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.
It is with interest to read this description of someone who always struggled with being a support to others during shiva (Jewish mourning period for the first week after burial of a loved one) and then had to face being the recipient of support during his time of mourning.
My wife lovingly refers to me as a shiva wimp.
I would use any excuse to avoid making the traditional visit to the home of one in mourning for a close relative. “We weren’t that close. I don’t want to burden them with conversation. There will be a lot of other people there.”
I felt very awkward at shiva calls. But the deeper truth was that I didn’t want to go anywhere near death. I didn’t want to think about it, see it, or be in its presence.
Until several weeks ago, my life had been graced with extra doses of life. Four parents well into their 80’s, six kids and four grandkids. I didn’t want to jinx anything.
All that changed on erev Rosh Hashana. My father, after catching a few fish on the boat with my mother, said he had a headache. A few hours later he was gone.
Shiva came crashing down on the shiva wimp.
The seven days are now long over, but I am still mourning. Words seem to disappear in the air before they reach my ears. I am constantly saying, “What, can you say that again? I didn’t catch it.” I stare out the window, not knowing what I am looking at or looking for. The stickiness of death has not yet departed.
Because my parents lived in the outskirts of Maine, not many people actually visited during the shiva. But hundreds called or wrote. Every Facebook message brought home to me how I had let down other people during their time of mourning; how I had not risen to the occasion to comfort them in their brokenness.
During my shiva, I was overwhelmed by people’s goodness. Thank God, other people were not like me. While I deeply appreciated the time and effort everyone extended to me – some things helped me and some – not so much.
One well-meaning person said, “I am calling to fulfill the mitzvah of comforting mourners.” Ugh. It wasn’t so comforting to become the object of his mitzvah observance. Similarly, many people recited the formulaic Jewish response of “Baruch Dayan HaEmet” or “HaMakom yinachem.” Often I felt they were functioning out of religious obligation. The tone and pace of their speaking changed during their recitation, as if they had moved into a formal and mechanical zone. As they spoke, I seemed to disappear.
Some people offered unsolicited advice – “Remember the good times. Be thankful he didn’t suffer. Time will heal the pain.” I wasn’t ready for it and couldn’t hear it. I felt they were trying to make the tragedy easier for themselves, not for me.
But some people held the space of my brokenness, without trying to “fix” things. As if they put out their hands to hold my tears. People that I didn’t even know well offered me a quiet space to dwell. I greatly appreciated their being with me.
The most comforting and healing for me were the people who shared their own pain with the death of their parent. They spoke from their hearts about how they are still dealing with their loss. In their pain we bonded and together we shared our brokenness. They did not try to do a mitzvah, to recite standard words, or to offer advice. They had the courage to revisit their own period of mourning and honor my grieving with their grief.
They are my shiva heroes. They graced me with the sorrow of their heartbrokenness. I sat in awe and remain grateful for their courage and authenticity.
I hope that I will be able to follow their example and serve as a comfort to others in their time of mourning.
I know this is a couple of days late, but here is something I wrote that reflects on the recent end of the Jewish holidays.
Sep. 19, 2013 |
Rabbi Bryan Kinzbrunner
Oscar and Ella Wilf Campus for Senior Living
For the past couple of years, I have had the unique privilege of celebrating Simchat Torah with my residents at the Martin and Edith Stein Assisted Living Residence. As we begin the ritual of the day, carrying the Torah scroll around the Bima (lectern) seven times in celebration of the annual completion of reading the Five Books of Moses, I am always taken with how valuable marching around a Torah Scroll can be for my seniors, whose average age is about 90. Imagine a procession of people slowly making their way around with their canes and walkers with smiles on their faces, singing popular Jewish songs from yesterday and today.
The fall Jewish holidays are coming to a conclusion. Jews have gone from the hopes and wishes of a sweet new year on Rosh Hashanah, to the Day of Atonement, the last chance to be sealed for a good year, to the joys of the holiday of Sukkot. On the last day of this festival season, it is most fitting to celebrate the completion and restarting of the study of the Five Books of Moses, the building block of Western civilization. The fall festivals are a time of renewal. Just like we look at a renewal of the New Year and a chance to start fresh, we also celebrate the renewed opportunity to start our studies anew.
Simchat Torah is the celebration of a verse from the final reading of the Torah cycle; “The Torah that Moses commanded us is the heritage of the Congregation of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4). Jews believe the Torah is their heritage passed along through the generations. It is an inheritance that has been shared with the world throughout the past 2,000 years. Torah is an inheritance that has been the source of much struggle, but more so is also the heritage of joy for the Jewish people. In observing the joy of my residents celebrating with the ideas that have been handed down to them — and that they know they have perpetuated and handed to the generations after them — is something that me, a father of two young children, cherishes each year.
The heritage of the generations is a blessing I wish we all will continue to cherish. As the fall holiday season come to its conclusion, may we all continue to carry the joy of the holidays and the joy of seeing multiple generations in celebration together.
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.
This article discusses an often misunderstood element of life. If we don’t occasionally speak up about our own needs, then we are truly being selfless. Yet, without worrying about the self in some way, we are leading ourselves to burning out, thus further limiting the kindnesses we want to provide. From a Jewish perspective, this is a concept taught in Ethics of our Fathers: “if I am not for me, who will be for me. If I am only for me, then what am I.” We need to balance self and others when being kind.
The article below provides a Christian faith perspective.
People-of-Faith often struggle with making our needs known.
Telling someone what you need is almost universally awkward, but people-of-faith often struggle against the idea that telling others what they need runs counter to the call to be generous, selfless, and committed to working for the good of others. For Christians, this struggle is crystallized by the misapplication of John 3:30 that says, “He must increase while I must decrease,” but by no means have Christians cornered the market on misplaced guilt.
-Being Faithful AND a Person: A Possible Dream…-
The impetus to place another’s needs before one’s own is genuinely admirable, but doing it to the exclusion of meeting one’s own needs can lead to burnout or “compassion fatigue.” Worse still, for the person-of-faith, being irresponsibly selfless is one of the most common reasons I see people giving up on their religious faith. They can’t figure out how to be faithful and still be a person. It doesn’t help that pastors, family, and other members of one’s faith community often give advice that appears to suggest that you can’t, or shouldn’t, do both. The good news is, it doesn’t have to be that way, nor should it.
To be a unique and unrepeatable person made in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:27) means, at least in part, that God expects the needs he built into you to be met. Why? Because getting your needs met is what enables you to come fully alive and, as St. Irenaeus put it, “the glory of God is man, fully alive.” An artist is most likely to be praised for his work when his painting most perfectly reflects the subject he painted. An author is most likely to be praised when his writing most perfectly captures the imagination of the reader. And the Creator is most glorified when his creation is fully alive–which necessitates that his creation’s needs be met.
Making Your Needs Known: A Path to Loving Others
But responsibly making your needs known does more than help you glorify God in becoming your best. It’s also an important way you show your love for the person to whom you’re speaking your needs.
To love someone is to work for their good. When you tell someone your needs, you invite them to grow in ways they could never grow if you weren’t in their life.
God puts people in our life specifically to pull things out of us that couldn’t be brought out any other way; things that he wants us to examine, to change, to develop. When people trust me enough to tell me what they need–whether a spouse, or a child, or a friend–I work hard to see what they’ve communicated as an invitation from God to grow in ways he needs me to grow so that I could, ultimately, become the person he created meto be.
When we respond generously to the needs of another person (assuming that a particular request isn’t objectively immoral or personally demeaning), we’re actually saying, “yes” to an invitation God has written on that person’s heart; an invitation to grow in ways we never would if that person wasn’t in our life.
The same applies to you. Responsibly telling others what you need invites them to grow in ways that allow them to become the generous, loving, people God wants them to be. Refusing to state your needs is, in essence, refusing to extend God’s invitation to others to grow and change in ways that are important to God’s plan for their growth and development. Keeping your needs to yourself isn’t loving at all.
Responsibly Stating Your Needs: A How-To
Still, knowing that communicating your needs is a loving thing doesn’t give you the right to boss people around or act as if your needs must be met immediately upon request. You’re a person, not a potentate.
We do have a right to expect that someone who loves us will want to meet our needs, but we also we have an obligation to be considerate of others’ concerns as we work with them to get our needs met. It’s not merely expressing our needs that makes us selfish–it’s expressing those needs without regard for the common good (between ourselves and the other) that makes us selfish.
Theologians tell us that we humans find ourselves by making a sincere gift of ourselves. Of course we should find little ways every day that we could be a gift to be a gift to others, but along the way, make sure you’re also giving others a chance to be a gift to you.
To learn more about respectfully getting your needs met, check out God Help Me! These People are Driving Me Nuts. Making Peace with Difficult People (Popcak–Crossroads)
Woman with headache photo available from Shutterstock.
Gregory Popcak, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping people-of-faith find effective solutions to tough marriage, family, and personal problems.
The author of over a dozen popular books integrating solid theological insights and counseling psychology (including; For Better…FOREVER! , Holy Sex!, Parenting with Grace, Beyond the Birds and the Bees), Dr. Popcak directs a group pastoral tele-counseling practice that provides ongoing pastoral psychotherapy services to faithful couples, individuals and families around the world.
Together with his wife and co-author, Lisa Popcak, he hosts More2Life, Airing M-F, Noon-1pm Eastern (Tune in online or to podcasts at http://www.AveMariaRadio.net). A sought after public-speaker, Dr. Greg has been honored to address audiences across North America, Australia, and Hong Kong.
For more info on books, resources, and tele-counseling services visit http://www.CatholicCounselors.com.