face to face

“Death of Moses” by Alexandre Cabanel

on that day the lord said to
moses take your final
journey ascend to the top
of mt nebo and i will show you
the land from above
do you see how it
fulfills my promise do you
see how its light flows
and dances like
milk and honey do not
grieve moses do not be
frightened for now you will
finally greet me face to face
the moment for which you’ve
yearned now turn and gaze
into the eyes of
your beloved

(Deuteronomy 32:48-52)

A Shiva for the New Millenium?

In his recent NY Times piece, “Mourning in the Age of Facebook,” author/journalist Bruce Feiler suggests what many have long observed: in the post-modern world, we’re witnessing traditional religious mourning practices adapted in ever new and interesting ways.

In his article, Feiler describes at length something he calls “Secular Shiva” – a phenomenon in which he claims he has participated more than once. Here’s his description of this newly adapted Jewish mourning ritual:

Don’t wait for the griever to plan: … With a traditional shiva, the burden falls on the family to open their home to sometimes hundreds of people. If you are considering a “secular shiva,” insist on doing the planning yourself, from finding a location, to notifying guests, to ordering food.

By invitation only. Traditional shivas are open houses; they’re communitywide events in which friends, neighbors and colleagues can stop by uninvited. Our events were more restricted, with the guest of honor suggesting fewer than a dozen invitees. “An old-fashioned shiva would have felt foreign to me,” said my friend Karen, who lost her mother last summer. “I’m more private. If it was twice the size, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable.”

“Would you like to share a few stories?” At the event we held for Karen, she opted to speak about her mom. For 45 emotional minutes, she talked about her mother’s sunny disposition, her courtship, her parenting style. It was like watching a vintage movie.

“I liked speaking about my mom,” she told me. “One, I hadn’t had time to fully grieve because I was so focused on my dad. And two, there was something each of you could come away with about who my mom was in the world.”

At a later event, a Catholic friend who had lost her brother chose not to speak about him. She felt too fragile, she later explained. Instead she handed out CDs with a photo montage of her brother’s life. “I think if I hadn’t had the pictures, I would have felt the need to talk about him.”

The comfort of crowds. While I came away from these events convinced we had hit on a new tool for our circle of friends, I was quickly warned not to assume our model was universal.

“Introverts need to grieve, too,” Ms. Andrews said. “For some, a gathering of this kind might be a particular kind of torture.”

My two cents:

Despite his term “Secular Shiva,” I warmly welcome these sorts of changes Feiler describes here. As someone who routinely attends and helps organize shivas on a fairly regular basis, I’ve noticed that many mourners are already incorporating many of the elements Feiler describes.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a religious/secular issue – I think many who consider themselves religious in a more liberal sense feel fully comfortable adapting the tradition shiva rites to fit their needs. In fact, virtually none of my congregants observe the full, traditional seven-day shiva, the prospect of which invariably feels overwhelming – and in some ways even counterproductive.

As I often tell mourners who ask if it’s “OK” to change or adapt some of these rituals: Absolutely. At the end of the day, I believe the purpose of religious ritual is to serve our needs and not the other way around.

Jacob’s Journey Complete

Auguste Rodin, photograph by Dornac

now israel’s eyes were dim with age he said
i can see the one in whose
steps my father walked even when they led straight
into the fire i see the one who answered
my mother but could not relieve her
pain i can see so plainly my own reflection masked
and unmasked deceiver and deceived ascending
descending wrestling embracing fleeing
returning yes i see quite clearly these scarred and
withered hands are the hands of jacob but the face is
the face of god when he was ready to stop
struggling jacob drew his feet into the bed
breathed his last breath
and finally returned

(Genesis 48:10, 49:33)

For Elul: All Things Must Pass


For your Elul viewing/listening pleasure:

Here is a clip from the “Concert for George,” which was held in November 2002 on the first anniversary of George Harrison’s death. It was a star-studded affair organized by his family and arranged as a benefit for Harrison’s charitable foundation.

Among the many memorable moments in the concert was this performance of Harrison’s solo classic, “All Things Must Pass” sung by Paul McCartney. I find it quite moving to listen to the spiritual message of the song, doubly meaningful on this particular occasion. (Not to mention watching Harrison’s son Dhani – the spitting image of his father – playing backup guitar.)

All things must pass
All things must pass away
All things must pass
None of life’s strings can last
So, I must be on my way
And face another day

Now the darkness only stays the night-time
In the morning it will fade away
Daylight is good at arriving at the right time
It’s not always going to be this grey

Alt-Country Theology: A Tutorial

Check out two very divergent takes on grief and loss by two wonderful alt-country singers: “The Duel,” by Allison Moorer and  “God is in the Roses” by Roseanne Cash (from her brilliant album “Black Cadillac,” one of my favorites.)

Both are profoundly personal reflections on God after the death of a loved one. I’m deeply moved by both, even if they express bereavement with radically different emotions and points of view.

I’d love to hear reactions.

“The Duel”
by Allison Moorer

In this cemetery mist
Stands a newborn atheist
Even if you do exist
You’re far from almighty
Flesh and blood’s a sissy fist
Death’s a gold glove pugilist
And everyday it’s hit or miss
That’s what I believe

I stared at my polished shoes
In front of your wooden pews
Prayed and prayed don’t let me lose
What my heart adores
Are miracles old-fashioned news
No healing hands were ever used
Faithfulness was my excuse
Tell me what was yours

I don’t know how many rounds
Are left in me ‘til I stay down
And there’s no telling where I’m bound
But one thing I’m sure of
The king of kings has lost his crown
It’s buried here in marble town
In the god forsaken ground
With my only love

“God is in the Roses”
by Rosanne Cash

God is in the roses
The petals and the thorns
Storms out on the oceans
The souls who will be born
And every drop of rain that falls
Falls for those who mourn
God is in the roses and the thorns

The sun is on the cemetery
Leaves are on the stones
There never was a place on earth
That felt so much like home
We’re falling like the velvet petals
We’re bleeding and we’re torn
But God is in the roses and the thorns

I love you like a brother
A father and a son
It may not last forever and ever
But it never will be done
My whole world fits inside the moment
I saw you be reborn
God is in the roses
And that day was filled with roses
God is in the roses and the thorns

Osama bin Laden: Can There Be Closure?

Among the slew of news articles about the reactions of survivors and families of victims of 9/11 to the killing of bin Laden I’ve noticed the ongoing theme of “closure.”  While some have indicated that this event had brought them some semblance of closure to their grief, I’ve found that most have responded in the manner of Dick McCloskey of South Bend Indiana, whose daughter Katie died in the World Trade Center:

Closure has become a trite word. There is no such thing in the loss of a loved one.

In fact, research is bearing out Mr. McCloskey’s conviction. Studies are increasingly demonstrating that the execution of a murderer rarely brings psychological or spiritual closure to loved ones of the victim. A recent study by the University of Kentucky, for instance, revealed that most victims’ families don’t find peace of mind during the death penalty process or even after an execution:

The study’s lead researcher…says a murderer’s execution is not a soothing salve for many surviving family members, as they still feel victimized, and cites a 2007 study that makes that point.

“Only 2.5 percent of co-victims actually reported that the death penalty brought them closure. And, that includes people that were advocates for the death penalty from the very beginning. At the conclusion, it turns out that almost no one experienced closure at the end of the death penalty process.”

Why? Michelle Goldberg, in a piece for Salon, suggests the answer is rooted in unrealistic societal expectations:

For victims’ families who oppose the death penalty, as well as for some who support it but derived little comfort from the execution of their loved ones’ killers, it’s a myth that the death penalty heals. They say the pop-psych media formula, that catharsis equals closure, has been mostly created by a society desperate to believe that even the worst wrongs can be righted.

Others point out that the desire for “closure” belies the reality that healing from grief is a never ending process:

My goal is to get all of the media to understand that ‘closure’ is a bad word, a word survivors don’t understand. ‘Transition’ is the word we use. That doesn’t mean everything is OK. Never will it be OK, and no execution, no jail sentence, nothing, will help in that process.”

On another level entirely, I was also struck by something else Dick McCloskey said in response to the killing of bin Laden:

This has nothing to do with justice. Justice belongs only to God, not to us.

Whether or not we share Mr. McCloskey’s theology, I think we all can relate to the notion that there are just some things in the world for which there can be no justice – at least on any level we might comprehend. Even for those who believe that bin Laden’s execution meted out some semblance of justice for 9/11 (I don’t, btw), where is the justice for the fact that Katie happened to be in the Trade Center just at that moment, when some of her co-workers might have survived for the most random of reasons?

In this regard, I’m reminded of something Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote in his classic “When Bad Things Happen to Good People:”

I  can more or less understand why a man’s mind might snap, so that he grabs a shotgun and runs out into the street, shooting at strangers. Perhaps he is an army veteran, haunted by memories of things he has seen and done in combat. Perhaps he has encountered more frustration and rejection than he can bear at home and at work…

To grab a gun and shoot at innocent people is irrational, unreasonable behavior, but I can understand it. What I cannot understand is why Mrs. Smith should be walking on that street at that moment, while Mrs. Brown chooses to step into a shop on a whim and saves her life. Whey should Mr. Jones happen to be crossing that street, presenting a perfect target to the mad marksman, while Mr. Green, who has never more than one cup of coffee for breakfast, chooses to linger over a second cup that morning and is still indoors when the shooting starts? The lives of dozens of people will be affected by such trivial, unplanned decisions. (pp.76-77)

Regardless of our theologies – or whether we even believe in God at all – I think we can all agree that there is no ultimate justice in the world. There are some things – too many things – in life for which we will never achieve full closure. The real question before us, it seems to me, is not how to find closure for these injustices, but how to heal from them.

Yizkor and the Rhythms of Remembrance

As we do every year, JRC just observed a Yizkor (“Memorial”) service to mark the end of the Pesach holiday. This particular year, I introduced our memorial prayers by saying that mourning itself is something of an open-ended journey – and one that rarely unfolds in a predictable manner. I also pointed out that more recent research in the psychology of grief tends to reject the linear “Stages of Grief” approach made famous by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross.

From a recent piece in The New Yorker:

Though Kübler-Ross captured the range of emotions that mourners experience, new research suggests that grief and mourning don’t follow a checklist; they’re complicated and untidy processes, less like a progression of stages and more like an ongoing process—sometimes one that never fully ends.

I do believe that the notion of grief as an “ongoing process” is at the heart of the Yizkor memorial observance. It often feels to me that there is a powerful rhythm to the practice of saying memorial prayers during major four festivals of the year (Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot). Since each festival has its own unique spiritual themes, the process of ongoing Yizkor observance drives home the truth that grief is a cyclical – rather than linear – experience

Here is my own take on how this process resonates through the Jewish holiday season:

Yizkor of Yom Kippur – “Dwelling in the In-Between:” the Day of Atonement is, if you will, the spiritually rawest time of the Jewish calendar. It is the time in which we acknoweldge our mortality and look into the coming year with a potent emotional mix of awe and trepidation. The tenor of Yizkor for Yom Kippur thus resonates with the pain and uncertainty that inevitably comes with grief. In the juncture between a year past and a year yet to come, we allow ourselves to dwell in that “in-between place” between the past we know and the future we have yet to experience.

Yizkor of Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret – “Preparing for Winter:” Immediately after the harvest festival of Sukkot comes the observance of Shemini Atzeret, which marks the beginning of the rainy season in Israel. Our Yizkor prayers are recited during our preparation for winter – the season in which we construct the necessary protection and defenses for these cold, dark months. Yizkor for Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret honors these defenses – as well as the spiritual work we know we must do in order to make it through the long nights ahead.

Yizkor of Pesach – “Inevitability of Life Renewed:” On Passover we begin to see the green shoots of new life sprouting up from the previously hard, fallow earth. The natural world around us testifies to the inevitability of liberation – and we come to understand that this rebirth is indeed woven into the very fabric of creation. So too, with our own lives as we walk the path of the mourner: the Yizkor of Pesach comes to remind us that there is life after grief as surely as Spring follows Winter.

Yizkor of Shavuot – “Celebrating the Fruits of our Labor:” On Shavuot, we bring in the harvest. As Spring moves in to full bloom, we now begin to reap what we’ve sown. We now affirm that all of the hard work (and bereavement is nothing if not hard work) does indeed pay off if we do it in a spirit of openness and love. On this Yizkor, we celebrate the fruits of our labors – and rededicate ourselves to the journey ahead.

It’s a shame that the observance of Yizkor tends to be falling off among liberal Jews. I truly believe there is great spiritual resonance in these rituals – which cycle outward over the seasons and throughout the years. Even for those who are not traditionally observant Jews, there is real meaning to be found in these rhythms of remembrance.

The next Yizkor will occur in several weeks, on Shavuot. (May you reap a bountiful harvest…)