Things I didn't know

That morphine is pale blue
sickly-sweet baby blue
like every cutesy sleeper
I didn't want for my infant son.

That I would feel
like a mother bird
tenderly tucking the drops
under her waiting tongue.

That the gasp and hiss
of the oxygen pump
would be both comforting
and terrible.

That when I closed my eyes
by her bedside, trying
to envision her
enrobed in light

the vision would morph
to a white Chanel suit
and I would see her
wearing her life's mitzvot

woven into a white pillbox hat
and a smart white suit
and white heels with open toes
and a cream-colored pedicure

vivacious and flirty
as a 1940s movie star
taking God's hand,
ready for the honeymoon to begin.



[W]earing her life's mitzvot. There's a teaching in the Zohar, that germinal work of Jewish mysticism, that says that in the world to come each soul will wear a garment of light, woven out of the mitzvot one fulfilled while living in this world.


Written after my mother entered hospice care. May her memory be a blessing. 

Experiencing shiva from the inside


For years, presiding over funerals and shiva minyanim, I have thought: someday this will be me. I suspect that every rabbi with living parents has had those thoughts. Someday this will be me burying my parent. Someday I will be the one at the center of this emotional and spiritual whirlwind. Someday I will say kaddish for my parent.

I didn't know how different it would feel to say the words of mourner's kaddish for the first time as a mourner for my mom, standing at the lip of the hole in the earth into which we had just shoveled dirt atop her casket. I didn't know how different the words would feel, or how I would cling to them like a lifeline of meaning.

I didn't know how it would feel to stand at the bimah of Temple Beth El to offer a eulogy, looking out at a room full of people who'd known her. I didn't know that she would request the singing of Taps to close her memorial service, in honor of the summer camp bugler with whom she fell in love at fourteen, who is now a widower.

I didn't know how it would feel to sit shiva in the home that was hers, without her in it anymore, surrounded by family and by their friends. I didn't know how it would feel to return home and finish shiva here. To sit in my condo with mirrors covered and door open. To tell stories about her, and show photographs, when friends come sit with me.

I didn't know how it would feel to reread the letters she wrote me at camp when I was twelve, which I'd saved in one of my dad's cigar boxes. To reread years' worth of emails, most of them banal but significant now because they came from her. To discover that recordings of her playing piano make me weep as though the world were ending.

I keep remembering that I can't email her daily photographs of her youngest grandson anymore. What does it mean to document my life now for my own sake, and not for the sake of sharing it from afar with her? I will never hear her play the piano again. For how long will the sound of piano keys played expertly and with heart bring me to tears?

Shiva is a foreign country for which I don't have a reliable map. And next time I visit it will be different. Sometimes I feel like I'm getting the hang of it. Other times I am bewildered, fragile, red-eyed from crying. Just as I'm getting accustomed to sitting with these memories, it will be time to exit this stage of mourning and move to what's next.

Sometimes I think: it will be good to return to normal life when shiva is done. Other times I can't imagine how I will re-enter the world of working life, and the news, and life's million assorted obligations, when my skin feels so thin and my heart feels so bruised and so exposed and so tender. Time distorts: was that a week or an hour?

I've learned this week (again) that I can feel bereft and grateful at the same time. I've learned that my sense of fragility, of what death means, of what loss means, has shifted. I've learned that ordinary acts, like putting my child to bed and singing his usual bedtime lullabies, feel both the same and not-at-all the same as they did before.

I've learned that I can still talk to her, though I haven't heard an answer. When I speak aloud with God (talking with Shechinah in blue jeans in the front seat of my car) I can speak now with Mom, too -- hoping, imagining, that part of her is still with me, freed now from all of life's constrictions of body and spirit, freed from all misunderstanding.

Because we did misunderstand each other, sometimes. This week I've been learning how to begin letting that go. During my mother's last week of life, I thanked her for my life and told her how glad I am that I got to be her daughter. I will always be glad that I got to be -- that I get to be, that I will always get to be -- my mother's daughter.


About Mom

This is the hesped (eulogy) that I offered at my mother's funeral today. May her memory be a blessing. For those who are interested, her obituary is here.


Liana Ljuba Epstein Barenblat was a force of nature. My mother was born in Prague, and emigrated with her parents when she was three. She grew up in small towns all over the south because her father was a thoracic surgeon who worked for the VA. One year they lived in an empty wing of a hospital, and Mom, David, and Vicki roller-skated in the hospital halls.

At fourteen, Mom attended a Zionist summer camp in Louisiana, where she fell in love with the bugler. She told her parents she had met the man she intended to marry. (We used to sing “Someday I’m going to marry the bugler…”) Mom wrote in her high school yearbook that she hoped to marry Marvin and have six children. 65 years of marriage and 5 kids: pretty close.

I remember Mom reminiscing about the very first time she ate Chinese food -- egg foo yung, on a date with Dad -- and how exotic it seemed. She couldn’t have imagined then that they woud someday visit China. And also Kenya, Turkey, Israel, Greece, Italy, India, Hong Kong, Russia, Egypt, Eastern Europe… Mom was an adventurer, always ready to experience new things.

Mom was the life of every party. She loved to entertain. I have countless childhood memories of my parents throwing fabulous parties -- I would sneak out of bed and crouch by the banister of the stairs and listen to her playing piano while all of their friends stood around with drinks and sang. Mom used to say one could never be too rich or too thin or own too many shoes.

Mom was strong-willed, like her father, our grandfather Eppie. She told me once that she had written him a letter before she married, saying that she thought they reason they had “butted heads” so often was that they were so very alike. She was deeply devoted to family, and until she got sick she kept in touch with everyone, and kept us all in touch with each other, too.

Mom used to say she was glad to be ordinary. Which is comical, because she was no such thing. I wish that if I came up with enough facts or stories, I could combine those pointillist dots and capture the essential Liana-ness of her. Her perfume was Bal á Versailles. She played the piano with rolling arpeggiated chords. She was a fabulous cook. She had so very many friends.

Mom taught all of her kids songs from her growing-up years. (As a result, even her youngest grandson knows “I love you a bushel and a peck.”) Mom used to sing "Grey skies are gonna clear up, put on a happy face!" I don’t think she knew that some of her kids hated that song -- we didn’t want to be told to cheer up! Sorry, Mom: I’m not putting on a happy face today.

But the upside of Mom’s relentless optimism was that she taught us to “make hay while the sun shines.” Mom urged us to enjoy every moment. She wanted us to lighten up, to seek out adventures, and to be gracious hosts. Mom taught me to set a beautiful table. She taught me to use the silver and the fancy china every day because nice things are meant to be enjoyed.

Mom never kept kosher, but she took pains to ensure that her kosher family could eat in her home. That was part of the gracious hospitality that seemed to come so naturally to her. Mom taught me to give tzedakah; to enjoy cocktail hour; to savor every manicure; that we show respect for others by dressing well; and that one can wear diamond studs with anything.

Maybe most of all, Mom taught me gratitude. Five years ago, Mom wrote to her children:

Although I never danced on a table (which I regret) my life has been more interesting than you can ever imagine. I have been amazing places, done awesome things, and have had the support and love of a special family and wonderful friends. I have had a great ride!

I am so thankful that she was able to feel gratitude for a life well-lived. I am so grateful that her life was so well-lived. I miss her terribly already, and I can’t imagine the world without her. There’s a song from her own childhood that she used to sing to me at bedtime. I sang it to her the night before she died. I want to try to sing it to her now, one last time.

Good night, sweetheart
Tomorrow’s another day
Good night, sweetheart, good night.

A time for silence, a time to speak

SpeakMaybe this is part of why I'm a poet: I'm an external processor. "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" wrote EM Forster. Me too. I write my way to understanding the flow of my emotional life. I write my way out of the hurricane. 

When I had my strokes, I wrote about them here, and about the journey of exploration that followed -- the medical journey (we never did figure out what caused them) and the spiritual journey of seeking equanimity in the face of that enormous unknown. 

When I had my miscarriage, I wrote a cycle of ten poems -- and rewrote, and revised, and polished -- as my path toward healing. And then I shared them here, because I hoped they would help someone else who was navigating those same waters.

When the body involved is my own, when the story involved is my own, I can share openly when the spirit moves me. Because living an authentic spiritual life in the open is a core part of my spiritual practice, and because my words may help others.

And I know, from emails and comments over the 15+ years of this blog, that what I write does help others. That many of you have found comfort and strength here. That when I am willing to be real, that can call forth a mirroring authenticity in you.

But sometimes the story isn't mine to tell. I remember conversations about this when I was getting my MFA at Bennington (20 years ago) -- how do we chart a responsible path through telling the stories of our lives when those lives intersect with others?

I'm not talking about maintaining silence to protect someone who abuses power or causes harm. I'm talking about -- for instance, stories I don't share here because they're about my son. He wants to tell his own stories, and that's as it should be.

I make a practice of wearing my heart on my sleeve. I try not to hide my sorrows or my joys. For me that's part of the spiritual work of being real, which in turn allows me to be a clear channel for the poetry and the other work that comes through me.

But there are some stories that need to stay behind drawn curtains, for the sake of others' privacy. Maybe they will emerge in poems, some years hence. Or in essays, written with the distance of time. Or in a eulogy offered someday in a shaking voice. 

What we see of each other is only ever a partial revelation. As Kate Inglis writes, "Heartbreak, no matter its source, is the most universal tax on the human experience." Be kind: you never know the story that someone is choosing not to tell.

Kate Inglis' Notes for the Everlost

Everlost...By the time you're an adult, you're rare if you have any less than three or four sizable chunks gnawed off your body, mind, or soul by one trauma or another. An apparently whole-looking person is not a wizard. They are a con man hiding behind a velvet curtain. Wholeness is something to prize only if you care most about the superficial. Let go of it and revel in plentiful company.

Every one of your emotions, outbursts, or lapses in social grace is 100 percent normal. In this extraordinary loss, you are ordinary. This is good. Your rage is normal. Your speechlessness is normal. Your running-off-at-the-mouth is normal. Your inability to know what you need is normal. Your difficulty occupying the same body that let you down -- that's normal. Your falling out with faith -- that's normal too...

I was browsing in a bookstore one day before lunch with a friend and my eye lighted on Notes for the Everlost: a Field Guide to Grief by Kate Inglis. When her twin boys were born prematurely, one survived and the other did not. Out of that trauma emerged this volume: part memoir, part "handbook for the heartbroken." It is dazzling. It is searing. It is holy wow.

Someday, you'll get as far as suppertime before consciously remembering. You'll be adding butter to rice, worried you've burned the almonds again. Your mind will chatter, as minds do:

Power bill

Snow tire appointment

Pretty sunset

Meeting tomorrow

Skype keeps crashing

Suddenly, putting on an oven mitt, you'll remember you ate a bomb.

The baby died

If you had asked me whether I wanted or needed to read a book about grief, and more specifically a book about a kind of loss I honestly cannot wholly imagine (and don't really want to -- who wants to imagine something this unspeakably painful?), I would probably have said no. I would have been wrong. I did need to read this book. It is a beautiful, real, raw, unflinching exploration of grief and loss -- and it manages to offer some redemption, not with platitudes or pretty words but with authenticity. 

I found that I couldn't read it all in one sitting. It's like poetry -- sharp, aching poetry -- and I found that the best way for me to consume it was to dip into and out of the book. To pick it up, read a few paragraphs or a few pages, and then set it down again. 

We sit outside by the creek. Josh and Kari tell me about someone who told them once, trying to normalize grief, that the aftershocks of loss never get better. We decide that's not true at all. We remember how it felt when it was new. And we know how it feels now. They say Liam's name, and I say Margot's name, and we all feel warm... we eat and talk while the fire burns high into the tree canopy, and they say Liam, and I say Margot, and together we decide being open is the way to better.

I've never experienced the kind of loss that Inglis chronicles here. I know that none of the loss I have ever known comes close, objectively speaking, to the grief she describes. But I feel at-home in her words, because I know what grief has been like for me -- the different griefs of my miscarriage, a loved one's illness, my divorce. Each grief is its own shape and color and dimensions. No two of mine have been the same as each other. None of mine are the same as hers. But I recognize my own heart in Inglis' words.

I commend this book to anyone who grieves, or has grieved, or might someday grieve. Inglis is wry and real and her words humble me and give me hope.

All we can do is be good company to one another, marking the most ancient of conditions: birth, love, longing, loss. Heartbreak, no matter its source, is the most universal tax on the human experience. We might as well share in the payment of it.

We might as well indeed. May all who grieve be comforted.


For those who are interested, here's an excerpt from the book.

What death helps us see: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning

DeathThis is not my beautiful sermon. (Do you know that Talking Heads song? "You may ask yourself, how did I get here? ... You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife." Well: this is the time of year for asking ourselves, how did I get here? And this is not my beautiful sermon.)

I wrote a beautiful sermon for Yom Kippur morning. I started it weeks ago. It's clean, and clear, and polished. It's about the lenses we wear, the habits and perspectives and narratives that shape our view of the world. It's about how this is the time of year for recognizing our lenses and cleaning them, and how that's the work of teshuvah. It fit perfectly with this year's theme of Vision. I spent hours tinkering with it, reading it out loud, refining every phrase.

And then last week I threw it away. Because it doesn't feel urgent. And if there is anything that I can say with certainty, it is that this is a day for paying attention to what's urgent.

I spoke last year about how Yom Kippur is a day of rehearsal for our death. I spoke about the instruction to make teshuvah, to turn our lives around, the day before we die. Of course, none of us knows when we will die: so we need to make teshuvah every day.

There are all kinds of spiritual practices for that. Before sleep each night we can go back over the events of the day, and discern where we could have done better, and cultivate gratitude for the day's gifts, and make a conscious effort to let go of the day's grudges and missteps. I try to do those things, most nights. And precisely because I try to do those things every day, they don't feel especially urgent, either. They're part of my routine soul-maintenance, the spiritual equivalent of brushing my teeth.

If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what sermon would you want to hear from me today? Okay, in fairness, if you knew you were going to die tomorrow, you might not be in synagogue today. But humor me. Imagine that somehow, against all odds, you received a message from the Universe that tomorrow you were going to die. What would you want to spend today thinking about, and feeling, and doing? If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what might you suddenly see?

If I knew I were going to die tomorrow, I would want to spend today telling everyone that I love exactly how much I love them. I would lavish my child with all the love I could manage. I would hug my friends. I would call my parents and my siblings. I would write endless love letters to people who matter to me, and I would tell them in no uncertain terms that they are beautiful, extraordinary, luminous human beings and that I am grateful for them to the ends of the earth and beyond.

That tells me that once I remove my ordinary lenses and look at the world as though this moment could be my last, one of the things that matters to me is my capacity to love.

Continue reading "What death helps us see: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning" »

Coming in 2018: Beside Still Waters from Bayit and Ben Yehuda Press

UnnamedOne of the things I'm most excited about in the secular new year is a new publishing partnership between Ben Yehuda Press -- the press that published Open My Lips, and will publish Texts to the Holy this spring! -- and Bayit: Your Jewish Home, the new nonprofit organization I recently co-founded with six colleagues and friends.

The first book published jointly by Bayit: Your Jewish Home and Ben Yehuda Press will be Beside Still Waters: A Journey of Comfort and Renewal, a volume to support the journey through grief and remembrance, and you can pre-order a copy now.


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One of the things I'm already loving about working with Bayit is that the Senior Builders span the denominational spectrum. I serve a Reform-and-Renewal shul; one of my fellow Senior Builders comes from the Conservative movement; another serves in a Reconstructionist context; still another comes from Orthodoxy. We have roots in, and connections to, all of Judaism's major denominations -- as well as to the trans-denominational world of Jewish Renewal. I'm hopeful that those roots and connections will help us collectively meet needs that aren't otherwise being met in the Jewish world. We're beginning our work with three keystone projects -- Publications, “Doorways” (a curated lifecycle resource), and a "Builders' Blog" (exploring how real innovation "works" in the Jewish world) -- and there are others in the pipeline about which I'm equally excited. 

This Publications project arises out of several things that are important to me: serving as a conduit for the flow of Jewish Renewal texts and materials into the world, and the editorial work that was my passion before I entered rabbinical school. I couldn't be more thrilled about this first book that we're bringing to print, and about the fact that it's coming out in partnership with Ben Yehuda Press.  Here's a description of the book:

Beside Still Waters: A Journey of Comfort and Renewal invites a timeless journey both classical and contemporary, spanning illness, death, grief and remembrance.  This volume offers individuals and communities an easy-to-use, emotionally real and textually elegant companion for aninut (between death and burial), shiva (mourning’s first week), shloshim ( first month), yahrzeit (death-anniversary) and yizkor (times of remembrance).  It includes resonant new translations, evocative readings, complete transliterations, and resources for circumstances often overlooked in other Jewish texts (miscarriage, stillbirth, suicide, when there is no grave, abusive relationships, etc.).

Developed in Jewish renewal’s trans-denominational spirit, Beside Still Waters is crafted for use in synagogues inside and outside the denominational spectrum, in hospitals, chaplaincy and pastoral contexts, funeral homes and home observances.

The volume features contributions from some of my favorite writers, artists, spiritual directors, and liturgists, among them Trisha Arlin, Alla Renee Bozarth, Shir Yaakov Feit, Rabbi Jill Hammer, Rodger Kamenetz, Irwin Keller, Rabbi David Markus, and the teacher of my teachers Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l. (Some of my own work also appears in the volume as well.) The full contributor list is online here (and also at the bottom of our book announcement on FB.)

You can pre-order a copy at the Ben Yehuda website, and you can read more about the book via the announcement we just posted on Facebook.

Thanks in advance for sharing my joy!



A rehearsal for the day of our death: a sermon for Kol Nidre

KNBefore he died, Reb Zalman -- the teacher of my teachers -- made an unusual request. He knew that once he died, the chevra kadisha would perform the rituals of taharah: they would wash his body, and bless his body, and dress his body in white linen shrouds in preparation for burial. He wanted to experience that while he was alive, so that his neshamah, his soul, would be prepared for what was coming.

So he asked them to perform the rituals as though he were dead, and he closed his eyes and let himself be tended-to and prayed-over and cared-for in that unique way.

Can you imagine what that would be like? To lie still, as though your soul had already departed your body, and submit without flinching and without fear to your community's tender care? Can you imagine wanting that kind of "dress rehearsal" for your own death?

I've got news for you: today is that dress rehearsal. Welcome to the rehearsal for your death. Does that sound strange? It's a traditional way of thinking about Yom Kippur. To be clear, it's not about already being dead, or being deadened. (If your heart feels deadened today, then we're "doing it wrong.") Today is a rehearsal for feeling, with your whole heart, what it is like to know that you are dying.

Because of course, we are all dying.

Continue reading "A rehearsal for the day of our death: a sermon for Kol Nidre" »

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.



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.





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.

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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.)

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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.

The most amazing lead-up to Yom Kippur

On Monday morning the phone rang. The caller ID showed an unfamiliar number, but something told me I should pick it up. It was a dear friend, calling from a borrowed number. Her parent had just died. After I offered what comfort I could, she asked for my help. As the day unfolded, it became clear to both of us how I could be of service.

This morning -- the day which would become Yom Kippur -- I dropped my son off at preschool and then drove over the mountains. I met my friend there, and embraced her, and embraced the family. In their living room, overlooking beautiful woods and hills, I explained the traditional process of taharah, the bathing and blessing and dressing of the body of someone who has died. (See Facing Impermanence, 2005.) I explained the process as I have learned it, and I explained how we would make it work today here in this private home.

Ordinarily it is the chevra kadisha, the volunteer burial society, who lovingly prepare the body of someone who has died. In my experience, this is done at a local funeral home. In my town we don't have a Jewish funeral home, but we have a very friendly non-Jewish funeral home where the proprietors know our customs and welcome us into their space for this holy work. I suspect the same is true in the Pioneer Valley where I spent this morning. And the local chevra kadisha had offered to provide this service at the funeral home they work with...but the family wanted to do it themselves, at home.

Most sources indicate that family members do not participate in taharah because it would be too difficult, too painful. But this family yearned to do taharah themselves, there in the serene home where their loved one had died and had been kept company ever since. In our chevra kadisha, we have permitted family participation from time to time. When someone feels the deep need to care for their loved one in this way, we do not say no. Particularly in a case where a spouse or child has been caring physically for a loved one during illness, sometimes they need to tenderly offer this one last touch in order to say goodbye.

My friend's family didn't want to involve a funeral home or to enter the impersonal space of whatever room the local chevra kadisha uses for this process, and they didn't want to entrust their loved one to strangers, even the nicest of strangers. So together we centered ourselves, and went up the curving wooden stairs to the bedroom.

We said prayers to prepare ourselves. We spoke to the meit, the body of the person who had died, asking the neshamah -- the soul -- to forgive us if we happened to do anything improper or to offend in any way. Moving slowly and gently we washed the meit clean with washcloths, which we dipped into a beautiful ceramic bowl of warm water. My friend wept, from time to time. We offered one another words of comfort as needed.

We poured a stream of water, our symbolic mikveh, as I spoke the words which remind us that the soul is pure. And then we gently dried and dresssed the body in tachrichim, the white linen shroud in which every Jew is buried. Rich or poor, male or female, we are all alike in the end. Slowly the transformation took place: from the shell of a human body which had contained life to a white-bundled figure, arms and legs and head and torso all covered in white.

The last step was swaddling in a white linen sheet -- like the way parents swaddle newborns, I said, and my friend laughed through her tears, remembering my newborn son and how he would only sleep if swaddled (and sometimes not even then!) With the help of a few local friends, the meit was placed in the beautiful simple pine coffin -- handmade, sanded smooth as silk. A bit of earth from the home garden was sprinkled inside, a connection to the soil in which this beloved soul had thrived.

I left that home feeling lighter than I had when I'd entered. Feeling centered and connected. Feeling connected to my friend and her family -- to my own family -- to all the generations of my ancestry, and to my son and the generations I hope will follow -- most of all to God.

Yom Kippur can be understood as a day of rehearsal for one's own death. We wear white, like the shrouds in which we will be buried. We eschew food and drink, as we will do when our physical lives have ended. We recite a vidui prayer very like the one recited on the deathbed.

On Yom Kippur we try as hard as we can to make teshuvah, to correct our course and shift our alignment so that our actions, our emotions, our thoughts, and our spirits are aligned with holiness. We try to repair our relationships with ourselves, with each other, with God. We try to relinquish the emotional and spiritual calluses which protect us in ordinary life, and to go deep into awareness of our mortality and deep into connection with something beyond ourselves.

I can't think of any better way to prepare myself for the awesome task of leading my community in prayer throughout Yom Kippur than what I was blessed to do this morning. When I don my all-white linen garb tonight, I will remember the feeling of these tachrichim beneath my fingers this morning. When I invite my community to join me in experiencing this holiday as a reminder of our mortality, I will think of this family and their encounter with death.

And when I lead us in davenen tonight and tomorrow, I will do so in the hope that our prayers will rise to the Holy Blessed One as do the prayers of these mourners, and that God will grant compassion and healing to them and to us. Kein yehi ratzon -- may it be so.