the wilderness on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land.

The evil Haman from our Purim story, is said to be a descendant of the Amalakites. Thus, we remind ourselves this Shabbat that if we do not fully eradicate evil from our midst, evil could once again arise to plague us, just as Haman arose to threaten the Jews of Shushan. So, we hear the Torah being read and we remember. (For an excellent essay on the difficulties encountered with this text, click here: Is It Ever Okay to Hate? A Lesson for Purim, by Rabbi Evan Moffic)

We then go on to celebrate Purim with light hearts and full spirits.

(For my take on the Purim story, click here to read my brief essay: “Esther: Going Beyond the Biblical Text: A Purim D’var Torah)

For me, this year, this Shabbat is also about another kind of remembering. This year, Purim happens to fall on the fourth anniversary of my mother’s death. She died on the evening of March 15, 2010, five days before her 70th birthday, just 10 weeks after my father died. (They had been separated/divorced for almost 37 years).

Her Hebrew yahrzeit (anniversary of death) will fall on April 1st this year – just prior to Pesach (Passover).

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my mother died between Purim and Pesach. She LOVED all of our Jewish holidays and everything about them: preparing all the special foods, getting the house ready, the home celebrations, the rituals in the synagogue, helping all six children to organize ourselves.

My mother and father at ages 20 and 22. (Circa 1960)
My mother and father at ages 20 and 22. (Circa 1960)

I remember my parents every day, not just as their yahrzeits, or their secular anniversary of their deaths and birthdays approach. They are with me each and every day. But on those special moments, I tend to be more self-reflective. My siblings and I check-in with each other and share our thoughts and feelings. My parents would be so proud of what everyone has accomplished. They would kvell (Yiddish for “rejoice” and “beam with pride”) at everything their eight grandchildren are achieving.

Our Jewish tradition teaches us: “As a drop of water in the sea, as a grain of sand on the shore are our few days in eternity. The good things in life last for limited days, but a good name endures forever.”

My parents live on in the good names they created for themselves over the course of their lives, in the deeds they have done and most importantly through us, their children and grandchildren.

Mom with her grandmother's brass candlesticks brought over from "the old country" and a challah cover that my mother embroidered
Mom with her grandmother’s brass candlesticks brought over from “the old country” and a challah cover that my mother embroidered

My parents were the biggest influence in my life Jewishly. I grew up with the synagogue as my second home. My earliest memories revolve around Shabbat and holiday celebrations. I would not be a rabbi today, had it not been for both my mother and my father guiding me, nurturing me and instilling within me a deep and abiding love for our Jewish culture and heritage.

Judaism also teaches us about the sacred duty of memory. It is through our memories that our loved ones will always live on. Through our actions and aspirations, we carry forward the heritage entrusted to us by those who came before us.

My mother bequeathed many things to me. But what I value most, she gave to me from the time I was born: a deep sense of connection with God.

From the time I was born, my mother began to sing the “Sh’ma” to me and my siblings at bedtime:

“Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad. Hear, O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal alone.”

It was my mother (and father) who showed us by example what it meant to have a personal relationship with God. My relationship with God sustains me and nurtures me to this day, just as it sustained her and nurtured her.

12 years ago, my mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. She had three kinds of cancer in one breast and was told that it was 95% certain that it was metastasize to the other breast. She opted to have a bi-lateral radical mastectomy. She also needed intensive chemotherapy and radiation.

The night before her surgery, she held a “bye-bye boobie party” for herself. My non-Jewish sister-in-law, Marilyn, who is a palliative care nurse by profession and a textile artist by avocation, presented my mother with a surgical cap that she made. On the outside she printed photos of all my mother’s children and grandchildren. Inside – in Hebrew – she printed the words of the Sh’ma.

Top of surgical cap made by my sister-in-law for my mother for her mastectomy surgery
Top of surgical cap made by my sister-in-law for my mother for her mastectomy surgery
Inside of surgical cap - with the Sh'ma inside - for my mother to wear into surgery
Inside of surgical cap – with the Sh’ma inside – for my mother to wear into surgery

The tears streamed down my mother’s face. Marilyn knew that my mother was a deeply spiritual and religious person, whose connection to God was an integral part of her very being. She understood that if my mother could have something that represented both her family and God’s presence with her simultaneously while she was undergoing surgery, my mother would find the strength to overcome any obstacle in her way. My mother wore that cap into surgery, and kept it with her any time she went into the hospital. She felt embraced by her connection to God, her family, her congregation and the greater community. It gave her the conviction and the hope to recover with flying colors.

Following her cancer treatment, my mother lived to celebrate Purim and Passover and many other holidays, Shabbatot and life-cycle events for eight more years.

If she were here this weekend, I know that she would be sitting in the second row of her sanctuary, she might even be chanting Torah. She would have baked hamantaschen (triangular cookies filled with different fillings to symbolize Haman’s hat/pockets) for the holiday, and she would be celebrating with joy and gladness.

So on this Shabbat Zachor, this Shabbat of Remembrance, I remember the traditional things I am supposed to think about, but more importantly, I am remembering my mother: Judith Rosenthal Sobel. Zichrona livracha – may her memory always be for a blessing.

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