Jewish Social Skills: Death & Mourning

This afternoon and Wednesday I’m teaching my Intro classes about Jewish Death & Mourning. I am pretty sure that when they look at the syllabus, they are thinking about funerals, and they are mostly identified with (1) the dead person or (2) the mourners. That’s normal and human, to picture a topic with ourselves in the center.

My task as teacher is to teach them how to be members of a Jewish community that has mourners in it. True, sometimes they will be the mourners, and someday every one of us will be in that casket at center stage, but for most of our Jewish lives, we’re in the “mourner support” roles. And face it, that’s where the mitzvahs are.

Yes, it is a mitzvah to bury one’s dead. No doubt about that. But there are many other mitzvot that come under the general heading of “comforting the mourner,” most of which don’t sound like a modern idea of “comforting” at all. Here are ways we comfort the mourner:

  • Support our synagogue, so that there are clergy to assist mourners.
  • Support our local Jewish funeral home, so that Jewish mourners do not have the added stress of explaining everything.
  • Show up at funerals, even for people we barely know.
  • Show up at shiva, even if we are not “close” to the family.
  • Offer to babysit, run errands, wash dishes, answer the door during shiva.
  • Sit quietly with a mourner at shiva, just listening.
  • Refrain from telling mourners how they should feel “by now.”
  • Alert the rabbi if a mourner appears to be slipping into depression or otherwise in trouble.
  • Call or write weeks after the funeral, just to “check in.”
  • Say hello to mourners when we see them at synagogue.
  • Invite widows and widowers to events or to dinner in our homes.
  • Make sure that no mourner in our community feels abandoned.

The English word “comfort” in modern usage generally transmits an image of a pat on the back, accompanied by “there, there” or magical words of healing. Grief cannot be fixed by magical means. It can only happen in its own time. We can help by supporting, by being present to the mourner.

Those of us who have been mourners know how important this sort of support can be. Perhaps we received it; perhaps we didn’t. One route to self-healing is to take our sadly-won knowledge and turn it outward, making sure that the next mourner is not left to grieve alone.

Visiting the Sick: It’s a Mitzvah!

Bikkur cholim (bee-KOOR khoh-LEEM) is the mitzvah of visiting the sick. It’s one of those mitzvot from the to-do list in the morning service, those “obligations without a limit” that reward us both in this world, and in the world-to-come. Often we can become stuck between our wish to do a mitzvah, and our wish to be sensitive to the needs of the sick person.

Here are some things to do that will help:

  1. Cards and notes are always helpful. I had no idea how powerful a get-well card could be until I was the recipient. Cards and notes always arrive at a good time, and they never intrude. Especially for someone who is very sick or tired, they are a wonderful choice. You can send a get-well card even to someone you know only slightly, and it will still do them a world of good.
  2. In person visits can be powerful, if they are done properly. Some things to remember about in-person visits:
    1. Arrange the visit ahead of time. Call ahead, or use email to set a good time. Do not just “pop in” because you were “in the neighborhood.” 
    2. Keep visits short: 15 minutes tops, 5 minutes if the person is very sick or looks tired.
    3. Keep it low key. Bring good wishes and pleasant talk. Don’t be afraid of silence.
    4. Avoid medical discussion. Do not quiz the patient about the doctor or the diagnosis. Do not criticize or share medical stories. It can be very tempting to share knowledge, but it is more likely to do harm than to help.
    5. Avoid telling them how they should feel. They may be grateful to be alive, or furious to be sick. They may be angry with God, or full of blessings. Just meet them wherever they are, even if you are uncomfortable with their emotions. (Remember, you aren’t staying long, anyway.)
    6. Listen. The patient may want to talk about the medical situation. This can fill many needs. If something sounds “off,” suggest that they talk about it with their doctor. Again, don’t offer diagnoses or advice.
    7. Offer help, but take direction. It is great to offer to water flowers or do small tasks, but if the patient says, “no,” honor their wishes. One aspect of illness is helplessness: don’t make them feel more helpless by disregarding their boundaries.
    8. Appropriate touch can be wonderful. The touch of your hand on theirs can be very healing, if it is possible. Touching other body parts can be intrusive, however.
    9. Offer prayer. With many Jews, this may take the form of wishing them a “Refuah Shleimah” [a complete healing] without any explicit reference to prayer. However, if they want to pray and you are up for it, go ahead. Again, be sensitive to their comfort.
    10. Holly Taggart, RN, points out that if we are going to visit sick people, it is wise to (1) have our flu shot up to date and (2) be careful about hand washing. Carrying germs to someone who is already sick is not a kindness.
  3. Other ways to help a sick person:
    1. Check in with caregivers. Do they need help or support? Often the caregiver can tell you ways you can help or errands you can run. Remember to support them, not lean on them.  Do not burden the caretaker with your fears or misgivings. Do not tell them what to do, or how to do things differently.
    2. Make sure the rabbi knows that this person is sick. Unfortunately, HIPPA laws in the US make it impossible for hospitals to notify the rabbi when a congregant is ill. The rabbi will want to know! Call and tell them.
    3. Make a donation in the sick person’s honor to synagogue or charity. Especially in a long illness, this can help connect them with the outside world.

One sure thing: all of us get sick sometimes, even the healthiest people. Whether it is a small temporary thing or a life-threatening illness, or a chronic trouble that goes on for years, human contact can provide relief and strength. The Torah and our tradition put a high value on bikkur cholim precisely because it can make such a difference in the quality of a person’s life.

It happened that one of Rabbi Akiva’s pupils became ill, and the Rabbis did not come to visit him. But Rabbi Akiva did visit him, and because Rabbi Akiva swept and sprinkled the floor before him, he lived. The sick man said to him: “Master, you have given me new life!” – Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 40a

My Daily Reminder: Pick a Mitzvah

One of my favorite moments in the daily service comes near the beginning of the morning blessings:

These are the obligations without a limit. A person eats their fruit in this world, and sets up a reward in the world to come as well:

To honor father and mother;
To perform acts of love and kindness;
To attend the house of study morning and evening;
To receive guests;
To visit the sick;
To rejoice with the bride and groom;
To accompany the dead;
To pray with intention;
To bring peace between a person and his fellow.
And the study of Torah is equal to them all, because it leads to them all!

I love this because it is a checklist of those things which are a good use of my time and energy, but which might slip by me otherwise.

To honor father and mother – The word we usually translate as “honor” is Ka-BAYD – literally, to give weight. It doesn’t mean “obey” – rather, it means to make sure that one’s parents do not suffer from deprivation and humiliation.

To perform acts of love and kindness – Covers a lot of territory, doesn’t it? Notice that those acts are not limited to one’s family, or friends, or worthy people, or other Jews. Even when we must say “no” to someone, we must do so kindly.

To attend the house of study – Most of us do not have the luxury of full time Torah study. Even if we cannot study “morning and evening” we can carve out a moment every day for a bit of learning. There are many online resources that offer such opportunities, like 10 Minutes of Talmud and My Jewish Learning.

To receive guests – This can be done in the abstract, by supporting organizations, but it can also be done on a personal level: invite people over! Our Jewish homes are sacred space. We can share that holiness by welcoming others into them for a cup of tea or a meal.

To visit the sick – “Visiting” can take many forms. A quick visit in person can be very comforting to a sick person. But we can also “visit” via a phone call, an email, or a get-well card.

To rejoice with the bride – The rabbis tell us that even if a bride is homely, the white lie to tell her that she looks great is part of our obligation to rejoice at weddings. As a modern liberal Jew, I expand this obligation to every wedding couple: on this day, they are beautiful and I am happy for them.

To accompany the dead – Most translations say “to comfort the mourner” but that is actually a separate obligation. This one has to do with making sure that the body of the dead person makes it safely into the earth – attending funerals, and giving tzedakah so that indigent people can be buried with dignity. It also reminds us to comfort mourners, by showing up for funerals, attending shiva, and by speaking to them in ways that are actually comforting.

To pray with intention – For me, this means praying a short form of the daily service. For others it might mean a Jewish meditation practice, or the Bedtime Shema, or saying blessings regularly. For others, it might mean attending daily minyan at a local synagogue. But for all of us it means cultivating an awareness of the Holy, however we understand it.

To bring peace between a person and his fellow – It’s so easy to say, and so hard to do. It means paying attention, watching for opportunities to make peace and seizing those opportunities when they appear. It also means supporting peacemakers on the larger stage: voting for politicians who value peace over power and who know how to make a viable compromise.

The study of Torah is the greatest of them all, because it leads to them all – Learning Torah and thinking about it in personal terms will change us. We will recognize opportunities for peace, we will feel comfortable at a funeral, we will see the openings for acts of love and kindness. Studying Torah will provide us with role models: Abraham, our model for hospitality and Isaac, a model for prayer and Rebekah, who was kind to people and even to animals.

There’s a line in the Reform prayer book:

Those who study Torah are the guardians of civilization.

Honestly, the first time I read this in the service, it made me smile. I thought about my Torah study group, munching their bagels and arguing about each line in the parashah. It was pretty funny to think of them as “guardians of civilization.” Then I thought about the individuals. One guy was so passionate about feeding the hungry that he founded a Thanksgiving food drive that gathers thousands of pounds of food every year for the food bank. Another woman was always ready with homemade soup in her freezer for someone sick. Another woman was in politics, sincerely interested in making our city better. A retired mathematician in the group has become an expert on taharah, ritual washing of the dead, co-authoring a book that teaches about that mitzvah. Two of us left to become rabbis. And so on. That one Torah study group had gone on for over 25 years, and many of the people in it have been transformed by Torah, choosing work or volunteer activities that do indeed make our city a more civilized place in which to live.

I wish I could say that I live up to every item on this list. The truth is, no one does all of these things every day. Still it reminds me of the possibilities for holiness that lurk in my schedule, and it challenges me to fill my days with goodness. The rewards are both in this life and in the way I will someday be remembered: a world made better.

Not a small thing.

The Secret is Showing Up

Image: A Jewish man prays from a prayer book. Photo by 777jew.

One of my favorite lines, too, Rabbi Adar! What an eloquent argument this post is for the discipline of regular worship. I compare it to a good bye kiss in the morning. Sometimes it is just perfunctory, but sometimes insets of a WOW spark. But if we didn’t do it every morning, we would not be positioned for the WOW! Thank you! – A comment on Turn it Again, Ben! by Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

Rabbi Fuchs’ comment ties together my two previous posts: the one cited above and the previous one, Jewish Spirituality.

The performance of mitzvot [commandments] is of its nature routine. I say a blessing, I get out of bed, I say a blessing, I wash my hands, I say a blessing, I eat a muffin, I say a blessing, I take my meds. Most of it happens “on automatic” and is about as exciting as brushing my teeth (for which I do not yet know a blessing.) This week I’m going to host students for Shabbat dinner, so I’ve also got all of those preparations (clear the dining room/study table, check my lists, cook) and they, too, have a routine feel to them.

This routine of mitzvot sets up opportunities for what Rabbi Fuchs calls “the WOW!” Most days saying my prayers is a routine. Last Shabbat, one of those routine prayers reduced me to tears of amazement. I didn’t know when I left home for services that I was going to have that experience. Actually, I wasn’t feeling all that great and might have stayed home, except that I had committed to chant the first aliyah of the Torah portion.

Woody Allen once said that “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”  Jewish spiritual activity definitely works that way, whether we’re talking about prayer or some other mitzvot. On any given day, I’m probably not going to get any kind of spiritual insight or “high” from giving tzedakah or saying blessings. There are many mitzvot I may do for my entire life and never have an experience that anyone would call spiritual.

However, if I want to have a sense of meaning in my life, every mitzvah that I observe is a step in that direction. This past week my prayer practice gifted me with an insight: every breath is precious. That was worth all the mere “showing up” that got me to that place. Even without that insight, every mitzvah I observe is like a single strand in a spider’s web that forms a small essential part of the greater whole. Those mitzvot performed with the right intention will shape me into a better person living a better life than I would otherwise live.

This Shabbat I expect to be very, very tired but to be filled with a warm feeling from feeding my students and performing the mitzvah of hospitality. Or maybe I’ll just be very tired. That’s OK. I’ll show up, and they’ll show up, and that will be enough.

Jewish Spirituality

I sometimes meet Jews who tell me, “Judaism just isn’t spiritual!” Others think that there’s only one authentic way to live a Jewish life, a way that demands that a devout Jew will live completely separate from the secular world.

Both of those attitudes are based on profound misunderstandings of Torah.

It’s true that Judaism is different from other religions, especially those familiar to most Americans. A few ways we are different:

We do not have a creed: we don’t have a list of things we are required to believe. Because other Western religions have creeds, we periodically try to come up with such lists, but in every case, as soon as the list is written, we begin arguing about the details. The 13 Principles of Maimonides is the most famous but it isn’t universally accepted among Jews. The Reform Movement has compiled “Platforms” at intervals in its history, but they function more as texts for study, and as jumping-off places for discussion. They are not creeds.

We are a questioning people, rather than a believing people. This has been true from the very beginning. In Genesis 18, God consults with Abraham about the destruction of Sodom. Abraham then raises questions about the fate of the righteous of Sodom, if any can be found. In fact, our sages taught that God chose Abraham to be the patriarch of Israel, rather than Noah, because Noah didn’t argue when God announced the Flood!

The commandments direct us to do, rather than to believe. The Torah is full of commandments (the traditional count is 613.) Those commandments say things like “Keep the Sabbath holy.” (Exodus 20:8) or “Put a railing around your roof, so no one will fall off” (Deuteronomy 22:8) or “Don’t consume blood” (Lev. 17:10-14.) These are things to do (or not do) rather than things to believe.  Even when it comes to God, we are told to love God, but nowhere does it explicitly say to believe in God.

—–

For Jews, spirituality comes in the round of observing the commandments day after day, week after week. We are back to disagreement and discussion: some observe the commandments in ways more or less like the ways Jews very long ago observed them. Others find those interpretations of the commandments outmoded and in need of reinterpretation. One Jew will refrain from ever using the phone or any electronic device on Shabbat. Another will make sure to phone family and loved ones every Shabbat. Both are trying to keep Shabbat holy, each in their own way.

For some Jews, the synagogue service is key to spirituality. For others, the act of communal study (another commandment) is where they find spirituality. Others find it in appreciation and preservation of the wonders of nature, or in the work of healing or social justice. For the last couple of years, I’ve been pursuing growth in the mitzvah of hospitality, opening my home, nurturing relationships among people, feeding other people, and teaching Jewish home observance. Jewish tradition is vast, and it can accommodate many different tastes and personalities. What all these things have in common is the observance of mitzvot.

Which mitzvot are the keys to your Jewish spirituality? If you aren’t sure about the answer to that, experiment. Go to services regularly for a few months, and see what that does for you. Join a social action group or organization (do more than give money or share social media) and see how that feels. Find a Torah study group, or a Talmud study group. See where your Jewish soul blooms.

Judaism and Social Media

Have you ever been reading your social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc) and run across something so AWFUL, so unspeakably DREADFUL, that you felt THIS INFORMATION MUST BE OUT THERE NOW! so you hit “Share” or “RT” or “Forward” to make sure all your followers can read it?

or

Have you ever been reading your social media and run across something so FUNNY, so completely HYSTERICAL, that you agreed MY FRIENDS ARE GOING TO LOVE THIS! and you hit “Share” or “RT” or “Forward” so that all your friends could enjoy it?

I think most of us have done one of these. It’s only human to want to do something about bad behavior or a danger. It’s also human to want to amuse our friends. However, we need to be careful that in doing so we do not make lashon harah, evil speech, which our tradition sees as one of the great evils in the world.

Lashon harah prohibits the use of speech to say anything negative or derogatory about another person, even if it is the truth. To fully observe this commandment, according to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, we should avoid speaking unnecessarily about another person, even in a positive way, because we don’t know what repercussions our speech may have.

There is an exception to this rule: we can say negative things about another if those things are true, but only if our silence would result in injury or severe loss to another person.

All of this makes social media very worrisome. How can I use this wonderful tool without engaging in lashon hara?  I like to use a very simple little tool, three questions:

  1. Is it TRUE? – Could I prove it if I needed to do so? What is my evidence?
  2. Is it NECESSARY that I repeat it? – What are the consequences of not repeating it? Will there be injury, significant loss, or death?
  3. Is it KIND? – Could someone be hurt by my speech, including but not limited to innocent bystanders? Does the necessity of repeating the words outweigh any possible hurt to the persons potentially injured?

If something passes these three questions with a yes, then I can say it (or forward it, or RT it.) If not, I must refrain.

A terrible example recently has been circulating around the world. People have been worrying on social media that terrorists are infiltrating Europe among the refugees. A recent article in the L.A. Times addressed the issue, and thoroughly debunks the theory, pointing out that ISIS and other groups have many easier ways to get to Europe than to suffer with the refugees. So those who have repeated this meme, “Are terrorists infiltrating among the refugees?” have repeated a lie, which will do infinite damage to those poor refugees who have already suffered much. And yes, lashon hara can take the form of a question, if it raises doubts about the good reputation of another. “I was just speculating!” is no excuse at all.

Remember: Lashon harah is a Jewish concept, not US civil law.  In US civil law, truth makes any speech ok, and the standards are lower for speech about public figures. Jewish tradition demands a higher standard. “Is it true” is only the first question we ask.

What about exposing wrongdoing, or public protest? Both of those can be done without making lashon hara. If speech is both true and necessary, and the good will outweigh the suffering it will cause, then speak! We may not stand silent while our neighbor bleeds.

Social media is particularly potent speech because it travels so far, so fast. Careless use of it has ruined reputations, destroyed careers, enflamed violence. We need to be careful in using such a powerful tool.

What is your experience with the power of social media? Do you have personal rules for its use?

Teshuvah 101

For the last month, Jews have been preparing for the High Holy Days. During Elul and the High Holy Days, we work to make teshuvah, to return to the right path.

Teshuvah literally means “turning.” When we “make teshuvah” we notice what we’ve done wrong, we acknowledge that it is wrong, we take responsibility for it, we do what we can to apologize and make amends, and then we make a plan for not doing it again.

1. READ a Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days. It’s an entry on this blog, just follow the link.  This will give you an idea of the season as a whole.

2. SIN in Judaism is a slightly different concept than in Christianity. The Hebrew word chet (sounds like “hate” only with a spitty sound on the front) is an archery term. It means that you aimed at something and you missed.  In Judaism, the focus is not on what a terrible person you are for doing something, the focus is to aim more carefully when you next are in that situation

Very Important:  The point of the season is not to beat myelf up, it’s to make myself better.  Taking responsibility and expressing sorrow are important but the act of teshuvah [repentance] is not complete until I do better.  Remember, in Judaism the focus is on doing, not so much on one’s state of mind.

3. PEOPLE are the prime concern during the process of teshuvah. I need to go through my address book and think, is there anyone I have treated badly? Have I apologized? The only time an apology is not required is if it would cause greater pain. Is it possible to make restitution, if that is appropriate?  The tradition is very clear that it is essential we apologize to those we have offended or injured and do our best to make things right.  If they will not accept an apology, or if something cannot be made right, then we have to do the best we can.

4. It is possible to sin against MYSELF, as well. Have I treated my body carelessly, either by neglect or by abusing it? Do I follow my doctor’s orders? For any of these things, I need to take responsibility, and to think about change.

5. Sins against GOD also require teshuvah. As a Reform Jew, I may or may not keep the commandments in a traditional way. Whatever my practice, it needs to be genuine: I should not claim to be more observant than I am. Which mitzvot do I observe? Are there mitzvot I think I should observe, but don’t? Why don’t I? What could I change so that I will be the Jew I want to be?

6. ADJUSTMENTS  Follow-through is important: it is not enough to be sorry for things I have done or failed to do. What is my plan for the future? How exactly am I going to do better in the coming year?  Sometimes this means asking for help, calling a rabbi or a therapist to talk about strategies for change.  A fresh pair of eyes and ears may see options that I don’t.

7. DON’T GO TO PIECES As I said above, the point of all this is not to beat yourself up, it’s to make the world better by making your behavior better. Do not wallow in guilt, just note what needs to change and make a plan for change. If the list is overwhelming, pick one or two things and then take action. 

8. PRAYER. During Elul the shofar is sounded at morning services in the synagogue on weekdays. Some people find that the ancient sound of the ram’s horn “wakes them up.” That may sound silly, but try it and see.  Towards the end of Elul, on a Saturday night, there is a beautiful service called Selichot (Slee-CHOT) in which we gather as a community to read through prayers and lists that will help us identify the things we need to improve. If you can, attend; it can be a big help.

These eight elements can help you have a fruitful High Holy Days. Each year is an opportunity to do better, to rise above the past. As Rabbi Tarfon used to say, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it.” No one does any of this perfectly. The point is to improve.

L’shana tovah:  May the coming year be a good year for you!