To the Management

I would like to register a complaint
about grief. Whose stupid idea was this?

Whichever angel was in charge
of giving human beings capacity

to move through sadness and then
feel better -- they screwed up.

Even after four weeks, grief is a wave
that hits sometimes at chest height

and sends salt water up my nose.
To make matters worse, it's

an ocean wave that swamps me
at the grocery store -- I'm not even

at the goddamn beach. Grief is
a pane of glass two feet thick

that crushes me like a pressed flower.
Grief is the same menu over and over.

Grief is banal as a crayon drawing
by someone else's kindergartener.

I would like to exchange this grief
for something that fits me better,

in a more flattering color.
I would like to set it afire, kindled

on a bed of crumpled tissues
and return it to Sender.

 


The details: Vayikra

GOD-IS-IN-THE-DETAILS-ARCHITECTURE-POSTER-CINQPOINTS-0-e1468415713734Little meditations on this week's Torah portion.

 

This week we're reading from Vayikra. The name means "And [God] Called" -- it's the first word of this week's Torah portion, and indeed, the first word of a whole new book of Torah, the book known in Hebrew as Vayikra, known in English as Leviticus.

My first Talmud teacher, Rabbi Judy Abrams z"l, used to say that she loved Leviticus most of all. When I was a new rabbinical student, I struggled with that. Why would one love Leviticus? So many details about offerings, ashes, kidneys -- holy barbecue!

But I've come to see Vayikra / Leviticus in a different light. Vayikra is all about details. Those offerings on the altar were how we used to say Thank You, and Please, and I'm Sorry. They're written down in detail because details are how we show what matters.

My mother, of blessed memory, used to say that we show respect for each other by dressing well. For her, that meant always having manicured nails, always choosing nice jewelry, always wearing lipstick, always a spritz of Bal á Versailles perfume.

For the priests, a few thousand years ago, dressing well meant linen garb embroidered with bells and pomegranates. For our Torah scrolls today, dressing well means a woven mantle depicting words from psalms, and our willow tree and our mountain.

Could we store a Torah scroll in a sack? Sure, if we had to. But we show respect for the scroll, and for its contents, and for God, by dressing the Torah in beautiful garb, down to the carved wooden or filligreed silver yad (hand) hanging from one handle.

We used to say Thank You, and Please, and I'm Sorry to God through offering pigeons, or meal offerings, or fat on the altar. Now we use the words of the siddur (prayerbook) and the words of our hearts. And maybe we also use music, or meditation, or tears. 

But the details matter. We show respect for the tradition, and for God, and for each other, with our attentiveness to detail. The details of how we pray, or how we dress the Torah, or how we make a practice of reaching out to each other in community.

After my shiva for my mom had concluded, someone asked me why we need ten for a minyan. Why can't we just say the prayers with however many people we have? And indeed, we do say Mourner's Kaddish at my small shul regardless of numbers.

But the tradition says that ten constitutes a symbolic community. Ten is a community that can bear witness to someone's words, and to someone's grief. And in my time of mourning, it mattered to me to respect that tradition -- to honor that detail together.

Because God is in the details -- or can be, if we take the time to look. That's the message I find in Vayikra this year. God is in the details of how we come together, whether for shiva or for a simcha (joyous occasion). God is in the details of ensuring a minyan.

God is in the details of the casserole brought to a mourner's home so they don't have to worry about cooking. God is in the details of my mother's manicure and her jewelry. God is in the details of the offerings that once helped us draw near to the Holy.

May we seek God in the details, and may we find God there, now and always, every day of our lives.

 


By the numbers

Miles I moved
in order to define myself

not as anyone's daughter
but as the center

of my own story: two thousand,
more or less.

Years she lived
with a diagnosis: eight.

Weeks since she died: two.
Number of times

I've reached for my phone
to show her something

(look, Mom, I'm finishing
the needlepoint you started)

-- without limit.

 


Beside Still Waters: now in print

Bsw postcard v2 4.5x6.5 in_Page_1Now available!

 

Beside Still Waters: A Journey of Comfort and Renewal

New from Ben Yehuda Press and Bayit

$18 

 

Beside Still Waters: A Journey of Comfort and Renewal is a book for mourners, for those who will someday become mourners, and for those anticipating their own journey out of this life.  It offers liturgy both classical and contemporary for different stages along the mourner’s path, from prayers for healing (even when “cure” may be out of reach) and prayers to recite before dying, to prayers for every stage of mourning: from aninut (the time between death and burial), to shiva (the first week of mourning), to shloshim (the first month), the culmination of the first year, yahrzeit (death-anniversary) and yizkor (times of remembrance).

This volume features  traditional words alongside renewed and renewing interpretations and variations.  It contains complete liturgies for shiva accompanied by resonant new translations, evocative readings, and complete transliteration.  It also contains prayers for a variety of spiritually difficult circumstances (miscarriage, stillbirth, suicide, when there is no grave to visit, mourning an abusive relationship, and more.)

In the trans-denominational spirit of Jewish renewal, Beside Still Waters is for individuals and communities across the Jewish spiritual spectrum.

Beside Still Waters is a treasury of loving, comforting Jewish wisdom offered to support us in times of loss and grief. It is like having a wise, warm friend when you need that most. In my own time of loss, it became that for me. — Rabbi Marcia Prager, author of The Path of Blessing and dean of the ALEPH Ordination Programs

This is a wisely constructed and genuinely beautiful book. Beside Still Waters weaves ancient practice and new traditions into a totally approachable and readily usable companion that will help carry people through each phase of illness, death, mourning and healing, with honesty, compassion, wisdom and love. May those who turn to this book in time of need discover that they are not as alone as they likely feel, are more supported than they may know, and that a place of genuine comfort is there for them no matter what. — Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, Co-president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership

Beside Still Waters is a sensitive, beautiful and contemporary re-invention of Jewish liturgy, ritual, and wisdom surrounding the end of life.  Many talented poets and liturgists have contributed to this companion to those who are grieving, healing, and accepting. Their words offer a variety of practices and beliefs, addressing a multitude of human circumstances — some that are traditionally marked and others once overlooked.  Facing into the dilemmas and mysteries of our existence, Beside Still Waters is a friend to those who mourn, those who face their own death, and those who ask questions about the meaning of life and its end. Whether you are facing a dying, a funeral, a shiva, a yahrtzeit, or the lack of a mourning structure to hold your grief, there is something for you here.  — Rabbi Jill Hammer, Author of The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons and co-founder of Kohenet: The Hebrew Priestess Institute

It's been an honor and a privilege to midwife this book into being. My deepest gratitude to Rabbi Jonah Rank for his help with Hebrew proofreading and transliteration, to Larry Yudelson at Ben Yehuda Press for his enthusiasm for this project, and to the book's 40+ contributors:

Includes work by: Trisha Arlin, Helene Armet, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, Alla Renée Bozarth, Debra Cash, Rabbi Eli Cohen, Rabbi David J. Cooper, Cate Denial, Rabbi Lewis Eron, Shir Yaakov Feit, Lev Friedman, Rabbi Chaya Gusfield, Rabbi Jill Hammer, Rabbi Cynthia Hoffman, Rabbi Burt Jacobson, Alison Jordan, Rodger Kamenetz, Anna Belle Kaufman, Irwin Keller, Rabbi Evan Krame, Rabbi Janet Madden, Rabbi David Markus, Rabbi Jay Michaelson, Mark Nazimova, Amy Grossblatt Pessach, Faith Rogow, Rabbi Brant Rosen, Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Kohenet Taya Shere, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l, Soferet Julie Seltzer, Rabbi Jennifer Singer, Maxine Silverman, Devon Spier, Jacqui Shine, Elliott bat Tzedek, Rabbi Shohama Harris Wiener, Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank z”l.

Those who are interested can find the Table of Contents, the introduction, and assorted other excerpts via the Look Inside This Book feature on Amazon. I hope you'll take a look, and consider buying a copy (or several). Order Beside Still Waters at Ben Yehuda Press now. The book retails for $18.00.

May comfort come to all who mourn.


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

Faces-of-mom

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.

 

Related:

Good grief, fall 2014.


New book on Jewish rites of death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Vidui (Before Death)

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



Vidui (Before Death)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ ה' אֶחָד

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

 

 

Related:

 

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

A prayer before departing this life, 2013.


Preparing for a funeral in all four worlds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

(Image source: Kol ALEPH.)


Seven stops

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Reaching wholeness: brief thoughts on Chayyei Sarah

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 


Preparing for shiva

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

 

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

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

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

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

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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?

Continue reading "On taharah before cremation" »