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.

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Why Three Weeks of Communal Mourning?

The three weeks preceding Tisha B’Av are traditionally a time of mourning in the Jewish world. They are called “The Three Weeks” and traditionally Jews avoid public entertainments, buying new clothing, and getting haircuts during that time. The period begins with Tzom Tammuz, and include three Shabbats which have special readings from the Prophets (Haftarot.) 

The Prophets in Jewish tradition reproach Israel for the rupture of relationship with God. (For more about Jewish readings of the Prophets, read “Blood Moons” and the Meaning of Prophecy.) In the world of the Prophets, Israel has become selective in her reading of Torah, and too often observes the letter of ritual law while flouting both the spirit of that law and the ethical commandments. The Haftarah readings during the Three Weeks are:

  1. Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3
  2. Jeremiah 2:4–28 plus 4:1–2 or 3:4
  3. Isaiah 1:1–27

Now one may well ask, what is the point of observing this period of time, especially for liberal Jews who do not pray for the rebuilding of the Temple?

This can be a time for reminding ourselves of the consequences of communal sins. If we are to grow and learn as a people, then we must not forget the times in the past when we have gone wrong. The sages teach us that Solomon’s Temple was destroyed because of idolatry, and the Second Temple was destroyed on account of sinat chinom, usually translated “baseless hatred.”  So this is the time to ask if Torah is truly the “operating manual” for our institutions and families, or are there things that we prioritize above Torah? And as for sinat chinom, this excellent article by Rabbi Shmuel Weiss asks some interesting questions.

This can be a time to remind ourselves that we are truly Am Echad, one people. Whatever our differences about practice, our history is unfortunately full of occasions when outsiders made no distinction between secular and observant Jew. What point is there in treating one another badly, when the world is so cruel?

This can be a time to learn about mourning. Grief is part of the human condition; only those who die as very young children manage to live their entire lives without experiencing it. Over the centuries, generations of our ancestors crafted this period in which we may or may not experience grief for the Temple itself, but in which we can read the words of lament, and observe the fact that the entire season is shaped as a process. There is the approach of disaster (the Three Weeks), the acute phase of loss (Tisha B’Av) and then the much longer period of Consolation, which stretches for seven full weeks. One way to get the most out of this period is to approach the various readings as a student, learning from our forebears how to mourn.

These are only three possibilities for growth during the Three Weeks. What experiences have you had of this period in the Jewish year? Does the thought of mourning for the Temple make sense to you? Why – or why not?

My Shul, My Rules: The Power of Local Custom

A reader recently mentioned that she had attended a shiva house and been told rather forcefully that her choice to sit down next to one of the mourners was (1) inappropriate and (2) bad luck.

I have to admit that this particular custom was new to me, but that it didn’t surprise me. Communities and families have very particular customs around death because it is a frightening time: we seek predictability and tradition in an effort to make the world seem a little less terrifying. Also, the house of mourning is sometimes a place where tact is in short supply, since people are already upset. All we can do, when we stumble into a mourning custom that is old for someone else but new for us is to apologize and be kind.

Minhag Hamakom, “the custom of the place,” is a powerful force in both Jewish law and Jewish good manners. The simplest way to explain it is the maxim, “My house, my rules.” If I am visiting the home of someone who has the custom of cutting challah with a knife, I don’t complain, even though our custom at my home is to tear the challah. It is their house, so we follow their rules.

In the synagogue, this applies too. It is bad manners to visit a synagogue and then complain to the regulars that they are doing things improperly. A visiting rabbi has to tread very carefully in this respect, as does any other visitor. I can say my prayers the way I like quietly, but I don’t make a production of it.

Judaism is full of regional customs as well. The first time I visited a Reform synagogue in the Southeastern US, I was completely shocked, because the service seemed so different from the custom in my Oakland, CA home congregation. As I became better educated, I learned that there were reasons for the differences, and I grew to appreciate them. Fortunately, my mentors had taught me not to make a fuss, so at least I didn’t leave the good people of Louisville, KY, with the impression that Californian Jews are rude!

When we find a surprising Jewish custom in a new place, be it someone’s home, or a synagogue, it is traditional to conform as best we can to the local custom.  I find it is helpful to cultivate a curious mind about these things: “Oh! That is interesting! What is the reasoning behind it?” Just be aware that the answer may be “we have always done it this way” or “all PROPER Jews do it this way.” If you get those answers, you can always find an “Ask the Rabbi” online and leave the question there!

The Interfaith Family Funeral

Articles about interfaith families usually focus on the interfaith couple and their children: making decisions and choices, navigating holidays, making it work. But as most married couples can attest, when we marry we marry not only our beloved, but also all his or her relatives.  And usually it’s still a matter of making decisions and choices, navigating holidays, and making it work.

But when it comes time for a funeral, things can become painful and complicated very quickly, because death is terrifying and loss is excruciating. Even the calmest, most rational people are at their least rational in the time of bereavement. Tradition, which may not be important at any other time, suddenly looms large. And as outreach expert Kathy Kahn once taught me, “We do not get do-overs for funerals.” The emotional stakes are very high for funerals.

So everyone is in a lot of pain, and often there are no written instructions about what the departed wanted for the funeral. Jewish burial and mourning practices are very detailed and very precise, and in many ways they come into conflict with the traditions of other religions and regions. These conflicts can set us up for painful adjustments and conversations.

For instance, I recently helped a student plan his return to Alabama for a Southern Baptist funeral. (I have changed details for his privacy.) There would be a visitation at the funeral home of many hours, with the embalmed body of the departed at the focal point of the room. There would be an open casket service. Afterwards, there might be a meal for the family, and then the funeral would be over. My student said, with anguish, “We don’t look at dead bodies, rabbi! I hate that they are going to embalm my grandfather!” So we talked about ways for him to navigate the funeral without looking at the deceased (in Jewish tradition, we do not look at a dead person, out of respect and kindness.) We talked about and rehearsed what to say to people who wanted to comfort him with talk about Jesus or about the appearance of the dead. Then we talked about arranging Jewish mourning with his Jewish community when he gets home. A tough loss is going to be tougher because he is Jewish and his family is not.

In other cases, I have assisted families in planning funerals that would meet the needs of both the Jewish and Christian relatives.  Even if there is agreement about “no open casket,” the Catholic side of the family may want to say a rosary together at some point, for comfort, even if the dead person is actually Jewish. My role as officiant is often to assist in explaining why (1) the Jews don’t want to be there for the rosary, and may not want to hear much about it, either, and (2) the Catholics really need the rosary for comfort, that they intend no insult to the dead.  You can insert many other practices for “rosary.” Sometimes there is no way to accommodate both traditions, and then the challenge is to help the family make choices in such a way that the relationships of the living are preserved intact and the feelings of all are acknowledged.

The best I can tell you is that if you are anticipating a death in your interfaith family, think ahead and think lovingly not only of the person you are about to lose, but of the people with whom you are about to be left behind. Talk with clergy early. Recognize that even if the person who died is of one tradition, family members of another tradition will need support and care. Let the funeral home know early in the process that yours is an interfaith family.

If you are not in the part of the family in charge of planning, recognize that planning a funeral is complicated and is usually done very quickly, without time to consult with every individual in the family. Take responsibility for your needs and emotions. It is OK to say, “I don’t want to participate in X,” but it is better not to combine that with “how dare you suggest such a thing.” Figure out what you can do to meet your needs and to honor the dead.

When my father died, I did not view his body. I sat with my family at the funeral Mass, but I did not take communion. I said “Amen” to prayers that I could affirm. I had a pocket sized book of Psalms with me to read when prayers were said that I couldn’t affirm. In that book I had a copy of the Kaddish; after the graveside service was concluded, I quietly stood beside his grave and said Kaddish. I didn’t make a production of it. At the meal afterwards, when I saw that everything on the table was stuff I did not eat, I asked the kitchen what they had that might work. Fortunately, all unadorned veggies are kosher.

It is possible to navigate these difficult things, but it is easier to do it with support. I wish I had asked my friends and colleagues back home to support me in sitting shiva. I didn’t do that, and regret it now. My shiva time, such as it was, happened on an airplane with my son and it wasn’t enough. This is my own fault: I didn’t ask for what I needed from my Jewish community. I won’t make that mistake again.

The point of all this is to say that funerals are tough for those in interfaith families. Ask for the support of your clergy (of both traditions, if possible.) Tell others what you need, but try to keep in mind that it is hard for everyone, and you may not be able to get everything you want. Be kind not only to others, but also to yourself.

If you are anticipating a loss in your family, I wish you comfort in the arms of family and friends. Ask for support from your faith community in order to get what you need. Know that others have walked this road, so you are not alone.

The Jewish Path of Grief

Kriah Ribbon: worn by a Jewish mourner to express grief
Kriah Ribbon: worn by a Jewish mourner to express grief

It is one of the great wisdoms of Jewish tradition that once the funeral is over, we do not leave mourners to their own devices.

Personally, in the initial stages of grief, I can’t sleep at all, I can’t eat, and I go back and forth between exhaustion and a wild desire to “get things done.” It’s awful. My web of relationships is torn, and I flail about, trying to get my bearings. Left to my own devices, I eventually go numb, a state that is interrupted for months by flashes of anger. Grief takes different forms in people, but at the bottom it’s all the same: we lose someone close to us, and we’re a mess.

Grief will not be denied. Fail to attend to it, and it will come get us later, at an even less convenient time.

This is why Jewish tradition gives us the practice of shiva. Shiva involves sitting down for a week to let the work of grief take place. It involves a certain lack of privacy, a lack that no one likes but that will ultimately speed along the work of grief. It involves letting people into my house to help, and allowing my Jewish community to organize on my behalf. It requires that I turn off my usual distractors (work, radio, TV) and feel the unbearable things I am feeling. If no feelings come, then I must sit with that absence of feeling: it’s all grief.

Shiva is something we do for one another. I take food to the home of a grieving person, knowing that she or someone like her will bring food to my home when the inevitable day comes that I must sit shiva. When I visit a shiva house, and see the mourner rushing around, trying to entertain, I say gently, “Let me take care of that” and begin greeting people at the door. A mourner is not a host, no matter how badly he wants to be anything but a mourner.

When I visit a shiva house, I arrive quietly, stay a while, speak gently to the mourner, perhaps leave some food, then move along quietly. It is not a party. I may check to see if there’s anything they need (groceries? errands? care for a pet?) but mostly I let them know that they are not abandoned by the rest of us and then I let them grieve. It is hard to let people grieve; we can’t fix it, and we mustn’t try.

Later they will need invitations to lunch, to Shabbat dinner, or to a movie. They will need distraction, after the first work of grief is done.

Eventually, we all take turns at all the roles: today’s mourner is tomorrow’s gentle helper. The person who brings food to this shiva house will be fed at some point in the future.

It is one of the great wisdoms of Jewish tradition that once the funeral is over, we do not leave mourners to their own devices.

What is Yizkor?

Image: The word “Yizkor” in Hebrew, and a candle flame.

If someone especially dear to you has died in the past, you know that we never really stop mourning them. The absence of a loved one eventually becomes a kind of presence of its own, an ongoing awareness that that person was an important part of our lives and is no longer with us. Healthy grieving after months and years have passed is not overwhelming, but the sadness is there, and sometimes it is sharp.

Jewish tradition makes time and space for long-term mourning for those especially close to us. The service of Yizkor (literally, “Remember”) is held four times annually in most synagogues: on Yom Kippur and Shavuot, and at the end of Sukkot and Passover. There are psalms and readings appropriate to mourning, and at the end of the service, the service leader reads or chants El Male Rachamim and leads the congregation in the Kaddish.

The Yizkor service is usually attended only by those who have lost a parent or a close relative, although if you are remembering someone who is not a relative but dear to you, you are welcome to attend. It is an opportunity to let your guard down and grieve, or simply to attend as a respectful remembrance of the dead. Some attending the service will be recently bereaved; others may be remembering someone who died long ago. Some people cry a little. Some sit quietly and respectfully. You are welcome to let the memories come and to let emotion come with them – no one goes to Yizkor to look at other attendees.

There is a tradition among Ashkenazi Jews that a person with both parents still alive should stay away from the Yizkor service, lest the “Angel of Death” be attracted to one’s parents.  However, if you need to mourn a sibling or a friend, there is no official rule against going to Yizkor; just be aware that if both your parents are living and known in the community, someone may warn you about the superstition!

Yizkor provides a safe space for us to mourn while honoring the memory of the dead.

A Lesson on Comfort (Parashat Shimini)

Nadab and Abihu Destroyed by Fire (Matthäus Merian the Elder)
Nadab and Abihu Destroyed by Fire

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Eternal strange fire, which God had not enjoined upon them.  And fire came forth from the Eternal and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Eternal.  Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Eternal meant when by saying:

    Through those near to Me I show Myself holy,
    And gain glory before all the people.”

And Aaron was silent. -Leviticus 10:1-3

Aaron’s sons have improvised a ritual that resulted in catastrophe. Moses responds by “comforting” his brother Aaron with words that offer no comfort whatsoever.

There are pairs and parallels in the passage: two sets of brothers stand before God. Two sets of brothers mess up. Nadab and Abihu bring “strange fire” and are killed by another [strange] fire. Moses and Aaron confront the disaster. Moses, who described himself as “slow of tongue” gives a speech. Aaron, the man who is first mentioned in Exodus 3 as one who “speaks exceedingly well” is starkly silent.

It’s horrifying and unsatisfying, a passage that we will forever puzzle at, trying to plumb its depths.

On a human level, I am struck by Moses’ insensitivity. He responds to the horror by quoting and interpreting God in a particularly heartless way: “this is God’s plan!”  Moses is not comforting Aaron; he is comforting himself that this horrible event somehow makes sense.  Aaron is silent.

There is something in us human beings that wants to make sense of dreadful events. When we are caught in that impulse, we say terrible things such as:

  • “This is God’s plan!”
  • “He’s in a better place!”
  • “At least she’s not in pain anymore.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason.”

What Jewish tradition teaches us is that the best way to comfort a mourner is to be quietly present. Sitting with a grieving person and being present to them is both difficult and easy. We have to let go of our need to explain, our need to make better, and instead simply be there. We have to sit with the mystery and the pain and endure, so that the mourner does not have to sit, like Aaron, silent and alone.

Moses was a great and good man, but even he had his off days. It is one of the beauties of Torah that those are not hidden from us: our greatest leaders had bad days, and we can learn even from those.

Image: Matthäus Merian the Elder (1593-1650) Public Domain