After every funeral

Every time I am called to do a funeral for someone who had grown children, I notice my own emotions arising in response to what I witness in the emotional landscape of the mourners. I'm blessed that my parents are still alive... and when I preside over a funeral where adults mourn their parents, I can't help thinking about the day when I will be in the mourner's shoes instead of the rabbi's. I'll come to it with countless funerals under my belt, and surely they'll inform how I experience my own journey -- and yet I know as well as anyone that there's a vast chasm between experiencing someone else's grief from the rabbi's vantage, and experiencing one's own grief without the comfort of the rabbinic role. 

I often ride to the cemetery with one of the lovely gentlemen from the local funeral home with which we work. And every time, as we drive to my synagogue's cemetery in the hilltowns, as we chat about their kids and mine and what it's like to serve in their role and mine in a community of this size, some part of me is thinking: I should call my parents. Just to say I love you. Because I can. Often, afterwards, I do. And I wonder what goes through their minds when I mention that I've just done a funeral. Are they thinking of the friends they have buried? Are they thinking of their own mortality?

Across every axis of difference in the world, death is the thing we all have in common: every life ends. Everyone someday says goodbye to their parents or to those who reared them. Everyone someday says goodbye to loved ones and peers. Everyone someday says goodbye to this life and moves on to whatever it is that comes next. No two deaths are the same, no two griefs are the same. And yet every grief partakes of a sameness. Grief is like a hologram: every individual grief carries the imprint of the whole universe of grief within it. My prayer is that every grief carries the imprint of healing, too.

When there has been a profound loss, one can feel as though life will never be sweet again. As though the moment one wakes the grief will be crushing again, and it will be crushing until sleep, and then maybe also even in sleep. But it isn't perennial. The day will come when you wake and grief isn't the first thing to arise. The day will come when you wake with ease. With comfort. Even with joy. The crushing weight of grief will lift, and on the other side -- please, let there be gentleness. Let there be gratitude. Let there be the sense that (as our liturgy teaches) God every day renews the work of creation. Let all who grieve reach sweetness. Let all who grieve be renewed.

 

Related:

Good grief, fall 2014.


New book on Jewish rites of death

953945One never knows when a blog post will go on to have currency and life, years after it was written. An essay of mine -- originally written for this blog -- has been adapted and reprinted in a beautiful new book called Jewish Rites of Death: Stories of Beauty and Transformation, edited by Richard A. Light. Here's how the editor describes the collection:

This book is an introduction to an inter-world space, the boundary where death and life meet, the “space between worlds” that we encounter when we deal with the dead. We enter into it through a series of extraordinary processes in which the physical actions, the prayers, and the kavanah involved in Jewish death rituals open a window for us to glimpse this unique boundary. We can feel the experience of helping souls move from this world to the next as the book explores the practices and rituals of the Jewish tradition in preparing the dead for burial. It is an invitation to touch the fine line separating realms of existence.

Why should we put ourselves in the decidedly uncomfortable position of coming face to face with mortality? For those who engage in Jewish death rituals, the question is analogous to asking why we should see the Grand Canyon or a magnificent sunset first-hand. Helping a soul move between realms of existence inspires us, cultivates wonder, and expands our spiritual awareness. This book is dedicated to that liminal arena that allows us to peek through the doorway to heaven.

The volume moves through different stages: here are essays on aging and diminishment, accompanying the dying, accompanying the dead, mourning and grief, Jewish ideas of soul and afterlife, planning for death, and -- the section in which my piece appears -- taharah experiences, experiences of lovingly washing and preparing a body for burial. I've only just received my copy and begun reading what it contains, but I can already tell that this is an incredible collection. I'm planning to teach an adult education course on Jewish ideas about death and mourning at my synagogue this spring, and I think I've just found my text. 

Rabbi Malka Drucker (who until recently served with me on the ALEPH board of directors, and who is a longtime friend, in addition to being the author of many excellent books) writes, "Rick Light has written a moving, important, and impassioned book on a subject that is no one's favorite. By looking through the God lens, he integrates death and life, and in so doing replaces fear with depth and meaning. He offers scholarly sources, intimate accounts of encounters with death from a variety of voices, and a well-organized, useful book for all who are planning to die -- and especially those who help others on their journeys."

And Rabbi Jack Riemer, editor of Jewish Reflections on Death and Jewish Insights on Death and Mourning, writes, "I don't usually say this about any book, but I believe that the vitality, the authenticity, and the future of Jewish life in America can be measured by how many people read this literally awesome book and learn to see both life and death in a new perspective as a result."

Jewish Rites of Death: Stories of Beauty and Transformation is available on Amazon for $23.95.


A Vidui (Before Death)

Jewish tradition contains the practice of reciting a confessional prayer daily, annually, and before death. Some years ago, while in the ALEPH Hashpa'ah (Spiritual Direction)  program, I was assigned the task of writing my own. After I was blessed recently to have the opportunity of sitting with someone who was leaving this life, I was moved to revise and share the prayer I had written.



Vidui (Before Death)

 

Dear One, Source of All Being --
my God and God of my ancestors --
life and death are in Your hands:
hear my prayer.

I reach out to You
as I approach the contractions
which will birth my soul
into whatever comes next.

As my soul chose to enter this life
in order to learn and to love
I prepare now to leave
through an unfamiliar door.

I'm grateful for my place
in the chain of generations.
Grateful for teachers and friends
who have inspired and accompanied me.

I've made mistakes.
Lift them from my shoulders
and bless me with forgiveness.
I open my heart to You.

Help me to let go.
Help me to release regrets
so they don't encumber me
where I'm going.

All who have harmed me
in body, mind, or spirit
in this incarnation or any other --
I forgive them.

May all whom I have harmed
in body, mind, or spirit
in this incarnation or any other
forgive me in turn.

Help my loved ones to know
how deeply I have loved them
and will continue to love them
even when this body is gone.

God, parent of orphans
and defender of widows
be with my beloveds
and bring them comfort.

Into Your hand I place my soul.
You are with me; I have no fear.
As a wave returns to the ocean
I return to the Source from which I came.

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ ה' אֶחָד

Hear, O Israel; Adonai is our God; Adonai is One.

 

 

Related:

 

The vidui prayer of Yom Kippur -- and of every night, 2011.

A prayer before departing this life, 2013.


Preparing for a funeral in all four worlds

TubcardsmallWhen I hear news of a death, I feel as though I'm clicking into a higher gear. Life gets faster, details sharper. Everything extraneous falls away. On a practical level (in the world of assiyah) there are so many things which need to be decided: when will the funeral be held? How many nights of shiva does the family wish to observe? Is the obituary drafted, have family members been notified...?

On an emotional level (in the world of yetzirah) there's a heightened sense of awareness. It's as though a sense-organ which usually lies dormant has been wakened. How do the family members seem to be feeling? What does this seem to be like for them, what do they need from me, how can I be there for them? And then there's my own emotional landscape: what is this awakening in me? I file that away to be considered at a later time.

Intellectually (in the world of briyah) there's the task of writing the hesped, the eulogy. The goal is to write something meaningful, something which gives a sense for the life which has now ended. The hesped needs to tell stories. It needs to feel real. And it needs to be utterly transparent: this isn't about me as a writer, not about my oratory skills or turns of phrase. It's about the life I'm trying to honor as best I can. My job is to get out of the way.

Spiritually (in the world of atzilut), all of those things intermingle. Death is a doorway into the unknown, a brush with Mystery. I think of it as returning to the Cosmic Source from which we came, like drops of water -- having spent a lifetime falling in slow motion over the waterfall as individual droplets -- rejoining the mighty rush of the river. But it's one thing to say that, and another thing to really face the fact that a life has come to its end, that a soul has gone beyond where we can reach.

The physical world, the emotional world, the intellectual world, the spiritual world. These four worlds are hinted-at, say the kabbalists, in the four letters of God's holiest Name. Those same letters can be mapped on to the human form. Each of us is an expression of that Name. Each of us contains worlds within us. When someone dies, their unique manifestation of those worlds returns to its Source. We are all reflections of that Name; in that sense we are all the same. And we're also all different.

One of my favorite text from Talmud speaks about how God is greater than Caesar. Because when Caesar puts his image, his likeness, on every coin in the realm they all look identical. But when God puts God's image, God's likeness, on every human being we are all different. (Rabbi Arthur Waskow has written beautifully about this: God & Caesar - the Image on the Coin.) We are each a facet of God's image; all alike, because we all contain a holy spark -- and all different, because God is infinite.

When the body's life has ended, the soul returns to the One from Whom it came. From the finitude of a single human body and a single human consciousness, to the infinity of our Source. I believe that there is no suffering on the "other side." I believe that all of our human hurts and fears melt away as we rejoin Infinity. And I know that no matter what I believe about what happens after death, right now my faith isn't as important as my obligation to try to tend to and care for those who grieve.

 

 

(Image source: Kol ALEPH.)


Seven stops

JewishCasketAlmost every time I'm humbled and honored to preside over a funeral, someone asks me why we make seven stops.  It's Jewish tradition to pause seven times while carrying the casket to the grave. I lead the pallbearers a few steps, then stop and hold up a hand and they stop with me. Then we walk a few more steps, and pause. And again, and again, until we've stopped seven times. It gives the processional a strange, halting rhthm. It is a somber kind of dance.

In Talmudic times (the early centuries of the Common Era), it was customary for the funeral procession to stop and sit down seven times on the way from the grave back to the home, perhaps to shake off the spiritual residue of the cemetery. In the Geonic period (roughly 500 - 1000 CE), the pauses acquired a liturgical component, the recitation of words from Psalm 91 at each stop. In the modern era these seven stops happen not on the way from the cemetery back to the town, but at the cemetery itself.

Why seven stops? (For that matter, why stop at all?) The wonderful folks at Kavod v'Nichum ("Honor and comfort," probably the best Jewish burial resource on the internet) offer several historical explanations on their page about Stopping on the way to burial. But when I am asked, I don't usually dwell on the historical reasons for the practice. I tend to focus on the spiritual resonance of the lived practice, instead. First, I point out that seven is a meaningful number in Jewish tradition.

Seven are the days of the week, the six days of creation plus Shabbat. So seven represents a perfect whole, a complete unit of time. The seven stops can represent the six days of creation plus Shabbat, or in a more metaphorical sense, the whole and complete unit of time which is the life of the deceased. The stops might represent the "six days" of the life from beginning to end, and the "Shabbat" of rest into which the beloved soul has now entered. They might represent the seven days of shiva ahead.

Seven are the lower sefirot, the qualities or aspects of God which we too can manifest in the world: lovingkindness, boundaried strength, balance, endurance, humility, rootedness, nobility. We cultivate each of these qualities day by day and week by week during the Counting of the Omer, the 7-week journey from Pesach to Shavuot, each year. And every life contains these qualities. In pausing these seven times, we honor these qualities as they manifested in the beloved soul who has now left this life.

Those are some reasons why the stops are seven in number. (There are others, but these are the ones which resonate most with me.) And as far as why we stop in the first place, I teach that we pause as a sign of our reluctance to complete this journey with our loved one, this final chance to accompany them as far as we can go. The Hebrew word for funeral is levayah, which means accompaniment. In pausing these seven times, we linger with our loved one just a little longer before we say goodbye.

 


Reaching wholeness: brief thoughts on Chayyei Sarah

Here's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 

For me the most striking feature of this parsha -- which contains Sarah's death, Avraham's purchase of the Cave of Machpelah, Eliezer his servant going forth to find a wife for Isaac, Rebecca watering his camels at the well, and finally Avraham's death -- is that Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father.

How often it happens that a death brings a family together, trumping distance and even estrangement. When we gather together to mourn, we are united in the most defining characteristic of human life: every life ends.

Torah doesn't tell us how Isaac and Ishmael felt, reunited for this purpose. It doesn't tell us how the brothers greeted one another, or whether there was animosity between them; whether they blamed their parents for the tensions of their divided family, or whether they were able to let all of that go.

I imagine them embracing, old resentments discarded in the face of their shared grief. I imagine them grateful to be together, caring for their father's body lovingly as their descendants still do today. That imagining probably says more about me than about them; we know surprisingly little about their internal lives.

There's a Hasidic commentary, from the rabbi known as the Degel Machaneh Efraim, which translates the words "Sarah died" in a really interesting way. He says we should understand the word tamat, "she died," as actually meaning wholeness and completeness. (This is a bit of Hebrew wordplay which is hard to translate -- just roll with me on this.)

For the Degel, what happened to Sarah, in her hundred and twenty-seventh year, was that she achieved perfect wholeness and completeness. When she died, her life became complete, by definition, no matter what she had done or not done. She left the imperfections and the limits of her body and her health and her circumstance and entered into a state of perfect wholeness.

And at the end of the parsha, we read yamat Avraham - the same verb, "he died," or "he reached perfect wholeness and completeness." I like the Degel's interpretation. When a soul leaves this life, brokenness and alienation and small-mindedness all fall away. The soul gets "breathing room," as it were, for the natural expansiveness which connects it with God.

That doesn't mean that Isaac and Ishmael didn't grieve. For their sakes, I hope that they did. I hope they were able to mourn their parents. I hope they were able to embrace their loss as a sign of how fortunate they were to love and be loved, even by figures as flawed as our Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs seem to have been.

But I hope there was comfort for them in being with each other, and in knowing that Sarah and Avraham's journeys were complete.

 

I followed this d'var Torah with the poem "In the Same Key," which you can find in 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenecia Publishing, 2011.)

 


Preparing for shiva

Looking for a printable shiva minyan liturgy? There's one at the end of this post.

 

I almost always begin a shiva minyan by telling a story about what we're doing and why we're doing it. (Shiva means seven and minyan means the group of at-least-ten who gather together to pray; a shiva minyan is a prayer gathering during the week called shiva, the first week after a loved one's burial.)

The custom of the shiva minyan came about, I explain, at a place and time where it was assumed that all Jewish men considered themselves obligated to pray three times a day. (This often draws forth a chuckle from the room, because we know that this is not how most of us in the room approach our prayer lives.) Imagine that you have the custom of going to shul every day: both because you feel metzuveh (commanded / obligated) to daven (pray) in community, and because you want to help the community make a minyan, the quorum of ten which is required for our call-and-response prayers, among them the Mourner's Kaddish.

Suddenly your life is ruptured by loss. A loved one dies. Now your days feel strange and measureless as you navigate this new landscape of aveilut, mourning and bereavement. The sages of our tradition recognized that in the wake of a loved one's death, the mere prospect of getting dressed nicely and leaving the house may feel completely overwhelming. So during the first week of mourning, the minyan comes to you. The community comes to your home; they bring prayerbooks, they bring food, they sit with you and listen to you and daven with you so that you can recite the Mourner's Kaddish in the embrace of loving community.

A shiva minyan, in other words, is intended to be something to soothe and comfort the mourner -- not yet-another-thing for the mourner to worry about doing, or doing "right." It's not supposed to be an onerous obligation; it's supposed to remove the onerousness from the obligation which one has already taken on, the obligation of daily communal prayer. But for those who don't have a practice of daily communal liturgical prayer, and/or who may not be especially comfortable with the Hebrew of traditional Jewish liturgy, the prospect of a shiva minyan may seem daunting. It may feel like an unwanted obligation, or be a source of discomfort, which is exactly the opposite of its purpose.

Continue reading "Preparing for shiva" »


On taharah before cremation

Bmc pic for webLongtime readers may recall that I have been blessed for many years to serve on my community's chevra kadisha (volunteer burial society). We are the group of community members who, before burial, lovingly wash, dress, pray over, and care for the body of each person in our community who dies. Recently I've been pondering a question which is increasingly pressing in my corner of the Jewish community: in the case of someone who chooses cremation, may the work of the chevra kadisha still be performed?

The simplest traditional answer, of course, is "no." Most halakhists will argue that in the traditional paradigm, Judaism forbids cremation. Therefore, taharah (the washing / dressing / blessing of the body) is not performed when someone chooses cremation, because by choosing cremation that person has implicitly opted out of Jewish tradition. There are dissenting voices arguing that it is not so simple -- Rabbi Gershon Winkler, e.g., writes "It is not so absolutely black and white clear that cremation is forbidden by Jewish law" -- but by and large, most traditional sources regard cremation as forbidden, and in many communities after a cremation the mourners are denied the traditional practices of mourning such as shiva and kaddish.

However, an increasing number of Americans today choose cremation, and Jewish Americans are part of that trend. (See More Jews Opt for Cremation, The Forward.) I have complicated feelings about that choice, because I am attached to the "old ways" of Jewish burial, from the biodegradable wooden aron and linen garments (worn by rich and poor alike) to all of the tactile and embodied experiences of casket and shovel and soil. But what I am most attached to is the gentle care of the chevra kadisha. Is there an argument for retaining that gentle care even in cases of cremation?

My Reform community entered into a discernment process last year around the question of burying "cremains" in our cemetery. I shared excerpts from numerous rabbinic responsa (Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox) as our religious practices and cemetery committees discussed this issue. In the end, my community's decision accords with what seems to be mainstream Reform thinking -- that we strongly encourage traditional burial, but we grant our members the right to make their own informed choices even on this matter. (For two very different Reform perspectives on the issue, see Debatable: Is Cremation An Acceptable Practice for Reform Jews? Reform Judaism magazine.) In our cemetery, there is now a separate section where such remains may be interred.

At the OHALAH conference last month, my colleague Rabbi Efraim Eisen offered a précis of his teshuvah (rabbinic responsum) on the burial of cremains. (See my post Real world halakhic issues in a time of paradigm shift.) He noted that the Babylonian Talmud sees cremation as a denial of the belief in resurrection of the dead, and as such, a denial of the dignity of the body and of God Who created the body. I know that many liberal Jews today do not believe in resurrection, and I wonder: how does that change our relationship with this Talmudic teaching? For instance: for someone who resonates with Jewish teachings about reincarnation, rather than the (generally older) Jewish teachings about resurrection, does that change the sense of what cremation means?

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A prayer before departing this life

Water-drop-drop-ripples-art-poster-printOn my first day of hospital chaplaincy training, I was surprised to discover that one needn't be Christian in order to baptize a baby. One need only say the words with intention.

Those of us in my chaplaincy cohort who were Jewish, or Muslim, or came from traditions which don't do infant baptism, had a lot of conversations that year about how we might handle that situation if it came up. Our hospital's policy was that we only provided baptism in cases of extremis, for babies who were near death or too ill to leave the hospital and be baptized in their home community. (My plan was that I would ask the parents if they wanted to say the words, since as Christians they would find the words more meaningful than I, and I would seek to sanctify the moment with my presence.) Though I thought about it and planned for it, I was never called-upon to serve in that way.

But I did have many experiences with those who were dying. On my first day, when I learned that fascinating tidbit about baptism, I also learned that the Catholic sacrament of the sick -- formerly known as "last rites" -- does require a priest. If a Catholic patient were near dying, we were instructed to call the priest on call and get him in there. During the day, there was usually a priest in the hospital with us; overnight, the on-call priest would be elsewhere, though would come if we paged him. I remember one of the hospital's on-call priests teasing us that if we woke him at 2am for someone who turned out to survive until dawn, he was going to be very miffed at us for ruining his sleep. (He was kidding.) And I remember times when I had to call him in the middle of the night. That was the year I began learning about Jewish customs having to do with sickness and death. I'm pretty sure it's when I first encountered the deathbed vidui.

I've written about different forms of the vidui before. "Vidui" means "confessional prayer," and it comes in several forms. There's one version of it intended for daily use, which really speaks to me, and which I try to say every night before bed. There's another kind of vidui which we say on Yom Kippur. And then there's the one which the tradition instructs us to recite before death. Though there's nothing wrong with saying it at a different time. If needed, the prayer can be recited more than once. There's no superstition attached to it, it's not as though saying it "too soon" will somehow bring death sooner, there's nothing wrong with saying it and then surviving and getting to say it again another day. What the tradition teaches is, when death is imminent (whatever that means to you), it's appropriate for the ill person (or someone else on his/her behalf) to offer a vidui. Here's the version of that prayer which is found in the Reform Rabbi's Manual:

Deathbed Vidui

My God and God of all who have gone before me, Author of life and death, I turn to You in trust. Although I pray for life and health, I know that I am mortal. If my life must soon come to an end, let me die, I pray, at peace.

If only my hands were clean and my heart pure! I confess that I have committed sins and left much undone, yet I know also the good that I did or tried to do. May my acts of goodness give meaning to my life, and may my errors be forgiven.

Protector of the bereaved and the helpless, watch over my loved ones. Into Your hand I commit my spirit; redeem it, O God of mercy and truth.

  יְיָ מֶֽלֶךְ, יְיָ מַלַך, יְיָ יִמְלֹך לְעוֹלָם וַעֵד / Adonai melech Adonai malach Adonai yimloch l’olam va’ed.
(God reigns; God has reigned; God will reign forever and ever.)

בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד. / Baruch shem k’vod malchuto l’olam va’ed.
(Blessed be God’s name whose glorious dominion is forever.) 

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ, יְיָ אֶחָֽד: Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai echad.
(Hear, O Israel: Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.)

Continue reading "A prayer before departing this life" »


On preparing a nondenominational funeral

It was a challenge I had not sufficiently pondered: how to create a meaningful nondenominational (read: non-Jewish) funeral service which would serve its ritual purpose, bring comfort to the mourners, and use language familiar and accessible to those assembled, without taking me out of the comfort zone of what I can authentically pray as a rabbi and as a Jew?

One of my dearest teachers, when I was in rabbinic school, taught me that a funeral is the one time when we always say yes. If someone asks me to do a wedding, and I say no -- because the date isn't convenient, or because I'm not comfortable with their stipulations, or for whatever reason -- they can always find another officiant. There are a lot of rabbis who do weddings, and generally speaking, a nuptial couple approaches potential clergy well in advance of the blessed date. But if someone needs a funeral, the need is immediate, and it is incumbent on me as a rabbi to say yes. It's my job to be there for them and to use the prayers, skills, and teachings at my disposal to help them navigate the shoals of grief.

So when I was asked to officiate at the funeral of a congregant's loved one, I said yes without hesitation. The only question in my mind was what words, exactly, might be appropriate to the situation, because this family member was not Jewish. I have a fair number of dual-faith-heritage families in my community, which means I have a lot of congregants who have Christian family members. When those family members belong to their own faith-communities, then their funerals are a matter for their clergy. But when they're unaffiliated -- "unchurched," in Christian parlance -- a different situation arises. (Other liberal Jewish clergy, I expect you've run into this situation too; I'd love to hear from others about how you've handled it.)

I knew that most of the family members who would be gathering to mourn would not be Jewish. But all of them were grieving a loss, and all of them were in need of a liturgy which would create a safe container to hold them in their grief. This was a new spiritual assignment for me, and an opportunity to think about how I understand funerals to work and what I understand my role at a funeral to be.

First I looked to the funeral liturgy I usually use, which is based in Ma'aglei Tzedek, the Reform Rabbi's Manual, though has grown from there. (I've adapted my practices over the years, drawing on Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and Renewal liturgies and teachings.) I turned also to poetry, thumbing my copy of Beloved on the Earth, which I reviewed here some time ago. I knew I wanted some things which the assembled could read or recite together, ideally familiar words and cadences. Psalms, then: I chose parts of Psalm 90, and Psalm 23, and also the Lord's Prayer. (For all that it's a Christian prayer, there's nothing in it which is uncomfortable for me as a Jew -- actually when I've heard it rendered in Hebrew I've been amazed and moved by just how familiar its turns of phrase are, and how similar to the liturgy I love and know.)

What might the mourners be expecting, what forms and structures would be most comforting to them in their grief? I consulted Google to see what I could learn about Christian funeral liturgies. (I'm grateful to those who've put the Book of Common Prayer online!) Of course, there are certain central elements of Christian funeral ritual which are foreign to me. Christians and Jews have different teachings about what happens to our souls after death, and I can't in good faith affirm Jesus as the resurrection and the life or as the only path to God. But I fashioned a prayer of committal to recite at graveside, which I hoped would serve to sanctify, with our words and intentions, this place in the earth into which this beloved body would be returned.

I hope and pray that the words I assembled were the right ones, and that my presence was a comfort. For those who are interested in the end result of my labors, two short services are enclosed here: a memorial service intended for use in the funeral home, and a graveside service intended for interment. (Neither includes any identifying information or anything specific to this family.) I welcome your thoughts, questions, and feedback in response. And if these liturgies are useful to someone else, by all means, use them elsewhere; I share them freely, with hope that all who are bereaved will find comfort.

Memorial [pdf]

Interment [pdf]


What I cherish about shiva

Shiva-candle copyIs it strange to say that I cherish shiva minyans? Of course, a shiva minyan means that people are grieving. In that sense, I can't say that I look forward to them. But loss and death are a natural part of every life. We can't imagine them away, no matter how we might want to try. And given that reality, I find the custom of sitting shiva, and of convening a shiva minyan, to be both meaningful and sweet.

The custom of the shiva minyan originated at a moment in time when it was presumed that all Jews prayed three times a day. Imagine that you're in the habit of daily prayer, and then you lose a loved one. There's a gaping hole in your life. Your heart and soul feel raw and bruised. You don't want to put on a fancy suit and high heels (or whatever your version of getting all dressed up might be) and venture out of your house in order to daven in community.

So we come to you, and you get to daven weekday prayers and say kaddish for your loved one, and while we're there, we also do our best to take care of you. Usually, in my experience, people brings food. There are hugs. People will sit together with the mourner(s) and listen to them talk about the person who has died. Sometimes we look through photo albums and we tell stories. We cry and we laugh in remembrance. And -- traditionally -- the next night, we gather and we do it again. And again, until the first week of mourning after the burial is through. Sometimes we talk. Sometimes we sit in companionable silence. The conversation ebbs and flows. And at the appointed time, we pray.

Ma'ariv, the evening service, is short and sweet. It's very like the morning service, though there's an extra blessing after the shema, the hashkivenu prayer, in which we bless God who spreads a shelter of peace over us at evening when we go to sleep. There is something particularly poignant, I think, about davening the evening service (including that hashkivenu prayer) in a shiva house. Sleep, says the Talmud, is 1/60th of death; every night when we recite the bedtime shema and its prayer for forgiveness, we are clearing our spiritual slates in preparation for death. And there's a parallel between the way that we ask God to spread a shelter of peace over us as we sleep, and the way that we ask God to spread a shelter of peace over our loved one who has entered eternity.

Most of all, I just love that this is our custom when someone is mourning. We come to them. We comfort them with our presence as best we can. We pray with them. We give them the witnessing-community in which they can recite the mourner's kaddish, which never once mentions death, but which has rhythm and cadences which take me (take many of us, I suspect) into a different headspace and heartspace than we otherwise inhabit. There's nothing else one has to "do" during a shiva call, no fancy rituals or elaborate social expectations. It's really mostly about presence, about being present with and present to the person who has suffered a loss.

I find the shiva journey meaningful in all four worlds. In assiyah, the world of action and physicality, it's about being there, sitting with the person who has experienced the loss. (And in today's increasingly interconnected world, when we may have loved ones around the globe, I've known people to pay shiva calls via Skype. Telepresence is meaningful, too.) In yetzirah, the world of emotions, it's a chance to connect heart-to-heart. To open ourselves to someone else's loss, and to create a safe container in which the person who has experienced the loss can grieve. In briyah, the world of thought, shiva is an opportunity to reflect and remember together. And in atzilut, the world of essence, it's an opportunity to connect with the ineffable.

The traditional blessing spoken to someone who is grieving is המקום ינחם אתכם (Hamakom yinachem etchem), "May God comfort you." Or המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים (Hamakom yinachem etcham b'toch sha'ar avelei tzion v'Yerushalayim), "May the Holy One comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." Some choose instead to say תנחמו מן השמים (tinechamu min hashamayim), "May your comfort come from heaven." But I appreciate the reminder offered by Rabbi Irwin Kula and Vanessa Ochs in The Book of Jewish Sacred Practices that "The right words -- which may be no words at all, just a rich, holding silence -- will come from our hearts." In a tradition so attached to words, I love this reminder that it's okay that sometimes our words may fail us.


Judge of beginnings, middles, and endings

Uman_zal
ּ"Blessed is the true Judge."

 

In Jewish tradition, when we hear that someone has died, we say a blessing.

Sometimes, when I tell mourners this, I can see in their eyes that they are baffled, or even upset, by this custom. What can it mean to offer words of praise to God upon the occasion of a death? For most of us, in most cases, when someone has died, praise is not what comes first to our lips. And maybe that's part of our tradition's wisdom. When someone has died, we're asked to offer a blessing -- to praise God not despite our sorrow, but in and through that sorrow.

What is the blessing we recite? ברוך אתה ה', אלהינו מלך העולם, דיין האמת / Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam, dayan ha-emet, usually translated "Blessed are you, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, the true judge." (The full blessing is said by those who have suffered the loss; the rest of us use the first word and the last two words as our response to the news.  ".ברוך דיין האמת / Baruch dayan ha-emet," Blessed is the true judge.)

Whew. That can be a tough one for us to swallow. We moderns don't typically think of God as a judge; we're more comfortable with other metaphors. God as parent, God as Beloved, God as creator, wellspring, source. But Judge? We use judge and king metaphors during the Days of Awe, and often we struggle with them then. How can we relate to this metaphor in our moments of personal mourning? Perhaps especially if the death seems to us to be "unfair"?

Rabbi Marcia Prager teaches that one answer can be found in the very letters of the blessing -- specifically the Hebrew word אמת / emet, truth. The letters of the Hebrew word for "truth" are aleph, mem, and taf -- the first letter of the alef-bet, the middle letter, and the last letter. What is true of every life? Every journey has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

When we read Torah each year, the ending and the beginning kiss (on Simchat Torah, when we read the very end of the scroll and immediately turn around to read the very beginning.) In the lifecycle, too, every ending opens up a new beginning: for the soul of the person who has died, and for we who remain. When we make this blessing, we bless the One Who grants each of us our stories a beginning, a middle, and an end -- or maybe the One Whose presence we strive to discern in our journeys, as they begin, during the great middle of every lifetime (no matter how long or short it may be), and as each journey comes to an end. 

 


Purely blessed

It's never convenient, doing taharah. There's no way the call can come at a comfortable time. Maybe we knew the congregant or family member in question; maybe we didn't. One way or another, when the phone rings each of us wrestles with the question of whether and how we can make it to the funeral home by the end of the workday. We have jobs, families, obligations that need to be juggled. When we arrive after work, we're all a little bit harried. It's inevitable.

But as we read psalms, gathered in the bland funeral home livingroom, the stresses of the day start to fall away. Slowly, without realizing it, we move into a different headspace. When we wash our hands, when we glove up, when we talk to the meit and ask her forgiveness for any inadvertant error we might commit during the process of taharah. When we caress her with washcloths, when we pour our portable mikvah in a continual stream, when we declare her tehorah, pure, and mean it.

Afterwards we stand outside the funeral home, blinking in the dazzling late-evening light of high summer, and talk quietly, reluctant to break what we've woven together. We say things like, "Maybe it sounds strange, but I really felt God in that room." We say, "I can't put it into words." We say, "The whole day is different now." And we smile, and thank each other, and hug each other, and drive away changed. For a short while, everything is transformed by the extended meeting with the ineffable that arises in the work of taharah. There is nothing like it. We are so blessed.


(Previous posts about taharah: Facing impermanence, Shmira.)


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Shmira

This week I had the opportunity to engage in a new mitzvah: shmira, sitting with the body of someone who has died, keeping watch. In the traditional Jewish understanding the soul remains near the body until interment. In order for that soul not to feel abandoned, we arrange for people to sit with the body. I took the 2:30-5:30am shift last night.

On Wednesday I had gathered with six other members of the chevra kadisha to do taharah, the ritual cleansing, blessing, and dressing of the body. This was only my second time doing this work (I wrote a long essay about my first experience, just over a year ago) and it was both like and unlike the first. This time I knew the woman who had died, which made it harder in some ways; this time I had nine months of hospital work under my belt, which made it easier.

Shmira is another of the tasks carried out by the chevra kadisha. Traditionally the shomer or shomeret spends the time reading psalms. I did begin by reading psalms, quietly aloud, first psalm 23 in Hebrew and then others in English. I spent some time also studying tomorrow's Torah portion (I have taken on a slightly more ambitious reading than I usually do -- all of Leviticus 18 -- and I should be able to translate it as I go, which is gratifying.)

I am far from a night owl, as those who know me well can attest. The hours before dawn are not my finest ones. So I spent part of the night reading a novel (my friend Naomi Novik's second book, which is easily as marvelous as her first). Since the man who was shomer during the shift before mine told me that the widower had left word that he wouldn't mind if we napped, I imagine he won't mind that I read a little fiction during the wee hours to keep myself alert.

I talked a little bit to the woman whose soul I was accompanying. I thanked her again for her kindness to me during the years I've been a part of Congregation Beth Israel, and assured her that she is well-loved and will be missed, which I think she knew even as she made the decision to eschew heroic measures in the hospital on Monday. The atmosphere in the room was sweet and peaceful, though a little bit charged.

My replacement ran late, so I sat a while in meditation. My thoughts turned to the realization that someone, I don't know who, did this for my grandparents (of blessed memory.) I know that one of my cousins serves on the chevra at his synagogue in Dallas, which means he has done this, too. There's a deep comfort in knowing that so many others have done this, as I do it now, and that someday someone will do it for me. Not because it makes sense, but because it has meaning.

There's more I'd like to say about that, but words aren't coming as smoothly as they might. (I'll blame that on the sleep debt.) What matters is, this feels important to me, and I'm glad I did it.

I drove home at seven as the glorious light of early sun gilded the newly-greening trees and hills. The words of the morning blessing for gratitude rang even clearer than usual in the face of how I had spent my night. I am grateful to You, Eternal; you have returned my soul to me this morning; great is your faithfulness!


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Facing impermanence

The call came as I was nursing a mug of tea. The woman on the other end of the phone -- I'll call her D -- is a fellow congregant at CBI.  We're both poets, both interested in midrash, so we've moved in similar circles for years, though I wouldn't call us close. She and her husband run our chevra kadisha, the group of volunteers which mindfully prepares the bodies of those who have died for burial. They're always looking for volunteers, and at my first synagogue board meeting Jeff urged us to consider joining them. He observed that in our tradition this is the most sacred work one can do, a final act of respect towards someone who cannot conceivably repay it.

At the time, I was oddly tempted to volunteer. Though I'm comfortable with impermanence in theory, in practice it's difficult for me, and meeting death face-to-face seems like a way of accustoming myself to the koan that lives end. What does it mean to be embodied, yet more than our bodies?  What becomes of us when our bodies die? What does it mean to be holy in the face of finality and loss? These are some of the biggest questions I know, and serving on the chevra kadisha seemed like an opportunity to learn. But in the end, I didn't offer my assistance. I wasn't sure I was ready. I wasn't sure I had time. I let my excuses get in the way.

Until yesterday morning, when the phone rang. An elderly lady in our congregation had died, and D was looking for volunteers to help prepare her body, at 5:30, right after work. No time to equivocate, no time to postpone. Help was needed that same day. I heard myself ask calmly how long the process usually takes; I reminded D that I've never done this before so I would need to be talked through it; and then I said I'd meet her at the funeral home. I hung up the phone not-quite believing the conversation had been real. How on earth would I get any work done, knowing that at the end of my workday I was going to have my first encounter with death?

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