It’s Mother’s Day on May 10th here in Belgium, and our kids made breakfast this morning for their two dads! It’s hard not to be reminded of their dear mother and of our own mothers, the women who raised us and left their indelible mark on the people we are – for good or for bad. The separation demanded by Corona regulations makes it difficult for many to reach out to their mothers in the conventional ways. Flowers, brunch at a local eatery, a family BBQ. For those of us who have lost our mother, we reach out in memory, say Kaddish, light a candle, caress a photograph.
This week I joined my fellow rabbinical students – from Ukraine, Belorussia, Brazil, Germany, Czechia – for Zoom classes on how to conduct funerals. After the usual round of stories from our teacher about all the hilarious mistakes he had made as a young rabbi and how unprepared he was for this aspect of Jewish ritual life, we talked a lot about the separation that death brings and our need to ritualise this liminal moment, the transition from life to death. We Jews mark the separation of death not only with a funeral, but also with other rituals extended over time - shiva, sheloshim, yahrzeits, matzevah – and of course by saying Kaddish.
But even without the intensification of Mother’s Day, we are all struggling with separation these days. Being separated, keeping our distance, is not who we are. It’s okay for the High Priest – this week’s parashah Emor talks a lot about it – but not for us ordinary folks. Separation for the Kohen Gadol was to maintain a sense of personal holiness, being set apart for the work of the Temple, and it limited him in both social and emotional space.
Our progressive understanding of Judaism and Jewish ritual allows us to meet online for prayer and, perhaps more importantly, for one another. Just to see each other and hear each other’s voices goes a long way to bridge the separation we are living with and its social and emotional impact. But it’s not the same as the real thing, and we are all looking forward to the day we can gather for real in our shul.
And just as priestly separation had a purpose, so does ours. The Kohen Gadol was set aside for God, and we are literally ‘set aside’ for one another. So we’re stuck with Zoom for a while longer, although many of us may be feeling a little ‘oysgezoomd’. We concluded our class on funerals with the following realisation: Zoom has its limits, but even a Kohen can attend a funeral on Zoom.
IJC Rabinnical Intern