Mark Richter sat in the back of the old synagogue, wondering why he was there. He hadn't been to a Saturday morning service since his Bar Mitzvah, almost twenty years earlier. He watched the old men mumbling ancient chants in Hebrew, yarmulkes covering their heads, prayer shawls hanging from their shoulders. Periodically, they'd stand and bend from the waist to demonstrate respect for the Word of God.
Mark lost respect when his wife and daughter were killed in an automobile accident a month earlier. His Jewishness had never meant much more to him than an identifying marker he used when filling out forms, like his height or social security number.
So why was he sitting in the back of a synagogue? Was it to pray? No, he didn't suddenly become a believer in the face of tragedy. Still, something compelled him to attend.
Did he think the ancient rituals would help relieve the pain? Not likely.
Would he ever stop hearing the awful guttural cry his wife made just before impact, or seeing his one-year old daughter, her face frozen and covered in blood, still strapped in her car seat, her blue eyes staring into the void?
The sparseness of the synagogue surrounded him, the dark, wooden benches, the well-worn prayer books and the altar containing the Torah, the source of Jewish law and knowledge. With great reverence, the rabbi took the Torah from the hand-carved wooden ark. He uncovered it in the exact manner Mark remembered from his youth.
The rabbi revealed the Torah and the congregation stood. Mark chose to remain seated.
As the rabbi carefully unrolled the scroll, reading and chanting in Hebrew, Mark noted the hushed silence. Even the children seated with their parents were stilled, awed by the moment. Mark wondered if any of them had even an inkling of what the rabbi was saying, yet they waited expectantly, as if all knowledge would soon be theirs. He shook his head. Empty words. Mere sound devoid of meaning.
He had already seen and heard too much.
A drunk driver, he was told later. A goddamn drunk driver. The son-of-a-bitch probably never even saw the red light.
Mark sat in the cold, poorly lit synagogue, holding his breath, trying to keep from crying as the congregation chanted a prayer. A sob escaped his lips.
An elderly man seated next to him reached out and patted him on the shoulder. Mark pulled away.
The rabbi spoke in English now, translating and interpreting the day's Torah portion. He may as well have still been speaking in Hebrew as far as Mark was concerned.
Mark replayed with remarkable clarity what he and Carole were talking about just before the accident. "We need to stop at the supermarket," she was saying. "Toilet paper is on sale this week. Charmin. And I have to pick up some coffee, and milk for the baby."
"Oh, is Emily taking milk with her coffee now?"
"Very funny," she said, turning towards Emily. "Your daddy thinks he's a very funny man. Yes, he does."
Emily said something resembling, "pleshhhht," and they all laughed. Mark could still hear Emily giggle. Moments later, he heard Carole's guttural cry.
The congregation was reading an English translation after the rabbi chanted in Hebrew. Mark couldn't make out much of what was being said, but each refrain began with "Blessed be God…"
Bullshit be God! What's there to bless? The Maker of drunk drivers and accidents? Oh, that's right. There are no accidents. Killing innocent children is part of His plan. Well, to hell with His plan! And to hell with God!
Mark slammed his fist into his thigh. The stranger who had reached out to him earlier turned, startled by Mark's violent outburst. Mark heard him sigh. The rabbi spoke of the reasons the Torah was so specific about dietary rituals and the importance of religion in daily life.
Mark felt bad disturbing the old man's peace. In a sense he was envious. Maybe if he cared about the proper way to slaughter a lamb he wouldn't see Emily's blood whenever he closed his eyes? But what did the rabbi know of suffering? What did the old man know?
His body trembled.
The congregation sanf now, melodies he recalled from his childhood. His parents didn't go to synagogue often, but he remembered dressing in itchy dark pants and a starched white shirt and being dragged to temple whenever his grandfather visited. He recalled his grandfather confiding in him one Saturday morning as they dressed for worship. "You vant to know vat's truth, boychic?" he asked in his heavy Eastern European accent. "I only go to shul vhen I'm here." He smiled as he knotted his navy blue knit tie. "For you, and your mother, I go. For family.”
The service was almost over. It ended as Mark remembered it always ended--saying Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. Only members of the congregation who had lost loved ones rose. Mark stood, feeling his knees buckle under him.
"Yit-ga-dal ve-yit-ka-dash…" The ancient sounds came back to him, as he thought of his family. For them, he chanted the prayer.
He noted that the old man sitting next to him also rose and chanted. When services ended the man turned, extended his hand and wished Mark a good Sabbath. Mark took the old man's cold, bony hand and, as they shook, the man's shirt sleeve lifted just enough for him to see a faded number tattooed across his wrist.
He looked into the old man's bloodshot eyes. He wanted to talk to him, share his grief, but he couldn't speak. He felt his bottom lip quiver.
The old man spoke. "You've suffered a loss, my boy. I can see it in your eyes. You'll never forget, believe me. But with God's help, you'll learn to live with your memories."
Mark nodded slightly and turned towards the door, his eyes blinded by the bright midday sun.
Wayne Scheer has been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net. He's published numerous stories, poems and essays in print and online, including Revealing Moments, a collection of flash stories: http://issuu.com/pearnoir/docs/revealing_moments . Wayne lives in Atlanta with his wife.