Do you believe that objects can be miraculous, even something as light as a feather? Is there a spiritual significance to these objects? Are they there to teach us a lesson? Questions like this are “above my pay grade”-all I can do is share experiences and leave it to each of you to determine what to make of them.
The story begins with my serving as a Rabbinic Intern in South Bend, Indiana in Summer 2008. I quickly got to know and befriend a number of the congregants. One individual stood out to me, however. John Roncz, a Jew-by-choice, was a frequent attendee of the evening minyan. He was an autodidactic engineer, designing the airplane wings and propellers for the Voyager, an airplane which travelled around the world without refueling and which is now located in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. John also designed The Global Flyer, in which Steve Fossett set 3 world records. What was fascinating to me about John, however, was not his scientific achievements but his personable, down-to-earth nature and that he had begun a career as a spiritual medium. He would have sittings at which he would connect with a spirit from someone’s past and impart a message or lesson that they were trying to teach the living.
Initially I was resistant to John’s new career both because I am a rationalist by nature and because Judaism does not look favorably upon mediums. Leviticus Chapter 19 Verse 31 states “Regard not those who are mediums, nor seek after wizards, to be defiled by them; I am the LORD your God.” We also know that King Saul was castigated for going to the Witch of Endor and connecting with the spirit of the Prophet Samuel. When I presented John with these texts, he explained that he is not a necromancer because he does not summon spirits-rather they come to him. He also needs to repeat verbatim the message that they give him and cannot “make up” anything.
One evening John invited me over to his house where he cooked a gourmet dinner on his patio. He said he wanted to do a sitting with me and gave me the choice of trying to connect with a spirit or doing a spiritual assessment. I was hesitant to have him connect with a spirit so I so I suggested the assessment. We began and the main advice from the spirits is that I need to get out of my head (surprise!). However, John quickly stopped the assessment, saying one spirit was coming forward. I thought it was my Grandpa Abe, so I described him physically, but John said my description did not match. He then said “I see a white handkerchief with the red letter M.” When I heard this statement, I immediately knew it was my Grandpa Murray, who had such handkerchiefs. John next described seeing someone attending to the wounded in a wartime hospital, and my grandfather had done such work in Korea. He mentioned that my grandfather was sorry for his severed relationship with my immediate family, saying “Don’t do what I did” and “Physician, heal thyself.” I had never mentioned to him about a severed relationship. Finally John referenced my grandfather’s brother with a name beginning with the letter S. At this point I thought John had erred, and I stated “My grandfather did not have a brother-just a sister Florence.” Later that evening, I called my father, who told me that my Grandpa Murray had a brother Sol, who I had never met.
Fast forward to 2011, my final year of rabbinical school. John was working on publishing his book An Engineer’s Guide to the Spirit World, and e-mailed me his chapters to proof and comment on. I was interested to read John’s account of loved ones leaving signs behind for us, like a child who had passed on leaving a penny for his/her parent to find. When I spoke about this at my Student Pulpit in Flint, a woman took me aside at Kiddush. She told me that her mother often left feathers as a sign of her presence, and she gave me her story “Feathers from Heaven…from Mom.” Here is an excerpt from it.
“I was excited and apprehensive about going to our first family reunion after my Mom died. My five siblings, our spouses, nieces and nephews would be present, but not the matriarch of the Golden clan, our Mom. Her presence would greatly be missed. Harold and I went for an early morning walk, before finishing our drive to Sun River, Oregon. The path we chose to walk was bleak. There were no trees, grass or flowers. It was quiet and lonely. I looked on the stony path, and I saw a small, but beautiful yellow feather. I held the feather in my hand, and I felt Mom’s presence! Mom was telling me, “Enjoy the reunion. I will be there!” I put that feather in my visor, and we certainly did feel Mom’s presence at our wonderful family reunion.
Since that time, I have found many, many feathers. They just appear. And when they do, I can feel and hear Mom’s presence.
If I am looking for a feather (from Mom), they never appear. I can say to myself, “Come on Mom. Please show me that you are with me!” It’s when I am not looking, that they miraculously appear.
Harold and I were in Israel for two weeks. Our car was broken into, while we were floating in the Dead Sea, and the contents of our car were stolen. It was a horrifying and exhausting time for us. I was sad, depressed, and I wanted our trip to end. We were leaving Shul on Shabbat, the day after our misfortune, when I looked on the ground, and I saw a little feather. I put the feather in my hand, and the tears poured out of my eyes. Mom was in Israel!! She whispered in my ear, “Hells, Bells( one of her favorite expressions), it’s ok…move on…don’t let this spoil your trip. Things are replaceable!!”
Sometimes I pick up the feathers that I find, and I put them in my pocket or purse, or I put them in various places in my home as reminders to me about Mom. Sometimes I leave them on the ground, but I feel Mom’s arms wrapped around me, and I think to myself, “Thanks, MOM, I needed that !”
I put the idea of signs left behind out of my mind until May 2013, when I was working in Tucson and my friend Anna passed away. Anna was my first friend in Tucson, and we were very close. At Shiva, one of her brothers mentioned that they were at Sabino Canyon and saw a friendly blue jay came over and was playing around. He said this was her with absolute certainty. Anna’s mother mentioned that she felt her presence rustling in the wind. Immediately I thought of John and my encounter with my grandfather’s spirit.
Around the time of Anna’s passing I began seeing a dove feather outside my condo after I went on my morning run. There was always one feather every day I went on my run. After a couple weeks I began to inquire as to what these feathers are from. A congregant mentioned to me that it was a morningdove feather and the morningdoves were unique in that they mated for life. Every day in the summer I would collect one of these dove feathers, bring it into my condo and look at it, wondering why they were being shed outside my condo. In early September of that year, I met Karina, and soon after we fell in love. I stopped seeing the dove feathers shortly after this occurred.
I still wonder if this was a coincidence, if the morning dove shed one feather at a time and just happened to be by my condo. I will never know, just like I’ll never know if the signs that my congregant saw of her mother were coincidental or real. However, I gain comfort in believing that people show signs of their presence after they are no longer physically present with us. The alternative is to believe that someone is gone, departed from us, and it is far more comforting to believe that there are signs of their presence.
As we say Yizkor, let us reflect on the loved ones who have physically been taken from our midst and that we still feel their presence with us each and every day. Even if we do not find a physical sign of their presence, that does not mean they are gone from us spiritually. As the poet says, “As long as we live they too will live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.”
We’ll conclude with this anonymous poem about one whose life was taken far too soon:
As I sit in heaven
And watch you every day
I try to let you know with signs
I never went away.
I hear you when you’re laughing
And watch you as you sleep
I even place my arms around you
And watch you as you weep.
I see you wish the days away
Begging to have me home
So I try to send you signs
So you know you are not alone.
Don’t feel guilty that you have
Life that was denied to me
Heaven is truly beautiful
Just you wait and see.
So live your life, laugh again
Enjoy yourself, be free.
When I know with every breath you take
You’ll be taking one for me.