Posted tagged ‘Dealing With the Death of a Loved One’

Holding On and Letting Go: Yizkor Sermon

November 6, 2014

When I was in seminary, rabbinic students were required to take only one course in what was then called “Human Relations.” Its purpose was to teach us that being a rabbi was not just about scholarly matters such as acquiring a command of Hebrew and becoming knowledgeable in Jewish laws and customs but it also was about developing our human interaction skills so that we could be better serve our congregants in both their times of need and also in the daily round of manifold synagogue activities; serve them with sensitivity, compassion, and understanding. Of course, folding all of that into only one course is a tall order, impossible to fill. Thankfully, today the rabbinic students at the Hebrew Union College receive far more training in this important field.
As I recall that course, it seemed that our professor invested a majority of our time discussing issues surrounding death and funerals such as the mechanics of writing a eulogy and the dynamics of the conversations that take place in the limousine during the ride from the funeral to the cemetery, which may not make much sense to us here in the Quad Cities but does have some relevance in a community like New York City, where such a drive can take a considerable amount of time.
After ordination, it did not take my classmates or me long to discover that there was very little relationship between the content of that course and the reality of the interpersonal dynamics – the Human Relations – which are to be found in synagogue life. Indeed, considering how much time we spent exploring the role of the rabbi within the grief and mourning process, it was remarkable how out of touch with reality our curriculum had been.
So I, like most of of my contemporaries, found that whatever skills in matters of grief and mourning I would require, I would have to acquire on the job, so to speak. Over the years, I would learn from a growing body of experiences attained by standing beside so many grieving families as I attempted to offer whatever comfort and consolation I could. Yet still it require my own personal experiences of loss to take me to the next level; to understand, not just with my mind and my heart, but with every essence of my being, what it truly meant to lose someone you love.
Having assisted and supported so many mourners as they have accompanied their loved ones to the grave, I have had the opportunity to make many observations about how people deal with their grief. Of course, no two people are exactly alike in anything, and that includes how we deal with grief. Still patterns emerge, some of them good and what I consider to be healthy, and some not so much so.
One of the most difficult challenges I have seen mourners struggling with – and by mourners here, I do not just mean those who have suffered a recent loss but also those of us who have suffered loss whether it be recently or in the distant past – is the challenge of finding a healthy balance between holding on and letting go; holding on to our love and attachment to the one who is now gone and letting go of that person, not entirely but yet enough to enable ourselves to move on with our lives.
In my experiences, I have encountered those who cling so dearly to their loss that years go by and their grief is as fresh and as painful for them as it was on the day of their loved one’s passing. As strong as is their love, the memory of the one they love remains mostly a source of tears and pain for them. Often they bemoan, “How can I go on? Life will just never be the same!” Such people never allow the memory of their loved one to evolve into the warming presence that can bring them smiles and maybe even some laughter as well as tears. It remains more like a knife cutting into them rather than a loving companion, invisibly accompanying them with wisdom and insight as they continue their life journey.
How could we not admire such a profound love? What a testament it is to the person now gone. How could anyone in good conscience counsel, “You need to love that person less”? Yet these people hold on so tightly to their beloved dead; so tightly that their grief winds up strangling them. Somewhere along the line, they seem to have forgotten that this is probably the last thing the departed ever would have wished upon them; that they live the remainder of their life enveloped in grief and misery because of their loss.
Such people are so determined to hold on to what they can of their loved ones that they cannot begin to conceive that it is also perfectly permissible to let go of them as well. Not to forget them – God forbid, not to forget them – but to let go of the intensity of their grief and to permit those feelings to evolve into something more livable.
There is a story about a man so stricken with grief at the passing of his wife that on her headstone he has inscribed the message, “The light has gone out of my life!” Time passes and as fate would have it, he meets another woman and they fall in love. He wants to remarry but is wracked with guilt over the thought of betraying his first wife, especially considering the inscription on her headstone. So he goes to his rabbi for counsel. He tells the rabbi of his feelings and of the inscription. The rabbi thinks for a moment and then suggests, “Why don’t you have an additional inscription added to the stone right below the first?” Puzzled, the man inquires, “An additional inscription? What should it say?” The rabbi responded, “It should say, ‘But I struck another match.’”
So it should be with those among us who hold on so tightly to the pain of our loss and struggle with the very thought of letting go, even if just a little. We, too, need to “strike another match.” We need to discover ways of letting go – not forgetting – but letting go enough so that we can bring some semblance of joy back into our lives. For this is not just what we need but it is what our loved ones would wholeheartedly want for us.
Just as there are those among us to who hold on too tightly to their loss and have trouble letting go, there also are those who are too quick to let go – too eager to let go – as if they are afraid to hold on to anything, perhaps because they fear that holding on will prove to be just too painful for them. I know that type of fear. Up until the day my mother died, there was nothing I feared more on this earth than the passing of my parents. There was a time when I and two friends were caught in a crossfire between the Israeli army and Hezbollah terrorists, and that did not frighten me nearly as much as the thought of losing my parents. I could not begin to imagine what the world would be like without those special people who had always been there for me throughout my life. Having felt the fear, I can understand how for some that fear becomes so overwhelming that the only way they feel they can deal with it is by refusing to confront their loss, making every effort to put it behind them as quickly as possible and get on with their life.
As a rabbi, too many have been the times when I have witnessed this type of reaction on the part of mourners. I cannot tell you how deeply saddened I am when someone from the congregation passes away and their children, living out of town, come to me with a request like, “Rabbi, our flight lands at 9:00 in the morning. Would it be possible for us to hold the service at 10:00 so that we can catch a 1:30 flight back home? I can’t afford the time away from the office and the children need to get back to school.” While there is a part of me which wants to scream at them, “Isn’t the memory of your mother / your father worth your spending at least one night in the Quad Cities? Can’t you leave a little time in your life for mourning?” still I want to believe that they truly are not so heartless, so uncaring as people that they view their parent’s passing as nothing more as a gross inconvenience in their lives. I want to believe that they love their parents and that their parent’s passing hurts them deeply; so deeply that they convince themselves that the only way they can deal with it is by not dealing with it; by getting the funeral over and done with as quickly as possible and returning to their normal routines, making believe nothing has changed. All they want to do is let go and move on, or so they think.
But in reality, when we lose a loved one, much has changed in our lives, whether or not we wish to admit it. Because of it, we cannot just let go and move on. We cannot attempt to bury our pain, along with our loved one, for our pain will not go away. We can strive to jam it into the background, but it will keep popping out – painfully popping out – whether we like it or not.
When our body is injured, we understand the need to create space in our lives for physical recovery. The same is true for our souls. The loss of a loved one is an injury – a deep wound – to our souls and our souls need time to recover. They need time to adjust to their changed condition, especially when you consider that the injury to soul inflicted by the death of one so dear will never completely heal. We will carry a part of it with us for the rest of our lives. Making believe that no wound exists is foolishness, for it does exist and we cannot simply wish it away. We must learn how to live with it. We must learn how to transform it from intense pain to a duller pain that carries with it its own gifts; the gifts of warm memories of all that was good and loving in the relationship we once shared. There is much we need to hold on to, for holding on in such a way can enhance our lives rather than detract from them. Such holding on keeps the deceased alive on this earth, through our memories and our sharing of those memories.
So it is the balance of holding on and letting go which we should be seeking in our lives. For if such a balance we can discover, we can both render proper and fitting honor to the memories of those we loved, and we can live our lives more fully and meaningfully, as those memories help to guide us as we seek to make the most of our lives. It is to the task of finding that balance that this service of Yizkor is dedicated, for it calls upon us to both remember – for the word “Yizkor” means “Remember” – and to move forward with our lives, carrying those memories with us in positive and constructive ways.

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Penetrating the Inpenetrable Veil

September 19, 2013

While other faiths have their own concepts of the afterlife ‑ some of them quite elaborate ‑ Judaism has always held that all we can say about the afterlife ‑ that is with any conviction ‑ is that there is an afterlife and that the soul is eternal.  For the soul comes from God and at the time of death returns to God.  To say anything else is to engage in pure speculation, for there is an impenetrable veil which separates the Olam HaZeh ‑ This World ‑ from the Olam HaBa ‑ The World to Come.  Even as we make this minimalist affirmation, we do so with the understanding that what we are saying is a matter of faith, not knowledge, for no one has ever penetrated that impenetrable veil and returned to our realm of existence, the Olam HaZeh, to bring us an accurate description of the other side.

It might interest you to know that we Jews not only do not have a detailed vision of the afterlife, we even did not always believe in the existence of an afterlife or in the immortality of the soul.  In fact, 2,000 years ago, these doctrines fueled fierce debates between the Sadducees and the Pharisees.  While the Sadducees held that there is no afterlife; that our existence ended with death, for nowhere is an afterlife mentioned in the Torah, the Pharisees held that since the soul comes from God, it, like God, must be eternal.  Besides, how else could we explain God’s justice in light of the suffering of the righteous in this life if there was no afterlife in which their books would balance out?  The fact the Judaism today professes beliefs in the afterlife and in the immortality of the soul is as much a byproduct of the victory of the Pharisees over the Sadducees in their struggle to determine who would shape the future of the Jewish people, as it is a committed doctrine of our faith.

Personally, I am glad that the Pharisees won that battle.  I would hate to believe that death is the end; that nothing of us remains in this universe once our bodies cease to function; that our lives are nothing more than a flash of light in the dark realm of oblivion.

Yet it is not only my fear of eventual non‑existence which fuels my beliefs in the immortality of the soul and in the afterlife.  It also is, in its own odd way, my sense of logic.  For when I consider the human condition, I find myself confronting two undeniable, yet contradictory, facts.  The first is that all human beings are essentially the same.  We may differ in size, shape, gender, skin color, blood type, etc., but at the end of the day, biologically we are all fundamentally identical.  Indeed, as medical science continues to refine the art of organ transplantation, we see that we are so alike that our body parts are becoming increasingly interchangeable.

Yet with this in mind, the second fact seems nothing less than miraculous; that every single human being is a unique individual. No two of us are exactly alike, even if physically we are identical twins.  Still, we each possess our own unique personality and disposition.  That uniqueness is truly the essence of who we are; far more than any aspect of our physical appearance.  It is not as much visible to the eyes as it is to the heart.  So what is the source of our uniqueness?  How can it be found in the body if all bodies are essentially the same while all people are fundamentally unique?

According to our tradition, our uniqueness comes from God.  In the Talmud, God is compared to a human minter of coins.  When a human mints coins, the minter stamps each coin with one mold and every coin comes out exactly alike.  However when God mints human beings, God stamps each of us with the mold of Adam, yet not one person is like another.  We are each of us unique[1].  If that uniqueness comes from God, then the essence of our character does not reside in our body but rather in our soul.  If it comes from God, then like God, it must be indestructible.  Though our body can cease to function, our soul cannot.  With the death of the body, the soul must return to God, and reside with God eternally.  And with it, all that makes us unique; our personality, our character.  The people who we are continue to exist – our consciousness continues to exist – eternally behind the impenetrable veil – in the Olam HaBa, the World to Come.

But is that impenetrable veil separating the Olam HaZeh from the Olam HaBa – our realm of physical existence from our loved ones’ realm of pure spiritual existence – truly, completely, impenetrable?  Perhaps not. Not that it can be torn and we can traverse freely between the two realms,  But perhaps, just perhaps, it can be pierced; from either side, pierced.

We are all mourners.  There have been times, and this Yizkor service might be one of them, when we have passionately yearned for those we have loved but lost.  We ache for their presence and the ache is palpable.  It comes from deep within us.  It does not come from our body; not from our stomach, not from our lungs, not from our heart, not from our head.  Rather our ache is born of our soul, for our soul is the true seat of all our feelings.  In its own way, our yearning is our soul reaching out and grabbing at that impenetrable veil, seeking somehow to break through.

As we yearn for those we loved and lost, is it so hard for us to perceive of their yearning for us as well?  Perhaps, just perhaps, these disembodied souls, which remain the very essence of everything that they were, ache for us as we ache for them.  Perhaps, just perhaps, just as our souls reach out in search of a way to break through that veil, their souls are reaching out in much the same way.  We grab the veil from our side as they grab it from theirs.  While even together we cannot rend it asunder, perhaps, just per­haps, we can stretch it enough for the smallest of pin holes to appear, allowing our souls, even if for just a brief moment, to touch once again.

Perhaps that is what is happening when we find ourselves wanting so much to be in their company once more, to hear their voices and to feel their touch, and then somehow or other we sense that they are with us.  We hear them speaking to us, not out loud, but their voices seeming to come from within.  We feel their comfort.  We sense their love.  And somehow, if just for the moment, we feel less alone.  We are filled with the sense that they are still there for us as they always were there for us.

Let us not be afraid to ache on their behalf.  Let us not run and hide from what we fear will be the pain of memory.  Rather, let us embrace that pain and allow to take us to whatever place it chooses.  For there is a very good chance that it is taking us to the impenetrable veil so as to prick that veil with a tiny but sufficient hole for us to meet and touch once more those who we believe to be beyond our reach.  For we must never forget that our pain is but a function of our love, and that love can be the strongest force in the universe.  So when you combine our love for them with their love for us, can even the impenetrable veil resist such power?


[1]BABYLONIAN TALMUD, Tractate Sanhedrin 38a

Who Stands for Kaddish?

June 14, 2013

Recently, on the Reform rabbinic list server. there has been a discussion  about the common Reform Jewish custom of having the entire congregation stand for the Kaddish Yatom (the Mourners’ Kaddish).  While I found the give-&-take interesting, up until now I had decided that this was one conversation which I would follow but not partake in.  However that changed after one of my friends posted a very touching account of  his own personal experience at the time of his father’s passing.  In it he testified to how much more meaningful it was for him at the time of his loss to stand alone, or with a cadre of fellow mourners when saying Kaddish, and how when he found himself in the more typical Reform setting where everyone stands for Kaddish, how the transformation of this prayer into a communal event diminished his Kaddish experience.

His story inspired me to share a personal story of my own – though my experiences have led me to approach this question from a very different perspective.  His feelings are his feelings, and as I respect him greatly so do I respect his feeling.  But we are all molded by our experiences and mine have sent me down a different path than his.  So here is my story and what I have taken away from it.

Growing up, my family belonged to a classical Reform congregation in the Bronx.  My parents were a microcosm of the make up of that congregation.  My father was raised as an Orthodox Jew and for years refused to practice any Judaism, so deep was is distaste for Orthodox Judaism.  On  the other hand, my mother was raised as a classical Reform Jew by parents who had a very limited involvement in their congregation, yet as an adult she felt the need to deepen her Jewish connection.  For several years, while my sister (who was 6 years my senior) went to religious school, my family belonged to an Orthodox congregation, at the insistence of my mother. She felt it important that my sister have a Jewish education and the Orthodox congregation was the closest one to our home.  We never attended services – not even the High Holy Days – and until the day of my sister’s Bat Mitzvah (a group service on a Sunday afternoon, with no Torah reading), my father never set foot in that synagogue.  As soon as my sister had her Bat Mitzvah, my parents quit that congregation.  However, about a year later, they were approached by neighbors who belonged to a Reform congregation.  With my mother insisting that I, too, receive a Jewish education (I was in 1st grade at the time), my parents gave it a try and both of them immediately fell in love with Reform Judaism, both becoming active members of the congregation.

I grew up with only one living grandparent; my grandmother on my mother’s side.  A few years after my family joined the Reform congregation, my grandmother passed away.  At that time (this was the late ’50’s) it was still the practice within Reform Judaism that only the mourners rise for the Kaddish.  For eleven months, every Friday night, my mother would stand and say Kaddish for her mother, often standing alone, attempting to read along with the rabbi.  I say “attempting” because as a child, my mother never learned to read Hebrew.  She struggled mightily with the transliteration of the Kaddish as found in the old Union Prayer Book.  Even as a child, I clearly recognized how painful it was for her to stand alone in the congregation and fumble over this prayer.  It had to be extremely embarrassing, but she bore it every Friday evening, a true act of dedication to the memory of her mother.

Throughout our movement, my mother was not alone in this predicament.  In those days, and even more so when my mother was a child, Hebrew study was not a priority for Reform Jews.  It was after my mother’s experience that our congregation instituted the practice of everyone rising for the Kaddish.  They said it was in memory of all the Jewish martyrs of ages past but in fact it was in support of those mourners of the day who could not fluently read the Hebrew and deserved not to be so publicly embarrassed.  Feeling the pain of my mother, I always deeply appreciated that act of kindness.

Then came the days of my own mourning, with the passing of my mother, then my father, and then my sister.  One Shabbat morning, when I was attending a Bat Mitzvah at our local pseudo-Conservative congregation, I experienced for the first time what it was like to stand for the Kaddish as a mourner without the non-mourners of the congregation standing alongside of me.  Like my friend and colleague, I keenly felt the healing power of the moment in ways that I never felt in my own congregation.  I immediately appreciated what had been lost with the institution of our communal Kaddish.  Yet the memory of my mother’s Kaddish ordeal remained a painful memory.  What to do?

Shortly after that experience, in my own congregation, I instituted the practice of introducing the Kaddish in such a way that the mourners had an opportunity to spend at least some time standing alone in memory of their loved ones before they were joined by the rest of the congregation in standing and reciting the Kaddish.  Three years ago, I added a beautiful addition to that practice.  Now I not only have them stand when their loved one’s name is recited in the Yahrzeit list, but I also give them the opportunity, if they choose to take it, of sharing some personal reflection on the life of the loved on they are recalling that Shabbat.  Not only is it powerfully cathartic for those mourners who choose to take advantage of that opportunity, but it personalizes and enhances the Kaddish experience for all those congregants who will stand and pray without a Yahrzeit of their own to observe.  I have found that it truly does capture the best of both worlds.

A Jewish Perspective on the Ethics of End of Life Decision Making

April 29, 2013

My congregation – Temple Emanuel of Davenport, Iowa – has started hosting a series of panel discussions on contemporary ethical issues.  For these panels we bring in local experts on varying aspects of the issue.  After introducing the topics and the “players,” each program starts off with me offering a 10 minute presentation on the topic from a Jewish perspective.  This year we experiments with two such programs; one on the Ethical Challenges Facing the Media and the other on the Ethical Challenges Facing End of Life Decision Making.  While my presentation of the Jewish perspective on the topic of media ethics was made from an outline (and therefore far exceeded my 10 minute limit), for time and efficiency sake, I decided to prepare my presentation for end of life decision making in a full text format.  It is that text which I share with you now.  However, before I do so, let me offer a few disclaimers:  1) This presentation is far from exhaustive on the topic, nor could it be considering the presentation’s time limit of 10 minute.  2) For research sources, I relied heavily on responsa literature coming out of the Reform movement.  While a more evenhanded approach would have been to pull from responsa across the Jewish spectrum, being a Reform rabbi primarily speaking to a Reform congregation, I felt, and feel, completely justified in restricting my sources to those coming out of Reform Judaism.  3) As an adjunct professor at a local university, I try to be sensitive to issues of plagerism, however I am not always certain of some of the fine lines which define it.  I have tried to give appropriate credit to my sources in my footnotes.  If I have an any point crossed that line into the universe of plagerism, I apologize in advance for it was never my intention to “steal” intellectual property from another.

Several years ago one of our congregants suddenly collapsed and was rushed to the emergency room.  She had several arterial blockages which the doctors tried their best to clear.  However the damage was so extensive that there was considerable loss of oxygen to the brain.  So she was placed in intensive care and put on a respirator.  She never regained consciousness and it was not long before it was clear to the doctors that she never would.  At best, her brain activity was minimal.  So her loving family was faced with the very difficult and painful decision as whether or not to artificially keep her alive by means of the respirator although there was infinitesimal, if any, hope of her ever recovering, or remove her from the respirator and place her life into the hands of God.

So the family sought my advise, as their rabbi.  I told them that they needed to choose what they thought would be best for their loved one and for themselves, and that whatever that decision would be, Judaism would support it.  So they decided to take her off the respirator.

After they had made that decision, but before they had actually taken the action, they were visited by the local Chabad rabbi.  When they told him their intentions, he was emphatic in expressing his opposition, claiming that in the eyes of the Jewish religion, what they were proposing to do would be nothing short of murder.

Two rabbis and two dramatically different opinions on a very personal and difficult subject.  Which one of us was right?  Actually, both of us could make that claim.  For when you look at the traditional literature on such difficult end of life questions, you can find argumentation in both directions.  You see, we think of these questions as being relatively contemporary but in Judaism rabbis have been debating these issues for centuries, indeed for almost two millennia; as far back as the MISHNAH, which was put in its final form approximately 1,800 years ago.

Before we can look at where we disagree, we need to spend some time looking at our areas of agreement.

Firstly, there is unanimous agreement among the rabbis that life is more than just a biological function.  Rather it is a gift from God.  As such, it must be viewed as sacred and therefore must be treated with great care.[1]  Needless to say, Judaism fundamentally rejects murder – the taking of a life.  This is as old as the Torah itself.  It is one of the Ten Commandments.

The rabbis later extended the Torah’s definition of murder to include suicide.  The Talmud makes this point very clear when it tells the story of Rabbi Chananiah ben Teradion, a second century rabbi who was part of the Bar Kochba rebellion against Rome.  The Romans captured him and condemned him to be burned at the stake.  His loving students urged him to breathe in the flames so that he could die more quickly.  He refused, giving the reply, “It is best that He Who hath given the soul should also take it away; let no man hasten his own death.”[2]

Yet another point of mutual agreement is the prohibition against the practice of euthanasia or assisted suicide – taking positive steps to advance death regardless of whether or not the individual is terminally ill.[3]  There is uniformity among the rabbis that this is but another form of murder, even if the “victim” is a willing participant, choosing to terminate their own existence.

There is also agreement that while taking positive actions to advance death is prohibited, that there is a clear distinction between such positive actions and indirect actions, primarily using negative means, in order to remove barriers which might hinder a natural death.[4]  So, for example, the rabbis agree that it is acceptable to stop praying for the recovery of someone who is terminally ill.  While we today may think of that as a minor matter, for the rabbis it was not, for they fully believed that prayers make a real difference.  In fact the Talmud relates a powerful story to this effect.  Rabbi Judah HaNasi – the redactor of the Mishnah – was dying with great suffering.  Yet the other rabbis insisted upon standing at his window, offering continual prayers for his life.  Finally, in empathy for her master, Rabbi Judah’s servant woman climbed onto the roof and dropped a clay jug right over where the rabbis were gathered.  The crashing of the jug on the ground startled the rabbis, interrupting their prayers.  No sooner did they stop praying then Rabbi Judah was released from his suffering and died.[5]

It is on this point of making a distinction between positive actions that advance death and those actions which serve to remove the barriers to natural death that the rabbis part company.  They do so over the very difficult question of boundaries.  When does one’s actions cross over from actively terminating a life to removing that which artificially prolongs life and interferes with a natural death?  This can plainly be seen in a debate across time between two famous commentators, Moses Isserles (1520-1572) and the Taz, David HaLevi Segal (1586-1667).  Isserles held that it was permissible to remove salt from the tongue of a terminally ill patient on the grounds that it was a stimulant which was preventing him from relaxing into death.  The Taz challenged Isserles’ position, claiming that the removal of the salt was an overt act which hastened death.[6]

It was on this question of boundaries – when do we cross over from actively terminating a life to removing an impediment to death – that the Chabad rabbi and I disagreed in the situation that I described in the beginning of these remarks.  To reference the debate between Moses Isserles and the Taz, I stood on the side of Isserles while he stood on the side of the Taz.  So as you can see, their debate continues today as we find ourselves struggling in our search for ethical answers for these end of life decision.

Not only will it continue, but it will grow in intensity and complexity as medical technology continues to advance our ability to prolong the length of life but not to the same degree, the quality of life.  As a rabbi, I visit the sick and the shut in of our community on a regular basis.  Among those I visit are those who are suffering from horrible diseases such as Alzheimers, which methodically strips them of their intelligence, their personality, their ability to communicate, until they reach a point when their body is here but all that made them who they were as human beings is no longer with us.  I leave those visits deeply depressed for I miss the people who inhabited those bodies and I deeply dread the very real possibility that such would be my ultimate fate as well.  And I cannot help but ask myself the fundamental question: When does life end?  When the body no longer functions or when the individual who populates that body no longer exists and for whom there is no hope of return?  Tough and frightening questions present themselves to us today and will continue, and multiply, in the coming years.  We will need to struggle with the ethics of our responses.


[1]Euthanasia, American Reform Responsa, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1950.

[2] Ibid.  Tractate Avoda Zara 18a, Babylonia Talmud.

[3] Euthanasia, American Reform Responsa, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1980.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ketubot 104a, Babylonian Talmud; Allowing a Terminal Patient to Die, American Reform Responsa, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1969.

[6] Allowing a Terminally Ill Patient to Die, American Reform Responsa, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1969.

A Hole in the Heart: A Yizkor Sermon

September 29, 2012

Many years ago, my friend, Dr. Amir Arbisser, and I used to get up at the break of dawn 4 to 5 mornings a week in order to go walking in our neighborhood.  In fact, we used to go walking so early that if my wife awoke in the middle of the night, for reasons many people awake in the middle of the night, she would go back to sleep not in our bed but in the bed in our guest bedroom just so I would not disturb her in the morning as I awoke and prepared for those walks.

However, there was one Friday morning when things did not go precisely as planned.  When I awoke, I felt a bid odd.  As I was getting dressed, my left side went numb.  I knew I was in trouble so I went into the guest bedroom to get help from my wife.  However, after I entered and turned on the lights and received the expected reprimand from her, matters took a turn for the worse.  For when I started to tell her about my problem, much to my surprise I found that I couldn’t.  I had the words perfectly formed in my mind but my mouth just would not utter them.  I tried once.  My wife asked, “What’s wrong?”  I tried twice.   My wife said, “Tell me.  What’s the problem?”  After the third failed attempt, I stood there and found that I only was physically capable of saying one word, and that word is one that is inappropriate to utter in a sanctuary.  And even that word I spoke with slurred speech.

Well, my wife got the message and she immediately phoned Amir, who rushed over and drove me to the hospital; my wife needing to remain at home with our two children, Shira & Josh, who at the time were too young to be left home alone; our third child, Helene, not even having been born yet.  As Amir will attest, in the car ride to the hospital I made several attempts to expand my vocabulary but all I could produce was that one word, over and over again.

While Amir and I were driving to the hospital, my wife had called Larry Satin, of blessed memory, who at that time was the President of my congregation.  He rushed to the hospital so fast that he practically beat us there.  As Larry was ushered into my cubicle in the emergency room, my numbness was starting to fade and my vocabulary was just starting to expand.

I spent the weekend in the hospital as the doctors conducted all sorts of tests and I progressively regained my abilities.  In the end, I was told that I had suffered from a transient ischemic attack, which is just doc­tor talk for a temporary stroke.  In explaining the cause of this attack, the doctor showed me my echo cardiogram.  He told me that it appears that I have a hole in my heart, between my right and left ventri­cles.  From this he deduced that a small blood clot shot through the hole from my right ventricle to my left one, and then traveled to my brain, and there remained until it dissolved.  Being told that you have a hole in your heart can be rather frightening, but the doctor calmed me by explaining that all babies are born with holes in their hearts but that over time those holes close.  However, in about 10% of the popu­lation, the hole never completely closes.  Yet not to worry.  All I need do is take one adult aspirin every morning for the rest of my life and that should eliminate any danger of a future attack.  And so I have done for all these years.

When one considers the physical hole I have in my heart, and that I share such a hole with 10% of the pop­ulation, and that while it cannot be corrected, it is easily relieved by a daily dose of a common over-the-counter medication, having such a hole is really no big deal.  However, that type of hole is only one type of hole in the heart.  There are other types of holes in the heart as well.

Unfortunately the most common hole in the heart is one that eventually strikes every person on the planet and for which there is no simple over-the-counter remedy.  The hole that I speak of is the hole that is left in our hearts whenever someone near and dear to us passes away; whenever death steals from us some­one we love.

We who gather on Yom Kippur to offer the Yizkor prayers all have been inflicted with such holes.  Some of us have endured one of them.  Some of us have endured several of them.  We know from experience that much like the physical hole in my heart, they never completely heal.  With the passage of time, they may shrink, as measured by the intensity of the grief we experience on their account, but they never really go away.  They always are there to sting us from time to time, sometimes sharply and sometimes slightly.  But sting us they do.

We can never know when something we encounter in the course of our daily living will trigger a memory – a precious memory – but even with the pleasure of memory, there is also the stab of loss.  “I wish Mom could have seen this.  I wish Dad could have been here for that.  So-&-so would have really enjoyed this.  I can just imagine what so-&-so would have said about that.  This song reminds me of her.  This place reminds me of him.”

All mourners know from whence I speak for we all have shared such expe­riences.  We all have felt the anguish of losing a loved one and we all have struggled with the challenge of managing our pain and getting on with our lives.  After each of my parents and my sister died, I did not smile for a year.  But eventually I did find the capacity to smile again.  I am sure that each mourner can share similar observations about their own grief experiences.

Recently I sent a condolence email to a colleague I have known throughout my rabbinic career.  When I was a rabbinical student interning in a synagogue in Scarsdale, New York, he was the associate rabbi.  He lost his mother, a woman who had lived a full and rich life of 96 years; a Jewish mother who not only had the pleasure of seeing her son become a rabbi, but her granddaughter as well.  He responded to my email, thanking me for my words of comfort and then said, “I don’t have much to complain about but still I’m sad at my mother’s passing.”  For you see it matters not how long we had our loved ones with us, or even the manner in which they died.  Even under the best of circumstances surrounding their passing, they leave us with a hole in our hearts.  We live our lives knowing that the time will come when we have to let them go, but still when that time arrives, even under the best of circumstances, in the end they are yanked from us, taking a piece of our hearts with them.

And we are left to heal, some of us knowing and others of us not realizing that we will never fully heal.

O how we wish we could effectively address these holes in our hearts as easily as I address my physical hole.  How we wish we could take some spiritual-emotional over-the-counter remedy which will make everything all right.  But no such remedy exists.

Perhaps the absence of such a remedy is actuality a good thing rather than a bad one.  For perhaps the soul is not that much different from the body.  While there are many pains which our bodies can experi­ence that we can relieve through dosages of one drug or another, still every once in a while we can find ourselves sitting in a doctor’s office, with our doctor telling us that for the pain we are experiencing there is no cure.  Medication can only bring us partial relief.  The rest is a matter of learning how best to live with our pain.  And so we learn how to carry on with life, listening to our pain; learning from our pain.  As a result we learn how to maximize the quality of our lives through letting our pain teach us what we can do and what we can’t do.  Our pain helps define us, or perhaps redefine, us.

The spiritual-emotional pain we feel born of our loss is really not that different.  Because it is a pain we will always carry with us to some degree or another, and like our incurable physical pain, we have to learn how to listen to it.  We have to learn how to learn from it.

What can be learned from such pain?  First of all, we can learn that love really does transcend death.  Our love for those we have lost never leaves us and we sense it most keenly when we feel the pain of our loss; when it hurts us that they are physically gone from our lives.

When we feel such pain, instead of striving to shy away from it, let us strive to delve into it.  “What is it that ties this moment to that relationship as expressed by the pain I am feeling now?  What was it about that person’s character and personality which causes me to miss them now so much that it hurts?”  For it must be something good, otherwise we would not be missing them at all.  As we embrace that connection – that tie in – we also should be embracing the realization that the very cause for our pain of the moment is precisely one of the aspects of our relationship which was so very precious.  In its own way, our pain is the very measure of how valued that person was in our lives and remains valued in our lives.

From our pain we need to learn gratitude.  Gratitude for all those things about our loved one that we now miss so much that it hurts.  As we find ourselves refocusing from our pain to our gratitude, our pain itself will lessen and our joy will increase.  We will find ourselves remembering how happy we were when in the company of these dear ones.

As we find ourselves transforming our pain to gratitude, we also will find ourselves beginning to learn a very important Yom Kippur lesson; the lesson of change; the lesson of personal growth.  For as we ex­plore what it was about our loved ones which has given us cause to be so grateful for having had them in our lives, we should also be realizing that these are some of the same attributes which we should wish to emulate and incorporate into our lives so that others, whose lives we touch, will find themselves likewise grateful for having us as part of their lives.

In their own very special way, these holes in our hearts, born of the loss of those we love, are very differ­ent that the physical hole in my heart.  For when it comes to the physical hole in my heart, its effect needs to be counteracted, and I do so with a simple drug.  Yet when it comes to these spiritual-emotional holes in our heart left by loved ones now gone, their effects should not be counteracted, but rather channeled.  For out of these holes pours love and gratitude, and if we so will it, a road map to a better, happier, more loving future for ourselves and for all those others we know and love and with whom we continue to share our lives.

May God help up to learn from our pain and thereby grow into better human beings.

Life Is Too Short…

September 27, 2012

My wife and I moved to Lincoln, Nebraska in the Summer of 1977 where I assumed my first solo pulpit and my wife began serving the Reform congregation in Omaha as its cantor.  We were extremely fortunate in that in both congregations we quickly made many close friends.  In fact, today we still keep in regular contact with several of them.

One set of friends that we made in Lincoln were two wonderful people who, for the sake of this article, I will call Ann & Mark.  They were older than us, but then again in those days, who in the congregation wasn’t, other than the students in the religious school?  Ann always seemed to know the right thing to do.  She was always there for the temple, and there for us.  Mark was a successful professional who loved to read and who loved to engage in some of the most profound conversations.  During our 5 years in Lincoln we spent a lot of time with Ann & Mark talking, laughing, dreaming.  Each of us valued our friendship dearly.

Then it happened.  It was in November of our last year in Nebraska.  I was training their youngest daughter for her Bat Mitzvah.  One evening the four of us were out for dinner, and of course one of the main topics of our conversation was the family’s plans for the big event.  It was in the midst of that conversation that Ann asked my wife if during the cocktail hour, she would sit on a stool and perform folk music for the guests, coffee house style.  She told us how much she loved listening to my wife sing and that it would mean so much to them if she would sing during their party.

The request caught us flatfooted.  My wife has never been that type of entertainer.  While in high school and in camp she performed in some musicals and some operas, she never got involved in anything like cabaret singing.  And when it came to folk music, she has never been a big fan.  In fact, the only thing like a folk song that she knew how to play on the guitar was “Charlie on the MTA.”  And now, over 30 years later, I can tell you from recent experience that is still the case, for while we were in Anchorage this Summer, there was a folk singer performing at the bar in our hotel.  Somehow or other he got my wife to pick up his guitar and sing for the crowd.  After she played “Charlie on the MTA” she went straight into Debbie Friedman music.  The room which, as you can imagine, was full of non-Jews did not know what to make of it while the folk singer thought it was great.  In any event, with Ann & Mark’s request before her, feeling like a fish out of water, my wife told our friends that she wasn’t comfortable doing that, her repertoire of music being primarily Jewish liturgical music and not folk songs.

It was not long after that we learned that Ann & Mark were upset with us because my wife would not accede to their request and I did not prevail upon her to do so.  Her refusal hurt them.  We, in turn, became upset with them for placing an unrealistic expectation upon my wife and for allowing this matter to injure our relationship which had been such a strong and positive one.  Yet that was the way it was and sorry to say, we spent our last 6 months in Lincoln, Nebraska at a distance from these two people with whom we had shared such a lovely friendship.

But that was not the end of the story.  Both we and the Ann & Mark shared a very close relationship with another couple, who, for the sake of this article, I will call Joan & Ken.  Indeed, barely a weekend would pass when Joan & Ken and my wife & I wouldn’t be doing something together – usually eating, but sometimes going to a play or a concert.  Well, a little over a year after we left Lincoln, Ken was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and about 6 months later he died.  All of us in our group of friends were devastated by his passing.  For my wife and I, there was no question but that we were flying in from California for the funeral.  We arranged to stay at the home of another family with whom we were close.  As we discussed over the phone our plans with that family, they informed us that Ann & Mark were hosting a dinner for all of Ken’s friends.  We winced.  During our Lincoln-bound journey, my wife and I wondered what it would be like to walk into their home that evening.

So we found ourselves standing at their doorstep and we hesitantly rang the bell.  Ann answered it.  There were no words that were spoken.  There was only loving embraces.  I must tell you that even as I was entering these memories into my computer as I was composing this article, tears were welling up in my eyes and running down my cheeks.  Our dear mutual friend was dead and in the light of our shared loss how insignificant our former differences with Ann & Mark proved themselves to be for both couples.

It is Yom Kippur and I chose to share this story with you because I believe that it can speak to the meaning of this day.  For Yom Kippur is a day when we are supposed to confront ourselves with all of our flaws and shortcomings.  It is a day when we are supposed to take stock of our lives as we have lived them up until now and seriously ask ourselves, “Where did I go wrong and what could I have done better?”  And most important of all, “What am I going to do about it?”  For if we neglect to do these things, then Yom Kippur is really little more than one long, uncomfortable, perhaps even boring, day in a synagogue.  If we fail to confront our errors, both the small ones and the big ones; if we fail to admit to the pettiness which can so often drive our lives off course, then we will remain unchanged, and in this case unchanged means unhealed, while Yom Kippur is all about healing.

I chose to share this story with you because while this story is very personal to my wife and me, it also is all too universal.  There are so many other who have stories in their own lives that in their own way are quite similar to this one.  I suspect that there may be several reading this article who at one point or another had dear friends or family, with whom they suffered a falling out; a breach in the relationship which never healed.

I happen to be one of those people who loves movies.  Well, there is a movie which if you have never seen it, you should.  It is called “Avalon.”  It is about a Polish-Jewish family that comes to America in the early days of the twentieth century and strives to obtain the American dream.  In the beginning, the family was wonderfully extended with aunts and uncles and cousins, all caring for and taking care of each other.  Holidays were major family occasions.  But by the end of the film, we see one lone nuclear family on Thanksgiving, eating their Thanksgiving dinner on tray tables in front of the television.

Friends and family are so important in our lives, or they should be.  Yet somehow, all too often there are those of us who let them slip through our fingers for reasons not even worthy of recounting.  In the movie, the big family break occurred over a family Thanksgiving dinner.  Everyone was sitting around the table waiting for an uncle and aunt to arrive, but they were late; extremely late.  Finally the host said, “Listen the children have to eat.  We cannot wait any longer!” and he started to carve the turkey.  Of course it was then that the uncle and aunt arrived.  When the uncle saw that they were carving the turkey without him, he was furious and he stormed out.  Is the carving of a turkey worthy of the dissolution of a family?  I don’t think so.  Yet that scenario, with its own particular details and nuances is replayed time and again in the real world, with real people, family and friends.

Yom Kippur is here to warn us that life is too short for us to allow ourselves to get caught up and trapped by minor squabbles and differences; to grant to so many little things the power to dismantle that which is truly positive, meaningful, and important in our lives.

There are a thousand cliches that tell us the very same thing.  Cliches like “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”  But because they are cliches, we tend not to give them much credence.  But when all is said and done, their message is a vital one for us, for they warn us over and over again, “Don’t lose sight of your priorities.”  Learn to recognize that which is major and that which is minor, and don’t let the minor destroy the major.

Many of you are probably familiar with the story of a professor who brought a pickle jar to class one day.  He set it on his desk, in front of his students, and then took large rocks and proceeded to place them into the jar.  When the jar could hold no more, he asked his students whether or not the jar was full.  They responded that it was.  Then the professor proceeded to take pebbles and pour them into the mouth of the jar.  Once again, when no more would fit, he asked his students whether or not the jar was full and once again they said that it was.  Then he proceeded to pour in sand.  When the sand reached the top of the jar, he asked his question yet again, and his students replied that indeed it was full.  At this point, he poured in water right up to the brim.  He then asked his students what the jar has to teach us about life.  Several responded that from the jar they have learned that there is always room for more.  “No,” he said sadly, “that is not the point.  What the jar has to teach us is that you have to put the rocks in first, for if you don’t there will be no room for them afterward.  And the rocks, they are the biggest, most important things in our lives.  They are our priorities.”

Every day of our lives we are confronted with multiple situations, and unfortunately, sometimes conflicts.  At these times, we need to focus on the rocks; the important things in our lives.  We must let them guide our choices, our actions, our words, our thoughts, and, of course, our emotions.  If we do so, then our chances are greater that we will not fall victim to the petty.

Our loving relationships are far more important than many of our opinions, yet why do we so often choose to sacrifice our friendships because of this issue or that issue over which we find ourselves in disagreement with the people we care about?  Yes there are some opinions that are not just opinions but in actuality true basic life principles – principles for which it is worthy to endure sacrifice.  But let us be honest about it.  The differences of opinion that more often than not result in driving wedges in our relationships are not of that caliber.  They are merely differences of opinion concerning opinions about which we have chosen, often for reasons unknown even to us, to dig in our heals and not let go until we have won.  It becomes for us about victory and defeat rather than right and wrong.  Years ago, Barb Arland Fye, the publisher of the “Catholic Messenger” taught me that when we find ourselves embroiled in a conflict, we need to ask ourselves, “Is this the ditch I wish to die in?”  If the answer is “yes” then we are contending over rocks.  If the answer is “no” then we are squabbling over sand and water.

One of the goals of Yom Kippur is to help us learn how to distinguish between the rocks and the sand and the water.  For when we elect to sacrifice wonderful relationships for sand and water, we are committing a sin against those we are cutting off and against ourselves as well.

One of the goals of Yom Kippur is to push us along the path of healing broken relationships.  We all know that two of the most difficult words to say in any language are “I’m sorry.”  But it is precisely those words, sincerely spoken, which contain the healing balm we all so desperately need.

Ann & Mark, my wife, and I were most fortunate for we were able to heal our relationship.  But to do so, we had to pay an excruciating price; the tragic loss of our dear friend.  I suspect that when we embraced, in Heaven Ken was smiling, for at least some good came out of his suffering and his passing.  But to this very day, my wife and I miss him terribly.  While we are grateful for the healing his passing brought to our relationship with Ann & Mark, we will regret for the rest of our days that the four of us could not have brought about that healing on our own.  Yom Kippur attempts to teach us that healing need not be born of tragedy.  It can be born of choice.

Bringing the Yahrzeit List to Life

February 29, 2012

For those who are not aware of it, we Jews honor the memories of our loving departed by observing the anniversary of their passing by reciting a special memorial prayer in the context of our worship.  We call that anniversary by its Yiddish name, “yahrzeit.”  The prayer we offer in memory of our our loved ones is called the “Mourners” Kaddish.”

Last year, the President of my congregation came to me with a suggestion about how to make our services more personal at the point in the service when we recite the Mourner’s Kaddish.  I believe she had witnessed this at another congregation and found it meaningful.  Her suggestion was that before we read the Mourners’ Kaddish, we offer those who have a yahrzeit to observe the opportunity to share some brief reflections on the person or persons they are remembering.  So we gave it a try and I have to tell you, I found it to be quite a powerful and moving change in the routine of our worship.

As long as I can remember – as a child and as an adult – while attending Jewish worship services, the recitation of the Yahrzeit List before the reading of the Kaddish was this dry cataloging of names of people, most of whom I did not know.  Of course these names were meaningful to those who came to remember them and to those who actually knew them, and that indeed was important.  Needless to say, the older I got and the more time I spent in the community, the more names there were on the Yahrzeit List were those of people I actually knew; people of whom I had personal memories; people for whom the act of saying Kaddish was more meaningful for me.  Yet still, on any given Shabbat, many of the names, if not most of the name were for me, and I suspect for most of the rest of the worshipers, names of people unknown to us, and therefore impersonal.  And on those Shabbatot where all of the names where unknown, the Yahrzeit list and the Kaddish were little more than signals that the service was drawing to a close and that the Oneg would soon begin.

However, this all changed dramatically as soon as we began to invite mourners to share their memories of loved ones with us.  First of all, understand that not every mourner wishes to do so.  It is not their obligation.  It is their option.  There are many people who are uncomfortable speaking in public, and there are others who find the public sharing of such memories to be too personally painful.  But those who wish to share are invited to do so, and several do.  We ask that these remarks be brief and some are less brief than others, but none so far have been overly long.

But far more important than whether or not their remarks are short or long is what they have to say.  For it is in what these people say that we discover the power of the moment.  These mourners share both memories and feelings.  In so doing they transform these names into loving, caring human beings.  They share their virtues.  They share their faults.  They bring a tear.  They bring a smile.  In the end, everyone in the sanctuary finds themselves, to some degree or another, mourning individuals who they may never have known face-to-face.  We feel in our hearts the loss that our mourners feel.  We feel our own sense of loss in that we have been introduced to an individual who we probably would have enjoyed knowing, but never had the opportunity to get to know.

In this way, in our services, the Mourners’ Kaddish has become far more than a marker, indicating that the service is nearing its conclusion.  Its fundamental purpose – that of keeping alive the warm and loving memories of those now gone – has been reawakened in our hearts and in our lives.  We all become mourners.  We all come to realize that every single individual – living or dead – is far more than just a name; that every single individual brings into this world their own special brand of beauty.  When they pass away, and at least some of that beauty is lost, we are all diminished by their passing, even if we never knew them in life.

This has become a very meaningful congregational tradition for it has taken our worship services to a higher spiritual realm.