Tomb of Joseph at Shechem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
“April is the cruelest month, breeding / lilacs out of the dead land” wrote that brilliant old anti-Semite, T.S. Eliot, and I believe him. Spring is often spoken of as the season of blooming and rebirth, but for me it will always be tinged with loss.
I lost my beautiful grandmother, Mary Fulghum Menefee, on April 17, 1974, and the sights and smells of springtime are hard to take some years. I particularly hate the smell of Easter lilies, because after she died everyone we knew brought some to the house. I remember the white dogwood trees that she planted by the driveway, laced with blossoms, and it just seemed so wrong that anything would bloom after she was dead.
Years have passed and her absence has become a presence of its own in my heart. I doubt that she would have approved, in life, of my becoming Jewish, but many of the impulses that led me to Judaism were learned (or inherited?) from her. She encouraged my questioning mind, my love of scholarship, and my curiosity about the world. She told me a few days before her death that she’d been secretly voting Democratic for years. “Never tell your husband how you vote, it’s a secret ballot and none of his darn business,” she counseled me. Prudent words, coming from a woman in a family where everyone was very noisy about their conservative politics.
After my grandfather’s death, years later, I learned that she was a battered wife and had hidden it from all of us. She longed to get away but she could not, not in that time, not in that place. My grandmother never left Tennessee; twelve years after her death, I drove away and in many ways, never looked back.
I carry her along with me wherever I go. That, too, is very Jewish: we remember the dead and bring them along with us. These days we do it in memory, by keeping yahrtzeits and attending yizkor services. But in that first Exodus, we are told that Moses actually carried a box with the bones of Joseph (Exodus 13:19) to fulfill Joseph’s prophecy and request in Genesis 50:25: “And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying: ‘God will surely remember you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence.’” Indeed, after many years of travel, Joshua finally laid Joseph’s bones to rest in Shechem (Joshua 24:32.)
Beyond mourning, it is important to honor the memory of family by telling stories about them. Passover seders are a wonderful time for that, a time when children are gathered around the table with adults, when memory can flow. Was there a passage from an Egypt, a tight spot, in your family’s past? Was there a beloved grandmother or a scholarly uncle? Are there funny stories, or sad stories, or stories with missing pieces that can be shared?
This Passover, tell the Exodus story, all the Exodus stories. Remember those who left Egypt, and those who could not.
This post is part of the Blogging the Exodus project. A group of rabbis are blogging from the 1st of Nisan to the beginning of Passover on Passover topics. If you want to discover some great rabbinic blogs, or some interesting things to ponder as you clean up the chometz, you can locate those blogs via the Twitter hashtag #BlogExodus.