Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Emotions are Real: A Perspective on Grieving the loss of a loved one

Yizkor Yom Kippur: Day of Atonement Memorial Service

Aaron, the brother of Moses, had just lost his two sons, Nadav and Abihu. The Torah tells us in the book of Leviticus that God sent a strange fire and took them both out for apparently not following directions set out by God in the Torah for making sacrificial offerings. Aaron’s response was; “Vayidom Aaron,” And Aaron remained silent.” What did that mean? What does silence mean as compared to weeping or as other biblical patriarchs did which was to cry, throw dirt upon them and tear their garments? Yet with Aaron, the high priest, it was silence. It feels unusual. The reaction is not typical of how most people react to the death not just of children but towards any loved one. Yet this is the situation of Aaron and it feels like a mystery to us because we don’t know what is beneath the surface. His silence almost invites us to ask questions about what he was really feeling. Surely there is a connection for us to see that reacting to grief varies and we all struggle with different means to accept the loss of a loved one.
I think there are many occasions when people exhibit emotional reactions that leave us perplexed as they mourn a loved one. Sometimes it is silence and other times it is a non-stop mourning that goes beyond Judaism’s 11 month initial period of mourning. Everyone mourns differently and we should resist making too many judgments about someone else’s way of mourning and determining what is appropriate and inappropriate. All that is really important is that the mourners are truthful with themselves and the issues they are facing as a result of losing their loved ones.
I remember a man who lost his teenage son to cancer. Joshua was his name and the father used to take his chair out to the cemetery and read or sit there and talk to the grave as if he was speaking to his son. People in the community used to comment to me about how strange that appeared to them after the first year. He continued to visit his son’s grave for some time afterwards. We all use different ways to cope in the short run and the long run with the death of a child or a loved one.
There is so much that life can teach us about handling our careers, parental roles, our financial responsibilities, and so on. But what course do we take and what books do we read and what tv reality show do we watch that will instruct us how to mourn the loss of a loved one? What college or university teaches how people can mourn their loved ones? The truth is that none of these are either appropriate or enough for us to expect to learn how to mourn and how to cope with long term grief.
Judaism has an  established a  process of one year  for mourning starting with the laws and rituals that guide us from the moment we hear of the loved one’s death to the washing of the body in a ritual specific way to the final interment. Judaism gives us the 7 days of shiva and asks us to take time out and get our bearings and receive the comfort of the community. Thirty days or shloshim comes next from the time commencing with the interment. Then the unveiling and the obligation to recite mourner’s kaddish for a loved one each day for 11 months. Mitzvot such as giving tzedakah in their memory, starting programs in the memory of the loved one or getting involved in the causes that they loved or the causes that were responsible for their deaths is also typical. People tell me all these things help.
The challenge is a deeper one which is confronting the long term journey to live without their presence.  All of us understand what I mean when a grief-stricken spouse says’ life just does not feel the same since he or she passed.’ We understand the internal meaning when a senior adult confides; “my friends are all passing. Who is left?’ We know what it means to experience multiple emotions like anger, frustration, comfort and release in one setting and feel exhausted afterwards.
How did Abraham react internally when he had to bury Sarah? He purchased a cave called Mahpelah in the ancient city of Hebron to give her a proper resting place. Jacob made sure that Rachel was buried and provided her with a separate tomb from the rest of the Patriarchs and matriarchs buried in the Cave of Mahpelah. And it was God who laid Moses down to rest and with a kiss let him enter life eternal on the plains of Moab burying him in a place where no one would ever know.  Still the Torah is quiet about exposing emotions. The children of Israel cried when Moses died. But we do not usually get a sense of the internal emotions at work inside the matriarchs or patriarchs.
Nevertheless, Judaism provides us with a framework to cope. It offers us a year of ritual and structure to transition. Beyond that we have the opportunity to remember, as we are doing right now in worship, three times a year at the festivals and particularly at Yom Kippur. Yet there is a difference between what all the rituals in the world can do, and we should not underestimate their efficacy, to the internal resources we all must summon up inside ourselves. The strength to grieve and mourn long term is not about suppressing emotions inside ourselves. It is not about lashing out at the world even when we want to do so and feel justified in doing so. It is not about exhibiting anger at everyone who we believe or imagine could have or should have done more for us or our loved ones. The strength is about seeing inside ourselves where the real needs are and recognizing how to address those secret emotions rather than let them become toxic to us and others.
Silence is not a bad thing. Crying and screaming is not bad either if we know when to exhaust those emotions and move on to living life.  Silence does not means being stoic and unfeeling just as emoting does not mean being out of one’s mind. When we are trying to comfort friends and family who are struggling with the loss of a loved one then one of the important values is trust that the mourner will display the emotions they are most comfortable using to deal with the death of a loved one.
And all we can pray to god for them is that they are truthful with themselves. Grieving a loved one in the short or long term means that mourners face hard truths.  Some of those truths are about emotions such as loss and loneliness and our need for security and identity. Some of those emotions are about frustrations. They are all real issues.  The challenge is to understand the emotions we are experiencing. And the same challenge for us who comfort mourners is to respect those emotions. 
May God comfort you amongst the remnants of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. May our loved ones be remembered for blessing.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Yom Kippur Morning Sermon

Yom Kippur Day
 A High Holy Day Prayer that opens the door to Jewish history and to ourselves.
Recently at Shabbat services I led a discussion focusing on one of our prayers, the Unatane Tokef prayer. A member of the congregation commented that he remembered how his mother would cry when she read that prayer each year. The tears streamed down her face to the point that the page was basically yellow over the years as she returned to the prayer at the High Holy Days.
The generation of my grandmother who either came from the old country or whose parents were immigrants understood that life was a fragile thing. They were regular people; they had no college degrees nor did they hold important positions in the corporate world or in the professions. They did have courage and strength to break the chains of their oppression in Europe and immigrate to America. They inherited the belief that Rosh Hashanah was a blend of contradictory experiences. One was joyous welcoming the New Year with apples and honey. The other was unsettling believing that God hears us and judges us especially at this time.
The prayer Unatane Tokef is one of the most poignant examples of the High Holy Day drama of God who sits on high and opens the three books to determine our fate. Yes, it is hierarchical. But we do have the opportunity to change our fate. We have choices and we have the opportunity to make corrections through Prayer, Repentance and Giving to those in need. But there is a sub text in this prayer where history plays a role in our thinking about how vulnerable we are. Second there is a struggle today to come to grips to find a way to understand this prayer if we do not accept the literal and traditional notion of God as arbiter of our fate.
Last night on Kol Nidre I spoke to us about belief in god. It is a theological challenge. But what I want to focus on today is another question; how does Jewish history influence the development of our spiritual life? We need to be aware of and understand what was meant when some of our most important high holy days prayers were written.  The prayers do not normally reveal their historic origins but the Unatane Tokef is an exception. And by exploring this one prayer and its historic origins we can better come to grips with a modern interpretation not only of the Unatane Tokef for our times but also for the entire experience of the High Holy Days.
If we peruse the pages of the High Holy Day Mahzor, particularly on Yom Kippur, we never see a preface about the history of any prayer except one prayer- the Unatane Tokef prayer. The prayers are  supposed to be anonymous so that we should not cast them into any one time period. The goal is so that they should be timeless and not constrained to a particular time period which could narrow their meaning for future generations. That makes sense.
Yet if we examine the Unatane Tokef, we see the exact opposite. We read a preface regarding a story of Rabbi Amnon of Mayence who basically committed an act of martyrdom, and before going to his death he wrote this prayer. It leaves us with an impression that this rabbi was German and lived in medieval times.  And the invoking of a historic context sets a tone that our history is very much connected to our prayer experience no matter when the prayers are recited.
In a newly published study of this prayer, one which offers us new interpretations for our times, the story of Rabbi Amnon is discussed. As might be expected there are lots of different scholarly views about him and the history of the prayer. Yet the predominate view is that the story is at least from the 11th century even if its roots go back even earlier. But the historic times of this period was the Crusades and the story goes as follows. Apparently the bishop of the community in Germany summoned Rabbi Amnon and requested that he convert out of Judaism into the Bishop's faith tradition. The rabbi responded that he would consider the request and get back to the bishop in three days. Almost immediately the rabbi realized that it was a major mistake to leave that opening. So the rabbi decided not to return with an answer. Afterwards the agitated cleric had Rabbi Amnon brought to him and decreed that his fingers and his toes would all be cut off.
Rabbi Amnon was brought back to his home. When Yom Kippur came, after he was carried into the synagogue, in a moment of divine inspiration he recited this prayer Unatane Tokef. That is basically the primary story of how this prayer came to be. Some scholars say that it came from Germany. Others will argue that its origin was in Italy and then France but the German origin stuck for all time. It was the one prayer that captured the feeling of vulnerability of the Jewish population in medieval Europe in the aftermath of the Crusades which impacted them in no less a traumatic way than the Shoah did in our time. Notice that if any or all of this is true that there is no evidence of hatred or bitterness. It is a prayer that acknowledges that life is unpredictable and that we are vulnerable on so many different levels.
We have no corroborating evidence about Rabbi Amnon but we know that the root letters of his name mean faithful one. How appropriate for this story of a martyred rabbi who defied the religious authorities that tried to force to him to convert out of Judaism. Whether the rabbi actually existed or not is not the issue. If he is a metaphor or a representative symbol of an entire generation we sense the dignity of his thoughts despite the unfathomable pain he experienced in his suffering. How does all this fit into our modern day mind set?
Putting aside the issue of defining our belief in God, modern people struggle with too much negativity in general and in religion as well. Do we not like things that are positive and the glass half full rather than deriving spiritual energy from someone else’s suffering? Who wants to be reminded of the traumas of our history? Yet that is exactly what the congregant’s mother understood who cried each year when she read the prayer. Her generation and those who preceded her understood and lived that kind of anti-Semitism. It was real for them and for us in America it is not real. Except for the remnants of Holocaust survivors, we have lived in a relative cocoon of security.
This may be one reason why modern Jews, particularly on the progressive side of Jewish  life, ask how this liturgy relates to us. Have we lost something valuable or precious from our past that numbs us to the underlying meaning of our prayers?  This question is not about God. This is about us and our connection to our history. This is about making an island in America believing that we are different and that we do not have a vested interest in our past. I fully respect that there are limits to how much we can relate to the history of prejudice and bigotry against the Jewish people. But can we abandon such a history? Do we strip the prayer of its roots especially when our rabbis wanted us to focus on this meditation of Rabbi Amnon before chanting Unatane Tokef?
My view is that during the High Holy Days we need to reconnect with a Jewish past. The issue is not simply judging the efficacy of the prayers in the Mahzor based upon how relevant they are to our lives. How can we make such a judgment unless we gather in a broader historic context to evaluate it?  The High Holy Days are, in my estimation, a series of sacred moments in the lifecycle of our year when we receive a reminder that we are products of our history which does not mean we are automatically obliged to relive it and, I fear, we will experience a kind of spiritual amnesia of our past if we do not strive to learn our history.  That thought worries me.
We come to these prayers with divergent beliefs in God. We enter the Holy Days with different expectations about what we are to get out of the long hours of worship. Our tradition says the Days of Awe are about a sense of reconciliation on multiple levels. We are supposed to ask not only God but ourselves some hard questions about our behavior and face the uncomfortable task of making peace with people who we have offended and those who have hurt us.  There are religious and social reasons which motivate us to attend services.  For some the purpose is social, that is, to be seen in the pews and for others the purpose is to reaffirm our communal connections in this spiritual convocation. We are even supposed to fast which can be painful and then within hours change our mood to break the fast with joy and lots of good food. There is a communal solidarity that motivates us.
What is most important is that we engage the prayers on whatever level we can as compared to reading them without any sense of investment or personal interest in the prayers. Unatane Tokef reminds us that god is the shepherd and we are the flock. The prayer is also a wakeup call that human achievement is still limited and cannot determine the outcome of everything that happens to us. This time honored prayer gives us a pathway how to make things right and avoid the justice that may be coming our way. There are a multitude of options today about how modern people can interpret this prayer and the role of God as judge over us.  But there is another lens that we should wear when we read this prayer. It is a lens of memory. It is a lens that makes us remember that someone else like us long ago also read this prayer in a synagogue.  Rabbi Amnon created it in a time when Jewish survival was a real question in the Crusader world of medieval Germany. His heart and soul should not be lost in the voice of our prayers.
Do we remember our parents reading this prayer? Or maybe it was our grandparent’s generation that evoked that unforgettable pathos that touched us so deeply? I like the idea of having the prayerbook my parents used to pray at High Holy Days.  I would hope that we could own a prayerbook and one day bequeath it to our children and grandchildren.  It isn’t much different than having a parents’ cherished possession after they die so that we can feel the memory in the object. It connects us to them. It provides comfort even when we miss them so much. These objects bring our loved one back to life. And it is not too different if we were to open their prayerbook. Their fingers touched the pages. Their eyes recited the words and their thoughts pierced the words of the book.
The idea of connecting to our past and personalizing that past with our loved ones is the main point. We need to reconnect that past like wearing the spiritual jewelry of our loved ones.
I would like to read this poem to you by Dan Pagis, a survivor and a famous Israeli poet.
Hidden in the study at dusk,
I wait, not yet lonely.
A heavy walnut bureau opens up the night.
The clock is a tired sentry,
Its steps growing faint.

From where?  In Grandfather’s typewriter,
An Underwsood from ancient times,
Thousands of alphabets are ready.
What tidings.

I think that not everything is in doubt.
I follow the moment, not to let it slip away.
My arms are rather thin.
I am nine years old.

Beyond the door begins
The interstellar space which I’m ready for.
Gravity drains from me like colors at dusk.
I fly so fast that I’m motionless
And leave behind me
The transparent wake of the past.
The prayerbook is the old typewriter with lots of letters and ideas. But it was grandfather’s typewriter which connects to that nine year old curious boy.  And we all, regardless of our age, hurry throughout our lives to work, raise children, pay our bills, go to parties, visit the kids and the grandchildren. Yet that typewriter and the memory of Grandfather is the point of departure that is what connects that kid to his grandfather years later.
 I associate Rabbi Amnon’s prayer with Pagis’ image of the grandfather’s typewriter. It is also a link to his age and to his generation’s tragedy. It is more than that because Unetane Tokef ultimately proclaimed a message to the future of Judaism that we could prevail in hard times. Our own personal code of conduct would not diminish no matter what a hostile world was prepared to do against the Jewish people. Our relationship with God would never disappear. Our faith is steadfast no matter what curves and challenges life hurls at us and in particular what people or countries that dislike us will do to us. Unatane Tokef prayer captures the pride and courage of holding fast to our values even when the darkness surrounds us.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Yom Kippur Kol Nidre Sermon

Yom Kippur Evening: What about God?
I was standing in front of a class on religion, a guest lecturer, at Mississippi State University during a visit to my rabbinical student pulpit some thirty years ago. The student asked me, “You do believe that the Bible is true? You believe that the bible is the word of God, right?” All of sudden I looked like the deer staring into the headlights of an oncoming car. I gazed over to the host instructor, an Episcopalian priest, who looked back at me, and, with a little smirk taking shape on his face motioned me to answer the question. I began to fashion a response that parts of the Torah and the entire Bible were probably written in by human beings, even if we assume that some form of divine inspiration was involved in their writing. One could feel the tension in the room rise as if I was pronouncing blasphemy. Needless to say the students blasted me expressing disappointment and bemusement at my thoughts. Surely a rabbi believes in the inerrancy of the Scriptures, they imagined.
The truth is that it is difficult for Jews to define ourselves in a theological sense. Our Christian neighbors often react curiously when we describe ourselves as a mixture of ethnic group, religion and nation state when responding to their questions about what we believe and how God belongs to our theology. We just do not fit into mainstream western categories o f religion. We are a blending of several forces in the society at large. And if we think people from outside of Judaism are perplexed by our attempts to explain ethnicity and religion together then just imagine how we sound to ourselves when trying to define what Judaism means.
A current example of this creative tension is the one sponsored by the popular Jewish magazine called Moment. In its Fall publication it ran a symposium interviewing scholars, poets, teachers on one question.  Can there be Judaism without a belief in God? Just imagine the multitude of answers given on this question. And I believe that if we held the same symposium here at Beth Yam we would probably encounter a broad spectrum of viewpoints as they did in the pages of the magazine.
This question is fair because we are sitting here tonight most likely holding the same level of practices and viewpoints as to whether or not God is absolutely essential for us to even have High Holiday services. No doubt Jews are going to disagree on everything except about what someone else should believe. But the moment is the High Holy Days and is it not fair to ask ourselves whether a faith tradition like ours needs God and whether Judaism would be Judaism without God? My view is that Judaism can handle a wide variety of viewpoints that do not include those who believe in god. Yet in the long run Judaism cannot sustain itself if God is taken out of the language and the conversation and the dialogue that we have in the realm of worship and spiritual dialogue.
Because Judaism is a faith tradition that focuses more on external acts, be they ritual acts or quite simply actions of ethnic solidarity, rather than depending strictly upon internal tenets of belief we have been able to dodge that bullet of theology. But when it comes to the High Holy Days this is one of the moments of the year when we, as a community, are obliged to face our beliefs or lack of beliefs about God, Judaism and any other aspect of the Jewish experience and ask ourselves these questions: not just whether Judaism needs God, but, if the answer is no then what exactly enters our minds when we utter the words out of the prayer book like Adonai Hu HaElohim-the Eternal is God?”
It is not unusual for those who would disavow belief in God to find themselves rising with the congregation to recite the Kaddish or the Shema or singing the Kol Nidre or Avinu Malkeinu. Why not? We know that Judaism as system of laws and rituals focused its energy primarily on establishing a fence around the Torah which meant that first and foremost the priority of our sages and the community was to secure the practice of law and ritual. Our sages were much more flexible about what we thought or believed in as compared to what we actually did with our laws and rituals.  I remember a rabbi explaining to me that by practicing rituals it would lead to belief as compared to waiting for belief before practicing rituals.  
Not surprisingly the scholars over the centuries could not agree on the basic tenets of Jewish belief. Yes they would agree about fundamental Jewish practices but not about an absolute list of basic beliefs. Great medieval scholars like Moses Maimonides, Gersonides, Bayah ibn Pakudah all debated each other over the centuries to create the ultimate list of what every Jew should believe. The result was that no one ever created that uber list of Jewish doctrine that everyone would subscribe to in order to be a believing Jew.
There are lots of Jews who discarded their beliefs in God when they came to this country. The Jewish socialists and Yiddish secularists celebrated Jewish culture and ignored Judaism. The same people who founded and led the movement to settle Palestine in the early part of the 20th century also came from primarily secular backgrounds. Thus, Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, was a completely secular Jew from Vienna, Austria. They focused on the new Jewish state in a way where religion was present but it did not define the character of the new Jewish identity burgeoning into the modern state of Israel. We still see that clash of culture today between so-called secular Israelis who do not believe in God vs. those religious or dati Jews for whom the only credible Israel is an ultra-Orthodox Israel.
In America we call ourselves a religious nation but are Jews God fearing people? The answer is mixed and the spectrum as broad as the number of Jewish opinions. Besides the mainstream branches of Judaism there is even a Humanistic Judaism movement of temples that declare they do not believe in a deity but still have services anyway. This movement was considered so outside the box that the normally liberal reform movement refused to admit their congregations into the movement decades ago.
In the symposium article entitled, “Can there be Judaism without God?” Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the greatest Talmudist of our times, said, “Judaism without belief in God is like humanity without life- A collection of dead bodies, cemeteries and memorials.” Rebecca Goldstein, an atheist and highly regarded author and philosopher said, “”If an open-minded look at the world makes a person conclude that this is a godless universe, does she have to renounce the culture she grew up with, that has done so much to develop a moral outlook and human values? The answer, for me and many others, is no.” Rabbi David Wolpe commented, “Judaism without God exists. “It can last a generation or two, but will disappear without the roots that gave it nourishment. Absent a connection to God, Judaism cannot sustain itself.” Noah Feldman, professor of international Law at Harvard responded, “You can be a culturally committed Jew, for whom the ritual is symbolic; a Diaspora Jew, committed to the practices of Jewish life outside Israel; or a Zionist Jew, connected with Jewish life in Israel.  So, while those who believe that Judaism cannot exist without God, there are clearly those who think it can and should.
Part of our challenge is recognizing that we don’t fit into the neat theological litmus test of belief that our friends in the Christian community have developed in their faith tradition. It is the reverse situation where they focus on belief and practice is secondary. We are seeing in America a long term effort to make America a more God-fearing country and we can see the repercussions of this type of strident religiosity in our political culture. But Jews just are not wrapped that way.  We struggle with God. We wrestle with the Divine. We are always probing and testing ourselves and our beliefs. And that is not any different than what our ancestors did since biblical times either.
For us we can say “I’ don’t believe in God but I still rise to recite the Shema.” We can listen to the music of Kol Nidre and not think about the meaning of the words themselves. It is the music that carries us to a place of history which inspires us to remember the hard times and the defiance our ancestors demonstrated in the face of bigotry and hatred towards us. We can sing Avinu Malkeinu and there is no belief in God neither as “Our Father” nor as “Our King” yet we still sing the melody and the words and it resonates deeply in our souls. Does it make sense? No. But does it work? Yes.
Elie Wiesel tells the story of the trial against God conducted by a rabbinical court in one of the concentration camps. He recalls that they held a trial to condemn god for not saving the Jews. The rabbis debated and came up with a verdict.  God was judged guilty of the crime. After the decision was announced that a rabbinical court found God, guilty of silence in the Holocaust, the chief rabbi of the court exclaimed, “Now that the decision has been reached the court will break so that we can pray the evening service.” Only with the Jewish people.
But what about us? We are not all scholars who write Torah commentaries or philosophical treatise on the existence of God. We have our histories. We have the years and life experience. We do not have the threat of eternal damnation hanging over our heads if we do not swear absolute homage to God. We are free thinkers. But do we take God seriously? It is not about absolute belief. It is about not giving in to the inertia of forgetting what is sacred in our lives. It is about not forgetting the pain and the beauty of what makes our life worth living. It is about having seen suffering and wondering why have I survived these years? What is my purpose? Are these questions less important as one accumulates years?
It is true that Judaism is more than only the focus on God. It is about the struggle to understand, to question everything, to pursue learning and to see how the presence and idea of god follow us no matter how much we may want to ignore the Holy One. Judaism is a culture. It is a tree with many branches extending out from it. But the trunk of that tree contains the presence of God and that we cannot ignore. Judaism needs God, I believe, in the same way that a tree needs the soil which it is rooted and without which it cannot survive.
I do not believe we can always give the answers to our grandchildren and children that they want to hear when they ask us about God. We may even disappoint them with our answers. But what we should not do is to think that being a Jew provides the option to forget about God and to ignore the conversation about God that is part and parcel of our lives to the last breath whether we admit it or not.  Just because we can accept non theistic viewpoints in the synagogue does not mean that we don’t cast God out like the goat which carries our sins on Yom Kippur into the wilderness! We need that religious and spiritual grounding even if we cannot always fall in line into the kind of God fearing people we admire.
A congregant came to the Rabbi, “Rabbi,” he complained,
“I am struggling and I cannot resolve my God issues.”
“What are the issues?” the rabbi asked.
I keep struggling about whether there really is a judgment and a judge.”
“What does it matter to you!”
“Rabbi! If there is no judgment and no judge, then what do the words of the Torah mean?”
“What does that matter to you?” the rabbi quipped.
“Rabbi! ‘What does it matter to me? What does the rabbi think? What else could matter to me?”
Well, if it matters to you as much as all that,” said the rabbi, “then you are a good Jew after all-and it is quite all right for a good Jew to struggle: nothing can go wrong with that person.”
Whether Judaism or something we choose to call “Judaism”- can survive without god remains, alas, an open question for some. For me, however, Judaism without God would have to be called by a different name, and I pray, that day will never come. Judaism can tolerate and embrace all kinds of perspectives as long as we do not give up on the struggle to define, understand and believe or not believe in God. It is the questioning that counts. Always the questioning.
Shabbat Shalom, Shana Tova.