Tending to your ancestors

By Debbi K. Levy

As an emerging Kohenet, or Priestess, I take many core classes to deepen and strengthen my Jewish knowledge, in preparation for ordination. The course offered during this winter season, Jewish Ancestral Healing, has found me in just the right spoke in the wheel of the year. As the days grow short and the cold weather moves in, I find that I am more willing to sit quietly and think about my ancestral lineage. Can one continue to weave the fibers of a relationship with loved ones who are no longer alive? My invitation is for you to explore this possibility with me right here for the next few minutes.

As you read about these lineage practices I will describe, see if you can be in a comfortable, seated position, perhaps with your electronics off to eliminate distractions around you. Tune in to the sound of your breath. Simply soften what you can in your body so that you may make room for new knowledge. After all, a teacup that is overflowing has no more room, and we want to create some here. Letting go of a little body tension by a softening of your jaw or your shoulders just might do the trick.

One of the most important practices while delving into the feels of your known lineage is to look for the well places. Contrary to what may seem like the thing to do, exploring a painful place is not where healing or support should begin. Visualize a boundary around what feels well and good. Notice what comes up with your eyes in a soft gaze, or even closed, as you tune in to memories and pictures that unfold as you remember those for whom you say Kaddish, the memorial prayer. You can even take yourself further back through your lines in discovery as you think about facts or photographs, focusing on your ancestors you never had a chance to know well. Further back still? You could imagine those you might have documentation of, our immigrant ancestors, flung to all parts of the world following diasporas. The most important thing, perhaps, is to let go of goal-setting and just be here for your ancestors, aware of the link you represent in your ancestral chain.

In all the variety of mitzvot one can encounter and perform, none may leave you with as much contentment as tending to your ancestors. There will never be a “thank you,” or even an embrace for your gesture of love. Barry and I feel strongly about actively participating in honoring our family members who have passed on. We have purchased inscribed plaques for the memorial rooms where our loved ones worshipped, cleaned up older gravestones and offered up names for the memorial books that are distributed on Yom Kippur day (Yizkor).

Yesterday, after a good long sit, just devoting some time to remembering small details and loving deeds by the family members I remember well, I was inspired to make a list of all those ancestors I knew who are no longer here with us. I was surprised at the large number: a cousin, aunts, uncles, great-grandparents, grandparents and parents. Taking in all those names brought a lump to my throat. Somehow, this sacred list did not bring me to tears in sadness, but rather, I felt loved in my place of lineage. I found myself offering prayers of gratitude for my blue eyes and strong shoulders, my long toes and wavy hair, to all these ancestors who contributed to my genetics.

I want to suggest one more practice, the practice of journaling, for it brings you in touch with your dreams and your sleeping life. Because my ancestors have been a sacred focal point lately, I prompt myself to remember my dreams as I am falling asleep and hope for a fragment when I wake up. You may be rewarded with a small nugget of a memory or even a feeling that has long been in your brain’s storage unit. By putting these ancestors front and center, you will make room for new information to surface. You will make room for new perspectives that may feel like a blessing on your life. You acquire new wisdom with every year, and as you apply it to what surfaces for you as you dwell on your lineage, the benefit can be moments of profound joy.

Last summer, before we were back in person to worship, I showed up for virtual Shabbat morning services as often as I could. I began to look forward to the opportunity to put the names of loved ones who are deceased in the chat prior to the recitation of the Kaddish prayer. This is one of the ways to tend to our beloveds who have passed on, to keep writing and saying their names. I put a name of a dear relative in the chat and I got a private message back in the zoom room. “How do you know him?” this couple asked. “He is my relative,” I answered in the chat. We sat stunned in the Zoom room typing so quickly and excitedly in our squares, as we learned that we are relatives!

In whatever way you choose to tend to your beloved ancestors, know that this sacred work is a Jewish practice. Stones placed on graves, lips murmuring a name, eyes searching for names in a memorial book, family trees being researched — each of these these practices will never bring them back, and they are not intended to. But, rather, these offerings ground us in l’dor v’dor, the bonds of the generations. May your reflections and tendings lead you to blessings. Amen.

Debbi K. Levy is an emerging Kohenet, enthusiastically learning with The Hebrew Priestess Institute.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Andrea Sasha Ortiz

    Debbi, I always look forward to your articles. In Ladino tradition, the idea of remembering our ancestors is a mainstay. It feels good to know that other members of the diaspora are remembering this practice and observing it as well. What a treat it is to commune with those who have gone ahead! Thank you for the reminder.

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