I am one of four, the third of four to be exact. Being one of four is part of the way I see myself in the world, a central component of my identity and the way I have come to understand people and relationships. My mother is the oldest of three. Her place as the firstborn sibling to a younger brother and sister has shaped her sense of responsibility and the ways in which she derives satisfaction and meaning in the world.
A few weeks ago, my mother lost her younger sister. My aunt Debbie was much more than that to us all. As one of my sons phrased it, she was his grandmother-once-removed. Despite the loss, my mother will always be one of three.
The shiva period afforded siblings and cousins the opportunity to reunite in appreciating the many blessings that come along with being part of a big family. In one particular conversation, my first cousin-once-removed (that’s my mother’s cousin) shared with me that, despite losing a younger sister decades ago, she describes herself to this day as one of four when asked about her family.
As the narrative of Joseph and his brothers builds towards its climax, Jacob, facing a famine with no end in sight, sends his ten older sons to Egypt for food. Joseph, the vizier in charge of dispensing rations, recognizes his brothers and decides to test them, accusing them of being spies. They respond in one voice: “We your servants are twelve brothers, sons of one man in Canaan; the youngest is with our father, and the one is not” (Genesis 42:13). Leaving aside the fact that the brothers exclude their sister Dinah (a topic for another blog), the brothers see themselves as twelve; it is their identity, even though their brother Joseph has been absent for years and they have passed him off as dead.
In speaking with people who have lost a child, I have learned that parents will often shape answers to questions about their families based on what is most comfortable for them in the moment, on who is asking, and on whether they feel like engaging about their loss. No matter the public response in the moment, these parents count their deceased children as part of the family, still shaping the identity of the family unit.
Such is the nature of memory in the Jewish tradition. In times both happy and sad, we strive to keep the souls of our departed loved ones as a presence in our lives—shaping our identities, defining our priorities, inspiring gratitude for the gifts we possess that can never be taken away.
May our memories of our loved ones be for a blessing to us,
Rabbi Craig Scheff