There are so many kinds of mitzvot. There are the ritual kinds, and sometimes we can appreciate them, "get something" from them (like lighting Shabbat candles), and sometimes not (like worrying about the kind of yarn your clothes are made from). And there are interpersonal mitzvot, like giving tzedakah (doing the right thing by sharing our blessings with others) or being concerned about the elderly. And then, sometimes, there are things we do and wonder what we're doing it for. And that begs the question - why are we doing these things? To get something for ourselves? Or just because we're supposed to? And where does the true reward (if there is a reward) lie? With the "feel good" or with the "I'm supposed to"?
Today is my grandmother's yahrzeit, the anniversary of her passing. Now, you should know that like most of us, I had two grandmothers. One, my mother's mother, was part of my life on a daily basis. Unfortunately, she died when I was not quite 6, so my memories of her are very fuzzy. I have pictures of her, and of course the stories my mother and her sisters told me about who she was and what was important to her. She was the kind of woman shopkeepers wanted to be their first customer in the morning, because then they'd have a good day. She was also a woman who loved to watch wrestling on television, and would sit on the couch, bouncing up and down, yelling, "Hit him again!" (I have trouble envisioning this, but the story has come to me from several people, so I must believe them.) She was gentle and she loved her grandchildren, and I wish I'd known her better.
Today is not her yahrzeit. It's the yahrzeit of my father's mother. Of her I have no memories at all. None. I was about the same age when she died, so you'd think I'd have some fuzzy memories of her as well, pictures of her playing with me. And yet, there's nothing. I do know that my father would go to visit her occasionally, but my mother never went (let's not go there). And yet...whether my children come to visit with their wives or not, if they ever thought to stop by alone, I know I would say, "Next time, bring Aria," or "Siporah," or "Gabe."
Yet my father would visit alone, and apparently his mother never said, "Where's Diane?" I can't imagine what the family dynamic was, and I know that had she asked for me, he would have complied. She didn't, so he didn't.
And yet I'm lighting a candle for her and going to minyan tomorrow morning to say kaddish. What on earth for?
My aunts and uncles on my father's side are all gone now. There's no one to say kaddish for their parents, as there's no one to say kaddish for my mother's parents. That whole generation has passed on, leaving my generation to remember them and their mothers and fathers. And for some reason, I've decided, in these past few years, to observe all those yahrzeits - my parents, my aunts and uncle (at least on my mother's side), and my grandparents. It's not that hard: go to synagogue in the evening for a service, go home and light a little 24 hour candle, then go in the next morning for another service. Recite a memorial prayer. And I'm done.
It's a mitzvah that does nothing for me. I do feel a warm glow when I remember my mother's parents, as fuzzy as their memories are, because they mean something to me. But when I remember my father's parents, I feel nothing. And that's such a shame. Of course, I suppose feeling nothing is better than feeling pain, but it would be so nice to feel something positive.
On the other hand, they produced my father. Their parenting made him who he was, whether because of or despite their parenting. They had an indirect impact on my life. And so it's important that I remember them.
And after talking to people recently who are adoptive parents, and hearing the angst their children are struggling with, wondering who they "really" are, what their biological parents were like, what their DNA is, perhaps lighting a yahrzeit light is my way of celebrating the fact that I see my father's eyes, my mother's smile, when I look in the mirror. Lighting those lights reminds me that I'm connected to people who may have disappointed me, but from whom I am nevertheless descended. You can pick your friends, but you can't pick your family.
I remember back in the 70s, when America was caught up in the "Roots"-inspired hunt for our ancestors, and how some people were disappointed because they were looking for high-born ancestors, perhaps people who fought in the Revolutionary War, and found only horse thieves. Lighting these candles for my father's parents is acknowledging that sometimes our ancestors aren't perfect, but knowing who the horse thieves and unloving grandmothers are is better than not knowing anything about your past.
The satisfaction I get comes not from knowing I'm performing a loving act for a beloved relative, but from doing what I know should be done, despite the challenge it presents. If it were easy, there wouldn't have been a requirement. We'd do it voluntarily. I light the candles for my past and celebrate that I am connected, and I work at relating to my children and grandchildren in response to my mother's mother and despite my father's mother, all the while knowing I am descended from both.