The author is the mother of Avraham David Moses Hy”d, a student at the Yashlatz high school who was killed in the terrorist attack at Mercaz HaRav on March 6, 2008, Rosh Chodesh Adar, along with seven other students.
I had been dreading this task. I parked the car and grabbed the bucket, the soap, and the rags from the back seat. At the entrance to the cemetery, I filled the bucket most of the way with water, but not so full as to be too hard to carry. I didn’t have far to go, but still. The force of the water created a foam of bubbles. I closed the tap and was ready.
I headed down the stairs to the lower level, where you were buried. The whole idea of grave maintenance had always been academic for me. Something that a gardener does, or old people do for someone who is even older. I just couldn’t bear the idea of maintaining your grave. Laundry – yes; cooking – yes; driving you places – yes; running to the cash machine in the rain – yes; maintaining your grave – how could I bear even the thought of it?
The cemetery is actually very beautiful. It is surrounded by pine trees, and has grassy and herbal landscaping. There are distant sounds of agricultural machinery, and the closer sounds of birds, insects, and the susurrations of all the trees and other green, living things. It is a place of restfulness.
Between the graves it is rocky and kind of sandy. I am out of place here. I am alive, and agitated, and I miss you too much to be anything more than a passing event here, spending some minutes or an hour or two, and then going back home where I belong. Leaving you here. Again.
Looking at your grave, I face the other reason I have put off cleaning your grave stone for so long. The rocks. Your gravestone is covered with pine needles, dirt, dust, a few notes, an Israeli flag, and rocks. Rocks and rocks and rocks. There is a Jewish custom to place a rock on a grave out of respect and love, and to remind ourselves that we come from the earth, and we return to the earth. Maybe it helps a newly departed soul to leave its body more easily, the reminder that the place to which the body returns is the earth.
Your gravestone, and the other gravestones here, are long and flat, and built up to a height of about two feet and about the size of a small bed. About the size of a person lying down. About the size of you. I had to explain to your little brothers that your body was not laid to rest inside of it, but in the earth, and the gravestone was laid above. There is plenty of room on the stone for little rocks, and there are literally hundreds of small rocks that were placed here by people who were paying you their respects.
First was the easy part. In order to clean your stone, I must take everything off it. I lay the flag and the notes to the side, and sweep across the surface with my forearm, pushing all the rocks off the surface. Your stone is in layers, with a couple of tiny ledges, and I brush the rocks that fall onto the ledges onto the ground. The other reason I have been putting off this task is because I am committed to returning each of these rocks back to your stone, no matter how long it takes.
I wash your stone. That is also easy. Soapy water and a rag do the trick in just a few minutes. Much of the lettering on your stone was covered by the rocks, and I read it now. First, your name. They say that seeing is believing, but it isn’t really. There are so many tricks the mind can play to convince itself that the eyes are wrong, and it is really only because of my deep love for you, and my belief that you are still full of love for us, in a place too far away to touch or see, that I can accept that your name written on this stone is not some horrible mistake.
Your stone says, “Loving and loved, gentle and God fearing.” This is believable, for this captures your essence. “Murdered while learning Torah” – murder, once again past the scope of simple belief, but learning Torah again touches your essence. This vast stretch between the possible and the seeming impossible is part of my daily struggle.
The stone is nearly dry, and I wait just a little longer before I begin to put the rocks back. I was careful not to drip on them while washing the stone’s surface, so they would not be muddy.
Who am I to say what rock is good enough? They are all good enough to carry the message.
I have been bargaining with myself. “I will put the real rocks back, but the ones that are just chunks of concrete are not real rocks, and so I don’t have to put them back. That way it will be easier.” I begin to replace the rocks, bending and lifting a handful at a time, but there is no getting around it: I must put them all back, even the bits of dried concrete. Who am I to say what rock is good enough? They are all good enough to carry the message. Even the bits of broken concrete were placed there as a tribute by someone who loves you. Someone who, like me, still wants to keep you close. Every single one of these rocks is precious.
I want to keep the words visible, so I use the ledges for the littlest rocks. All the way around your stone, twice, with rocks the size of a marble or two. One after the other, almost touching. The larger rocks I place on the top of your stone, and I make piles when the space around the lettering runs out. I think it takes me more than an hour, but I’m not really sure.
Placing the rocks one at a time, choosing a place for each rock, I am overwhelmed with how many people love you, how many people used this small, symbolic act to express something that is coming deep from within their heart, and I am humbled by the greatness of it. I wonder how something like this could come about, and I realize that there are other rocks that are used to express love. I think of a different kind of rock and wish you could have given one.
You would have been turning 20 this year, and perhaps you would already have been thinking of marriage. I know you wanted to get married young. How I would have loved to help you choose a diamond for your bride. Or maybe you would have politely asked me not to get in the way, and you would have taken your lovely bride with you to choose, and I would have helped by not helping.
I ask myself how it is that we can give meaning to rocks, and how something so down to earth can become a powerful symbol of something as esoteric as love. But isn’t this what God did when he created us by imbuing matter with spirit? Would we be anything more than simple matter without the souls with which He has graced us? By expressing love with a rock, perhaps we are emulating Him, and taking part in His creation by imbuing matter with spirit.
Oh, how beautiful would have been any diamond ring you would have chosen for a bride. And how beautiful are these rocks, every single last one of them, including the ones that people haven’t yet placed but will. They are solid and they are sturdy, and they are a symbol that love can go on and on, whether we are close enough to see and touch, or not.
I place the last rock, and then the flag and the notes. With these rocks my heart builds a bridge over the abyss between your goodness that is so right and your death that feels so wrong. I stand for another moment to look, and then I say goodbye to you and head back to the car.