Here is a thought of mine for the upcoming holiday of Shavuot. (Cross posted on my work’s blog – https://www.wilfcampus.org/shavout/)
bereavement, Chayei Sarah, Consolation, death and loss, Hayyei Sarah, Jewish, Jewish reflection on death and dyign, Jewish thought, Judaism, loss and grief, love, parasha, psychology, Rabbi Marc Angel, spirituality, torah portion
I wanted to share the following words from Rabbi Marc Angel pertaining to this week’s Torah portion. I found his thoughts powerful and meaningful and wanted to share them. I find we need strong, caring relationships to help navigate us through the loss of other relationships in our lives.
“And Isaac brought her [Rebecca] into his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebeccah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted for his mother (Bereishith 24:67).”
The great medieval Bible commentator, Rabbi David Kimhi (known popularly as Radak), noted: “Although three years had passed between Sarah’s death and Isaac’s marriage to Rebeccah, yet he was mourning her [Sarah], and was comforted in that [Rebeccah] was good as his mother was.”
It appears, then, that Isaac mourned his mother inconsolably for three years. But once Rebeccah entered his life, “he was comforted for his mother.” Rebeccah had those qualities and virtues which characterized Sarah, and Isaac finally found consolation from the loss of his mother.
What is consolation?
Let us first state what consolation does not accomplish: it does not bring back the dead. It does not change reality. The beloved person has died and cannot be replaced.
Consolation does not deny reality. Rather, it attempts to cope with death by providing hope for the future. Death is a fact of human existence. It is distressing to lose a loved one. It is possible to sink into a deep depression when grieving. Consolation attempts to redirect mourning into a positive, future-oriented direction. Yes, a loved one has died; yes, the pain is real. No, the deceased loved one cannot be brought back to life.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in a lecture in memory of his father, stated: “…It seems to me as if my father were yet alive, although four years have come and gone since his death. It is in a qualitative sense that I experience his nearness and spirit tonight…Our sages have said…the righteous are exalted in death more than in life. If time be measured qualitatively, we may understand how their influence lingers on after their death and why the past is eternally bound with the present.”
With the passage of time, the mourner comes to experience the presence of the deceased loved one with a “qualitative time-awareness.” The focus is shifted from daily interactions that used to take place with the deceased. Instead, the mourner gains a deeper sense of the qualities and virtues of the deceased. With the passage of time, the mourning mellows into a calmer, wiser appreciation of the life of the one who has passed on. The bitter pain of mourning is softened. Consolation sets in.
Apparently, Isaac was so distraught at the passing of his mother that he had trouble developing this “qualitative time-awareness.” Her death traumatized him, and he could not shake off his feelings of grief.
Let us remember the nature of the relationship between Sarah and her son, Isaac. She gave birth to him when she was already quite elderly. To her, Isaac was a miraculous gift from God. She must surely have doted over him and enjoyed every moment with him. When she perceived that Ishmael was taking advantage of Isaac, she compelled Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael from the household. Only Isaac was to be Abraham’s true heir and successor.
Sarah loved Isaac with a total love. Indeed, Isaac could not fail to realize that the only person in the world he could fully trust was his mother Sarah. Hagar and Ishmael were certainly not to be relied upon. After the Akeidah, Isaac must surely have had misgivings about trusting his father Abraham, who had raised a knife to his throat.
When Sarah died, Isaac felt very alone in the universe. There was no one who loved him with an unqualified love. There was no one who understood him fully. There was no one to whom he could turn for genuine consolation. So he mourned for three years. He felt lost and abandoned.
But even more painful than being unloved by anyone, Isaac had no one whom he himself loved with a full love. A loveless life is a tragic life, a life of perpetual mourning.
And then Rebeccah enters the scene. “And Rebeccah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac she alighted from the camel…and she took her veil and covered herself (24:65).” Abraham’s servant explained to Isaac that Rebeccah had been chosen to become Isaac’s wife.
Instead of hesitating nervously, Isaac suddenly came to life. He was immediately impressed with Rebeccah’s modest and respectful behavior. This was a dramatic instance of love at first sight. Lonely Isaac now had love in his life again. Lonely Rebeccah—and she must have been lonely coming to a new land to start a new life among people she did not know—saw in Isaac a meditative, sensitive man—a man worthy of her love.
Isaac was consoled on the loss of his mother. He saw in Rebeccah those special qualities that had characterized Sarah. More than that, he found in Rebeccah the love which had been absent from his life since Sarah’s death. He was now able to deal with Sarah’s death because he now had a future with Rebeccah. He could redirect his thoughts to moving his life forward instead of grieving for an irretrievable past.
I have often told mourners: You never get over the death of a loved one; but you learn to get through it. The deceased loved ones remain with us “qualitatively” as long as we live. We treasure our memories of their lives, and we carry those memories with us as we forge our ways into the future. We find consolation not by forgetting them, but by bringing them along with us every day of our lives.
We find consolation through the power of love, the blessing of loving and being loved.
I know this is a bit late, as Passover ends on Tuesday night, but I was finally able to find the article online. Here is my recently published Passover article.
Seven weeks ago, as I was doing my weekly food shopping, I came across an aisle of food set aside for Passover products. Jewish law is very strict regarding what can and cannot be consumed on Passover.
As such, Jews spend days and weeks before Passover planning and implementing our cleaning, shopping and cooking schedules in order to ensure that Passover can be celebrated in its proper way at the proper time. Additionally, each of those tasks is not simple. For example, when it comes to food shopping, it is an overhaul of all one owns during the year and buying replacement Kosher for Passover products for the one week holiday in addition to needing to know in advance what and how much one needs to purchase. As one can imagine, this preparation becomes all-consuming.
Passover celebrates the Exodus from Egypt of the Israelites 3,500 years ago, a story of going from slavery to freedom, exile to redemption. And yet, in working to prepare for Passover, one gets a sense that there is an irony to celebrating freedom by slaving over our preparations to celebrate. Yet, when we look into the value of freedom versus slavery, we recognize that freedom is not always about absolutely lack of methodical conduct that one must engage. Rather, freedom is having the ability to have dignity and self-worth in the midst of a legal system, a legal system that is ideally established to protect its citizens.
Perhaps this is the lesson of the excessive preparation before Passover. The Jewish mystical tradition presents a fascinating re-read of the laws regarding removing leavened products from one’s home for Passover. Instead of reading the law in the literal sense, it is re-conceptualized to teach people that Passover is a time of introspection, specifically a time of investigating one’s humility in relationship with G-d. We are to remove the arrogance, the leaven, in our hearts, humbling ourselves, symbolized by Matzah, something that doesn’t rise.
While Passover cleaning cannot and should not be the same as spring cleaning, which it becomes for many, there is also a lesson in similar vein regarding the hard work of preparing for Passover.
To truly be able to fulfill the mandate of seeing oneself as having been redeemed from Egypt, which would require a certain humility of perspective as one would be focusing on the idea of redemption from being enslaved, one can see the preparation for Passover as a microcosm of burden before celebration.
May each of us find humility in the renewal time of the calendar, and may we find meaning in the challenges of preparing to celebrate the holiday that truly embodies freedom.
Book of Esther, celebration, giving, Jewish holidays, Jewish spirituality, Jewish thought, Judaism, King Ahasuerus, purim, Queen Esther, religion, religion and spirituality, spiritual practice, spirituality, The Book of Deuteronomy
Below you will find my recently published piece on Purim.
Rabbi Bryan Kinzbrunner
Oscar and Ella Wilf Campus for Senior Living, Franklin
Jewish holidays have always included the idea that celebration goes beyond the immediate household to include all of society. The Book of Deuteronomy delineates that the celebration should include “you, your son, your daughter, your slave, your maidservant, the Levite, the convert, the orphan and the widow who are in your cities” (Deuteronomy 16:14). True rejoicing occurs when everyone has a place in the societal enjoyment of the festivals.
In today’s Jewish communities, inter-relational celebration is especially experienced during the upcoming holiday of Purim. The holiday celebrates the Jewish survival described in the book of Esther. The particulars of how to celebrate are clearly laid out.
The Book of Esther states, “Mordechai recorded these events and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, the near ones and the distant ones; they are to observe annually the 14th day of the month of Adar and its 15th day as days on which the Jews found relief from their enemies and the month which had been turned about for them from one of sorrow to gladness, and from mourning to festival. They are to observe them as days of feasting and gladness, sending food to one another, and gifts to the poor” (Esther 9:20-22).
Celebrating holidays in a societal way is an expression of a fundamental principle of happiness and joy. An adage in “Ethics of our Fathers” notes that a person who is rich is someone who is content with his portion. I recently read an article on parenting that described how in order to teach children the value of money and objects, a parent needs to work hard on not actively pursuing the newest and the best things. Rather, one should work toward being satisfied with what one already has, not always running out immediately to buy the latest gadget or item even if one has the financial means to make those purchases.
It is further incumbent upon the parent to verbalize a commitment to being satisfied in the face of pressure to keep up with society. Similarly, when we work to include others at our table and make the effort to ensure that everyone is able to partake, we are able to exemplify the idea that what we have is not just for our own use.
The Book of Esther also challenges the reader in the same manner when Mordechai persuades Queen Esther that she must confront her husband, King Ahasuerus, about Haman’s evil decree to wipe out all the Jews of the Persian Empire. Esther expresses doubt as to whether she should approach the king to rescind the decree. In responding to this doubt, Mordechai states, “and who knows whether it was just for such a time as this that you attained the royal position?” (4:14)
We are not always privy to the whys of life. The mandate of celebration with all of society is perhaps meant to remind people, “it was just for such a time” that we have the means and the ability to uplift those who otherwise do not have the means to celebrate. As we celebrate Purim, may we remember that true celebration comes from a place of giving, and may we find joy in bringing joy to others.
Here is a short piece I recently published in preparation for Rosh Hashanah.
In my work with the elderly and with the terminally ill, I am often exposed to the grand questions of life through the eyes of people facing mortality. These penetrating questions are frequently expressed in the negative, through what someone regrets when looking back. A recent book was written by a nurse who spent years working with the dying. She highlights the regrets her patients shared with her. The sense of remorse relates to missing out on what each deems very valuable in life. The elderly often try to convey to their descendants how living life constantly on the go prevents one from enjoying the happy and sweet aspects of life, such as spending time with family and friends or leaving a lasting legacy for future generations.
With the upcoming holiday of Rosh Hashanah, which celebrates the Jewish New Year starting on Wednesday, Jews around the world have the opportunity to reflect on how they lived life this past year. The recently retired former Chief Rabbi of England, Lord Jonathan Sacks, offers a very poignant set of questions we need to ask ourselves at a time of new beginning, such as a new year. Regarding Rosh Hashanah, he states, “Properly entered into, this is a potentially life-changing experience. It forces us to ask the most fateful questions we will ever ask: Who am I? Why am I here? How shall I live? How have I lived until now? How have I used G-d’s greatest gift: time? Who have I wronged and how can I put it right? Where have I failed, and how shall I overcome my failures? What is broken in my life and needs mending? What chapter will I write in the book of life (Koren Sacks Rosh Hashanah Mahzor, P. X)?”
New Year’s celebrations can be both joyful and serious. It is a time to start new, and newness always contains a sense of hope. Yet, with a new beginning also comes the fear of what will be, leading people to be deeply reflective about the direction they want life to continue. The task of the New Year is not to let the opportunity for growth disappear. Rather, the Jewish New Year provides opportunity to truly work on improving the meaning and quality of our lives.
Rabbi Bryan Kinzbrunner is the campus chaplain for The Oscar and Ella Wilf Campus for Senior Living, which comprises The Martin and Edith Stein Assisted Living, The Lena and David T. Wilentz Senior Residence, The Martin and Edith Stein Hospice, Wilf Transport and the Foundation at the Wilf Campus. For more information, call 888-311-5231, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit us at www.wilfcampus.org.
Here is a small reflection for Simchat Torah next week.
Simchat Torah marks the yearly celebration of completing the reading of the Torah, the Pentateuch. It is a joyous day in the Jewish calendar, the culmination of the fall holiday season. It is a day of song and dance, celebrating the basic spiritual building block of the Jewish community.
As is customary, there is no break between concluding and restarting the Torah reading cycle. The tradition is to conclude the reading of the Torah, reading the last two chapters of Deuteronomy, referred to by the first words of chapter 33, V’zot HaBeracha, “and these are the blessings.” Following this, the community then begins the reading of Genesis again, reading the creation story, chapter 1 to chapter 2:4.
Ends and beginnings are intertwined. For the Jewish community, this day marks the conclusion of the holidays, either seen as the conclusion of the season of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, or more broadly, this is the culmination of the three pilgrimage festivals, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, when in the times of the Temple, the people would go to Jerusalem as biblically mandated. Simchat Torah leaves us with a sense of completion, of finality. Simchat Torah is the day Jews integrate into their minds the verse from the final portion: “The Torah that Moses commanded to us is an inheritance for the congregation of Jacob” (33:4).
Completions tend to be happy, joyous affairs. Yet, sadness hangs over the synagogue. It is sad to consider that the holidays, which are so highly anticipated, have come to an end. The hope is to carry the spiritual high of the holidays through the doldrums of winter. While this is difficult, perhaps there is a way, for there really is no ending. Just like with the annual Torah reading cycle, which always loops back to the beginning, to the grand expectation for humanity, so too our lives can loop back around and be refreshed.
This idea is best exemplified in a teaching from “Ethics of Our Fathers,” where it says, “Turn it over and over, for all is in it. Look into it deeply. Grow old and grey with it” (5:21). Judaism considers the Torah the blueprint of life. As such, the looping around on Simchat Torah is symbolic of this need for deeper communal study of the work. Further, as the blueprint, the yearly cycle should be an impetus for further reflection on life, allowing for continued growth and renewal.
Renewing our lives is about working on consistent growth. When we celebrate the completion of something, we really are celebrating the beginning of the next step. As such, the Simchat Torah celebration is more than the culmination of the holidays and the completion of the reading. It is the ultimate symbol for starting afresh, which we all strive for at new beginnings.
The following was my sermon for the second day of Rosh Hashanah. As referenced in the bottom, it was based on a couple of my older pieces, as well as a friend’s sermon from a few years ago.
The Silence of the Shofar – Rosh Hashanah 5773 day 2
In the midst of the High Holiday liturgy, Jews around the world recite a prayer that describes the imagery of all of humanity passing before G-d in judgment. In describing Judgment Day, the prayer states; “The great shofar is sounded, and a silent, still voice is heard.”
The blowing of the shofar, the act of crying out to G-d through the use of an animal’s horn, is described as a wake-up call. We are to arise and open our eyes to be more conscious of the world and of ourselves.
The sound of a shofar is the primal cry of all humanity, mimicking the different cries experienced during loss. Yet, we are simultaneously tasked, as the stanza indicates, to also hear the silent, still voice.
What is this silence, and how does hearing the silence between the sounds of crying enhance our growth as human beings?
Life today is very noisy. We are constantly inundated with the wonder of instant communication and technology. While there is tremendous value in having everything at our fingertips, we have lost the ability to hear the silence.
In “Ethics of Our Fathers,” a work of ethical and moral statements of the rabbis of old, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel taught: “All my days I grew up around sages. I found that there is nothing better for the body than silence; explanation is not the essential feature, rather action; and all who speak too much will come to sin” (Chapter 1:17).
One explanation offered reads this piece as a unified, single subject. One should limit what one says about material, this-worldly subjects. Additionally, one should not be so cavalier as to think speaking about spiritual matters is a simple task as well. One should be just as careful about discussing spiritual matters because words become meaningless and fleeting when there is nothing concretizing one’s thought. Finally, if one does speak more and doesn’t perform, one will bring about negative judgment towards everyone. In other words, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel is describing a contemplative quiet; a person needs to learn the value of choosing the appropriate moments to speak.
Silence also has another function, specifically for this time of year, the aseret yemei teshuvah. R. Nachman of Breslov explains that to truly repent, one must listen and remain silent. This is represented by the bracha on teqiat shofar, lishmoa’ kol shofar, on hearing the sound of the shofar. The mitzvah of Shofar is to listen. But what are we listening to? What is the sound of the shofar?
We are listening to a seemingly paradoxical sound. In the world of Tanach, the shofar communicated pomp and circumstance, its sound conveyed national energy. Its sounds would accompany the most meaningful, most sweeping public moments – the blasts of the shofar would accompany the coronation of the King, the army marching proudly into battle, the declaration of the Jubilee year. Yet Hazal, in their interpretations, hear the sound of weeping in the shofar as well – the cries of an abandoned child in distress, rachel mevakha al baneha and the cries of a mother waiting for her son to return home from war, eim Sisera, from whom we learn the tradition of the 100 blasts we sound. There is no paradox, no contradiction between these two experiences. The teqiyot, the triumphant, unbroken sounds, represent us at our most complete and whole, the triumphant, the happy. The shevarim and teruot, the broken blasts, represent those moments when we are broken, when all we can do is cry. Taken together, the sounds of the shofar represent the extremes of the human experience – from the proudest moments to the meekest, from the communal to the solitary. The moments when we feel like saying, as Rabbi Soloveitchik did in his famous essay, Lonely Man of Faith:
I am lonely. Let me emphasize, however, that by stating “I am lonely” I do not intend to convey to you the impression that I am alone. I, thank G-d, do enjoy the love and friendship of many. I meet people, talk, preach, argue, reason: I am surrounded by comrades and acquaintances. And yet, companionship and friendship do not alleviate the passional experience of loneliness which trails me constantly. I am lonely because at times I feel rejected and thrust away by everybody, not excluding my most intimate friends, and the words of the Psalmist, “My father and my mother have forsaken me” ring quite often in my ears like the plaintive cooing of the turtledove.
The shofar gives voice to those moments that are expressed by pure emotion, the moments when we have so much say, but have no words.
After each blast of the shofar, there is a moment of silence. Unetaneh Tokef describes the experience of the revelation of the Shechina on Rosh Hashanah. We chant “uvashofar gadol yitaqah, v’qol dememah daqqa yishamah – and the great shofar is sounded, and a silent, still voice is heard.” After each blast of the shofar, after expressing our most personal prayers and innermost thoughts, if we listened carefully, we could hear that silent, still voice – we could hear God whispering back. We encounter God through the transcendent moments in our lives, at the happiest times and at the saddest times, when we are alone in our thoughts and prayers, when there are no words, because nothing more needs to be said.
The still, small voice of Rosh Hashanah is about hearing the echoes of life. Whether we laugh or cry, those sounds are the overt expression of our emotions. The challenge is to hear those same sounds when we are afraid of being expressive. When sitting in synagogue, reading the different pieces of liturgy, are we hearing our thoughts as well? Do we understand the words we are reading and what they say about life? Have we given ourselves time to be internally reflective? Do we hear the cries of the others around us? Or are we scared of the inner voice, so we do all we can to drown it out?
As we reflect on the sounds we are about to hear, I would like to take this opportunity to wish that this be a year we hear the quiet between the tears, the silence between the laughter, and allow that silence to be a guide for a sweet and meaningful new year.
 Liqqutei Moharan Qamma, Torah, Ot Beit
 Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Lonely Man of Faith.” P. 3
 The preceding two paragraphs were based on the Rosh Hashanah sermon (5770) delivered by Rabbi Avraham Bronstein at the Hamptons Synagogue, Westhampton Beach, NY. (with changes)
I want to share my sermon for the first day of Rosh Hashanah.
Audacity in Prayer – Rosh Hashanah 5773
As we begin look forward to the new Jewish calendar year of 5773, I feel an overwhelming sense of ‘now what?’ We gather every year on Rosh Hashanah and pray to G-d. We begin the ten day process of penance that culminates in Y”K. Yet, what are we doing? Can we possibly stand in judgment before G-d? I recall some years ago standing on Y”K, reciting the Al cheits, clopping my chest with my fist, and I began laughing inside. I felt as though standing in G-d’s presence and confessing sins must be the ultimate cosmic joke. Yet, here we stand again, on judgment day, proclaiming G-d as King and hoping that we are written for good.
When we enter Rosh Hashanah, we have high hopes, even in the midst of the challenges around us. We hope this will be a better year. But what can we really say before G-d? To answer this question, I would like to look at three descriptions of prayer in the Bible as seen through the eyes of the rabbis of old, Chazal, for through this exploration we can have a deeper sense of the grandeur of prayer.
G-d tells Abraham that the plan is to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah and the other outlying cities due to their wickedness. G-d offers this warning to Abraham because G-d feels that Abraham, as the eventual “owner” of the land, should know what will happen to some of his territory. When Abraham hears about the destruction, he doesn’t just let it happen. Rather, he tries to bargain with G-d, asking Him to spare the cities even for 10 righteous people in these 5 cities. And while the prayers ultimately did not save these cities (though probably helped in sparing his nephew Lot and his two daughters), the story is recorded to show how humanity should approach G-d. We should be strong enough to bargain but also recognize the limitations of compromise.
The book of Deuteronomy begins with the verse, “these are the words that Moses spoke in…” giving us a long geographic description. Rashi, the great medieval commentator, explains that the list was really a veiled attempt at chastisement. Instead of fleshing out what happened, Moses merely mentioned places or descriptive titles to describe the sins of the people in the desert. One of the terms, Dei Zahav, the place of Gold, refers to the building of the Golden calf. Rashi quotes from the Talmud in tractate Berachot, which says that these words actually reflect a conversation between Moses and G-d. Moses tells G-d, ‘it is Your fault the people made the Golden Calf because you gave them all that gold and silver.’ Moses, in pleading with G-d to save the people from destruction, resorts to blaming G-d for the faults of humanity.
The third biblical reference is from the beginning of the book of Samuel, describing Hannah, Samuel’s mother, as she prays for G-d to give her a son. The fourth chapter of BT Tractate Berakhot describes how we learn about prayer from Hannah. In the midst of this discussion, which extrapolates lessons from the description of how she prays, including how why the Rosh Hashanah Mussaf service contains two extra sections, the Talmud (31b) teaches us a very difficult monologue. The Talmud records an embellished prayer of Hannah’s. She turns to G-d and says:
Dear G-d, you are the Master of the Universe. If it suites You to provide me a child, good. If not, then I will have no choice but to force your hand. I will seclude myself with other men, forcing my husband to have to bring me to the Tabernacle (in Shilo as the Temple was not yet in existence), where I will have to drink the waters of the suspected adulteress. At that point, my innocence will be proven, and as You have promised, the innocent woman will be fertile. Only then will I have a child.
When I came across these words, I began to tremble. How could such a righteous woman, one of the prophetesses, have the audacity to speak so harshly to G-d? Could any of us imagine doing the same? The same can be said for the first two stories as well. Can one imagine bargaining or critiquing G-d if we knew G-d would actually respond back?
For most, Rosh Hashanah revolves around the blowing of the Shofar. The Shofar represents Abraham having the strength to withstand G-d’s ultimate test, which we read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. In the merit of Abraham not arguing with G-d, we blow the shofar, representing the ram that Abraham sacrifices instead of Isaac.
Yet, as we stand on Rosh Hashanah, year in and year out, praying and hoping for a sweet year, we run into a problem. Just like the people of Israel in the desert, whom Moses defended by saying that G-d caused the sin because of the excess of riches, we too could make the same claim. Why is it we don’t turn to G-d and argue:
Dear G-d. We are here again standing in your shadow. We are in your presence. We are unworthy, because we are full of sin. But you know what G-d, it’s your fault we sinned. You are the master of the world. You created us with good and evil. You created the evil inclination, the yetzer hara. Therefore, we are blameless because without that stumbling block, we wouldn’t be in need of judgment each year.
Could any of us imagine saying such a thing? And yet, the rabbis of 2000 years ago put those similar words into Moses’ mouth. As an aside, the Talmud also shares a story about how after the destruction of the first Temple, the people begged G-d to remove the evil inclination from their midst so as not to fall into the trap of idolatry. And G-d obliged. While this led to a society free of sin and blemish, this also had an untold consequence. Men and women no longer showed interest in each other, thus not fulfilling the basic human element of procreation, which as we shared before, is such a basic instinct that a woman as great as Hannah would sin in order to become fertile. So G-d reinstated the Yetzer Hara, thus putting us back into the same predicament.
What is the message of these three areas of confronting G-d, bargaining, critiquing and threatening, and how can we relate this to the moment, standing before Shofar blowing and Mussaf?
The answer lies in a fundamental aspect of belief. If we truly believe in the idea of Avinu Malkeinu, our Father our King, then we would be more willing to be audacious in prayer. When we request something from another, we assume the other is in a position of strength because they can grant or deny our request. Yet, unlike the general request, we look to G-d not just as the one in power. We also see the softer side, Avinu, the parent. When a child wants from a parent, they will resort to almost anything to get it, as all of you recall, either as the child or the parent. When we stand on Rosh Hashanah, do we feel that we can talk to G-d as a child before the parent, ready to say almost anything to get what we want? This is the lesson of the bible and the rabbis. Prayer is twofold, recognizing the true power and also recognizing that true power being merciful and willing to give if prodded. As we cry through the primal sound of the shofar and prayer the special mussaf, may we merit the strength and ability to approach G-d and cajole and argue for a year filled with good, a year filled with life and find the ultimate of forgiveness again during these 10 days of penance.
The biggest challenge of Tisha B’Av is working from the collective grief to finding the light that is promised in the midst of tragedy. The following is an article that discusses the need to travel through brokenness as a means of transforming ourselves.
The following is the first in a series of excerpts from Uri L’Tzedek’s “Rising in the Night: Compassion and Justice in a Time of Despair,” a collection of reflections, poems and calls to action intended to bring mindfulness and social justice to the experience of Tisha B’Av.
No one moulds us again out of earth and clay,
no one conjures our dust.
Praised be your name, no one.
For your sake
we shall flower.
we were, are, shall
the nothing-, the no one’s rose.
our pistil soul-bright,
with our stamen heaven-ravaged,
our corolla red
with the crimson word which we sang
over, O over
–“Psalm” by Paul Celan, trans. Michael HamburgerAll beginnings lack. One could say that the beginning of the story is in the paradise we lost, in the utopia we yearn for, “as in days of old” (Lamentations 5:21). But the story does not begin in that paradisiacal stasis. The story can only begin in the occasion of a break; it only begins with change.
Tisha B’Av is our beginning (and all beginnings are the beginning of the end).
Even G?d’s beginning commences with negation. G?d’s first act is not one of creation but of self-limitation, with tzimtzum. Isaac Luria’s greatest student, Hayyim Vital, writes in his Etz Hayyim,
When it arose in the singular will of G?d to create the cosmos … then, G?d negated G?d’s infinite self in the central point within, in the focus of the holy light, contracting this light, which receded to the sides surrounding the central point. There remained an opened space, an empty void… (Derush Adam Kadmon §2)
The point of origin is one of emptiness. The beginning of G?d’s creative activity is removal, withdrawal. G?d’s self-removal is the condition for the very possibility of there being anything at all. For there to be anything else, G?d’s infinite being must recede, must make space. If G?d, in transcendent perfection, were to persist in utter wholeness, then there could be no us, there could be no relationship, there could be no dialogue, there could be no-thing at all. Vital describes G?d’s motivation as stemming from the intense desire to bring benevolence to those who would come into being. The only means to bring presence is through absence.
All later iterations of destruction (churban), of rupture (shevirah) are repetitions of the initial absence. When we confront emptiness, our experience is not that nothing is there, rather that something is there no longer. Fullness is conditioned on that emptiness. To fill something up we first must empty it out. Tisha B’Av presents us with two themes, curling around each other, fitting perfectly together. The practices of the day model rituals of mourning, calling back in our collective memory for the loss we carry with us each day. “When Av arrives, we decrease our joy” (Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 26b). We match our living to the consciousness we inherit. But it is precisely on Tisha B’Av, the day commemorating our lowest point, that redemption, repair, tikkun become most present. We cannot mend what has not been broken. We must delve into our brokenness to come to a place of healing. The story begins in destruction, in negation, but culminates in re-creation.
On Tisha B’Av (after Tisha B’Av, we are always after Tisha B’Av) we are left with ruins, the emptiness remains. We are left with what was, with the past as such. But what is a ruin? Anselm Kiefer, a contemporary German artist, whose work confronts his nation’s own ruinous history, is entranced by what has been destroyed.
What interests me is the transformation, not the monument. I don’t construct ruins, but I feel ruins are moments when things show themselves. A ruin is not a catastrophe. It is the moment when things can start again.
We cannot allow our confrontations with destruction, with catastrophe, with emptiness where there once was, paralyze us. The gap that is opened in rupture must also be an opening to possibility. The Maggid of Meziritsh, in his Maggid Devarav Le-Ya’akov, wrote that for anything to grow, it must always pass through ayin (nothingness). To be destroyed is to confront one’s very dissolution, but it is also to be open to what one can become. G?d, precisely due to being infinite (Eyn Sof, without limits), is No-thing (Ayin) at all, radical possibility.
This is the challenge with which we at Uri L’Tzedek present you, today. Delve deep into Tisha B’Av. This fast day is notorious for its occurrence during the most uncomfortable time of year. The three weeks cut into our summer fun, the heat of the day beats down on us, intensifying our enervation. But we must make sure that these experiences of suffering bring us understanding in what it means to be in pain, what it means to be lacking, what it means to be in need.
This volume presents the reader with a selection of essays, textual commentaries, and calls to action, sharing a common goal to prompt a new way of thinking about this most tragic of times and what we can draw from it. All true justice work entails transformation, both without, redeeming what has fallen, but also within. To change the world, we must change ourselves. We must not just acknowledge but be reshaped by the suffering we witness.
Poems replete with anguish and longing are central to the liturgy of Tisha B’Av, as we read scores of kinnot (lamentations) describing for the reader the stark reality of our people’s suffering. The key to a poem is to show, not tell. It brings the reader in tune with an experience otherwise lost. It can impart truths of experience, helping to bring us all to a place of real compassion, the true starting point of all justice work. The Hebrew word for compassion (rachamim) is drawn from the word for womb (rechem), an empty space within that is not a loss, but, as in the case of the Divine, the condition for the possibility of newness, of generation. We at Uri L’Tzedek hope that, on this Tisha B’Av, you do experience loss and lowness, absence and even pain, but that these moments of ache bring you to vulnerability, to compassion, and from there to a world of redemption.
This column is an excerpt from “Rising in the Night: Compassion and Justice in a Time of Despair,” a social justice Tisha B’Av Supplement published by Uri L’Tzedek. The title “Rising in the Night” alludes to one of the Book of Lamentations’ most striking lines, imploring the reader to, “Rise and cry out in the night … pour out our heart like water before the presence of the L-rd; lift up your hands to Him for the life of your children, those who are faint with hunger, at the opening of the streets” (Lamentations 2:19). The pain experienced during the most heightened moment of national despair becomes a compulsion to care for the vulnerable in one’s community.
This is the nexus promoted by “Rising in the Night.” Uri L’Tzedek seeks to connect the Jewish people’s communal narrative of destruction and promised redemption to issues of social justice, which resound in us today. The exile central to Tisha B’Av can make us more aware of today’s plague of human trafficking. The narrative of that most high city being brought low can make us more sensitive to more personal forms of despair, such as increasing incidents of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. All of these convergences and more are brought together in “Rising in the Night,” which will soon be available for download here.
Here is an interesting reflection on death and grief. It relates to sudden loss vs. long term loss as well as different shiva experiences.
That this seemingly simple mechanism–cell growth without barriers–can lie at the heart of this grotesque and multi-faceted illness is a testament to the unfathomable power of cell growth. Cell division allows us as organisms to grow, to adapt, to recover, to repair–to live. And distorted and unleashed, it allows cancer cells to grow, to flourish, to adapt, to recover and to repair–to live at the cost of our living. Cancer cells grow faster, adapt better. They are more perfect versions of ourselves. (Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies)
To grow, to adapt, to recover, to repair–to live.
Those words weigh heavily when we prepare to face death.
I was once talking to a friend who had lost his wife to a sudden death. Talking to one another one afternoon, reading the paper, game on tv, when suddenly, like a burst of thunder, she was gone. My dad died that way, I told him. And we talked about which is better: to lose a loved one in an instant or to prepare the way, to visit, console, make plans, and then say good-bye.
“I’d take the ‘sudden’ route again,” he said quietly. I leaned the other way.
As I re-read Siddhartha Mukherjee’s extraordinary work–a volume I have learned from enormously along with Jerome Groopman’s The Anatomy of Hope–I am reminded of exactly this critical point: That to live is to master the difficult work of growth, adaptation, recovery and repair. Those individuals who tragically don’t have an opportunity to do so (because of sudden death) or who live inside of the remarkably powerful human capacity for denial that anything is actually terminal–miss the chance to live on the dimension of life that leads to death: a journey that is the most difficult but that ironically is the journey that brings the greatest blessing to our existence.
Who would we be without the lives and deaths of all those who came before us? In what ways are our lives already impacting those who will long outlive us? And what does it require of us to be cognizant of these interconnected realities, their lessons, their many-dimensioned meanings?
Mukherjee reminds us of Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, in which Pavel Rusanov speaks of his illness as a prison, a metaphor often described by those we’ve met facing terminal illness. An inexorable, inescapable closing off of possibility, of life.
Still seared in my own memory, however, is a text to which I return over and over; a real life text from the moment we buried my grandfather on a cold winter day in Wisconsin. Snow on the ground, ice in the trees, and my grandmother, Russian-born, throwing herself on the ground and crying out, “A dead man, a dead man.” I was about to turn ten that winter but at that moment did not feel terror at the site but rather love. Love for my grandfather, my grandmother, my father (broken that day) and then later, at Shiva, utter fascination and comfort with the celebration and warmth of the community back in my grandmother’s apartment. So much language, so much food, so much life.
One night at Shiva, while in the back bedroom at my grandparents’ apartment, looking through my grandpa’s doctor’s bag, I laid out all the instruments of his work: blood pressure pump; stethoscope; reflex hammer. A cousin burst into tears at Grandpa’s absence and then I had a flashback to the last time I saw him. My dad had driven us to Mount Sinai Hospital, parked the car on the street, and then went upstairs to his room, where he brought him over to the window to wave good-bye. Down on the sidewalk, on a cold winter day, I looked up toward heaven, at my hero, diminished within the walls of his illness but smiling, sending kindness and love in my direction. This is the image of an uncontainable man: no illness, no plain pine box, no hole in the ground.
The prison, to be sure, is in our minds.
הכל צפוי והרשות נתונה ובטוב העולם נדון והכל לפי רב המעשה — Rabbi Akiva taught that “all is foreseen yet free choice is granted; the world is judged with with goodness; yet all is according to the predominance of deeds.
What we make of our time comprise the blessings and the curses of our lives.
That’s why when someone dies we say, “May his memory be a blessing.” Because our own unavoidable experience of death, our own coming to terms with our own mortality, necessitates our own ‘growth, recovery and repair.’
Not a closing but an opening, into life.
רבי יעקב אומר העולם הזה דומה לפרוזדור בפני העולם הבא התקן עצמך בפרוזדור כדי שתכנס לטרקלין–Rabbi Yakov said, ‘This world is like a vestibule before the world-to-come; prepare yourself in the vestibule, that you may enter into the banquet hall.’
The catering there is even better.