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.

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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.

Speaking of the Dead

Image: A single narcissus blossom (Fauren/Shutterstock)

Today’s New York Times has a great opinion piece by Frank Bruni, “Death in the Age of Narcissism.” He makes the point that Americans have developed the habit of making the death of public figures an opportunity to talk about themselves. The President does it, other public figures do it, and reporters do it, and it’s a bad habit all around. I recommend you click on the link and read the piece; it’s good.

Many of us don’t fully appreciate what we’re doing, and that’s a damned good reason, among plenty of others, to pay closer attention to it. It undermines what should be our goal, which is to put someone else in the spotlight. We can’t do that if we’re crowding the stage. – Frank Bruni, “Death in the Age of Narcissism.”

Agreed, but I have a minor disagreement with his thinking. Obituaries and eulogies are not for the dead; the dead cannot hear them. Public speech after a death speaks to the public, and to the mourners.

This is one reason that speaking of the dead immediately after death, the rule “if you can’t say something good, say as little as possible” applies. The dead leave behind living people who are in pain. Jewish tradition is so firm on this subject that we are taught to say, “Blessed is the true Judge” when we first hear of a death, any death.  That provides a moment to restrain any wild impulse to say something cruel or ignorant. In a Jewish eulogy, the hesped, rabbis are taught to tell the truth but to put it gently.

“But what if it is true?” I hear someone asking. “What if Dead Person was a terrible person and there are victims?” That’s another topic – one I would like to address separately soon. At this point, I will still say that it is very thin ice and I still believe the less said in public about the flaws of the dead while the grave is fresh, the better. Immediately after a death, there are mourners, and they must be treated with kindness.

Mourning is a time of terrible vulnerability. The spirit reels with loss; it is in no position to process unkindness, however truthful. Just as we know we will all die someday, it is also true that at some time in our lives, we will be mourners. Hillel’s dictum, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person” suggests that we should extend to mourners the kindness we ourselves want at such a time.

Mr Bruni is correct, up to a point. The goal of speech about the recently dead is to shed light upon their lives, but one may never forget that just outside that spotlight stands the widow and the orphan. Whatever the dead did will remain for discussion at another time; funerals are for the mourners.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is a Yahrzeit?

Image: A lit yahrzeit candle. (Public Domain

A Yahrzeit (YAR-zite) is the anniversary of a death in Jewish tradition.

When we are alive, we celebrate our birthday every year. In much the same way, we observe a yahrzeit for loved ones who have died. It is a way of marking the great passages of life: first, the passage into life (birthday) and then the passage out of this life (yahrzeit.)

The custom of observing yahrzeit is an acknowledgement that we do not “get over” the loss of a parent or a dear one. It is also a way of expressing kibud av’v’em, honor to our parents.

Most Jews observe the yahrzeit of their deceased parents. Some authorities extend that observance to the other categories of close losses: siblings, children, and spouse. Some Jews may also observe the yahrzeits of prominent individuals, for example, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Yahrzeit is usually observed on the Hebrew calendar date of death, although some prefer to keep it on the Gregorian calendar date.

Yahrzeit observance can take various forms. The most common:

  1. A Yahrzeit candle is a special, long burning candle that is lit at sundown and is allowed to burn for 24 hours. (See photo above.) They are available from Judaica shops and some grocery stores.
  2. Saying the Mourners’ Kaddish with a minyan at synagogue.
  3. Some mourners mark the day by giving tzedakah in memory of the deceased.

Yahrzeit is a Yiddish word, the Ashkenazi Jewish language. The same observance is kept by Sephardim, who call it nahalah.

 

 

 

Economic Justice & Jewish Funerals

Image: A plain pine casket. Photo: Northwoods Casket Company.

Likewise, at first taking the dead out for burial was more difficult for the relatives than the actual death, because it was customary to bury the dead in expensive shrouds, which the poor could not afford. The problem grew to the point that relatives would sometimes abandon the corpse and run away. This lasted until Rabban Gamliel came and acted with frivolity, meaning that he waived his dignity, by leaving instructions that he be taken out for burial in linen garments. And the people adopted this practice after him and had themselves taken out for burial in linen garments. Rav Pappa said: And nowadays, everyone follows the practice of taking out the dead for burial even in plain hemp garments that cost only a dinar. – Moed Katan 27b

Sometimes people are surprised at the plainness of Jewish funerals. The coffin is usually plain wood and there are no flowers. The funeral itself is simple: a few psalms, a few words about the deceased, more psalms, and then the special prayers for the dead: El Male Rachamim and the Mourner’s Kaddish.  We put the plain box gently in the ground, and all participate in filling the grave.

That’s all there is to the funeral. Afterwards our focus is on the mourners, making sure that they are able to do the work of grief with the community’s support. If you want to know more about that, I have written A Quick Primer on Jewish Mourning.

The story above is the origin of all this simplicity. The ancient Jewish community was divided by the fact that some were wealthier than others. Income inequality was so wide that some families felt ashamed to bury their dead, because they felt they could not do so adequately without spending money they did not have.

It took the leadership of Rabban Gamliel to change things. He made arrangements that his own funeral would be utterly simple: a simple shroud that anyone could afford, or that a donor might buy for a destitute person. In that way, he equalized all Jewish funerals: he set the example that even a great sage from a prosperous family should have such a simple funeral. Therefore everyone had to follow suit.

Sometimes when we talk about economic justice, we spend a lot of time reassuring people with resources that they will not lose anything by making justice. It’s up to those individuals, sometimes, to lead the way, and perhaps to quietly shame those who don’t want to give up their own splendid shroud. Face it: who needs a high fashion shroud?

Jewish tradition teaches us that there is nothing wrong with enjoying the good things in this world. There’s nothing intrinsically evil about money. However, it is wrong to leave others hungry or homeless. It is wrong to do things in such a way that others will feel ashamed.

 

How to Help the Hurting

Image: A person opens his shirt to reveal the Superman logo. (NeuPaddy/pixabay)

We are in a vortex of natural and unnatural disasters as I write this (October, 2017.) The mass murder in Las Vegas, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and the hideous fires in the West are only the major ones. It seems like terrible things are happening all over the place. It’s part of the human condition that tzuris happens – bad things happen in every life.

One of the best impulses in the human heart is our desire to help.  Sometimes we can send cash. Sometimes we can volunteer to send goods to where they are needed. But sometimes we are faced with another human being in distress, and we need to know what to do. Fortunately for us, Jewish tradition has a lot to offer on the subject.

Our nervous systems are wired to feel distress when others feel distress. A crying baby gets a range of reactions from bystanders: compassion, irritation, anger, even headaches. Our reaction, whatever it is, is part of a natural response to the pain of another human being. We evolved to respond to wailing infants and to distressed members of our tribe: we hear or see distress, and we feel anxiety, an urge to do something. That anxiety has many expressions: compassion, an urge to fix what is wrong, irritation, anger, or even a headache.

We are wired to leap in and fix it, to make the crying stop. If the problem is a hungry baby, that’s one thing. But what if the problem is something that is complex to fix, or that cannot be fixed at all?

Our sages recognize this impulse and its hazards in the Mishnah:

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: Do not assuage the anger of your friend at the time of his anger; do not console him at the time when his deceased lies before him. – Pirkei Avot, 4:18

It hurts us to listen to the pain of another, so we leap in and try to repair things. Sadly, some things are not easily fixed. When our dead lie before us, nothing can repair the damage. Even the slow healing of time is only a partial repair when the loss is profound. When we have been hurt, when we have been wounded, there is no quick fix. Rabbi Shimon advises us not to say anything that might seem dismissive. When the pain is greatest, “fixes” do not console. The pain is real. It has to be felt.

So what are we to do, when someone is mourning a loved one?  When people are crying about lost homes, or a livelihood destroyed? What are we to say to someone who has lost a place they loved? What can we say to the person who is choking on fumes from a far-away fire? What can we do for the person who has no visible loss but who feels overwhelmed by frightening events?

I am grateful for the guidance of our tradition as I navigate all this pain:

The reward for escorting a stranger is greater than any reward. It is a practice introduced by our father Abraham, a way of kindness which was habitual with him. He served food and drink to wayfarers and escorted them. Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence, as it is written: “He saw three men … he ran to meet them” (Genesis 18:2). Escorting them is even greater than receiving them. The sages have declared: “Anyone who does not escort his guests is almost guilty of bloodshed” (Sotah 46b). – Maimonides in Mishneh Torah, “Mourners,” 14:2.

One might read the passage above and say, “How does this address the question?” Let’s break it down:

  1. “Escorting a stranger” – the simplest way to read this is to talk about a newcomer to a place: a visitor, a tourist, an immigrant. However, anyone who has ever been in a major disaster will tell you that they feel like a stranger in a strange land. Nothing looks familiar anymore, even the things that haven’t changed. A single catastrophic loss can do that. So the “stranger” of our passage may well be the person who got shot at and survived, or whose home blew to bits, or whose neighborhood burt down. Sure, they are alive – but now they feel strange.
  2. “He served food and drink” – We can offer sustenance to those who are hurting. Water and food allows life to continue, and someone who has been through a trauma may need them more than they realize.
  3. “Receiving them” – We can provide a safe place to sit or lie down. A person cannot recover, even a little bit, if they cannot rest.
  4. “Escorting them” – What does it mean to escort someone? It means to accompany them, to walk alongside them for a while. If I escort someone to a place, I don’t hurl them from my car and drive away: I go with them. The Hebrew word is levayah (leh-vah-YAH.) A funeral is levayat hamet, accompanying the dead person to the grave. We do not abandon dead bodies; we go in groups with them to the grave and put it gently in the earth.
  5. “Escorting them is even greater” – When I accompany a stranger, I walk alongside them through their experience. It is their experience, not mine, so mostly I listen and look and keep them company. As Maimonides teaches, this is one of the greatest gifts we can give to a person who is suffering from estrangement: we can simply be with them.

How do these texts translate into actual help? Here are eight things we can do when we are faced with someone who is suffering:

  1. FIRST, DO NO HARM. No matter how badly we want someone to stop hurting, leaping to solutions isn’t helpful. I find that sometimes I have to remind myself as I listen to someone, “NO FIXING.” Since I have no magic wand, I cannot do or say anything that will magically make them feel better. Even if I had a magic wand, it could not repair the damage done by the experience of trauma.
  2. OFFER WATER. People who have lost a lot of fluid through sweating or crying need water. They may be so lost in pain that they are not feeling thirst. If they ARE thirsty, then so much the moreso I should give them water to drink!
  3. OFFER FOOD. “I’m fixing/getting a sandwich – want one?” is a way to offer food without stirring up feelings of indebtedness. This helps people on a multiplicity of levels, from needed nutrition to a feeling of social connction. This is not a time for a nutrition or (God forbid) weight loss lecture. “I’m having something – want some?” is a way to build a bridge back to a tiny oasis of normalcy.
  4. OFFER A SAFE PLACE. If you have the privilege of offering a guest room, that can be great. But that “safe place” can be a ride to a destination, a seat next to you, an afternoon at your house, or an invitation to your table for Shabbat dinner.
  5. OFFER SILENCE. Sometimes “receiving them” to a safe place can mean offering them the opportunity to be in your space without having to talk about the disaster at hand. The tradition teaches us to support mourners at shivah by being silent until they speak first, and letting them set the topic. When much of life seems like chaos, a quiet place with no demands can be a real haven.
  6. LISTEN. If they want to talk, listen to them. Make eye contact and pay attention. You are a witness to their experience. Resist the urge to say much. If they are a person who “thinks out loud” they may need to sort through their thoughts, and what they say may not make much sense. Do not interfere or advise unless they talk about a dangerous plan (e.g. “I’m going back to the fire zone to see my house – I don’t care what anyone says!”)
  7. MAKE REFERRALS. I think the most important thing I learned in my pastoral counseling classes was to make referrals. After you have really heard a person out, if you know of someone qualified to help with some aspect of their situation, put them in touch. There may be more “escorting the stranger” to do here: if going to the therapist, or the police, or the FEMA website is overwhelming to them, offer transportation or a chair next to you at a computer to do what needs to be done.
  8. BE A COMPANION. For however long or short your interaction, remember that you are neither their child nor their parent. Don’t make a suffering person take care of you, and don’t tell an adult what to do. Walk alongside them. Be good company as they traverse a strange landscape.
  9. REST. – No one can be a high quality helper 24/7.  When we are tempted to give advice, to meddle, to scold, or something else inappropriate, it is our sign that we are overdue for a break. Self-care is an important part of being a caring person. There is no shame in handing an unhappy person along to someone who is better equipped to deal with them right now.

None of us are Superman. We are each limited in some way. What we have to offer is our humanity.  May each of us rise to the challenge when the need arises!

September 11, Again.

Image: 9/11 Memorial, Manhattan, NYC. Photo by MonicaVolpin via pixabay.com

There is a famous saying that holding a grudge is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. On the one hand, it is very important that we never forget the days like 9/11, the Holocaust, and other such dates which will “live in infamy.” On the other, it is important not to allow those memories to poison us. How are we to resolve the two?

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget! – Deuteronomy 25: 17-19.

This is the teaching we will soon read as part of our weekly Torah reading. Amalek was the ancient enemy of the Israelites, and we are commanded both to “blot out the memory of Amalek” and “not forget.”

We succeed in keeping these twin commandments when we refuse to allow the pain of the past to transform us into those who have done evil to us. We must not allow ourselves to be infected by the hatred that drives a terrorist, by the racism that drove the Nazis. Those senseless hatreds are what we must blot out forever. At the same time we must strive to remember what it is to suffer, to remember what terrorism and genocide really look like.

When we manage both to blot out evil and yet to remember, we persist in lives of Torah, which means caring for our own needs as well as caring for the well-being of the stranger among us. Only when and if that individual stranger proves to be an enemy may we treat him or her as such.

Remember? Forget? We must do both. It is not easy, but the memories of all the dead deserve no less.

This is an edited repost of an earlier message on this blog.