Elul 6 5775 – August 21, 2015

Maimonides was a heretic. Or so thought some of the leading rabbis of the 13th century, led by Rabbi Yonah of Gerondi, a Catalan Talmudist and moralist, who strongly rejected Maimonides’ philosophical work ‘The Guide for the Perplexed’ and was, some say, responsible for the public burning of this and others of that great thinker’s books in a public square in Paris in 1233. Ten years later, under Papal decree, wagon loads of the Talmud were burned at the very same square, under suspicion of heresy and anti-Christian sentiment.

Rabbi Yonah’s horror at this second burning got him to change his mind, repent, and understand the futile folly of his war with Maimonides. He publicly admitted his wrongdoing in a synagogue and to complete his repentance made a vow to travel to Tiberias, prostrate on Maimonides’ grave and implore his pardon in the presence of ten men for seven consecutive days. Rabbi Yonah left France with that intention, but was detained, and died in Toledo in 1263. He never got to the grave but he did manage to write one of the classical Jewish books of remorse – ‘The Gates of Repentance’.

Going to graves is one of the traditions of these days of awe. More typically, book burnings aside, one goes to visit one’s ancestors, ask for help and interventions in higher spheres, and reflect on mortality. What will be written on my tombstone? one asks oneself. How do I want to be remembered? How do I want to live my life? And so yesterday, I accompanied my mother and cousin on an ancestral graveyard trip on the outskirts of London, visiting three generations of relatives in two different cemeteries spanning a century’s worth of life and death.

There were my grandparents Hugo and Celine, and Hugo’s parents, and some of my uncles and aunts and many cousins. My mother and M. knew so many more names, neighbors and friends, loved and missed. We chanted psalms and recited kaddish, told stories, placed stones, shed a tear and laughed a lot and took a bunch of photos.

And I paused to read what was or wasn’t written on the various headstones, not just for historical curiosity about the style of this or that decade but for the undertones that someone chose to tell the virtues of a life.

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Day 6 of Prepent, on the eve of the Sabbath: Can you plan a visit to a buried ancestor or loved one in the next 34 days? And if not, will you make that journey in your mind and in your heart? Honor memory, recall virtues and life lessons, be grateful for each gift and take a few minutes to reflect on what would you like to be remembered by and what would you need to do to change your attitude, opinions, actions so that you can get there.

Maybe, like Rabbi Yonah, you’ll never get to the grave of the person you’ve hurt to say you’re sorry and restart your life. But maybe, like a simple pilgrim, each of us can find the gravity of our own choices and resolve to be a better link in this endless chain of people all committed to a better, simpler, loving life.

Today also marks the shloshim, 30 days since the death of my friend and mentor and role model to so many of us – Theodore Bikel. Words have not yet made it to this great man’s gravestone but his passion for peace, zest for life and immense love of tradition and progress are the types of virtues making me so grateful for every moment that I spent with him and determined to walk but a step in his giant footsteps every next day of my life.

Shabbat Shalom,
– Amichai

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