Shabbat Shalom

March 28, 2014

In the midst of Shabbat preparations, in the midst of preparations to go to the CCAR convention to participate in a ritual of grief and stubborn hope, I have only a few minutes to type today.

If you turn on your TV, it seems that grief is everywhere: authorities are still searching for Malaysia Airlines MH370, still searching for the place where they should search. North of me, in Washington State, the community of Oso disappeared under an avalanche. And in the local news, there’s more grief: shootings, car accidents, death, death, death.

I am headed to a rabbis’ convention where I will join in a ritual of grief and stubborn hope: I’m one of over 70 rabbis who will shave my head to raise funds for childhood cancer research. It is a ritual of grief because a little boy died last December, a beloved child of our community, the dear son of two of our colleagues. It is a ritual of stubborn hope because we are choosing to take our grief and turn it into research towards better treatments for children like Sammy. If you don’t know the backstory already, you can read about it here.

In the local news, more awful stuff has happened. Drive-by shootings, corrupt public officials, horrible news stories about what some people are willing to do to other people: it’s endless, mindless, ghastly.

But for Shabbat, Jews will stop. Just for a little while. We will stop and do our best to appreciate the wonders of creation.

We will stop to notice love. We will stop to rest our bodies. We will turn off that blasted cable news machine and concentrate on goodness. For those in the depths of grief, obviously, that doesn’t stop. But the community pauses, and we hold the mourners in our midst, and we stop to do what we can to rest, to recover, to simply be.

I wish you “Shabbat shalom,” a Sabbath of peace.


Questions, not Answers

December 16, 2013

WRNLogowide2

I am one of a group of rabbis who post on Kol Isha (Voice of the Woman), the blog of the Women’s Rabbinic Network. Today was my day to post, and so I’m going to direct you over there for today’s thoughts on Questions, not Answers.

Honestly, after writing that one, I’m all out of words.


“Baruch Dayan Emet” – Why Do We Bless God When Someone Dies?

December 7, 2013
Angel of Grief - Hill Family

Angel of Grief (Photo credit: Mike Schaffner)

The traditional Jewish response to news of a death, any death, is “Baruch Dayan emet,” “Blessed is the true Judge.”

Here are some reasons for this ritual:

1. If there is a ritual formula to say when I get shocking news, I am less likely to say something inappropriate.  Death is solemn, and even when it is expected, it can be a shock. People say stupid things when they are shocked. Having a script for the first few moments can be very helpful.

2. The statement acknowledges that I do not know the sum of that person’s life. I am not qualified to stand in judgment upon them. By saying that only God is so qualified, I either affirm faith that God is the only true judge, or (if I am not a believer in a personal God) I acknowledge that only God, if there were such a person, can sit in judgment.

3. Making a statement of humility (“I cannot judge”) reminds me not to say something stupid with my next words.

4. If the death is tragic or inexplicable, it is a way of saying, “I do not understand how this could have happened” without starting a conversation about the possibilities. It keeps us away from platitudes that might get in the way of healthy grief, or other statements that might be unhelpful to the mourners.

5. The longer form of the blessing appears first in the Mishnah Berachot 9:2 (“Blessed are You, Eternal our God, ruler of the Universe, who is the True Judge.” We are told in that Mishnah that this is a blessing to say at the reception of any bad news. Rabbi Louis Rieser teaches that this is a way of acknowledging the Presence of God at a moment of high emotion, when we are most overwhelmed by loss.

6. The moment of death is a time when no words suffice, but we human beings are relentless with our words. By providing a simple ritual of humility with many possible interpretations, Jewish tradition gives us a container for our words at a time when they can do terrible harm. There is no need to say anything more, after “Baruch Dayan emet” – ultimately it says, I have no words for this. We stand with the mourner or stand as a mourner in the presence of the greatest mystery of life, and with these words clear the way for the long process of grief.


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