A Home Dismantled with Devotion

Jack Riemer

Jews have blessings for almost every occasion. We have a blessing for seeing the ocean, for sighting a rainbow, for tasting fruit, for drinking water, for putting on a new garment….But with all due respect for the traditional blessings, I believe that new blessings ought to be created for our personal sacred moments, such as when we begin the sacred task of closing down and emptying out our parents' home after they die. When we're confronted with all the things they collected and saved, so many difficult questions arise. How do I choose what to keep and what to discard? How do I decide which memory-laden item goes to one person or to another?

So much is at stake, too, in performing this last act of honor and devotion to our parents. If we do it right, we preserve and transmit their memories and values to the next generation. If we do it wrong, we may open lasting wounds within our families and ourselves.

Some people hire professionals to price all of their parents' belongings and conduct an estate sale-a seemingly efficient liquidation of their assets-but bringing in a professional to do the work that children and grandchildren ought to do feels wrong to me. How could an outsider know how to evaluate the worth of a kiddush cup transmitted from generation to generation? How could a stranger know the value of a wedding ring worn proudly for 60 years, or a battered old samovar lovingly carried from the old country to America?

When I imagine how I would want my own earthly possessions sorted out by my heirs, I think of the wonderful example offered by my close friend, Sharon Davidson, and her family. Sharon's lovely parents, Ben and Effie Raber, lived to a ripe old age. While their deaths were not unexpected, Sharon, her siblings, and their children understood that closing down the house in which their parents had lived for more than half a century would mark the end of an era in their lives. They wanted to do it right.

They began by composing a prayer together.

They recited it each time they arrived at their parents' house to do the hard work of going through treasured possessions.

The prayer begins as follows…

Master of the universe, as we enter the home of our beloved parents and grandparents, who have left us to be closer to You, please guide our actions to be in accordance with Jewish law and custom, as well as in accordance with their wishes.

I love that the prayer begins by asking God's help in doing this task. Understanding that what they faced would not be easy, Sharon and her family saw the need for God's guidance. The prayer set their task within the larger context of Jewish tradition: They were about to embark upon what generation after generation of Jews had done before them. And so they prayed that they might do it right.

The prayer describes death in a delicate and lovely way: "Who have left us to be closer to You."

I am also touched by how the family asked for guidance-not only in accordance with how it has been done through the centuries, but "in accordance with their wishes"-as their parents would have wanted them to do.

The truth is, we do not always know how our parents would have wished us to act. Sharon's family cannot say for sure which keepsake or piece of jewelry their parents would have desired to go to this child or that grandchild. But the family knew their parents' overriding wish: Do not fight. As they recited this prayer, each family member was reminding him or herself that if a quarrel arose over any of the possessions, there would be no winners, only an indelible stain on their loved ones' memory.

The prayer continues…

Help us to move through their home, which so enriched our lives, in a manner that is a tribute to their teachings and their values. May we perform this sad and wrenching duty with reverence and with dignity.

It is true, and aptly put, how the prayer speaks of "their home," not that of the heirs. The family understood that anything taken from their parents' home was a gift, not an entitlement or right due the oldest, or the one who cared for them the most at the end, or anyone else who thought s/he had a claim.

I picture the family members moving through the house almost on tiptoe, with abundant reverence and awareness of their participation in a sacred task. When a house "which so enriched our lives" refers to a home that was lived in for 60 years, many visits were needed to sort through six decades of precious possessions. Each time they came, reciting this prayer would remind them that they were engaged in an endeavor of honor, connection, and love.

The prayer continues…

May we do so with generosity to others in the family, acknowledging their desire for some of these mementos, and with generosity to others in the community who might benefit from these possessions.

Here the family gave consideration to family members who, for whatever reason, were unable to express their preferences, but still wanted to keep something of the parents.

Sharon and her family also recognized that every Jewish sacred occasion is an opportunity to help people in need. It is noteworthy that they did not use a label such as "poor," out of respect for the dignity of those who might benefit from these possessions. This, I believe, is the essence of giving tzedakah.

The prayer concludes…

Ken yihi ratson (May this be Thy will).

I take away from this prayer that the most important honor we can give to our parents is to inherit their values, and act upon them when they are gone.

May this indeed be God's will-and ours too.

Rabbi Jack Riemer is the co-editor of So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them (Jewish Lights Publishing) and the editor of the three volumes of The World of The High Holy Days (National Rabbinic Network).