The December Project

Some of you may have read the recent essay by Sara Davidson in the Huffington Post titled Passover Asks: Are You Ready to Go? Here's an excerpt from near the beginning of the piece:

When I arrived that morning at his home in Boulder, CO, the rabbi's wife, Eve, was in the kitchen, preparing for Passover by removing "hametz" -- anything containing flour that's risen -- from every drawer, shelf and counter. I walked down to the basement, where Reb Zalman stood up from his computer desk and greeted me with a hug.

"What does Passover feel like in the December years?" I asked, as we settled in chairs facing each other.

"That's such a good question. Give me a moment to go inside." He closed his eyes, waiting to sense what would arise. "When we come to the end of the seder, we open the door for Elijah the prophet. I ask everyone to be silent and think, 'What question would I like to ask the messenger of God?'" He said people reflect on that, sitting quietly while the door is open, and after it's closed, he asks if they'd like to share what they heard.

"Then we come to the place in the ceremony where Elijah asks, 'Are you ready to go?'"

"Go where?" I said.

"Go forth from the seder into the world. But for me it's also, 'Are you ready to go?'"

Readiness is an essential quality in the story of the Exodus: readiness to leave, to head into the unknown, to trust. Readiness is part of celebrating seder. And readiness is required if one wants to face the end of life gracefully, whenever that end may come.

December_projectThis is a story which also appears in Sara Davidson's new book The December Project, subtitled "An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life's Greatest Mystery." The book chronicles two years' worth of regular conversations between Sara and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, "Reb Zalman," about navigating the December of one's life, doing spiritual end-of-life work, and approaching death with open eyes, clear heart, and untroubled mind.

The resulting book is somewhere between memoir (stories of Reb Zalman's childhood, upbringing, adventures, and spiritual life) and the kind of conversation one might have over coffee with a dear friend after many years of connection, when you can go straight to the stuff that matters.

For we who are students of Reb Zalman, or students of his students, much of this material will be familiar. Many of us will have heard him tell these stories, often more than once! But that doesn't make them any less a pleasure to read, and being able to imagine his presence, his humor, and his singing voice just adds to the experience of diving into the book. And for those who haven't been blessed with a personal relationship with this rebbe, the book offers some of those gifts in printed form.

Reb Zalman's been working with these ideas for years. Some of the practices at the end of this book are similar to the exercises in his From Aging to Sage-ing, a book which I also recommend. But this book takes a different tack. And Sara Davidson, this book's author, offers an interesting path in. She is open about both her doubts and her hopes. Over the course of the book, she takes us on her journey -- not only into these conversations, but also into her mother's illness and death, and into her own anxieties about the end of life and what comes after. She strikes a keen balance between sharing enough of herself that she is a real presence in the book, and withdrawing enough of herself that we can feel that we too are sitting in intimate conversation with Reb Zalman, gleaning some of what he's harvested over nearly ninety years of life.

In one scene which has stayed with me, Sara has appeared for their regular appointment and Reb Zalman is clearly unwell, struggling with a variety of physical ailments which are dragging him down. They talk about his need to disengage even from beloved students in order to marshall his energy for his own survival. And then he tells her about how he used to maintain an open-door policy on Shabbat, where people were welcome to come and pray and sing and learn; now he spends Shabbat only with his wife. Here's how Sara describes it:

Before Friday night arrives, he writes his love-letter and slips it under her plate. On Saturday at dusk, they sit outside if the weather is mild and sing Shabbos melodies until it's totally dark. "It's so wonderful," he said, and I watched his body soften and his breathing become more relaxed. It was as if the words, like the smell of chickens roasting on Fridays at camp, had a Pavlovian effect, taking him to a Shabbos state of mind.

In telling the story of how he has come to adapt Shabbat practices for his late eighties, he models for us what it would be like to thoughtfully choose what to relinquish as we age.

Reb Zalman's sweetness, his sense of humor, and his deep hunger for God all come through in this book -- as do his idiosyncracies and some of the challenges which have resulted. Here are stories about Chabad, about meeting Howard Thurman and coming to deep ecumenism, about experiencing Christian and Buddhist mentors, even about experimenting with LSD as a path to God. He's also honest about his failings and his mistakes -- not in a self-congratulatory way, but thoughtfully. I was particularly moved by his frank and gentle words about his first marriage and its dissolution, and by the chapter where he asks to undergo taharah -- the washing / blessing / dressing of one's body after death -- in order to prepare himself for that experience when it comes.

5362606310_35a01cbb56_nOn a purely personal note, I got a particular frisson of joy while reading the chapter "You Can Take Me Now," in which Sara describes two different ALEPH ordination ceremonies. She describes Hazzan Shoshanna Brown singing a niggun which had been a favorite of the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, as a prelude to asking Reb Zalman to offer a teaching. Sara writes:

With high color in his face, Reb Zalman took the mike and faced the audience. He explained that the Rebbe used to sing that melody to prepare himself and his students for a transmission. "Want to hear my transmission?" he asked. Turning to the ordinees on stage, he threw out his arm. "You are my transmission."

That was at my ordination, and it is a moment I will never forget. (Photo source.)

Must one be in one's "December years" to get something out of this book? Not in the least. As a student in the ALEPH hashpa'ah / spiritual direction program, I spent a semester studying and engaging in the work Reb Zalman calls 'sage-ing' -- preparing, mindfully and consciously, for the transition out of this life. Many of you know that I am not yet forty. Then again, I'm also a multiple stroke survivor, so I'd already begun to approach some of these big questions.

I remember talking with my spiritual director about what it was like to begin doing this sage-ing work at a young age. She told me that she had done the same, and that doing this work had enriched her in innumerable ways. After all, our tradition prescribes making teshuvah on the eve of our death, and since we never know when that will be, the sages teach us to make teshuvah -- to do this inner work of discernment, forgiveness, and letting go -- every night before we sleep. (I've written about this before -- see my post The vidui prayer of Yom Kippur -- and of every night.) 

Death is perhaps the greatest mystery there is. In this book, Sara Davidson and Reb Zalman have given us a beautiful example of how to live with that awareness joyfully, and how to approach it not as something to be abhorred, but as a holy transition -- the end of this deployment, to use Reb Zalman's language, and the beginning of something new.


Leading my family in morning prayer, again

Seven years ago I had the honor of leading my family in prayer as we celebrated my niece's bat mitzvah. It was my first time leading services for my family, which was an incredibly meaningful experience for me. I had also never led a service by myself for such a large crowd; we were close to 150 people that Shabbat afternoon!

This morning I am once again presiding over a family simcha (joyous occasion) -- the bar mitzvah of that niece's little brother. This time around, a group of about 20 will be davening together in a more intimate setting -- the prayer space at the Bar El bed and breakfast in Tzfat. (This is where the Renewal-style minyan of Tzfat meets during the Days of Awe.)

We're borrowing a Torah scroll from my friend Reuven Goldfarb, who took my "Writing the psalms of our hearts" class at the ALEPH Kallah last summer. (I'm also borrowing a guitar through Reuven, which I deeply appreciate!) There will be song, prayer, poetry, and Torah aplenty.

It's always a joy to be a part of a young person's coming-of-age into a new stage of maturing Jewish identity, and the joy is increased when that young person is part of my own family.

For those who are interested, here's the siddur we created for the occasion: MaxSiddurFinal [pdf]. (The ones we'll be using this morning in Tzfat each have unique covers, featuring art courtesy of my niece; this is just the interior material.) It's a pretty simple weekday morning siddur, with some good poetry interwoven with the prayers -- I'm looking forward to using it.

Whether or not you are davening shacharit this morning, I hope you will think kindly of my family today as we celebrate this lifecycle milestone wtih joy!



 

 


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?

Continue reading "On taharah before cremation" »


Following the breath as it comes and goes

Oie_deep_breathThere's something poignant about leading meditation on a morning which will contain a funeral. Following our breath as it comes and goes, knowing that soon we will turn our attention to someone whose breath no longer enlivens.

In Genesis 2 we read that God formed the first human being out of earth and breathed into its nostrils נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים (nishmat chayyim), the breath of life. In modern parlance the Hebrew נֶשַׁמַה (neshamah) is usually translated as "soul."

Every morning we pray  אלהי נשמה שנתת בי טהורה היא (Elohai neshama she-natata bi, tehora hee) -- "My God, the soul which You have placed within me is pure! You created it, you formed it, you breathed it into me, and you will take it from me in a time beyond time..."

My friend Rabbi Arthur Waskow teaches that every breath is a prayer, because with every breath we pronounce the ineffable Name of God.

What is it that enlivens us? It isn't merely breathing, in this age of ventilators which can keep the lungs moving after brain activity has ceased. But without breath, there is no life.

When that enlivening breath is gone, a person's body is no longer that person as we knew them. It remains holy because it once held a soul, but it becomes almost a figurine, a likeness of the person we once knew.

After life, we return our bodies to the adamah, the earth, from which Torah teaches the first earthling was made. The body returns to the earth; the soul-breath returns to the Source from which it came.

I opened and closed this morning's meditation with a practice which I learned from my friend and colleague Rabbi Chava Bahle. The first breath together: a reminder that I am mortal. The second breath together: a reminder that those around me are mortal. The third breath together: a reminder that because of those first two truths, this moment is incomparably precious.

This moment is incomparably precious.

 

Image source: cauldrons and cupcakes.

 


Finding meaning

BIG-DIPPERAt OHALAH, I learn about The December Project, a collaboration between author Sara Davidson and Reb Zalman in which they speak honestly and candidly about aging, death and dying, and the afterlife. I promptly pre-order a copy.

Upon my return home, a woman seeks me out with burning questions about Jewish beliefs around death and dying, burial practices, the afterlife. We have a long conversation in my office and agree to meet again.

Within days of that meeting, a man seeks me out to talk about illness, end-of-life issues, creating programs to help adult children speak (and listen) clearly to the wishes of their aging parents. We, too, agree to meet again.

The human mind seeks to make meaning. Give us a handful of stars in the night sky, and our brains sketch them into the shape of a constellation. Give me three disconnected encounters with questions of aging, dying, and what comes after, and my mind wants to turn them into a pattern.

Does it "mean something" that this theme keeps cropping up in my January?

Maybe this is just a reminder that this is a need which people have, these are conversations which people both fear and crave. Maybe it's just a happy coincidence that I learned about a new resource to share, just before I met someone with whom I wanted to share it. These are disconnected events; they have nothing to do with each other.

And maybe the people who brought these questions into my life this month are messengers whose presence is meant to awaken and attune me to these questions. That's what angels are, in the early parts of Torah: messengers sent by God. They look like ordinary people, but they bring awareness of something that someone needs to know or learn.

Both of those can be true at the same time. Anyone I meet can be a messenger if I'm open to finding a deeper message in our encounter. What looks like happenstance to you might look like a holy encounter to me (or: what I experience as happenstance on one day might feel to me like a holy encounter on another day.) Neither of those interpretations has to trump the other.

The stars of the Big Dipper take on a shape because we see the shape in them. So do moments in a life. Connections and coincidences flare brightly because we notice them and draw lines to connect them.

What meaning will I make from the shape which is coalescing here?

 

 


Two prayers for b'nei mitzvah

Siddur_photo_cover-150x150Maybe because I'm anticipating (and preparing for) a family celebration of bar mitzvah this spring, I've been on the look-out for poems and prayers for that lifecycle moment. At the OHALAH conference, I picked up a display copy of a new siddur which one of my colleagues had brought to show off.  The siddur was Siddur Sha'ar Zahav, a new prayerbook created by Sha'ar Zahav, an LGBTQ Jewish community in San Francisco. And I happened to open it to a page which contained two poems / prayers for b'nei mitzvah, exactly the kind of thing I'd been looking for.

I liked the readings so much that I got online and ordered myself a copy of the siddur right then and there. And here they are:


To A Bar / Bat Mitzvah

I want to tell you a secret, kid.
Although we say today you are an adult,
because the calendar page has turned,
because your age now has two digits,
because you have studied and prayed
and read and written and worried and hoped
to prepare for this, your big day,
your childhood will continue forever in you,
its questions, fears, wonders, dreams, magic.
Though you take on the stature of adulthood,
its responsibilities, powers, doubts, alleged wisdom,
you will always be a child deep inside,
wandering, seeking, finding, losing, finding, loving.

- Rita Losch

 

Remembering the Bar / Bat Mitzvah Problem

Today I am a man.
Today I am a woman.
Today I am mortified.
Bad enough to be growing into this body, but a public celebration of the fact?
Maybe all b'nei mitzvah struggle with identity, rules, clothes, traditions, expectations.
But can anyone see who I am, hidden by make-up, or by a crew cut and tie?

Years and years later, I can say:
Today I am who I am.
Surely Adonai understands that.

- Ray Bernstein

I suspect that the second reading would speak more to the adults in attendance (who remember the slings and arrows of adolescence, as it were) than to the b'nei mitzvah kid. But it really moves me. And I can imagine parents, or an adult in the family, reading the first one aloud as part of the service, or as part of a toast at the kiddush afterwards, or something along those lines.

If (like me) you collect siddurim, this one is really worth owning. It's a beautiful object, a beautiful book, satisfying to hold. It's well-designed and very readable. It treads a nice balance between traditional and innovative. And in addition to fine renderings of all of the prayers one would expect from any good siddur, it also contains prayers and liturgies which aren't in the average Jewish prayerbook -- blessings for discovering one's sexual orientation, prayers for Transgender Day of Remembrance, and so on. The book isn't cheap, but it's well worth the price. I know I'll be turning and returning to it often.


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" »


Some of this work's greatest blessings

It is a tremendous blessing to me every time I am able to walk alongside someone who is on the mourner's path.

To sit down in someone's kitchen or living room and let them tell me stories.

To give them a safe space in which to open the faucet and let their memories begin to pour forth.

To keep company with the family as they accompany their loved one as far as they can go.

To invite them into the painful and powerful tradition of shoveling earth onto the casket with our own hands.

To bless them that they should be consoled along with the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, and along with all who mourn.

To walk alongside them, to offer a listening ear and a welcoming heart.

To pray with them, letting the familiar cadences of the mourner's kaddish work in and through them.

To remember how precious this life is, and how unknown is the Mystery which follows.

 

I don't do this work in order to be more mindful of my own life, my own loved ones, but I am always reminded.

I remember how fortunate I am that my own loved ones are still here.

It is sobering to glimpse, at a distance, the path we all walk someday.

 

As Shabbat approaches, may all mourners find comfort. May we welcome them into our communities with kindness and understanding. May we tend their fragility more lovingly than we would tend our own.


A poem after a summer funeral

FUNERAL AFTER TISHA B'AV


The windshield wipers sway from side to side
like whip-thin Hasidim shuckeling in prayer.

I traverse Silver and Old Orebed, roads named
after gashes in the flesh of the earth.

When the clouds relent, I lead the pallbearers
and their purple-draped cargo: two steps, pause.

Two steps, pause. Seven stops in all, one
for each day of the first week of creation.

Sweat beads on my back inside my black suit
like the water pooling atop the funeral home tent.

On behalf of a woman I never knew I ask forgiveness
and offer it in turn, untying her tangles.

We stand in silence as the shovels spear the dirt
and send it thudding down like arhythmic drums.

 

 


 

Bury-you-dead-dirt-shovelIt's customary to make seven stops on the way to the graveside. Explanations for this practice vary.

When I lead funerals, I recite the deathbed vidui on behalf of the person who has died. Tradition says that the soul of the deceased lingers until burial. Reciting the vidui may be a way of helping that soul to let go.

At Jewish funerals, the mourners always begin filling in the grave -- either with handfuls of soil, or with shovels. Some have the custom of using the shovel upside-down, because burying a loved one shouldn't be easy.

I'm always grateful to have the opportunity to serve at a funeral. There is something incredibly meaningful for me about being able to do this work.


At an unveiling, a moment of grace

First I was distracted because I didn't have a cemetery map.

There's a custom in Jewish tradition of having an unveiling of the matzevah, the grave marker / headstone, usually a year after burial. I was privileged to do an unveiling this weekend -- my first, actually, so I'd spent some time in recent weeks reading up on the ceremony and how it evolved. I felt certain that I had put together good materials (including R' Brant Rosen's beautiful interpretation of Psalm 23). But I realized, when I woke this morning, that I wasn't exactly certain where in our cemetery I would find this headstone. I should have thought of it sooner, but I was so focused on the ritual that I forgot to think about the physical place in which the ritual would unfold. Grumbling at myself, I went to shul early to look for a cemetery map.

I thought I knew where such a map would be. I was wrong. And I had just finished my search for the map when my cellphone rang. It was my husband, calling to ask where his carseat was. I clapped my hand to my mouth, realizing all in a flash: oh, no, it was in my car, with me. I had driven away with both carseats. I'd had the spare one in the back of the car in case it was needed for our son's most recent playdate, and I'd forgotten to remove it. And by the time he called, I needed to dash to the cemetery to stroll the aisles in search of the headstone which needed to be dedicated. There was nothing I could do; he and our son would be stuck at home until I was done. I grumbled at myself some more.

When I arrived at the cemetery my distraction took a partial backseat to beauty. We're having a spectacular May weekend. All the trees are bursting into unbelievable chartreuse leaf. The grass at our cemetery is carpeted with tiny violets. I could hear a rooster crowing nearby. The horses stabled across the street whinnied and snorted. And, thank God, I found the headstone right away, and was able to drape it with a white linen cloth before the family arrived. Once people started arriving, I was able to focus on them; the morning's distractions and my exasperation with myself receded into a dull buzz at the back of my consciousness.

But what really shook me out of my distraction and brought me square into the present moment was the music. The daughter of the deceased stood before his stone and sang L'dor vador. "From generation to generation we shall tell of Your greatness..." Her voice was pure and quavered slightly. Time slowed down, and I could feel that moment as a pause, a pearl, strung in a string of moments stretching back to time immemorial and forward forever. The whole world seemed hushed and still, listening. The words come from the daily amidah prayer, and the song evokes our generations -- what connects us to our ancestors, and to our children -- the melodies, the heritage, the love which bind us to each other and to our tradition. By the time she had finished singing, my day was transformed.

It's those little moments of grace which make everything worthwhile. They can't be planned or presumed-upon; they come when they come. I don't know if she knew she was giving me such a gift, but she did. I am endlessly grateful.


The daughter who sang so gloriously was Gloria Lenhoff. She's the subject of the PBS documentary Bravo Gloria; you can hear her on YouTube, though not singing "L'dor Vador." For more: For woman with Williams Syndrome, music was the key.


Things I love about b'nei mitzvah

I love the excited buzz in the synagogue before Shabbat morning services when one of our kids is going to be called to the Torah as b'nei mitzvah.

I love the eager, nervous energy I feel emanating from the family. The parents, caught between the mundane organizational details they were worrying about yesterday and the growing awareness that today is something different, a different kind of time. The younger sibling, if there is one, rolling their eyes but also realizing that this is going to be them someday.

I love standing outside in the field behind our sanctuary, listening to the wild tapestry of birdsong, while the photographer adjusts: you put your arm around her, there, okay, turn a little bit this way, look at me, smile! The family always makes such a beautiful tableau, and I know they'll look at these photographs for the rest of their lives.

I love running through the Torah portion with the bat mitzvah girl one last time before services begin. Her voice is a little bit higher, her pace faster, today than ever before. By now I've practiced chanting this Torah portion with her so many times that I know it by heart, too.

I love the feeling of standing before the assembled community -- members of our congregation; our small core of Shabbat morning regulars; visiting family and friends -- and welcoming them into this place and this moment, this celebration of Shabbat and this celebration of a young person taking their place in our community.

I love inviting anyone who's never seen the inside of a Torah scroll up to the bimah, and unrolling it. Asking them to say, aloud, what makes it different from the books they usually read. It's in Hebrew; it's on parchment; it's a scroll; it's handwritten. Then I point out things they might not have noticed: there's no punctuation. There are no vowels. There are no musical notations.

I love seeing one of our kids shine. Hearing them read from Torah, and offer blessings, and teach something of what they've learned to the entire congregation.

I love hearing the blessing the parent(s) offer. Without fail, hearing the earnest words of love and pride they offer to their child is one of the most moving moments of my day, and reminds me of my own place in the chain of generations, between my parents and my son.

And I love chatting with people after the service, finding out what moved them and what spoke to them. It can be hard for me to gauge, when a lot of people have assembled who maybe aren't necessarily singing along, whether the service is reaching them. But every time, I hear from someone who didn't expect to be moved, or who didn't expect the service to be accessible, and was pleasantly surprised.

Mostly I love knowing that we've co-created a beautiful memory for the new young adult and for their family, and that our community is now one adult Jew richer.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, source of all being, who has kept us alive, and sustained us, and enabled us to reach this moment.


Daily April poem: lifecycle event

BAR MITZVAH


The family huddles close together.
The mountain beams, now devoid of snow.
The tasseled fringes of prayer shawls flutter.

The photographer calls encouragement --
turn toward him, that's right; adjust
the lapel, good, now smile, look at me

-- and all I can imagine is our own son
awkward and gangly at thirteen, draped
in a loose and flowing brand-new tallit

the opposite of the swaddling blankets
we pulled tight around his flailing limbs
just now before I blinked my teary eyes.

 


 

I wrote this poem on a Shabbat afternoon after presiding over the bar mitzvah of a young man in my congregation. I've been part of many b'nei mitzvah ceremonies before, but this was the first bar mitzvah I've done since our son was born, and the realization that someday it'll be our kid up there was poignant for me.

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A bar mitzvah gift for the rabbi

Somehow I always forget that I'm going to be moved.

We're a small synagogue, so every time a kid becomes b'nei mitzvah, it feels like a big deal. I imagine that in some big-city shuls, where there might be one or more bar or bat mitzvah celebrations each week, maybe it becomes a little bit ho-hum. But not here. Here we only have one or two a year, and each one stands  out.

I always love looking out into the sanctuary and seeing the expectant faces of those who have gathered to celebrate Shabbat and to celebrate a young person's coming-of-age. I love leading us through Shabbat morning prayer, offering words of explanation to string the prayers together like pearls in a necklace.

I love inviting people up to see the Torah scroll in all of its unique handwritten beauty. I love singing English words to Torah trope and surprising people with hidden meanings. I love the laughter which erupts as we sing Siman Tov u-Mazal Tov and people throw candy at the b'nei mitzvah kid who has jubilantly finished the d'var Torah.

But I'm typically so focused on the service, on keeping things running smoothly, on trying to facilitate genuine prayer both for myself and for all who've assembled, that I forget that the morning always turns out to hold a gift for me, too. This time what made my heart catch in my throat was hearing one of the mothers of the bar mitzvah boy offer him a blessing she has spoken to him countless times over the course of his life: the priestly blessing, "May God bless you and keep you..."

As soon as she began, I felt tears banging at the back of my eyes. I say those words to our son every week too, punctuating each English and Hebrew phrase with a kiss to his forehead. And it hadn't occurred to me until today that someday I'll say those same words to him in front of our community, as he stands tall in a brand-new tallit -- maybe awkward and gangly, maybe bashful and beaming -- and steps over the threshold into Jewish adulthood. Right now our guy is only three, but I remember when this bar mitzvah boy was only three, too. The days are long but the years are short.

As the mother of the bar mitzvah blessed her son, I pressed my hand to my lips and blinked a lot, really fast, to clear my eyes. By the time I returned to the bimah, my emotions were under control and I was able to speak and sing clearly. But that moment of realization, that glimpse of the future, is still reverberating in me. An unexpected gift.


Accompanying mourners, with gratitude

When I walk out of a mourner's home, having spent an hour or two listening to stories about the person who has died, I feel unspeakably lucky to be doing this work.

It's an incredible honor to be able to walk beside people in their mourning. To bear witness to their emotions and their memories.

Sometimes we look at old photographs or newspaper clippings. Sometimes one story leads to the next and suddenly everyone's talking over each other, eager to reminisce.

Sometimes the relationships were healthy and sweet, and the grief has the flavor of mourning something beautiful which has moved into memory.

Sometimes the relationships were painful or broken, and the grief has the flavor of mourning something which wasn't what it needed to be.

I try to take notes as unobtrusively as I can, asking questions -- if I need to -- to spark more stories. Bit by bit, anecdote by anecdote, a picture emerges.

Sometimes people ask me about Jewish ideas of the soul and the afterlife, wanting to know where (I think) their loved one is now, what comes next.

Sometimes people tell me stories about being present at the moment of death, the luminous quality that may accompany that transition into what we can't know.

Always when I make my farewells, even if I feel daunted by the task of writing a eulogy which will live up to their memories, I'm grateful to be able to try.


VR at Reform Judaism and at Ritualwell

My thanks go to the editors at the Reform Judaism blog for reprinting my post Every body is a reflection of God. I serve a Reform shul and I'm delighted to have that post circulating to the broad Reform community.

And my thanks are also due to the editors at Ritualwell, who asked me to write a short essay about miscarriage, spirituality, and ritual. It's here: Through (Ritualwell). Here's how it begins:

Some years ago I flew to Colorado for OHALAH, the annual gathering of Jewish Renewal clergy and student clergy, carrying a dazzling secret: I was newly-pregnant. When I danced at kabbalat Shabbat services, I was already imagining what it would be like to bring an infant with me the following year. And then I went to bed feeling uneasy with cramps, and woke to blood everywhere.

That Shabbat was endless, and it was awful. What I remember most about that terrible day was the way that—as word spread—woman after woman came up to me to tell me it had happened to her, too. I had unknowingly joined a club of which many of my friends and teachers were already members. Once, twice, three times … Each of them had stories to tell, and though they could not offer healing, there was comfort in knowing that I was not alone—that so many other women carried this invisible scar.

You can read the whole thing at Ritualwell, along with a variety of other resources for pregnancy loss. They also linked to my free chapbook of miscarriage poems, Through. Thanks, Ritualwell editors. May all who suffer that grief find comfort, speedily and soon.


After the week of shiva, what then?

This is something I've been working on in my capacity as a congregational rabbi. I'll be sharing it with my synagogue community. But I wanted to share it here too. This blog is part of my rabbinate, and I'm blessed to be in relationship with "internet congregants" who are spread pretty far and wide.

If you've just found this blog through searching for resources for the end of shiva, I welcome you to Velveteen Rabbi, and I hope that what follows is helpful to you.


So you're approaching the end of shiva. That first week of mourning after the funeral, after the first mourner's kaddish, after the unthinkable act of shoveling a spade-ful of earth and hearing it thud on unvarnished wood. Shiva means seven, the number of days of this first stage of grieving. One week: the most basic unit of Jewish time. After those seven days, a mourner enters the stage called shloshim, "thirty," which lasts through the first month after burial. But what does entering into shloshim mean? How does it, might it, have an impact on your life?

In the tangible world, the move from shiva to shloshim can have palpable implications. Traditional Jewish practice places a variety of restrictions on mourners during shiva -- for instance: not wearing leather shoes, sitting on the ground or on a low stool (closeness to the earth is a sign of humility and mourning), not going to work, not engaging in physical intimacy. All of these restrictions are lifted during shloshim.

For contemporary liberal Jews who do not consider themselves bound by traditional halakhot (laws / ways-of-walking), the restrictions and their abeyance may or may not have meaning. You may not have given up leather or sex or anointing yourself with perfume or listening to music this week. But the psycho-spiritual shift of moving from shiva to shloshim is still significant. The shift from shiva to shloshim is all about expansion.

During the first week of mourning one's life may contract to a very small space. Perhaps you haven't left the shiva house at all. Or even if you've gone in and out of your home, you may have felt constricted, your life seemingly shrunken. Once shiva has ended, it is time to start expanding again. Open yourself to seeing more people. Allow yourself to immerse in your work life again. Expand your self-perception: you are not only a mourner, not only someone who grieves, but also someone who lives, works, struggles, and loves.

This may feel impossible. If it does, that's okay. Just know that our tradition believes that it is good for a mourner to try to open themselves to life again after that first most-intense week of grief. Your sorrow may ebb and flow. You may experience times when you think you're close to okay again, and times when the floodwaters of emotion threaten to swamp you. Keep breathing. The emotional rollercoaster is normal. You won't always feel this way, but -- as the saying goes -- the only way out is through.

If you've been burning a shiva candle all week, your candle will naturally flicker and gutter and run out of fuel as the week of shiva ends. (The candle is designed to last for seven days; that's what makes it a shiva candle.) When the candle extinguishes itself, that may feel like another blow, another loss. Remember that the candle is only a candle: a symbol of your mourning, but not a barometer of your spiritual state or of your loved one's presence.

You can still talk to your loved one, if there is meaning for you in that practice. You can talk to God. You can pray or meditate or sit in your silent car and wail -- however you can best express whatever you're feeling. You might try writing a letter to your loved one at the end of shiva, telling them where you are and how you are as the first week of active mourning comes to its end. (What you do with the letter is up to you: save it? burn it? shred it and use the paper to mulch a new tree?)

Above all, be kind to yourself. Pay attention to what your heart needs.

This second stage of mourning lasts for one month, the time it takes for the moon to wax and become full and then wane again. This is an organic cycle, a mode of measuring time through observing the ebb and flow of the natural world. Just as the moon grows and shrinks, so our spirits and our hearts experience times of fullness and times of contraction. The end of shloshim is a time to begin looking toward fullness again. We trust that after the moon has disappeared, she will return; we trust that after our lives have been diminished by loss, light and meaning will flow into them again.

If you are moving from shiva into shloshim: I bless you that the transition should be what you need it to be. May this ancient way of thinking about mourning and the passage of time be meaningful for you; may time soothe your grief. One traditional practice is to mark the end of shiva by going for a walk around the block -- a symbolic step out of the closeness of your home, into the wide world around you. (See Ending Shiva by Rabbi Peretz Rodman.)

If you are moving out of shloshim, I offer you the same blessing: may this transition be what you most need. For those who feel the need for a ritual to mark that shift, I recommend this Leaving Shloshim Ritual by Rabbi Janet Madden. (Ritualwell has a wide variety of materials relating to mourning and bereavement, so if that ritual isn't what you need, feel free to browse.)

May the Source of Mercy bring you comfort along with all who mourn.


Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.


Eulogy for a child with Canavan's

I don't usually share eulogies here. They are personal, and this blog is public. But this is an unusual situation, and I think the eulogy might be helpful to others, so I've removed identifying material in order to share the essence of what I offered at a funeral a few days ago. If these words are useful to you, you are welcome to adapt them.

If you got here by googling Canavan's Disease, please know that there are informational links at the bottom of this post.


When a child is born, we rejoice. We imagine possibilities. Our minds run away with us, providing us with dreams and imaginings of wonders we hope the child's life will hold.

When this child was born, no one imagined that his life, and his parents' lives, would be circumscribed by a neurodegenerative disorder... nor that he would come to be such a ineffable presence in the lives of those who knew him, cared for him, and loved him.

Because of the dangers of Canavan's, this boy was never alone. His parents, and later his nurses, took constant shifts in caring for him. He communicated with his eyes and, for a time, with sounds. When he was in his parents' arms or enjoying therapy his smiles and laughter brightened the room.

His was not the life his parents might have dreamed before he was born, but it was his own, and he lived it wholly. He experienced love in the touch of caring hands and the attention diligently paid to the apparatus of his care.

His parents, and his caregivers, experienced a deep connection with him. And they knew that connection was reciprocated, and they knew that connection was real. Every time he fought his way back from another illness, another hospitalization, they knew that -- in his mother's words -- "he still wanted to be here."

His parents knew him without words. They teach us that we can know each other beyond words, and listen deeply past the words we do hear, to something deeper, more ineffable and more lasting.

The same was true of his nurses, his caregivers, physical therapists, music therapists, those who lovingly massaged his body to help preserve his muscle tone, the teachers who came to offer him a window into the wider world. When he lay on his bed in the sun, his parents called it "his beach." Once his health became too poor for him to risk the trip to these hills, his parents preserved his room here intact, a place for their son in this town they called "the home of their hearts."

I was blessed to spend an afternoon with this young man and his family last month. I sang him the lullabies I sing to my own son, and his eyes stayed on mine. I experienced his quiet presence in the room, and the sweetness of his neshama -- his soul -- was clear without any words at all.

I am humbled by this child's life, and by the boundless well of love and compassion which his parents and his caregivers expressed every day through a million acts of caring and nurturing.

He  lived, and struggled, and was loved. He experienced the world from his own unique vantage. In the wake of his death, there is grief. Nothing we can offer will soothe the empty place where he used to be.

May his soul soar free, no longer fettered by limitations or by suffering. And may those who loved him find comfort in the knowledge that his suffering has ended, and that in caring for him so lovingly, they epitomized some of the best of what humanity can be.

 


For more information:

About Canavan Disease

National Tay-Sachs and Allied Diseases

Center for Jewish Genetics: Canavan's Disease

Jewish Genetic Disorders

Support for Families With Canavan's


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.


Conversation with a doctor

"Do you smoke?" the doctor asks as he peers into my ears.

"No," I tell him, truthfully.

"What do you do?"

For a moment I wonder: does he mean what are my vices, if smoking isn't one of them? But then I realize he's probably not fishing to find out whether I have a beer with dinner. "You mean, professionally?" I ask. He nods. "I'm a rabbi."

"Really?" He looks surprised.

"Really."

"Good for you," he says, absently, and presses the stethoscope to my back. "Breathe like this," and demonstrates how he wants me to inhale and exhale. So I do.

"My youngest daughter and her friends used to play dress-up," he informs me. "They would go up to the attic and get prom dresses, of which we at one time had quite the collection, and they would play all sorts of games."

I make some noncommittal sound and he continues.

"Sometimes they would play wedding. One of them would be the bride. Another would be the minister. They'd throw flowers. You know how it is."

Perhaps noticing the question in my eyes, he detours for a moment to say, "this has nothing to do with your sinuses," and then he goes on with his story.

"Not long ago I went to a wedding in Lenox, at the little church there. One of my daughter's childhood friends was getting married, and the minister was another one of the girls who used to play wedding in our yard."

Okay, I say, prompting him to continue.

"It was so beautiful," the doctor tells me, earnestly. "The bride was all grown-up. I think she's going to be a lawyer. And the homily was poignant and well-written. And I realized, these aren't little kids playing dress-up anymore! This is real life. And maybe," his voice is wistful now, "they really will carry something forward."

I'm not sure what he means, but I think it's something like: maybe the lessons we hoped we were teaching our children really got through. Maybe they'll make a better world than we did.

I imagine what it will be like when Drew is old enough to be thinking about marriage. When his little buddies from preschool are standing beneath the chuppah or at the altar. It's impossible to picture, but I know the day will come.

"That's beautiful," I tell him.

"Anyway, you're fine," he tells me in response, tone entirely businesslike again. "No sign of anything bacterial. Stick with the over-the-counter stuff."

I shrug. "Okay. I'm mostly just here because I've had a cold for a month and my husband said, 'you've had a cold for a month, go see a doctor!'"

He laughs. "Keep it up," he tells me, and opens the door.