When death wounds us

June 26, 2015 § 1 Comment

We fear death and usually hate to talk about it. We have trouble imagining our own non-existence, and we try not to think about what it would mean to live without those who matter most to us.

But death is a part of life, and is its natural conclusion; we find that we must live with it. We make an uneasy truce with it, trying not to think about it too much.

This week’s portion, however, prompts us to think about it. It is unusual in its concern for death and dying, for it has three separate mentions of death in it:

The first relates to the dying body: we are told, “one who touches the corpse of any human being shall be unclean for seven days.” With our scientific mindset, we think of these rules as a form of hygiene: of course it makes sense to quarantine someone who has been in contact with death. But we should note that it has a ritual element as well: death is uncanny, unnerving us even wen it is not one of our own. The impulse here, therefore, is to segregate the forces of chaos, to keep them from striking the rest of the camp.

Our second mention of death in this portion relates to the death of Miriam. Surprisingly, the text is very terse: “The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.” We have no mention of the ritual that was involved in her burial.

The third mention is Aaron’s death. Here the text is much more willing to elaborate – but some of the details are heartbreaking: “They ascended Mount Hor in the sight of the whole community. Moses stripped Aaron of his vestments and put them on his son Eleazar, and Aaron died there on the summit of the mountain. When Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain, the whole community knew that Aaron had breathed his last. All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days.”

I hope, for Aaron’s sake, that this ceremony was done in a loving and reverent way.

In all three cases, however, the Torah is rather matter-of-fact about death, yet nonetheless unwilling to fill us in regarding the details. For example, was Miriam’s death unexpected? Did the camp bewail her for 30 days too?

I ask these questions because I believe that the rituals that we follow surrounding death are profoundly important. What I have learned in my eleven years as a rabbi is that there is such a thing as effective mourning. [1]

All significant deaths wound us in some way – and that is as it should be, since the people whom we love are profoundly important to us. Grief is a necessary and important response to the gaping hole that is created by this loss.

Grief is compounded and made worse when there is some aspect of the relationship that was left unresolved – for example, when a death is sudden and you don’t get a chance to say goodbye. Or the relationship itself was complicated and you never had a sense of closure.

Effective mourning is what allows you to acknowledge the depth of your loss and grieve it. It also gives you the strength to continue your life even in the absence of your loved one. It’s like the difference between an open wound and a closed one: your loved one. Think in terms of an open wound versus a closed one: effective mourning is what allows the wound to close.

In my experience, effective mourning involves six distinct steps. All of them are important, but they do not need to be done in order. I have listed them here in the order that they appear in the Jewish tradition.

1. You must say goodbye. I have heard a lot of people over the years say that their preferred way to die would be to die in their sleep. Personally, I would rather not: I would rather die in hospice or at home, at a time when everyone was more or less expecting it. That is the kind of death that would allow me to gather my friends and family together to say goodbye.

If you don’t get a chance to say goodbye – if the death was sudden, or took place far away, or you heard about it only after the fact – then you need a ritual to let you say goodbye. I usually advise folks to write down what they would say and then burn what they wrote. The actions of the ritual itself, however, are not as important as their intent. Regardless, you need to find a way to say goodbye.

2. You need to make the death real to you. Our Jewish tradition, in its great wisdom, suggests that we help shovel earth on the casket, so that there is no denying the reality of the death. I will say that there is no sound more disheartening than the dull ‘thump’ of earth hitting a wooden casket. It usually makes the mourners wince. It is one of the most difficult moments in the funeral.

But if you are not able to go to the funeral, or if the deceased was part of a different religious tradition, there are rituals that you can do to make the death real. You can bury something that reminds you of this person. Or cast something into the water or let go of something, such as a balloon or a kite. Regardless of how you do it, the ritual must in some way speak to you symbolically of letting go.

3. You need to summarize the importance of this person’s life to your life. According to our tradition, the ideal eulogy – known as a hesped in Hebrew – is one that makes the loss felt all the more acutely. [2]

If you can’t go to the funeral in person, then you should still seek to read the obituary or the eulogy or write one of your own.

4. You need to let your community know that you have experienced the death of someone close to you, and you need to let your community comfort you. Here our tradition is particularly strong: the kria ribbon – that black ribbon that you tear at the funeral – is a sign among our people that you are in mourning. It symbolizes how your heart is torn in such a way that it can never be the same again.

In this regard, the practice of shiva – observing the seven days of intense mourning – is also profoundly therapeutic, for the whole community pours into your home and tells you how sorry they are for your loss. Usually, after seven days you desperately want to get all of these people out of your house and get your life back. It’s good to know, after those chaotic seven days, that the quiet that follows can be welcome.

I am aware that it’s fairly common nowadays for people to choose to do just one day or just three days of shiva, but I would advise all of you here, now, when you’re not in the midst of mourning, that you really should heed the full wisdom of our tradition. Make it your practice to do the full seven – you’ll be glad you did. Don’t shortchange grief.

5. You need to mark the point when you go from active mourning to returning to your life. In the broader culture of America, mourners commonly return to their jobs and our responsibilities almost immediately – usually as soon as they return from the funeral.

I think that it is a shame we don’t give more time for mourners because it’s an intense process, and it is one that takes time. Our tradition advises us to spend seven days in full-time mourning. That makes good sense.

For the first thirty days mourners are exempt from celebrations of all kinds, and given a wide berth. At the end of thirty days, it is customary to go out of the house, take a walk around the neighborhood three times, and then reenter the household.

At this point, the mourners are entering their new life, their life without this person. I have been a part of this ritual, walking alongside grieving families, and have found it to be very moving.

6. You need some ritual to mark the anniversary of the death. Usually, that first anniversary is particularly hard, but they are all difficult in their own way. When the death was a significant one – a mother, father, sister, brother, spouse, or child – it usually takes about two years to start to feel normal again.

In my eleven years as a rabbi, it has been my experience that there is a correlation between these steps and the sense of completion in mourning.

If you find that there is a death that still wounds you five or ten or twenty years later, it might be that one of these steps remains undone. My advice to you is to go back and ritually complete it, so that it might be possible to heal.

And please know that I am always willing to help. I would be honored, for example, if you called me and asked me to help you write a eulogy for someone who had died years ago. Whatever steps are missing, I am willing and able to help you fulfill them.

Death wounds us, as well it should; these are the steps that allow the wound to close and heal.

This week, of course, also marks the funerals of those who were killed in Charleston last week. We mourn with them. May their families find comfort and strength.

[1] The concept of effective mourning is one that I have developed myself, based on my pastoral training as a rabbi, the unit of Clinical Pastoral Education that I completed at the Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati, and my work as a congregational rabbi. It draws upon the work of authors such as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. It is, in effect, a statement of my own philosophy with regard to the process of mourning.

[2] See, for example: http://www.jlaw.com/Articles/underhesped.html for a summary of Jewish law regarding hesped.


June 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

I have spent time inside of a maximum security prison. Not as a convict, of course, but as a chaplain: in my first student pulpit, part of the role included visiting a local “supermax” in Lucasville, Ohio.

Ohio likes to build its prisons in the midst of cow pastures, so the prison looks a bit like the city of Oz in the distance, glinting in the sun, a tangle of barbed wire, guard towers and fences.

And I had no idea what to expect. For the record, getting inside of a supermax as a visitor is about as hard as getting into the Soviet Union during Glasnost, but a little bit easier than getting into an Israeli embassy during the Intifada.

And so, I was thinking about that experience this week as the manhunt continues for two escaped convicts.

The first service I did there was for High Holidays; the prisoners did not particularly connect with the liturgy of repentance and return. The second service I did was an abbreviated Passover seder; the prisoners connected powerfully with the imagery relating to slavery and freedom.

This week, in reading the news articles and opinion pieces about the prison that dominates Dannemora’s landscape, I was thinking of that fact.

One of the pieces that came across my feed this week was written by a former prisoner, speaking of the awfulness of prison itself, and the reasons why these two men would seek to run.

And I was angry at the piece, and a bit surprised at the vehemence of my reaction. Never once did he show any concern for the fate of the victims of these two men – or his own victims, for that matter, the unlucky folks who were on the other side of the gun when he committed the armed robbery that landed him in the New York State system of corrections. My cousin took two weeks off from her job as a bank teller the time she was robbed at gunpoint. These things get under your skin.

What you learn, when you walk into the halls of a maximum-security prison, is that the laws are not entirely fair. It is quite clear that the system has a preferred racial profile.

What you also learn is that the folks who work in corrections live with danger. I was absolutely astonished to discover that I would be walking side-by-side with convicted killers on my way to the chapel. There was, of course, a line on the floor that they were not expected to cross, and there were men with rifles watching at all times. But I still felt very exposed. I mentioned this fact to the chaplain who had greeted me at the door. “It’s been a year since the last riot,” he said, “so it’s probably fine.”

I also know a chaplain who had his shoulder dislocated by a prisoner.

And I know of folks in Cadyville who had to spend the day locked inside of their own houses, by order of the police, for fear of getting caught in the crossfire.

So these were the things on my mind as I read the Torah portion this week, and pondered what it might have to say to us.

First, let us get lost for a moment in the pure joy of understanding a text:

“The Lord said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.”

The purpose of the tallit is to serve as the vehicle for the tzitzit, the knotted fringes on the four corners. That’s why there is such variety in the tallit design: it’s the placeholder. The fringes are what’s actually commanded.

Why are the tzitzit usually white if the passage says they must have blue in them? Apparently, the blue dye came from a sea snail that has since gone extinct. I have seen tzitzit in multiple shades of blue, done in the hope that one of the shades would be the right one. But the general ruling is that without the proper dye they should be left white.

The knot pattern itself is distinctive: the most common pattern found in the US is an Ashkenazi style of a double knot, seven spirals, a double knot, eight spirals, a double knot, eleven spirals, a double knot, thirteen spirals, and finally a double knot. There is a Separdic variation in which the spirals loop in on themselves to create a swirling spine down the length of the tassel. Though there are reasons for why that pattern, they all appear to be explanations after the fact. Why that pattern? It just is.

If you go to the Israel Museum, to the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are kept, you will see an exhibit downstairs of the other items they found alongside the scrolls. One of those items is a tallit, made of white wool with black stripes, with white knotted fringes. It looks remarkably like the traditional tallitot for sale on Ben Yehuda Street today, but for the 2000 years of wear and tear.

In other words, wearing tzitzit is not simply one of the commandments: it is also a practice uniquely our own, one that stretches all the way back to the Biblical period.

But what is the purpose of the tzitzit? Our portion tells us that we should “look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge.”

We all have lustful urges, the kinds of urges that get us into trouble, big and small.

The basic concept of Jewish practice, explained in its simplest terms is this: if you make a practice of curbing those urges through small observances, it will help you stay on the path of what’s right and good.

The whole process is hard, really hard: our passions swamp us, overtake our brains, and let us get carried away by our emotional response. When that happens, we do stupid things: we ruin relationships and damage lives.

Why do we wear tzitzit, then? To remind us to stay on the right side of the law. To help us train ourselves to do the right thing. To build up a series of good habits that stay with us for a lifetime.

It does not always work, of course; but it is intended to help. “Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.”

Where Am I?

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