Nearing an end to my year of kaddish - opinion

My father did not die from complications related to COVID-19, but he may as well have.

Yahrzeit candle (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Yahrzeit candle
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
 I love watching the Super Bowl. But I had to leave during the fourth quarter – when Tom Brady was achieving immortality with his seventh championship – to drive the frozen, icy streets of New Jersey to a synagogue for the 10 p.m. Evening Service and kaddish.
I have about two-and-a-half months left of my year of saying kaddish – the haunting mourner’s prayer which I recite three times a day in my father’s memory.
When I recently noted to a friend the Herculean challenges of kaddish during the coronavirus and how it had become an all-consuming pursuit, he told me that when it’s finally over, I will miss it, as I will be forced to say goodbye to my father forever.
His words made me rethink a truly horrible year but one wherein tragedy is redeemed by the Jewish insistence on choosing life while surrounded by death.
My father did not die from complications related to COVID-19, but he may as well have. Having suffered a catastrophic stroke in late December 2019, the night before Hanukkah, he struggled to breathe while he remained mostly in the ICU at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. Every time he improved, and we brought him home, a few days later his breathing would worsen and he would be readmitted. But at least we could visit him, hold his hand and sing to him the beautiful Sabbath melodies he loved so much.
But when the hospital went into lockdown because of the coronavirus, we could see him only through an iPad. At that point, despite the best efforts of the incredibly dedicated staff, he essentially was warehoused. Bedsores and mouth sores took over. So, we made the decision – after he was breathing on his own without external oxygen – to bring him home again under a physician’s care, where he lasted about another week until he died on May 23 right after the Sabbath.
The next few days were a blur. I could not grieve. I had no time to grieve. My life was a dizzying array of calls to contacts in Jerusalem to secure a burial plot on the Mount of Olives, Judaism’s oldest and most revered burial ground. Then there were the nearly insurmountable logistics of moving my father’s body to Israel. El Al was completely shut down. United, which had flights from New York, didn’t accept any cargo. Then we heard about a specially scheduled El Al flight from Los Angeles that was bringing much-needed COVID-19 supplies to Israel, and the airline had room for two caskets. My father’s was one of them.
Then there was the issue of getting flights ourselves from New York and Miami to Israel and persuading my siblings that, as risky as it might be to travel during the coronavirus, children have a responsibility to bury their parents.
I called my friend Dr. Mehmet Oz, America’s most famous physician: “Should I go to Israel? Take the risk?”
“Shmuley,” he said, “my father died last year in Turkey, and I traveled there and put him in the ground. A son has a responsibility to place his father in the ground. The infection rates in the New York area have decreased substantially. You should be fine.”
How ironic that while many leading rabbis were telling me the trip was too risky and Halacha, Jewish law, forbade us from traveling, it took arguably the world’s most famous non-head-of-state Muslim and one of the world’s best-known doctors to tell me that I, as a Jew and a rabbi, had an obligation to bury my father.
So, off we went – me, my wife, Chana, our son Mendy, my brother, Chaim, and my sisters, Ateret and Sara.
On the flight, a torrent of memories rushed through my mind, making it impossible to sleep. So, I took out my laptop and began to write my eulogy.
I almost always speak extemporaneously. But this time I felt the need to be precise in my words. I would write and read my 
eulogy which I completed just as I saw the beautiful coastline of Israel coming into view.
We arrived at a Ben-Gurion Airport that was a ghost town. We traveled to Jerusalem on empty highways and empty streets.
The next day was the burial. There would be no formal funeral, only the internment and speeches.
The procession behind the body began. It was more somber than I expected. Most of those attending had emerged after months of quarantine for the first time. There was an eerie silence, broken only by the constant rush of cars coming from the nearby Arab village on the Mount of Olives.
The scenery was breathtaking. The Temple Mount glowed in the late spring sun. Never had Jerusalem looked more beautiful. My father was being buried just steps away from his great hero, prime minister Menachem Begin. It comforted me to think that, according to ancient Jewish belief, he would be the first to arise at the resurrection of the dead at the time of the Messiah.
I was the officiating rabbi at my father’s funeral. Grieve? I had to say the correct prayers. I had to call the eulogizers one by one, make sure they social distanced and wore masks, and ensure no speech went on too long, because COVID-19 demanded we make the ceremony as brief as possible.
I delivered my eulogy. It was an upbeat remembrance of my father’s life – how he grew up in abject poverty in Iran, began working from the age of 10 to help support his family, and came to the United States, where his five children were raised. I concluded with the promise of Isaiah that one day “death shall be swallowed forever,” and asked God that my father reawaken into a world shining with particles of everlasting light.
It was now time to place our father in the ground. My brother and I walked behind the body. They lowered my father into the freshly dug grave. I hate coffins because they obstruct the biblical commandment “dust are thou, and to dust thou shalt return.” But they make funerals bearable. The absence of a coffin, as is practiced in Israel, was both appropriate and devastating.
And then, suddenly it hit me with such overwhelming force that I, too, felt I was being swallowed by the earth. This is not some other family’s funeral. I am not a disinterested party. This time, I am the mourner. I’m the one saying kaddish. I’m the one with a razor tearing my jacket and my shirt, exposing my broken heart. I am the grief-stricken son to whom all are saying “Hamakom yenahem etchem....,” May the Omnipresent comfort you along with the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
I found strange and unpremeditated words coming out of my mouth. “It’s not supposed to be me. I’m the one who always helps others mourn. It’s not supposed to be me.”
The men filled the grave with earth. I looked at the Hebrew name on the mound of earth. “Yoav ben Ezra v’Eshrat Botach.” Yes, this is my father.
My daughter Chana bent down and sifted her fingers through the earth of her grandfather’s burial mound. And the thought of my children losing their grandfather during the coronavirus awakened me to the reality of a world awash in grief and death.
But as I said my first kaddish as a mourner – “Yisgadal v’yiskadash shmei raba...” (Magnified and exalted be His great name...) – I was also awakened to a Jewish impulse of vanquishing death; of praising God even at our lowest moment; of affirming our connection to a living God even when He seemingly disappointed us, almost in defiance of His desire to show us who is boss.
I believe it was Elie Wiesel who said its best. God may have the last laugh. But we humans have the last cry.
And in those tears, life is born anew. From the devastation of the coronavirus, a world more appreciative of life will emerge.
Magnified and exalted be His great name.
The writer is founder of the World Values Network and the international best-selling author of 30 books, including Judaism for Everyone. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook @RabbiShmuley. The Champions of Jewish Values gala can be attended or watched at