I was delighted with a recent invitation to participate in a mah jongg game with a group of other women. I’d never played before, but always wanted to learn. I mentioned it to my mother, who has had a standing ‘mahj’ group for years now, and she gave me my grandma’s set to use.
Together, my mother, my daughter and I sorted the tiles. Crack, bam, dot… we grouped them, and then we smiled. My grandma has been gone for nearly seven years now. But between the tiles was a Post-it note with her handwriting: “flower - 8,” it said. “jokers – 6 (use blanks).” She apparently had done a similar inventory of her set many, many years before. I tucked the note back in between the tiles for safe-keeping. I have many birthday cards and letters from her that I have saved over the years, but this Post-it was different. This was a rare glimpse into her life, her enjoyment and her fulfillment outside of me, or my siblings, or my cousins. As the tiles clinked on the table and clacked against each other, I heard the sounds that she once heard. I stacked the tiles that she once stacked. And in playing her game, I knew her better.
In this week’s parshah, Aaron, the High Priest is laid to rest. “Moses stripped Aaron of his vestments and put them on his son Eleazar, and Aaron died there on the summit of the mountain. When Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain, the whole community knew that Aaron had breathed his last. All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron 30 days.” (Num 20:28-29)
We can only imagine what it felt like for Eleazar to wear his deceased father’s sacred robes - how the familiar material felt against his own skin, how the gems of the priestly breastplate sounded as they padded against his own chest, how it felt, quite literally, to walk in his father’s shoes. Rabbi Lisa Grushkow writes, “Aaron’s passing is presented as the ideal of a good death. He gets to pass down his legacy, in the form of his priestly garments, to his son Eleazar.”
And through Aaron’s clothing, Eleazar knows his father in a whole new way. Wearing his robes, he gets to know him not as a father, but as a person. He feels what it is like to be seen as a leader. He understands what it is like to represent the people. Now he, like his father before him, wears the mantle of priesthood. And as Grushkow teaches, through Eleazar’s acceptance of his father’s vestments, Aaron lives on – truly. Aaron is there in each step that Eleazar takes. Aaron is there as Eleazar brings the best of his father and the best of himself to this new version of the sacred role.
Mementos left for us by our loved ones are not just special trinkets, but reminders of how they lived. They are reminders of how they felt the world. We hold the papers their fingers held, place the tiles their fingers placed, smooth the robes their fingers smoothed, and by the tactile experience of interacting with their belongings we make new memories that we file away with the old, creating a fuller picture of the people we have loved.
I hear my grandma’s voice in my mind as I sort my tiles. Perhaps you feel your loved one’s presence as you slip into her shoes or place his clip on your tie. What advice would she share from the last time she wore them? What story would he tell from the last time he used it?
We make our choices in the here and now with this gift of precious legacy. JN
Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin is the associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel.