Rabbi Ismach’s Letter

As I am sure you have heard, my father, Michael Ismach, Michael ben Yosef, passed away late Thursday night

Many of you probably remember my father from when he would visit on Rosh Hashana and beam from his seat when I would speak and daven. Growing up in a tiny shul, he would always challenge me to daven and speak when there was an opportunity. Opportunities were constant. I would always challenge him and say: “What’s the point, there is hardly anyone here.” And he would always respond, “If you get used to it here, it won’t matter if it’s a small shul or a large one.” And, as it often works with fathers, he was right. 

He has not been to shul in some years due to severe dementia and was not ill before he passed. This was all very sudden. Processing this and thinking ahead towards shiva brought me to a reflection I would like to share. 

Much of our tradition’s response to loss is built on the phrase we repeat again and again at houses of mourning: “HaMakom yenachem eschem…” “HaMakom” refers to the Omnipresent, to G-d. Today, I am vividly reminded that in most other cases, it is “hamakom,” our actual place, our location, and neighborhoods that offer the consolation as well. 

This is a challenging time for us all and aside from health and logistical concerns, “social distancing” undermines some of our tradition’s most powerful tools for managing loss and grief.

We are unable to gather en masse for a levaya to offer kavod hameis to the one who has departed and kavod hachaim to those that remain bereft. 

We are unable to visit a family during their week of mourning to hear and to be inspired by memories of their loved one and to share our presence and words of comfort.

We are unable to gather for minyanim to rally behind the mourner with his declarations of “Borchu” and “Yehei shmei rabba mevarach.” (I will not be holding a minyan this week in my home. I will not be able to say kaddish.)

We are unable to offer the family most of the types of help and assistance that we usually do during the week of shiva. We are unable to “be there” for them, to “show up” and represent their “makom.”

There are technological patches to some of these problems, but there are no real solutions. Physical, visceral, presence has not yet been made obsolete.

There is one thing we are able to do. Our tradition also speaks of the power that the living have to continue the work of those who have passed. That is why we say kaddish, learn Torah, make siyums and give tzedakah over the course of the mourning period and on a yahrtzeit.

While I hope this will be the only loss our community sustains over the course of this “distancing,” in case it is not, I humbly recommend that our community adapts our reaction from being focused on “kovod hachai,” to being focused on “kovod hameis.” Instead of frustrated attempts to assist and maintain the dignity of those who are in mourning, let us instead attempt to do something to bring dignity and maintain the legacy of one who is no longer in this world, but whose echo should continue to reverberate. 

Learn something extra, do something extra, or give something extra. Even the smallest thing matters. Feel free to let a mourner know or to keep it to yourself. G-d knows, and may He add your actions to the merit and accomplishments of those who have passed. 

I know how meaningful this would be to me and I am sure it would be a powerful expression to others in these “distanced” days.

Thank you for your outpouring of love. I know that I simply cannot wait until our “place” is put back together.

Shmuel Ismach