Hesped? Eulogy? What’s the difference?

Image: Rabbi interviews mourners for the hesped. (LisaYoung/shutterstock)

Jewish traditions for speaking of the dead are ancient, going all the way back into the mists before historical time.

Sarah died in Kiriyat-Arba, now Hebron, in the land of Canaan, and Abraham began to lament (lispod) and weep (v’livkotah) for her.

Genesis 23:2

The verb lispod (to lament) is a very specific word. It means “lament,” which is an ancient literary form. The most famous examples of this literature are the book of Lamentations and psalms such as Psalm 79

It is sometimes translated “to eulogize” although a lament is not exactly a eulogy. Eulogy comes from Greek words meaning “beautiful” and “words.” A conventional eulogy is a speech of “beautiful words” about the dead person, avoiding saying anything bad about them. A lament is a literary form speaking from the kishkes (gut,) expressing grief and telling the truth about a situation. It ends in a statement of hope, sometimes rather a faint one, but always hope.

Strictly speaking, the words spoken about the dead at a Jewish funeral are not a eulogy; they are a hesped, from that same verb, “to lament.”  I learned how to write a hesped from Rabbi Steve Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. He taught us that there were traditionally two things that must happen for a proper hesped: we must (1) tell the truth and (2) make people cry. He acknowledged that it could be difficult to do the first one when the person in question was not a mensch. Then he reminded us that no human being is without flaws.

The truth of this came home to me early in my rabbinate, when I had the task of conducting a funeral for a man I’ll call “Abe” who definitely had two sides. This came out when I interviewed the family as I prepared the hesped. According to one of his adult children he was a wonderful person. According to another adult child, he was extremely cruel. I had met him several times and had sensed a hint of this duality. 

It was important to both children that I “tell the truth” about their dad, and it meant walking a very fine line. I wrote a hesped in which I acknowledged his many public good works, and said, “Anyone who knew Abe well, knew that he could be very determined that his way to do something was the only way, regardless of the consequences.”  All of the adult children felt that I had presented him accurately. No one wanted a scandal; they just wanted to hear the truth so that they could mourn the person they remembered.

I think about that hesped every time a public figure dies. The media has a tendency to eulogize the dead, to refer only to the things that people admired about them. This is in keeping with the Western tradition of eulogy, which we inherit from Greek and Roman culture. We “don’t speak ill of the dead.”

A counter-narrative arises (these days, on Twitter) that insists that the dead person was BAD and that everyone saying the good things is missing the point. Both the hagiographists and the critics are mistaken: human lives always are a mix of good and bad deeds, and not all deeds are experienced in the same way by the people affected.

Jewish tradition guides me in talking about the dead. I acknowledge their humanity by noting both the good and the bad. Before burial, I detail the good – for the sake of the mourners – and acknowledge their flaws. Later on, there is plenty of time to be blunt, if there is reason to do so.

Talking about the dead honestly is a difficult task. That is why Jewish tradition encourages us to leave the formal eulogy, the hesped, to a rabbi,a professional who has been trained in its complexities and pitfalls.

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Thoughts for the 2nd Night of Chanukah

Image: Menorah with 2 candles and shamash lit. (innareznick/shutterstock)

The first night of Chanukah is always a bit chaotic at my home. We’re all excited about the holiday, but we can’t find the matches, oops, did we buy candles? and where IS the electric menorah we put in the front window?…

And I look up the blessings and make sure that the tunes are in my mind. One verse of Maoz Tzur and I’ve got it…

Sometimes I wonder if the real reason the sage Hillel said, “Light the candles so the light increases night after night” was that he suspected that some of us would burn the house down if we lit all the candles the first night! However, that’s not what the Talmud says.

The Sages taught in a baraitaThe basic mitzva of Hanukkah is each day to have a light kindled by a person, the head of the household, for himself and his household. And the mehadrin, i.e., those who are meticulous in the performance of mitzvot, kindle a light for each and every one in the household. And the mehadrin min hamehadrin, who are even more meticulous, adjust the number of lights daily. Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagree as to the nature of that adjustment. Beit Shammai say: On the first day one kindles eight lights and, from there on, gradually decreases the number of lights until, on the last day of Hanukkah, he kindles one light. And Beit Hillel say: On the first day one kindles one light, and from there on, gradually increases the number of lights until, on the last day, he kindles eight lights…

The reason for Beit Hillel’s opinion is that the number of lights is based on the principle: One elevates to a higher level in matters of sanctity and one does not downgrade. Therefore, if the objective is to have the number of lights correspond to the number of days, there is no alternative to increasing their number with the passing of each day. – Shabbat 21a

The second night, I am calmer.  I know where everything is, I’ve been humming the blessings ever since last night, and even the food tastes better, because the novelty of the first night is behind us. 

I appreciate a holiday that goes on long enough for me to really settle in to it and get to know it. Tonight is the 2nd night. There’s much to contemplate: the tiny spectacle of two little candles against the dark, the continuing miracle of Jewish existence, and the wonder that every year, we push back on the darkness and it does, indeed, recede. 

Chanukah sameach! Happy Chanukah!

The Red Zone of Overwhelm

Image: Tachometer with “red zone” on fire. (visualgeneration/shutterstock.)

Some of us are well into the red zone of Overwhelm. Does any of this sound familiar to you?

I’m still digesting the message of Pittsburgh, which is that anti-Semitism is back in a big way in the USA.  My Facebook feed and email are running over with evidence of that: destructive acts and cruel taunts and nasty stuff galore. I am sick of swastikas.

My nose and eyes are still recovering from the Butte County Fire – both are still running like faucets. I peer uneasily at the golden hills not far from my house and check to make sure that I’ve opted in for ALL the fire warning services in the area. It has begun to rain – that’s good! – but now we have to watch for mudslides.

The news is beyond horrible. We’ve gone from putting innocent babies in cages to tear gassing them. The second biggest Federal “holding facility” (read: prison)  in the United States as of this week is a center in Tornillo, TX, where over 2300 teens are held without due process.

I twisted (sprained?) my knee on Thanksgiving and it is taking its sweet time healing. There is nothing to do but be patient and RICE: rest, ice, compression, elevation. Everything hurts.

A number of people in my support networks are hurting, too. We try to take care of each other, but it is hard when everyone is running on fumes.

So this morning I put my nose to the grindstone to do what needed to be done so that Shabbat could be a shelter of peace. My to-do list isn’t empty, but it’s a lot better than it was.

For the next 24 hours I will take the opportunity to say the ancient words, to ground myself in the tradition, to count my many blessings. I will rest the knee. I will recall that I have family and friends and students and work that I love. I will give a little tzedakah before the sun sets, and I will remember thereby that it all could be worse.

If there’s someone you love, hug them. If there’s something good in your life, cherish it.  Remember that none of us are much good to anyone when we are physically, emotionally, or spiritually depleted.

Let’s take care of ourselves and be as kind as we can be. Ok?

Vayeshev: Power Embalance

Image: 3 strands of barbed wire, 2 hands climbing up. (geralt/pixabay)

Tamar was desperate. Her security and status were dependent on her ability to produce an heir for Er, the son of Judah, grandson of Jacob. Er had died, and so it fell to his nearest brother, Onan, to impregnate her. Onan did not want to dilute his own inheritance, and in his greed, he used Tamar’s body but spilled his seed on the ground. God sees the evil in his greed, and puts him to death.

Not knowing the real story, Judah blamed Tamar for his sons’ deaths. He looked at his youngest, Shelah, and said, “He’s too  young to marry.” He said to Tamar, “Stay as a widow in your father’s house until I send for you.” Then he did his best to forget about Tamar.

A long time passed. Tamar began to realize that she had been abandoned, and she knew that this was both wrong and unfair. She had been a faithful wife to Er, and was cruelly used by Onan, and now it was clear to her that her father-in-law had no intention of sending for her. When she heard that Judah was coming near by her father’s house for sheepshearing, she hatched a plan.

She took off her widow’s clothing, and dressed herself as a prostitute, veiling her face and putting her beauty on display. She sat at a place where she knew Judah would pass, and waited.

When Judah came, he did not recognize her under the veil.  When he propositioned her, she asked what he would pay. He promised her a kid from the flock, but she asked for collateral: “You must leave a pledge until you send it.” She asked for his seal, his cord, and his staff – the equivalent of a modern driver’s license. He had sex with her, and they each went on their ways. Later, when he tries to send the payment, she is nowhere to be found. He tells his serving man to forget about it, lest Judah become a laughingstock.

Three months later, Judah was told that his daughter-in-law was pregnant out of wedlock. “She’s a harlot!” roared Judah. “Let her be brought to me and burned!” 

Before she faced him, she sent a message and a parcel: “I am with child by the man to whom these belong.” In the parcel were Judah’s seal, his cord, and his staff. Judah looked at them in horror. What had he done?

Judah said, “She is more in the right than I; I was supposed to give her my son Shelah to give her a son.”  So he acknowledged the boys (she was carrying twins) as the heirs of Er, his son. Their names were Perez and Zerah. And all agreed that God looked favorably on Tamar, since she had been given not one but two sons.

The specifics of the story are antique, but the situation is quite applicable to our world today. Tamar was a woman who had very little standing in her society. She was a widow, and she could not have financial or social security without producing an heir for her deceased husband’s family. The men had all the power: Judah was the patriarch, and the fact that he blamed her for his sons’ deaths virtually doomed her. Onan was a creep: he was willing to take sexual pleasure from Tamar, but unwilling to give her the heir she needed. 

The world hasn’t changed all that much, unfortunately. The structures and customs have changed a bit, but the abuse of women goes on: many women abused at home 1 in 4 Jewish women experience domestic violence in their lifetime. Gay men and trans people are abused at similar rates.

And in the Jewish communal workplace, our synagogues and institutions, 70% of the workforce are women, but 70% of chief executives are men. During the past year, many high-profile Jewish men have been named as perpetrators of sexual harrassment, sexual assault, and similar crimes. In many cases, the community sweeps it under the rug or shrugs, because we frame it as “he said/she said” and give the man the benefit of the doubt.

It’s Judah and Onan all over again, and again, Tamar suffers.

This is why I sit on the Rabbinic Advisory Council for Shalom Bayit, a Bay Area organization which aims to end domestic violence in the Jewish community. 

And now I am going to quote Shalom Bayit to tell you about what they do:

Shalom Bayit receives calls from about 100 women each year who are in abusive relationships. These women are from every city of the Bay Area. They are professional women, poor women, highly educated women, young women, older women; moms and those without kids, well-known donors in the community. They come from every congregation, every denomination, all sexual orientations, all walks of Jewish life.

Abusive partners exert control verbally through threats, intimidation, manipulation or emotional abuse – the Hebrew expression for that is ona’at devarim (oppression by means of words) – or through physical violence, sexual coercion, financial control, isolation from family or friends — all of which trap victims into a cycle of fear.

If you are unsafe at home or at work, please seek the support you need. You are not to blame, even if, like Tamar, you have done things to survive that give you feelings of shame. 

It is a mitzvah to call for help when someone is being hurt, even when that person is you. You can call the Shalom Bayit helpline (866-SHALOM7 in the SF Bay Area, and outside the SF Bay Area (510) 845-SAFE.) You can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4672. 

If you know someone whom is being abused, or whom you think might be suffering abuse, let them know that you are there for them. Do not take more power from them by telling them what to do. Just say that you know people you can call, or that they can call. Tell them that you believe them if they tell you what is being done to them.

Ending abuse is a communal responsibility. We need to heed the example of Judah, who had the courage to look at his own behavior and own it. We need to be willing to see when we have been controlling in home or work relationships, and seek help in finding new ways. We must speak out about sexism when we see it, especially in the places where people are most vulnerable: at home and in the workplace.  And we should support organizations like Shalom Bayit and RAINN that provide help for the victims of domestic and sexual violence.

This drash on Parashat Vayeshev was written with inspiration and assistance from Shalom Bayit. To learn more about Shalom Bayit, or to donate, visit their website

RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) is the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the US. RAINN created and operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE.

A Program Maimonides Would Love

Image: Delane Sims at work. (Photo courtesy of Ms. Sims, all rights reserved to her.)

Maimonides taught that the highest form of giving, of tzedakah, is to assist a person in becoming independent, so that they will not need charity. That might take the form of an interest-free loan for a business, or money for tuition, or a partnership in business.

There’s a program here in California that personifies Maimonides’ teaching. Steps to Success is transforming the lives of single mothers on welfare, helping them move off welfare and into employment and entrepreneurship. This transforms not only their lives but their children’s lives and the life of their communities.

The back story, as told by founder Delane Sims to the San Jose Mercury News:

“My husband was a veteran, an engineer, and we were looking at being a solid, middle-class family,” she said, sitting atop a luxurious red-leather bench in one of the salon’s treatment rooms. “Literally overnight I was plunged into being a single mom in poverty when my first husband suddenly became addicted to drugs. I felt like a turtle in the ocean with all my babies on my back. I had to find a way to survive for them. So I promised myself, if I make it through this period in my lifeand ever had my own business, I would do something for single mothers who are struggling.”

Fast forward to today: Delane is now the co-owner of Delane’s Natural Nail Care, a salon that provides manicures and pedicures that meet medical standards of care. The women who work at Delane’s are all on their way up: they are single moms whom Delane has mentored through cosmetology school and into a unique paid internship in her shop. They make a living wage while they learn how to run a business, how to balance parenthood and career, how to deal with the public, and things as basic as how to balance a checkbook. They benefit from networks of resources and relationships that Delane has built over the last 25 years.

As proof of this pudding, meet Myeshia Jefferson, the other co-owner of Delane’s Natural Nail Care. Myeshia is herself a graduate of Steps to Success, the single mother of a 5 year old boy. One of the great beauties of this program is that the women who rise through it become mentors for the next generation of success stories. Other Steps to Success grads have their own businesses in a variety of fields.

So now I invite you to participate with me in building Steps to Success.  To make a tax-deductible donation that will change women’s lives and the lives of their children, click here.

Remember, this is the highest form of tzedakah, of charitable giving! You are making it possible for women with so much going against them to beat the odds and break out of generational poverty.  You are not only helping them and their children, but generations to come.

Another form of support, if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area: contact Delane’s and make an appointment for a manicure or pedicure. Meet Delane and Myeshia, meet their employees, and get the safest, healthiest manicure available anywhere. I originally met Delane when I went for a pedicure, to check them out for a diabetic friend.

Maimonides teaches us that there is no higher form of tzedakah, of charity, than to help a person become independent. This is our opportunity to help in exactly that way.

Some ways to learn more about Steps to Success:

Recent article in the San Jose Mercury News

Interview on KGO Radio with Brian Copeland

Story from KTVU TV

“Holiness in the Nail Parlor” (on this blog)

Begging for Mercy

Image: Two hands writing a letter. (Stevanovik/Shutterstock)

The atrocity at our southern border on November 25 fills me with tears and rage. It is wrong to use tear gas on little children. The fact that these children were in the arms of parents who wished to apply for asylum from violence in Central American makes it more, not less wrong. 

Customs and Border Protection agents used tear gas against migrants attempting to seek asylum at the San Ysidro port of entry at the Mexico/California border. Note: these people were doing nothing illegal. It is legal to apply for asylum. Our government has systems in place for evaluating the stories people bring, and the danger they actually face. Then, after evaluating their stories, some people get to stay and many people do not.

I have known many people from Central America. My Spanish teacher in college was from Guatemala. My son worked in orphanages in Costa Rica during his summers in college. I’ve had friends from Honduras and Nicaragua. They are not monsters. They are people like you and me. 

I could write, as I have written before, about the Biblical commandments to welcome guests, to be kind to strangers, but you have already read all that. The Torah is clear: we should not be doing this stuff, or anything like it.

Yet today my tax dollars paid for Customs and Border Protection personnel to fire tear gas rounds at these people, ordinary people. People fleeing trouble, carrying their children. We tear gassed children.

Tonight I wrote postcards to my Senators and to my Representative and I begged them to do something to stop this cruelty. Tomorrow I will phone them to make the same point.

Please join me in pleading for mercy for these poor people. They have not done anything to us. They are not doing anything illegal. 

The Interfaith Bible Seminar

Rachel Mankowitz is one of the most engaging Jewish bloggers on the Internet. I loved this post about an interfaith Bible Seminar and wanted to share it with you.

rachelmankowitz

Leading up to our yearly ecumenical Thanksgiving service, the local clergy decided to try out an interfaith bible seminar, including two liberal synagogues (one being mine) and a Methodist church. It’s a trial run, to see how we all do, and then maybe more churches and synagogues will be willing to join the group for next year.

I had a lot of questions. Are we all reading the same translations? No, but they are surprisingly similar. Do we read the books in the same order? Nope. The Methodists read from the Old Testament, but also from other books, and on a three year cycle that excerpts pieces out of order. Jews, in general, read the first five books of the Bible, chapter by chapter, in order, throughout each year (though we may excerpt different parts of those chapters, for speed, and then there’s the prophets and the writings, but I…

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