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.
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 an article I wrote about Purim.
Giving to Others is Our Freedom
By Rabbi Bryan Kinzbrunner
Purim commemorates the Jewish survival from genocidal decree in the Persian Empire during the 6th Century BCE. The celebration of Purim today entails the fulfillment of three Mitzvot, which means religious obligation or commandments. On the night and day of Purim, Jews around the world read the book of Esther as a remembrance of the miracle of survival. Additionally, Jews observe Purim through giving gifts of food to each other, as well as to the poor. Both of these commandments are alluded to in chapter nine of The Book of Esther.
The act of gift giving in of itself is a symbol of freedom for the Jewish people. The giving of gifts can only be performed if one has a feeling of ownership for the item being given. A person enslaved or living under strict rule lacks the sense of ownership that comes from being a free individual. Freedom’s core is best expressed through the words of Emma Lazarus, engraved on the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor which says:
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Some of the freedom we experience today comes from the ability to provide for the needs of others.
When people are in the midst of enduring tremendous suffering such as during and after Hurricane Sandy, human nature is such that often herculean efforts are made to continue to provide for and help those in this type of devastating situation. It has been shown many times over that many people manifest increased selfless behavior during times such as these which are perceived as excessively stressful and overwhelming. When the Purim story describes the celebration including the giving of gifts to friends and to the poor, it is describing the greater sense of altruism associated with these more difficult times. The commandment is a reminder not to rest in comfort, but to recognize that comfort comes with a responsibility. Therefore, the question that begs to be answered is this. If one who suffers and is traumatized can give when they don’t have much in emotional stock remaining to contribute, how much more should we, who are not in the midst of collective anguish, be able to provide to those who desperately need it?
As we celebrate Purim’s message of giving this year, my hope is for every person to take the time to recognize the tremendous responsibility all of us have to use the resources we possess individually in support of each other both in good and bad times. Chag Purim Sameach!
Rabbi Bryan Kinzbrunner is the Chaplain for The Oscar and Ella Wilf Campus for Senior Living in Somerset, NJ. You can contact Rabbi Bryan Kinzbrunner at 732-227-1212 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on The Wilf Campus visit us at http://www.wilfcampus.org or call us at 732-568-1155.
While this is somewhat outside the purview of my usual blog posts, I can’t resist publishing the following list. Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was asked to list the 10 books he believes are essential for Jews to read. While I am not sure I agree with some of the specifics of the list, I am quite fascinated in his thinking. From my reading, it is clear he is trying to present Judaism as a lifestyle and not merely a religion built off of ritual. There is a history, theology, philosophy and spirit behind the laws and customs. In a sense, without those elements, there is no baseline for the Jewish people.
Dec 05 2012
To be a Jew is to read. To learn, to study, to exercise the mind in pursuit of God and truth, is the holiest act. The Talmud, in a passage that dazzlingly illustrates the world of the sages, tells of a certain Rav Hamnuna who was taking a long time over his prayers and was thus late for his class in Jewish law. His teacher Rava said, “Here is a man who sets aside eternal life and engages in mere mortal pursuits.” (Shabbat 10a). Compared to study, prayer was a mere this-worldly activity. Is there any other religion in which that could be said?
So the idea of a Jewish bookshelf is something of a contradiction in terms. There are bookshelves, “houses full of books” (a rabbinic phrase), libraries, “houses of study.” “Of the making of many books, there is no end,” said Kohelet. Jorge Luis Borges, director of Argentina’s National Library, once wrote a short story, The Library of Babylon, in which he imagined a library containing every possible book. That is a Jewish idea of paradise. In Judaism, not only does the world contain the Book: the Book contains the world. “God looked into the Torah and created the universe.”
But we have to start somewhere. If someone were to ask me which ten books to read to understand what Jews are and what we believe, this would be my recommendation:
(1) The book of Devarim, Deuteronomy
Whilst the whole of the Torah is to be treasured no other single book so summarises the whole of Jewish faith: law, narrative, theology, the first two paragraphs of the Shema, the Ten Commandments, a summation of Jewish history and a visionary glimpse of the Jewish future. The name Devarim (literally “words”) is deliberately ironic. At his first encounter with God, Moses had said, “I am not a man of words” (ish devarim). Here at the end of his life he becomes not just a, but the, man of words in a series of eloquent speeches unparalleled in their prescience. The entire book of Devarim is, in fact, a covenant in vastly extended form, in which the relationship between the people Israel and God is articulated and affirmed. God will be their sovereign; they are summoned to create an exemplary society built on compassion, justice and the dignity of all, especially the powerless and marginal. If you want to understand what Judaism is, this is where you begin.
(2) Sefer Tehillim, the book of Psalms
Tenakh, the Hebrew Bible, consists of three kinds of text, Torah, Neviim (Prophets) and Keutvim (“the Writings”). The simplest way of differentiating them is that the Torah is God’s word to man, Neviim is God’s word through man, and Ketuvim is man’s word to God. Of the last, the book of Psalms is supreme. It is the music of the Jewish soul in its conversation with God. It runs the entire musical range, from choral symphonies to chamber music, from praise to penitence, from public celebration to private, sometimes heart-rending, plea (“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”). There is no greater religious poetry than this.
(3) Pirkei Avot
All the great works of the sages – Mishnah, Gemarra, and Midrash – are essential reading. But Avot, AKA “The Ethics of the Fathers,” is unique as a sustained account of what it is to live the life of Torah. Avot is to the Oral Law what Proverbs is to Tenakh, a book of wisdom. But this is the distinctive wisdom of a group of people who traced their ancestry to the prophets and were real, if quiet, revolutionaries, turning Judaism from a religion of state, politics, Temple and priests into one of synagogue, school and house of study. Avot is the classic statement of the life of study and teaching.
(4) Rashi’s commentary to the Torah
Non-Jews almost never understand how Jews read the Torah: always in stereo, listening to the written text with one ear, the classic commentaries and super-commentaries with the other. Of these, none has been more loved than that of Rashi. He is always there when you need him, explaining why this word not that, what the connection is between one section and another, anticipating all the questions you are likely to ask. His answers are not always straightforward – his grandson Rashbam claimed to have gone further into the “plain sense” of the verse – but they faithfully reflect rabbinic tradition. Rashi may not be the last word in Torah commentary but he is the first. Indispensable.
(5) Judah Halevi, The Kuzari
Halevi (c. 1075-1141), the greatest Jewish poet of the Middle Ages, was also one of its finest thinkers. His philosophical masterpiece, The Kuzari, would read almost precisely like a riposte to Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, were it not for the fact that it was written several decades earlier. Halevi stands at the opposite end of the spectrum to Maimonides, critical of the claims of reason to give an account of the human spirit, preferring “the God of Abraham” to “the God of Aristotle,” anticipating Buber’s distinction between I-Thou and I-It. Written as an imagined dialogue between the King of the Khazars (who converted to Judaism in the eighth century) and a rabbi, it is an engagingly readable statement of Jewish faith and a defence of Jewish particularity. It is available in several translations.
(6) Maimonides, Laws of Repentance
Maimonides was Judaism’s greatest philosopher, but his philosophical masterpiece, The Guide for the Perplexed, is deeply perplexing and deliberately obscure. His greatest single achievement was the Mishneh Torah, the most comprehensive, lucid and logically structured code of Jewish law ever written. Some parts of this are utterly unprecedented, and The Laws of Repentance is a fine example. Not only does it take you through the laws of repentance; it also guides you through its history, psychology and philosophy. You will encounter magnificent accounts of freewill, life after death, the messianic age, and what it is to serve God with love, all in ten short chapters of crystalline prose. No one else ever wrote halakhah like this.
(7) Sefer ha-Hinnukh
The classic work on the 613 commandments, written in the thirteenth century, author unknown, possibly R. Aharon ha-Levi of Barcelona. Judaism is the life of the commands which together constitute the choreography of life aligned with the will of God. The commands turn the prose of the everyday into religious poetry, and life into a work of religious art. This work, proceeding through the commands, their scope and logic, in the order in which they appear in the Torah, is one of the best introductions to biblical law.
(8) Elie Wiesel, Souls on Fire
No account of Judaism would be complete without some taste of the Hassidic movement that swept across Eastern Europe in the eighteenth century. Hassidism, a revivalist movement that emphasized simple piety, devotion in prayer, and serving God in joy, was one of the most creative phenomena in Diaspora Jewish history, and the figure of the Tzaddik or Rebbe, the charismatic leader of a sect was a genuinely new type. There are several collections of stories about these colourful figures, and Wiesel’s is probably the most accessible. Touching, humane and profound, they are an essential dimension of a fully rounded Judaism.
(9) R. Joseph Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith
R. Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993) was perhaps the greatest Jewish thinker of the twentieth century, a unique blend of two worlds, the yeshivah (his grandfather, R, Hayyim of Brisk, was one of its greatest minds) and the university (he wrote a doctorate on neo-Kantian epistemology). This short work is a fine example of his method, a philosophically inflected form of midrash, in which he does several things at once: resolves a series of difficulties in the two creation accounts of Genesis, suggests an orthodox response to Biblical Criticism, develops a phenomenology of the religious personality, and offers a critique of Western modernity. A complex gem of contemporary Jewish thought at its best.
(10) Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews
“All Jews who are at all conscious of their identity as Jews,” wrote Isaiah Berlin, “are steeped in history.” So a Jewish bookshelf must have at least one volume covering the history of our people, a story with more sweep and drama than any fiction. It is hard to single one out – there are many, most of them excellent. For me, however, Johnson’s is one of the best written and the most insightful. Who could improve on this stunning summation of the Jewish task: “No people has ever insisted more firmly than the Jews that history has a purpose and humanity a destiny … The Jews, therefore, stand right at the centre of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of a purpose”? A lovely, uplifting book.
Aging, blessing, chaplaincy, Creation, death, Genesis, genesis 1, hidden blessing, Jewish thougt, Judaism, Midrash, pastoral care, religion, spiritual care, spirituality, theology, Torah, torah portion, Torah Temimah
As we begin the reading of the yearly Torah cycle, I thought I would share a thought from the first Torah portion, which recounts the creation of the world through G-d’s decree of destroying the world (Genesis 1:1 – 6:8). As we look through the portion, death rears its head many times. In the irony of the grandeur of creation, death doesn’t lurk far behind.
One commentary I saw, Torah Temimah, on the verse (1:31) “And G-d saw all that He did and it was very good…” presents a Midrash that the phrase “very good” refers to death. He poses two questions on the Midrash. First, why would death be “very good” and two, why would death be tied into creation. When we consider what death does for life, it is supposed to be an incentive not to sit and be lazy. By recognizing the limit of life and that everything decays, we have an obligation to produce newer and better products for the progress of civilization. If all things where everlasting, there would be no incentive to work to create. And as we know, being creative is part of the human mandate of being endowed with a Divine soul. G-d creates so we create and while the two types of creative activity are entirely distinct, the base point is clear.
In essence, death was not the punishment for eating the tree of knowledge. Death always existed. Death becomes a curse, something not good, in the context of how we live life. If we choose to live life merely living off the efforts of others, then life is not the fulfillment of our creative side. We are mandated to be creative, to leave the world better than when we entered. This is the lesson of how death can be a hidden blessing. Dying forces us to have the perspective of time. And while most of us can’t grasp what death means from a physical as well as spiritual standpoint, we need to have the awareness that life is short and we need to work towards our goals and dreams.
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)
Jewish law discusses how a person is to act when visiting a cemetery. The entire discussion is predicated on a concept that the dead are “jealous” of the living for no longer being able to do physical acts, much of which allows a person to grow. The following is a short exposition one Rabbi wrote about cemetery etiquette.
August 7, 2012
By: Rabbi Ari Enkin
We are required to conduct ourselves with a sense of reverence when visiting a cemetery. There are a number of different terms that are used within Torah literature to describe a cemetery, among them are: Beit Ha’almin, Beit Hakvarot, Kever, Chatzer Mavet, and Beit Hachaim. The place of burial is also the place from where the soul clings to and keeps its presence in this world. As such, in addition to holy rabbis and other individuals of note who are buried in a cemetery, we can see why the cemetery is deemed to be a holy place.
It is improper to eat or drink in a cemetery or to perform any activities not directly related to the cemetery or the dead who are buried there. We are not to derive any personal benefit from a cemetery visit. It is also prohibited to relieve oneself in any part of the cemetery unless there are designated facilities available for this purpose. Even learning Torah, praying, or performing unrelated mitzvot in a cemetery is forbidden, lest the deceased feel slighted at not being able to perform these mitzvot themselves. As such, one must be sure to hide one’s Tzitzit and remove one’s Tefillin before entering a cemetery. It is permitted to recite Tehillim and deliver eulogies that contain Torah content at a grave, as they are done in order to show honor the deceased. It is an ancient custom to visit the graves of rabbis and relatives on their Yartzeit to offer prayers and engage in words of Torah there. The deceased derive great pleasure when their grave is visited.
One may not make use of a cemetery to serve as a shortcut in order to allow oneself to quickly reach the other side. It goes without saying that one must be careful to never step on a grave. Animals must be left at the entrance of the cemetery and are not to be led into its perimeter. One who tends to a cemetery, such as by mowing the lawn, and the like, should burn any clippings rather than thrown them out with the garbage. Fruits that have grown on any trees in a cemetery may be eaten. It is interesting to note that anything dedicated for holy purposes, including a cemetery, synagogue, or even holy books, only assumes such status after its first use.
There are special prayers, including the blessing “Asher Yatzar”, that are recited when visiting a cemetery after an absence of at least thirty days since one’s last visit. When visiting a grave, it is customary to touch the tombstone with one’s left hand, and one should place a stone upon it before leaving which serves to show that someone had come to pay their respects. One should wash one’s hands both before and after visiting a cemetery, as well as any time one has come into contact or even close proximity with the dead. The vessel used when washing one’s hands after such occasions should not be passed from person to person, but rather it should simply be put down for the next person to pick up. Some authorities recommend not drying one’s hands after this washing, but rather allowing them to air dry on their own. One should be sure to perform these washings before entering one’s home.
It is recommended that one only visit the same grave once per day. Many people have the custom to throw some grass or earth behind their shoulder before leaving a cemetery. It is taught that doing so serves as a reminder of the ashes of the Para Aduma, the red heifer, of the Beit Hamikdash, which was the only way one was able to achieve full ritual purity. Others suggest that throwing grass behind one’s shoulder serves as a sign of pain and mourning.
The members of a family are collectively obligated to erect a tombstone at the grave of their deceased. The tombstone is meant to honor the deceased and ensures that a deceased’s resting place can be located quickly and with certainty. It also ensures that a Kohen will know not to approach the immediate area. The funds to purchase a tombstone should come from the estate of the deceased. It is not of Jewish origin to decorate a grave with flowers and therefore, according to many authorities, it should be avoided.
 Beit Yosef;Y.D. 376
 Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 128:13
 Megilla 29a, Y.D. 368:1
 Rambam Avel 14:13, Y.D. 368:1
 Berachot 18a, Rambam Avel 14:13, Mishna Berura 23:3
 Birkei Yosef Y.D. 344:17
 Y.D. 344:17
 Rashi;Yevamot 122a
 Ta’amei Haminhagim p.485
 Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 199:14
 Y.D. 368:1
 Y.D. 368:1
 Y.D. 368:2
 Pitchei Teshuva Y.D. 368:1
 Mishna Berura 224:17
 O.C. 224:12
 Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 128:13
 Gesher Hachaim 29, Ta’amei Haminhagim p.470, Be’er Heitev O.C. 224:8
 Y.D. 376:4, Mishna Berura 4:42
 Mishna Berura 4:43
 Rabbi Akiva Eiger Y.D. 376:4
 Kaf Hachaim O.C. 4:78
 Mishna Berura 4:43
 Rabbi Akiva Eiger Y.D. 376:4, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 128:13, Mishna Berura 581:27
 Y.D. 376:4
 Shach;Y.D. 376:5, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 199:10
 Bereishit 35:29, Shekalim 2:5, Bava Batra 58a, Bava Metzia 85b
 Gesher Hachaim 28
 Shekalim 2:5
 Melamed L’hoil Y.D. 109
I am posting this article because it confronts a very hot button topic in Jewish death and dying. I do not personally advocate for cremation, but in my role as a Jewish chaplain in hospice, I find that the issue is one that must be worked through sensitively. I want to highlight one particular example. If a Holocaust survivor states that he/she wants to be cremated because that is how they feel there is kinship with there relatives who were murdered and buried in that manner by Hitler, can any of us be so bold as to confront that deep seated sentiment. This piece is spurned on by an article just published in the Jewish Forward.
Violation of Jewish Law or Sensible Modern Ritual?kurt hoffmanPublished May 18, 2012, issue of May 25, 2012.
At first glance, the two sides of the Jewish cremation dilemma seem clear. Opponents deplore what they see as a violation of Jewish law, desecration of the body and callous indifference to the memory of the Holocaust.
Proponents claim that cremation is less costly and more ecological, and that it saves land for the living. Yet a closer examination reveals a much more complicated picture. We need a Jewish conversation that speaks to the realities of both cremation and burial. This conversation is difficult because it involves facing death — not the illusory death of movies and computer games, but real and inevitable mortality — and what it means for our lives.
Levayah, the Hebrew word for “funeral,” actually means “accompanying.” Whether we bury or burn, our willingness to accompany is usually quite limited. Between medical pronouncement and final disposition, our dead are typically wrapped up and taken away to preparations of which we have only the vaguest knowledge. It’s much easier to focus on the details of a product — an urn or a coffin, a memorial plaque or a headstone — than on honoring and protecting a body in transition.
Jewish funeral imperatives are derived from the biblical precept that even the corpse of an executed criminal deserves protection from desecration. Levayah also incorporates such traditional but still relevant principles as biodegradability (“To dust you shall return”), sustainability (“Do not waste or destroy”), simplicity and equality (“All should be brought out on a plain bier for the honor of the poor”). With this in mind, we can approach the questions about cremation that make it most problematic for Jews.
Is cremation a violation of Jewish law? Orthodox rabbinic authorities maintain that it is. Meanwhile, the Conservative movement in 1986 unanimously adopted a rabbinic ruling: “Even though our tradition has clearly developed a taboo against cremation, there is no explicit source in the Bible or in the Talmud against it.” That being said, the “sacred established tradition” of burial should be upheld, and “if the body has been cremated, there is still a positive mitzvah to bury the ashes.”
Two years later, Reform rabbinic leaders also went on record to discourage the scattering of cremated remains in favor of their burial. Unfortunately, these rabbinic decisions are at cross-purposes with the established regulations of many Jewish cemeteries, which forbid precisely such interment of cremated remains.
Is cremation a desecration of the body? While some world cultures have cremated their dead with the utmost reverence for millennia, it is crucial to understand North American industrial procedures. Bodies are warehoused before each one is incinerated at four-digit temperatures for two to three hours. Afterward, bone fragments and other residue are further pulverized before they are boxed and returned. The absence of family and community members is as stark as it is standard.
Mistakes do happen. At best, “ashes” returned may not actually be those of one’s family member. At worst, there is the risk of falling prey to one of the many scandals of real criminal desecration that surface regularly throughout the United States, to the devastation of surviving kin.
The dumping of about 300 decomposing corpses at a Georgia crematory was exposed in 2002. A New Hampshire crematory was shut down in 2005 after some 4,000 cremations, for violations that included com-mingled cremation, unlabeled remains and forgery. Trafficking in human body parts at several New York funeral homes left more than 1,000 bodies desecrated as of 2006. In the absence of protective levayah, anyone’s body is vulnerable to such crimes.
Is cremation more ecological than burial? “For most environmentalists, it’s actually better to fade away than burn out,” British journalist Leo Hickman has noted in the Guardian. “Our lives… already result in enough gratuitous combusting of fossil fuels. Much better, in death, to compost down as nature intended.”
The Centre for Natural Burial offers an extensive list of greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants linked to crematories, and estimates that “the amount of nonrenewable fossil fuel needed to cremate bodies in North America is equivalent to a car making 84 trips to the moon and back… each year.”
There are also hard questions of environmental justice, since crematories — like other incinerators — are generally located in poorer communities. The Associated Press has reported on neighborhood campaigns to block the construction of new crematories in various states and countries, with particular concern for mercury emissions from dental fillings.
Does cremation save land? Given the prodigious consumption of nonrenewable energy, the air pollution and the global warming hazards involved, it’s difficult to make the case that cremation will safeguard “land for the living” in any truly sustainable manner for future generations.
Is cremation less expensive? Usually — assuming only direct transport from deathbed to crematory. Depending on the details of memorial service arrangements, though, costs may rival those of burial. Most significantly, as indicated previously, the ultimate environmental costs of cremation are much higher than the dollar amount paid by the individual consumer.
Does the choice of cremation reflect indifference to the Holocaust? Not necessarily. There is growing awareness that some Holocaust survivor family members quietly but deliberately choose cremation as an act of solidarity with murdered relatives. Sensitivity to this mostly unspoken way of working through the legacy of trauma should temper our public rhetoric.
This last question brings us to the crux of the issue. We need to speak with our families not only about our funeral requests, but also about what these requests really mean to us. A request for cremation may express kinship solidarity, or a fear that no one will visit or remember a grave. It may reflect a terror of enclosed spaces — which, given hours in an oven at extreme temperatures, the mechanics of cremation would not seem to assuage. It may represent a hope of easing the burden on our surviving family members, who may or may not see the request in the same way. It often involves a search for some means of avoiding the messy human need to grieve our losses.
Silence intended to spare the feelings of those we love often has the opposite effect at the end of life. The loving courage to speak about what really matters can strengthen our relationships. For our families and communities, as well as for the sake of our planet, it’s vital that we take this conversation to another level.
Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips is a chaplain, educator, and the director of Ways of Peace, which promotes community justice and kindness via mindful responses to human needs throughout the life cycle.