It is Elul and my husband and I are spending a magical Shabbat in the holy city of Safed. In the corner of the room stand my candlesticks, their flames waning as we talk softly. They are not in my silver candelabra that I light at home. Rather they are in an inexpensive brass travelling set, a gift from my Aunt Toots, a gift that she gave me over forty years earlier. It was one of the presents that I took with me when I went off to university as a girl.
Probably my aunt’s motivation to give me that present was the hope that I would light Shabbat candles every week. I wonder if she had an inkling that not only would I light Shabbat candles, but I would also be Shomer Shabbat. Looking at the candle holders bring back memories of my aunt.
Her name, of course, was not Toots. Toots had been her nickname as a little girl with five older siblings and it stuck. Although her friends called her Florence she was Toots to her family. She was ten years older than my mother, but she did not have any children until after I was born. It was my Aunt Toots who assisted my mother in my delivery so from the very beginning she was my special aunt.
She lived down the street from us and I remember her being a patient listener. She worked long hours nursing but every once in a while she would take me and her boys on fun outings. Every year we went to her for second night Seder. She gave me presents and told me wonderful stories.
Not all the memories were good, however. She had been an army nurse in the southern Pacific during World War Two and became infected with some tropical bacteria. That bacteria plagued her for the rest of her life. I have many memories of her being sick and she was not able to come to my engagement party. Following the celebration, I took my husband up to the hospital to tell her our good news and show off my ring. She cried.
“Why do we cry when we are happy?” the nurse who was brushing her hair asked rhetorically.
“I wanted to be there,” Aunt Toots answered.
“You’ll come to the wedding, right?” I responded.
She did not come to the wedding, though. She died on Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot with my mother by her side. I flew home for the funeral, bitterly disappointed that she would not be with me on my special day. Not only was I disappointed, I was also very confused. Just a few days earlier I had been in an orthodox synagogue reciting the haunting Unesaneh Tokef pray.
On Rosh Hashanah it is signed and on Yom Kippur it is sealed who will leave this world and who will be created, who will live and who will die….But repentance, prayer, and giving to the poor can cancel the evil decree.I was just beginning to be careful in my religious observances and had learned that on Rosh Hashanah HaShem opens the Book of Life as well as the Book of Death. Those who are totally good go straight into the Book of Life. Those who are totally bad are signed into the Book of Death. The average person is carefully scrutinized. If his merits outweigh his mistakes he is signed in the Book of Life. If not, there is the Book of Death.
How could my Aunt Toots have been signed in the Book of Death? She had so many good deeds to her credit. She was my aunt who kept a kosher home. She did volunteer work for the synagogue. She was a compassionate nurse. How could she have had more bad deeds than good?
It was explained to me that The Book of Life and The Book of Death do not refer to this world, but instead to the world-to-come. Although I did not understand this very well at the time it makes perfect sense to me now. I believe that there is a world-to-come and our allotted portion there is dependent on how we live our lives in this world.
As I look at my candles burning down inside the brass candlestick holder my aunt gave me, I feel confident that she did build herself a good portion in the world-to-come. I believe she knows I light candles every week and she is happy that I do so. Her memories are indeed a blessing.
Elul: the month before Rosh Hashanah
Shomer Shabbat: Sabbath observer according to the laws of the TorahShabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot: The Sabbath that falls during the week of Sukkot