Through grief and consolation, what is the best way to honor the memory of a relative who has died? Truly, there are two most appropriate ways.
The first is to make the world around you a better place. Everyone dies with work unfinished. As it is written in tractate Avot, "Yours is not to complete the task, but neither may you desist from it." Most people have embraced a cause in their private or public lives. Supporting that cause with your efforts or your contributions keeps alive the positive impact of a life ended. For most people reading this column, our synagogue is just such a cause. But even some unlikely recipients may be most appropriate. My father often told me of his gratitude to the Salvation Army for the support they gave him and his fellow soldiers during World War II. I make it a point to put money in their pushkes (okay, "kettles") every chance I get.
The second is to make the world inside of you a better place. Each of us bears the imprint of the people in our families. Science has explained much about how genetics affect who we are, and experience (if nothing else) makes clear how much of the past we carry into the future. The best qualities of the people who made an impact upon us can be nurtured in our own lives, in our own ways. Read another book each year to honor an avid reader. Learn your grandmother’s recipe for chocolate babka. Reach for an accomplishment you know would make that person proud. And especially, embrace a Jewish observance to honor someone’s memory.
I suspect that most of you have known close relatives who do not inspire the kind of gentle memories which might lead to improving the world or the soul. My advice remains the same. Sometimes you continue the work a relative began; sometimes you improve upon it. We know that all the pathologies which afflict the general population afflict the Jews as well. Unhappily, we often cover up the more destructive behaviors out of a sense of embarrassment.
If you were victimized by an abusive relative, God forbid, devote some time to programs which rescue others from this tragic behavior. If your relative was consumed by work at the expense of family, take that extra time you missed and give it to your children or others in need. If your relative did not live up to the ideals of respect for others, dedicate some time to improving relations among people of various backgrounds. You understand how it can work.
And since we know how often the sins of the parents are inadvertently repeated by the children, do that work of self-improvement, too. Counseling is not only for people in crisis. Prayer and reflection can help identify the toxins lurking in your soul. And certainly the antagonisms toward Judaism and God which are so often the legacy of troubled families can be reversed by the attention of the next generation.
Every human being is created in God’s image, which means that part of the work of creation is in every soul. When a death occurs, most always too soon, the renewal of creation is interrupted. We can continue the partnership with God begun in the lives of those whose days have ended by honoring the dead with our efforts – and thus creating our own legacy.