"From Moshe till Moshe, there arose none like Moshe." (famous Jewish folk saying)

Monday, January 31, 2005

We all need inspirational moments

Inspirational moments of renewal can often be found at moments of greatest struggle.

The Last Kaddish:

Jewish tradition dictates that the life affirming, G-d affirming Kaddish prayer is said a total of thirteen times during the course of the three prayer services on an average day. It is said for 11 months of the 12-month mourning period which follows the death of a parent, but only for 30 days if the deceased is a sibling, spouse or child. Etched in my memory: ‘that’ night at 2:00 AM in the ICU at Shadyside Hospital, our friend Dovie Nadoff and Rabbi Wasserman... Rabbi Wasserman, in response to Nina’s question, saying that the mourning period for children is only 30-days. Nina was initially shocked until Dovie pointed out that no matter what, you’ll be mourning for much longer than 30-days, rules or no rules.

So the practice is, parents who have the horrible experience of losing a child follow the mourning practices and say Kaddish at services for 30-days. At the end of the 30-days, I really did not feel like it had been enough. So I asked Rabbi Miller if it was appropriate to extend it. He said that it was okay, but since I have a living parent, and since our first Kaddish obligation is to parents, that it would be proper to ask my Mother for permission to continue saying Kaddish for the year. Realizing the extent of the commitment – a year of scheduling around shifting sunsets, dovetailing travel plans with available minyanim (synagogues’ scheduled services with their required quorum of 10) I talked it over in the final days of Shloshim (the 30-day initial period of mourning) with a few close friends.

Mikey’s doctor, Joel Weinberg, who worked as G-d’s partner to give us extra years with Mikey, settled any questions I had with a quiet but sincere, “I would.” Then, I asked my mother for permission. She also had an appreciation for the extent of the commitment being undertaken. And she replied with the slightly cynical humor that Mikey and I long-ago adopted as our own; “I don’t mind at all”, she said... “Unless you need an ‘Out’!”

So I did it. With Nina’s constant encouragement, routinely accompanied by Uri and JJ, from Ohio to Israel, from Los Angeles to New York, from Toronto to St. Louis, I came very close to 100% compliance. Besides the spiritual value, it’s an incredible piece of social engineering: the placement of Kaddish requires being there on time and staying until the end. Back home, in truly bizarre fashion, I alternated between Pittsburgh’s two major non-Lubavitch synagogues: Poale Zedeck and Shaare Torah. They are best described using a computer analogy; Poale Zedeck is Microsoft’s Internet Explorer- a reliable web browser providing a wide array of services that has successfully served for over eighty years in the same place. Readily accessible, open to all, consistent- but without serious competition for so long, in some aspects lacking the creative edge that competition should have engendered.

Shaare Torah, on the other hand, is Firefox, the new upstart web browser: not as many minyanim, offering only a 6:30 AM morning option, while Poale Zedeck has a 6:00, a 7:00, and an 8:00, but with creativity and flair that is attracting more and more ‘downloads’, a burgeoning membership, much younger, more enthusiastic, unbound by convention.

In the morning, Poale Zedeck seemed like the most appropriate choice; depending on when I had to be in court I could be at the 6, the 7... well, let’s face it- I could rarely stay up late enough to be at the 6AM. The 7 is conducted backwards from 7:30, and starts before 7. So the 8 was generally my choice (unfortunately there is no 9!) The customers at the 8AM are mostly retirees, except around the holiday time when returning Yeshiva students overrun the place! Shaare Torah in the afternoon struggles to reach the quorum in time for sunset, but always seems to make it, and every day 50% of the people were not there the day before, so there’s a real turnover and a wide range of participants. The Rabbi is always around, sometimes recruiting right off the street, jumping in his van to pick people up, and arranging for rides home. Both are comfortable friendly places where it seemed appropriate to memorialize Mikey. Both places, with a wink at strict custom, pretended that my self-imposed Kaddish- saying elevated me to a ‘priority’ for leading the Services, and let me do so as often as possible- generally, giving me the opportunity to lead at least one Service per day.

Rabbi Miller said I could carry it to eleven months and three weeks. When saying Kaddish for parents, one only says it for eleven months, the theory being that since Kaddish scores points for the deceased (especially parents) and since there are Rabbinic sources for the idea that someone who deserves it spends twelve months “down below”, and since no one would want to give the impression that his parents could possibly deserve to go “down below’, so nobody says it for more than 11 months, so as not to create the wrong public impression. I’m oversimplifying a little, but you could buy the book.

In the past month or so, as the last Kaddish has approached, I’ve tried to ascertain if it’s permissible to ‘keep going’, never wanting to stop. And formally signify the end of the mourning period -even my self-imposed made-up mourning period- is just one more final step of removal from Mikey. Even in this time of thousands of Tsunami victims, whose horrible deaths and terrible loss to the people who loved them, Mikey’s struggle still looms large in our minds for the 24years that he put in, and for the generous and humorous and selfless and optimistic attitude that he demonstrated without fail.

I don’t want these things to be lost. I don’t want these things to fade away. I want Mikey’s memory and the tragedy of his passing to be a happy story that gets told and retold for the wonder of a kid who not only wouldn’t quit, but wouldn’t quit smiling!

A day has not passed that at some quiet moment, we do not cry. Time heals, and the incredible joy and mazel (good fortune) that has sustained us this year, as we marry off the second of our children, and revel in the pure joy we feel at the remarkable choices our children have made. Two weddings and a funeral. It’s been a big year. The sad part had to end. We pray that the happy part never will. So Wednesday was the last day.

The Morning Service at Poale Zedeck, Dr. Sachs , the man in charge, applying a range of hand-signals that would have been the envy of any third-base coach, directed me to take over midway for the non-mourner who had arrived earlier than I. With the ease born of life-long practice, I followed the printed schedule that indicates a time when each part of the service should be reached. Jealously guarding my reputation as the fastest leader in the congregation, I brought the Service home to spec, right on time, as expected. - and I said the Kaddish in the end with a certain melancholy, knowing that my life would be different from now on.

I had a tough day in Court, and barely made it in time for the afternoon/Mincha service. Nina, who had lived vicariously through all of this for the year, called me- almost every hour, flush with wedding details and complications, clearly wanting to hear my reaction as I wound down my self-imposed semi-official extended mourner’s status. In our unique system- as a male- I had a distinct advantage over Nina... There’s a clearly defined role for me, something for me to do, several times a day that connects me with Mikey. I had the opportunity to embrace the therapeutic value of public proclamation that is the Kaddish.

Wednesday afternoon I didn’t get there in time to lead the service. At the end I said Kaddish, which was followed immediately by the Evening Service, which is the first of the next-day’s Service. At the end of that service, at the point when, during the past year, I would have recited the Kaddish, I stood silently, giving the appropriate responses of a ‘regular’ participant, to those who were saying it: the elderly man who has never gotten over the demise of his wife, and the man representing the synagogue who has undertaken to do it everyday for a list of the deceased who did not have the advantage of sons who would undertake it... But not me.

My Kaddish, distinctive for its volume and cadence, had become so much a part of the fabric of the little group that Rabbi Wasserman, standing at the front of the chapel looked suddenly back at me. I slowly raised my hands palm-up to signify that that was ‘it’. As I silently communicated with the Rabbi, my tears welling up again, he, too, realizing the gravity of the moment, nodded slowly with slightly shiny eyes himself. He had earned the right with a thousand visits to Mikey.

This week we observe Mikey’s yahrzeit, the first anniversary of his death, and we marry off our daughter, Shoshi, to the guy she brought to meet Mikey in the ICU on the weekend that she met him- a guy we have all learned to love, a guy who came to Pittsburgh for Mikey’s Shiva ostensibly to drive Gavri’s car from New York, and stayed until the very end, a guy whose warmth and humor and decency and love for our daughter, Shoshi- are everything we could have wanted.

And then there was the problem of the Yahrzeit. There were so many things we wanted to do to mark the day. We did not want Mikey’s memory to be diminished by non-observance of that special day. In fact, a whole group of NCSY kids studying in Israel, many of whom were there last March when we had the ‘Shloshim”, thirty-day remembrance, insisted- through the miracle of cell phones and e-mail- that there be some function in Mikey’s memory. Through the guidance and help for Rabbi Tzali Friedman, our NCSY Regional director, who keeps in touch with ‘his kids’ – the dozens and dozens he sends to Israel each year-and my sister Fayge of course (while she plans for their son Adir’s wedding in LA the following week) there will actually be a memorial to Mikey in Jerusalem on the day of his Yahrzeit.

Because of Shosh’s wedding, we’re going to delay it a little in Pittsburgh (the Yahrzeit is Thursday, the wedding is Sunday). We’ve begun discussions about something involving Mikey’s favorite topics: genetic testing, Jewish dating practices and their interrelationship. One of Mikey’s mentors at Yeshiva University, a man that he had the temerity to regard has his Rebbe, his Bio prof, and his friend, Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler, agreed to come to Pittsburgh sometime in February to address the topic. We can’t imagine a topic or a speaker that would have been more to Mikey’s liking (Rabbi Wein was kind enough to speak at the Remembrance/Azkara in Jerusalem back in February).

With the wedding looming, it was still a puzzle to us what would be appropriate for the day of Mikey’s Yahrzeit. Sure, I’ll go to shul. I’ll even lead the Services. I’ll be called to the Torah that day. Sure, we’ll talk about him. We’ll even visit him in the cemetery-(I know Nina, it’s not really Mikey there). But, we needed something more. So we decided something so simple, and so appropriate, that we’re sure Mikey would have been thrilled: Nina and I have appointments to go down to the Blood Bank and give platelets. It takes about an hour and a half. It’s a wholly satisfying opportunity to help somebody as desperately in need as Mikey once was. Incidentally, Poale Zedeck scheduled a blood drive for Sunday, December 9th. So wherever you are----

His entire life, Mikey was never well enough to be able to give blood or platelets. A year ago at this time, the girl at the front desk in the downtown office of the Pittsburgh Blood Bank knew Mikey’s social security number by heart. There were pages and pages of donors who designated Mikey as their recipient, right up to the bitter end, he used those blood products and platelets. We were endlessly grateful for the generosity of an array of friends and acquaintances, so this week- if you have a chance- go to the Poale Zedeck Blood Drive or go to the Blood Bank. If you can, give platelets. If you’re in another city, there are places to go there, too.

It’s a year later now, so to most people you encounter, it won’t mean much that you’re doing it in memory of Mikey Butler, but if you have it in your heart, it will definitely count. Thirty days wasn’t enough. Eleven months and three weeks wasn’t enough. From now on every happy occasion will be tinged with the uncertainty for the future that our experience has taught us to expect and accept. And a melancholy longing for the past that we enjoyed so much. Overshadowing that will be the optimism, the conviction, that there IS a purpose to it all, and that it’s all for the best, and that G-d knows what He’s doing, and that we can participate in G-d’s work by doing our jobs the best that we can. I learned those things from Mikey.

As we expand the Mikey Butler Foundation, we hope to spread that message so that he won’t be forgotten.

Give blood. Hug your children. Appreciate the moment.
May you know the joy and satisfaction of caring friends and relatives .May you feel the pride in children who instinctively make choices that reflect the values you tried to impart to them.

Day by Glorious Day.
Danny (and Nina too)

January 10, 2005

Rosh Chodesh Shvat

The Afikim Foundation is pleased to offer this moment of encouragement.
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