"Touched by the Angel of Death"
by Henry-Cameron Allen
Passover is a time of reflection, to honor the memories and traditions of our ancestors. These reflections seem more pertinent in these times than ever, what with the wars in Ukraine and elsewhere, a persistent global pandemic, rampant youth suicide, more slavery on Earth today than in all of history combined… oy.
I find myself meditating, especially, upon the lives and deaths of my beloved father and son of blessed memory. My father was taken by Covid in October of 2021, and my 13 year-old son passed from brain cancer in 2008. This will be my family’s first Pesach without my father Saul, and our 13th without Cameron.
Dad, a yeshiva-educated conservative Jew, was born in the Bronx, NY, in 1939, to a father who immigrated to America from Ukraine in 1910, and a mother who was born in Manhattan to parents who immigrated from Romania in 1900. He achieved over 50 years professional experience as an independent attorney, US diplomat, and consultant specializing in international affairs. He lived a full and varied life, and took great pride in bequeathing his treasured traditions to his family.
My earliest Passover memories include Dad at the head of the table, wearing an ill-fitting yarmulke perched atop an awkward combover, guiding the seder with focus and reverence, the afikomen tucked securely behind a big pillow at his back. We used the popular (Manischewitz and charoset-stained) Maxwell House haggadah. Before we left the country on his first diplomatic tour, Pesach was a full-mishpocha affair, and my mother was busy sweating in the kitchen, making sure everything was up to par to impress the in-laws. The delicious smells that emanated from her kitchen still waft in the nostrils of memory. No part of the haggadah was skipped, and, though the seder seemed to last for hours on end with our little bellies grumbling the whole time, Dad masterfully held our attention with the Exodus story.
A funny side dish: I recall one morning my mom sent my sister and me to a neighbor’s house to get us out of her hair so she could focus on seder prep, and they took us to their church to join their kids at Sunday school. That night, my great-grandma Sabina, her cankles as thick as her Romanian-Yiddish accent, invited us to sing the Passover songs. My sister and I gleefully belted out the tune we had learned that day: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so…” Needless to say, this did not go over well with the elders.
After the seder, and the afikomen trades made, we adjourned to the living room to watch the epic 1955 Ten Commandments on tv. So the story of Passover lived on in me, both from a traditional and a secular perspective, which I also passed on to my son in his short life. I value these memories immensely.
From seders to movies, the part of the story of Exodus that always grabbed me most was that of the Angel of Death smiting the first-born of Egypt. Both my father and my Cameron were first-born sons, which leads me to meditate upon both the Pharaoh’s command to kill the firstborn sons of the Hebrew slaves, and the sunsequent smiting of the firstborn of Egypt…
I harken to current global challenges, seeking faith-based lessons and answers. So many firstborns lost, and more… how can I feel anything but empathy in light of my own loss? So many parents with empty arms, and children experiencing the devastating loss of their fathers and mothers. So many lost to Covid, to wars, cancers, suicide, etc.. It can be overwhelming to consider it all, whether one has been touched personally by the Angel of Death or not.
For children who have lost parents, we use the word “orphan,” which exists in some form in every culture. It says enough. There is no such word for a parent to turn to after they have lost a child. “Bereaved parent” is typically used in child loss circles. The ancient Sanskrit word “vilomah” is emerging as another descriptor, which roughly means “against nature.” I find it difficult to identify with either description. The loss of my father and son happened in ways that could not, to our knowledge, have been prevented. They could be considered “natural” losses. Unnatural losses are preventable ones. The common ground of all loss is mourning - a temporary state, and grief which is perpetual.
Grief is the residual love I feel, yet I would not consider myself “bereft,” necessarily. My overall perspective on death itself has completely transformed through these losses. I now see death as an illusion. Physics proves that everything in the known universe is energy, which can neither be created nor destroyed… it merely transmutes. I feel my father’s and my son’s energies strongly in my life still. Same with all my ancestors, when I call upon them for guidance and strength. So, to me, they are not dead. Perhaps the Angel of Death is an allegory. G-d knows.