What is Rachamim?

Image: Infant in mother’s arms (samuel Lee / Pixabay)

Jews hear the word rachamim (RAH-khah-meem) at the worst moments of their lives, when they are mourning the death of a loved one. It is in the first line of the prayer for the dead:

…אֵל מָלֵא רַחֲמִים

El, maleh rachamim…

El Male Rachamim, Prayer for the Dead

According to Alcalay, a good Hebrew-English dictionary, rachamim can mean “pity, compassion, love… mercy.” I usually prefer “compassion” as an English translation, because it seems to me to come closest to the spirit of the word. Why would I say that?

The word for uterus or womb, רחם (REH-khem) has the same root consonants. “Compassion” in English is derived from two Latin words “com” (with) and “pati” (suffer.) It seems to me that one metaphor for the kind of closeness required for “suffering with” is the closeness of a mother and the child in her body. If you starve one, the other starves.

So when we say the prayer El Male Rachamim, we begin with the statement that God is full of compassion for us. In Exodus 39, God describes God’s nature to Moses thus, and we repeat the words back to God in the High Holy Day liturgies, when we are praying for forgiveness of our sins:

יְהוָ֣ה ׀ יְהוָ֔ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת ׀ זנֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֺ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙ לֹ֣א יְנַקֶּ֔ה פֹּקֵ֣ד ׀ עֲוֺ֣ן אָב֗וֹת עַל־בָּנִים֙ וְעַל־בְּנֵ֣י בָנִ֔ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֖ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִֽים׃

“Adonai! Adonai! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; and pardons.”

– High Holy Day Liturgy

The very first attribute of God listed is rachum, compassionate.

We are commanded to be holy, like God at the very beginning of Leviticus 19:

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy.

Leviticus 19:1-2

The only way I know how to “be holy” is to imitate the attributes of God, to embody them in the world. It doesn’t matter what my theology is: whether God is a person or a concept. Torah teaches me to “be holy” because God is holy, so I will use the attributes we have been given for God as a model for myself.

The first item on the list is rachum, compassionate. When have I been compassionate? When have I experienced compassion? When have you? Those moments were holy: God was there.

So when I hear the prayer El Male Rachamim I remind myself that I must comfort this mourner, I must be the compassion of God, so that this will be a holy place.

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Passover Blues?

Image: Handmade matzah. Sometimes “bread of affliction” is the right description. Photo by Yoninah.

The seder table is a roll call for some families and groups of friends. We gather every year, sit around the table together, and from Passover to Passover things change. Couples seem eternal, sitting in their accustomed spots. The kids grow up, go to college, come home again, bring their beloveds. Elders go from being a source of lore and recipes to being a frail treasured presence, and then it happens. Someone dies, and that place at the table is empty this year.

That’s one kind of Passover blues.

Then there’s the year that you’re in a strange town, all alone, and you intended to find a synagogue, but you didn’t, and you intended to find a seder, but you couldn’t, and now the calendar says it’s Passover and the matzah box stares accusingly. Nothing tastes right, and you’re lonely.

That’s another kind of Passover blues.

There’s the year that the baby is teething and the table didn’t get set on time and WHAT is wrong with the matzah balls? Where is the roasted shankbone? And what’s the burning smell? To top it off, Cousin You-Know-Who decided to tell you what she really thinks of your cooking, and all you want to do is run off and drink wine and cry.

That’s another kind of Passover blues.

Maybe you’ve had one of those years this year, or maybe you have a different sort of Passover blues. Be gentle with yourself, please.

So what can we do? How to fight back against the Passover blues?

  1. Let reality be real. If there is a specific grief ruining your holiday this year, it may be that all you can do is accept it. Feel the emotions, don’t fight them. Be honest with anyone who asks. Stay away from people who demand cheer from you and hold close those who understand your particular pain.
  2. Count your blessings. Especially if the issue is more diffuse, notice the good things in your life. Instead of holiday cards, write thank you cards. Tell the people who have been good to you specifically why you are grateful for them. Choose to notice what’s right, instead of focusing on what’s wrong.
  3. Look outside yourself. Focus on what you can do for other people. Soup kitchens and shelters need extra volunteers on holidays, so that those who celebrate those days can do so with their families. Call around, and see who needs volunteers. (Remember, the Christians are celebrating Easter about the same time we celebrate Passover.) Say kind words to people who need kindness. If you have money, share it. If you have food, share that. Looking outside ourselves can break cycles of destructive thoughts.
  4. Take care of yourself. If you have health issues, do what you can to take care of yourself. Be sure to eat and sleep – but don’t live to eat or sleep. If you need to see a doctor, and that’s possible, then see a doctor. If you can’t afford to see a therapist, remember that the Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255. For those who are deaf or hard of hearing, you can call 1-800-799-4889. It’s OK to call: You are the person they are waiting to help. And yes, if you take medications of any sort, take your meds!
  5. Take a chance. If there’s something you are sort of looking forward to and sort of not, take a chance and go. Reframe “it could be awful” as “it could be ok.” Then give yourself an out: it’s OK to leave quietly if it makes you miserable.
  6. Get some exercise. Move more than you have been moving. For some that might be a walk around the house. For others, that might be a six-mile run. Choose something do-able that will push you a bit. You will sleep better and feel better.
  7. Put on some happy music. Put on some music that YOU like. Maybe dance to it (see #6 above.)
  8. Meditate. When did you last try meditation? The website gaiam.com offers a nice primer for beginners which lists several ways to meditate. Meditation is good for body and soul; for some people, it’s like a “reset button” in their day. Even if it hasn’t worked for you in the past, what do you have to lose?
  9. Pray. One of the great resources for Jews, and for Christians as well, is the Book of Psalms. There are 150 of them, and they address every emotion of which a human being is capable, from quiet happiness to rage. Dig around in there and see if you can find words that express your feelings. Naming a feeling is powerful. Praying that feeling is even more powerful.
  10. Go to services. Unlike the High Holy Days, you don’t need a ticket for Jewish services in springtimes. See what the prayers have to say to you. Listen to the Torah portion (if it’s a daytime service) or the psalms in the evening service. Sing any songs you recognize, even if you are not a singer. Breathe with the congregation.
  11. Keep Shabbat. And keep on keeping it. Part of what happens to us with holidays is that we build up those expectations and load them onto one day, or one week a year. Then, as I pointed out above, they are doomed to fail. However, Shabbat comes to us every week with its warmth and light. Figure out what “keeping Shabbat” means to you, and practice it faithfully. Some weeks will be wonderful and others will be “meh.” Some may be a bust – but there’s another Shabbat right around the corner, there to give you rest.
  12. Seek good advice. If you have suffered a terrible loss and would like some advice on walking that path, I recommend a blog called On Grief & Recovery by Teresa Bruce. She is a wise woman who knows grief from the inside out.

I hope that you find some relief, and that you are able to receive it. May you find your way out of this particular Egypt soon, or if the journey is a long one, companions along the way.

In Mourning

I mourn Notre Dame.
I mourn the black churches of Louisiana.
I mourn the Great Mosque of Al-Nuri.
I mourn Aleppo.
I mourn the ruins of Mesopotamia
The wrecked rain forests of the Amazon.
I mourn the oil slicked beaches and their wildlife
I mourn the dead of New York and Washington.

I mourn the Temples, 1st and 2nd.
I mourn the mangled lives of enslaved persons in every age.
I mourn the lives we failed to value.
I mourn children who cannot find mama.
I mourn all of them.
Most of all I mourn that even mourning cannot seem to unite us
even for a minute.

What Can We Do after the Christchurch Murders?

Image: Landscape view of Christchurch NZ. (Shutterstock/Clem Hencher-Stevens)

My heart bleeds for the Muslim community of Christchurch, NZ and for all the people of that beautiful, peaceful city. Today two mosques in the city were assaulted during the Friday Jum’ah service, and at this writing, 49 people have perished and many more are in the hospital.

I deliberately chose the photo above for this article because I want to give the perpetrators no publicity, since notoriety appears to have been at least part of their motivation. Christchurch is a beautiful city on the South Island of New Zealand. I had the good fortune to visit there a few years ago, and was impressed with the peace and friendliness of the place. I offer readers a taste of its peace in this photo, as a reproach to any who would have us remember it otherwise.

What can we do to express our horror, our grief, and our solidarity?

  • We can attend a service at our local masjid (mosque) in solidarity and friendship.
  • We can send cards and letters of support to local mosques and Islamic Cultural Centers in our area.
  • We can reach out personally to Muslim friends and acquaintences to let them know that we stand with them at this time of fear and sorrow.
  • We can observe zero tolerance for anti-Muslim sentiment in our homes and workplaces as well as in our houses of worship.
  • We can give tzedakah in memory of those who were murdered and address the notification to our local Islamic institution.

This is a time for all religious minorities to stand together in peace and friendship.

May the day come soon when no one need fear violence in their house of prayer.

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.

A Way to Help: Chevrah Kadisha Fund for Pittsburgh

Image: Members of the Prague Chevrah Kadisha Pray at a Deathbed. (By Buchhändler (Prag, Jüdisches Museum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, c.1772)

We can assist the Jews of Pittsburgh as they mourn is to help them with the enormous task of burying their dead. Traditional Jewish burial requires that the bodies of the dead be washed by a team called a chevrah kadisha, or “holy society.” To learn more about chevrah kadisha and their work I recommend MyJewishLearning.com’s excellent article on the subject.

Members of the chevrah kadisha receive special training in the handling and washing of the remains of the dead, so as to preserve their modesty and bury them with the utmost dignity. In order to meet the need of caring for so many dead at once, chevrah kadisha teams are traveling to Pittsburgh from other cities to assist. A GoFundMe campaign has been established to help with the expense of travel and housing, and for support for the Pittsburgh chevra kadisha, who are themselves mourners. The description from the GoFundMe site:

Funds raised from this campaign will be potentially used to subsidize the cost of numerous out-of-towners who have expressed keen interest in assisting with the monumental tasks of preparing the dead for a speedy and dignified burial (Tahahrah), and/or sitting guard for certain periods (acting as Shomrim). Counselling services may also be required for those performing such work. Additionally, funds may be used to assist in preparing Shiva (mourning period) meals for some of the bereaved families. Other needs may emerge through additional, on the ground consultation as we provide assistance and guidance to their people.
All of the monies raised through this campaign will go directly to the local burial society and their members as required, and as their needs emerge over the next few days and weeks.

I learned about this fund from a local leader of our chevrah kadisha here in California.  I am grateful to Dan Fendel for bringing it to my attention. I am confident in recommending it to all readers who would like to help.

Burying the dead is a great mitzvah, because it is a kindness that cannot be reciprocated. By assisting those carrying out that mitzvah, we can participate in this holy work.

To contribute to the Pittsburgh Chevrah Kadisha Fund, click the link.

How Can a Non-Jew Comfort a Jew?

Image: Two people hold hands, one comforting the other. (Pixabay)

Someone reached the blog today with a great question: “How can a non-Jew comfort a Jew in a time of —?” Unfortunately, the line was cut off, but I still love the question.

The main way that Jews comfort one another is with presence. That means we spend time with the person who is suffering. If they are nearby, we might actually be physically present with them; if they are far away, we might do it with a phone call or a card.

“But what do I SAY?” I can imagine the questioner asking me.

If the trouble is grief over the death of a loved one (or for that matter, a pet) we say very little. In fact, it is a tradition is Judaism to speak to mourners only when they speak first. Instead, we spend time with them, we feed them, we do housework for them, we help keep life going for them.

Things not to say: “He’s in a better place,” “She’s with Jesus now,” “You’ll get over it.” We assume that death is a terrible blow to the bereaved, and accept that some people do not ever completely heal from some losses. We do not necessarily believe in an afterlife (we might, or might not) and theological discussions are a bad idea at such a time. Instead, just be present to the person – comfort them with the fact that you are still their friend.

If the trouble is something else, it is still good to stay away from theology. “It’s all part of God’s plan” is actually not very comforting to a lot of people, not only Jews. Instead, try, “I’m here for you.”

Be careful with offers of prayer. It is fine to offer to keep someone in your prayers but it may be misunderstood. For some Jews, there is an echo of being prosetylized at in the past. Offering to pray with a Jew is best done with silent prayer. Jews do not pray in Jesus’ name.

Be very slow to give advice. In fact, don’t give advice unless the person asks for it. If you are bursting with excellent advice, ask first: “Would you like my advice?” and if the answer is no, back off. I know, it’s hard, but one of the ways to be a really good friend is to not give advice when it isn’t wanted.

Comforting a Jew is very much like comforting a non-Jew. We’re all human. Life is sometimes hard. What is more comforting than anything is the warmth of human presence and an extended hand.