Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Yizkor - Judaism Works

Sheryl Sandberg's husband died this year. You may have caught the story on the news. Sandberg is the COO of Facebook and her husband was the CEO of SurveyMonkey. Do you remember the survey we did about the community last year - that was done on SurveyMonkey. He was 47, their kids are even younger than that. Sandberg, some thirty days later, posted - on Facebook, where else, some reflections on what she had learnt. It was a moving and inspirational post, but my eye was drawn to the Rabbinic bit.
Sandberg talked about Shiva, she talked about Sheloshim. When she said, ' I have lived thirty years in these thirty days. I feel like I am thirty years wiser,' I felt that in amongst the pain and the loss, the Jewish piece had played its part in providing a net to carry her and her family from the first moments of horror forward.
I often do.
In part I'm telling this story about Sandberg because she posted, publically. I've got an entire shelf of books written by people reflecting on what does and doesn't help in the aftermath of loss; losses both appallingly tragic and less tragic. I could tell a similar story about the losses so many of the members of this community. I so often feel and so often am told that in amongst the pain and the loss, the Jewish piece had played its part in providing a net to carry her and her family from the first moments of horror forward.

Maybe I'm in danger of overreaching a touch. Maybe there are a few of you here who were dragged through the Jewish observances after the loss of those you have loved most and felt nothing, or felt only anger towards our faith. To you I'm sorry, you may well not like anything of what I am going on to say, but I want to take this moment, on this most special of days, to unpack a little of why and how I think this Jewish thing works, not only in the aftermath of loss, but more generally also.

On the one hand it's terribly hard to know what to do when someone passes away.

There are so many different kinds of death, no two could ever be the same. There are deaths that come at the end of a long and richly lived life, and those that come horribly before their time. There are deaths that come at the end of a long illness, and deaths that come suddenly.

And there are so many different mourners, no two could ever be the same. We cover different generations, different levels of dependence on the person who has passed away, different levels of love - let it be admitted. There are the mourners who were once so close, but have drifted apart and there are those who had difficult times earlier in life, but had been successfully putting a relationship back together until death ripped that apart again.

And there are so many different emotions that rampage around a house of mourning. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, widely recognized as doyenne of the study of grief suggests five; denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. But I regularly see so many others; fear, guilt, relief. I meet mourners who feel guilty because they feel relieved and mourners who feel relieved because they feel guilty. And then the most bleak emotional response; the emotional response which is empty of all emotion.

If all that doesn't make knowing what to do about loss sufficiently confusing there is one extra dimension of complexity. When we encounter the loss of another's parent or lover or sibling or child, God forbid, we are forced to encounter our own mortality. That's scary.

And into all that complexity, and variation and sheer awful pain, Judaism wades in with a collection of observances and Halachah and customs that can seem, from the outside, so strange and old-fashioned, but from the inside, for so many, work - or at least help as much as any response to loss could.

We move quickly, partly because it is felt to be an affront to the deceased to be left just hanging around, and partly because we believe a family can't mourn while, in the language of the Talmud, the dead lie before them.
A body is washed, dressed with the care and a liturgy that would befit the High Priest in Temple times, but in the simplest of clothes - Tachrichim, and placed in the simplest of plain pine boxes. All of us dressed the same way, boxed up the same way - death is universal and universally horrid, 'who is important, who is distinguished [before the angel of death]' notes the Talmud.[1]
The funeral is simple, no complicated liturgical decisions to make, two brief readings and then a eulogy. 'Don't make your eulogy too long' counsels the Talmud - wise advice this one for Rabbis who are called upon to speak at funerals. Don't kid yourself you can effectively sum up a life no matter how long you go on for.

Then that most brutal of moments, when the coffin is lowered and the mourners are offered shovels, and there is that sound of earth hitting the coffin and the pain is palpable. It's done because the Jewish tradition isn't designed to mollify or pacify in the aftermath of the loss of those we love most. It's designed to bring into sharp focus the loss we have just experienced. If the observance feels raw, that is only an attempt to match the reality of what has taken place.

Oh, there are so many moments of detail. There is a tradition I always take a moment to observe - plucking a few blades of grass as we leave the grounds and letting them flutter away through my fingers with reference to a verse in Isaiah, an image used also at the heart of our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy, 'Yavesh Chatzir'[2] - grass withers. For we came from dust and will return to dust.

Then comes the food - we are after all Jews, what did you expect? - and the low chairs and the wishes for a long life, and the candles and the covered mirrors and then the Shloshim, and the Yartzeit. There is the way the Kaddish that starts so stiff and foreign in the mouth, even of those who know their way around a service, and after a year becomes easier to say, just as the tradition hopes the loss becomes easier to bear.

So many ideas all coded into ritual and practice.
This is the point.
Out of this panoply of rituals, each one attempting to hold, or honour or confront a web emerges that can, I do genuinely believe, hold all of us, no matter who it is we have lost, or how we have lost them, or who we are, even as we change pinging around in the aftermath of a bereavement from one emotional ebb to another flow.

The ritual, our faith tradition, wants to wrap us up and protect us at the most raw moments of our journey, and gently put us down as the rawness passes, gently ushering us back into the real world for we are forbidden from sitting Shiva for evermore. Of course our rituals don't make all this pain disappear in an instant, but the goal of mourning isn't 'to get over it.' The goal is revealed slowly, over the passage of time.

What a gift. What a gift to be a Jew, to have woven into our spiritual DNA an entire approach to death which is this sensitive and this deep. What a gift, as a Rabbi visiting the bereaved, to know I have this arsenal. When the words don't work, when there are no words that could possibly help, I can reach into this treasure chest of our faith and find something that might help in a way that no words can match.

And why does all this help? In part because these rituals have been created by wise, compassionate elders of our faith who understand the nature of our mortal condition. In part because these rituals have evolved slowly becoming increasingly attuned to their ecological niche, just as any other evolving system becomes increasingly effective. In part because underneath and beyond all this human endeavour is a divine whisper that our human efforts have managed to pick up like some giant radar array detecting the presence of far-off life.

Again, if I'm overreaching I'm sorry. If you are listening to this thinking I have no understanding of how poorly our faith tradition failed you at your time of greatest loss, I'm sorry. But I hope, and I think I've reasonably safe in thinking that there won't be so many of you thinking that. There are definitely those of you who have shared that this, this whole Jewish thing, has helped. There are those of you who didn't, at the beginning of the journey, see yourselves wanting to sit so many nights of Shiva, or come so regularly to Shul to say Kaddish, but, in the days, weeks and months after the moments of greatest rawness have reflected that it did help after all.
I think this does help.

And so here's my question.
If we got it so right, when it comes to our approach to bereavement, how come we got it so wrong in our approach to so much else of Jewish life?
Or let me try that slightly differently, if, when it comes to bereavement there is a sense that the tradition and its rituals and observances help us, support us and leave us stronger how come we aren't a more observant community when it comes to Kashrut, or Shabbat, or shul attendence.

I mentioned that survey, we did last year - only 52% of respondents ticked the box that said they kept kosher at home and a only 28% ticked the box that said they kept kosher 'out.' That's it? It hurts.

It's not that the rituals associated with Kashrut come from a different place from the rituals associated with bereavement. They come as refractions of divine will and have been pored over and evolved through centuries of wise and careful balancing.

It's not that the rituals associated with Kashrut don't hold and code for profound ideas about the nature of food and ourselves. If we are what we eat we should, surely, be thinking more carefully about what it is we out in our mouths, and if we value life we should, surely, be thinking more carefully about our consumption of meat in particular. Each time a Shochet takes the life of an animal to produce kosher meat they say a blessing, animal life - though different from human life - is honoured. To consume meat is an act of violence, our tradition recognises that, and demands that we shouldn't mix milk - that gift of life - with our carnivorous urges. An observance of Kashurt can make us more sensitive to our place in the food chain, and our place as consumers on this planet. Kashrut is one of the most powerful markers of Jewish identity. If you are one of the ones who don't observe, try it - start somewhere easy. Stop ordering the meat is easy. Milk and meat is easy. Try it, and let me know if you think it helps.

And what about Shabbat. Almost 3/4 of respondents ticked that they light Shabbat candles 'always' or at least 'often.' That's not bad, I suppose. But how many of us desist from shopping, or give Shabbat more than the attention of a brief few moments on a Friday evening? The survey didn't tell us that. But it won't be so many. And again, it's not as if the ideas aren't powerful - Shabbat a day to celebrate what have rather than engage permanently in a never-ending consuming cycle of seeking more and more. We will never realise what we truly have until we stop, and give thanks. Shabbat is about what it means to be human in ways deeper than our choice of vegetables or movie downloads. Again, let me offer this in the most simple way I can. Stop spending money from sundown Friday to stars-out Saturday. Be a human being rather than a consumer. And if you want something a little more challenging, turn the radio off, the TV, the phone even! gevalt, how can a person possibly survive with only books and face to face conversation - well I suppose you could come to shul. We moan about the pressures of life, but the ability to turn the computer off is only a flick of a switch away. Try it, and let me know if you think it helps.

We have, I suspect, the Jewish thing back to front. We start from the perspective of it being a drag and of limited value in our oh so busy lives. And then when we need it, it's there and we find in it meaning and relevance and power. We don't need to wait that long. We can start to find the meaning and the relevance and the power before then, before the gates close, before it's too late to make a difference to the lives we live and the most important relationships surrounding us.

If you think it helped, this Jewish thing, at the moments when you and your family were most in need. Give it a try now, make a promise to yourself to try the Kashrut thing, or the Shabbat thing. Frankly any of the things. Try it and let me know if you think it helps. I hope you will. I think you will. And in so doing, I hope, we can all become better Jews, better members of our families, better inheritors of our Jewish tradition, and even better placed to carry these traditions forward into the year to come.

Chatimah Tovah

[1] Moed Katan 28a
[2] Isaiah 40:7, used in the Unataneh Tokef

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