Birth and death are expected aspects of a congregational community’s life. The past few days, however, have weighed heavily on the side of painful loss for my congregation. For four days last week, someone died daily. A 40-year-old man died tragically in his sleep while on vacation. An utterly vibrant 74-year-old man died suddenly of a heart attack on his drive home, while his wife, daughter and grandchildren waited for him to arrive for dinner. A graceful and elegant 87-year-old died of old age with her adult daughters surrounding her. And a 73-year-old pillar of strength died after living every minute joyfully and wholly, knowing that she had terminal cancer for 25 years.
Death is as much a part of life as anything else we know. As part of nature’s course, we actually start dying the day we are born. Most of us don’t talk about, however, because we somehow think that speaking about loss might hasten our own demise.
These past few days have been heady and sad. But they have also been beautiful. I had the privilege of being with a couple of these dear souls before they left the world. They each didn’t want to leave, but they were not scared to die. They left with no regrets, having lived full and connected lives. Each always made sure to tell their nearest and dearest how much they were loved. Each of them embraced every moment granted to them. I believe they are now safe and peaceful; living without the mortal vicissitudes of disease.
But I worry for their loved ones left here on earth. Their hearts are torn and they wander in disorientation. I worry about how we, who are called on to comfort, respond in the face of their pain. Because many of us are fearful of death; we want mourners to be better; to be normal as soon as possible. We tell them that everything will be okay. And it will. But that is not what they want and need now.
These past few days have reminded me about the importance of letting mourners, mourn and be sad. We bring food and flowers. We fill in the space of conversation with superfluous words. But all mourners actually need for us to do is to be there, to listen, to embrace them. We need to allow them to cry and be sad and to say out loud that for now, life is not okay. Rushing our friends back to normalcy when life is not normal only delays their process of healing.
I know it is uncomfortable for so many legitimate reasons for us to not want to dwell on loss. But in these past few days, the bereaved have made it clear to me that the food and chatter don’t mean nearly as much as the patience they need from loved ones to just allow them to say out loud that, “life stinks.” We are resilient people. Our souls do heal. But like cut skin needs medical balm to allow it to scab and become whole, so do our spirits need the balm of time and tears and love and embrace to get better as well.
Being present in the pain of others doesn’t mean that we can be infected by their sadness. It simply means we are doing the most sacred work in helping our loved ones authentically heal. There is no statute of limitations when it comes to how long it takes to heal from loss. Escorting our loved ones through the Valley of the Shadow in the way that they need us to is nothing less than holy work.
To me, “father” and “soldier” are almost antithetical words. My 89-year-old parent was an English professor. He taught Shakespeare. His world was (and still is to a certain extent) a man of theatre, books, film and intellectual banter. A hammer and a screwdriver were dangerous tools in his hands. His mind was much stronger than his muscles.
But my father was indeed a soldier. He served in the South Pacific for three years as a sailor on a Mine Sweeper. Like many from his generation, he did not speak much about his service during World War II. His stories had more to do with the salamis his mother sent him, escapes to hiding places to read and sea sickness, than they did with battles, blood and death.
Slowly, just because I was tenacious in my curiosity, did he begrudgingly tell of his brave Captain who saved his life through a Monsoon; or the times that his ship morphed into a hospital unit; or his relief in learning of American victory so that he might return home.
“Didn’t it affect your life? Weren’t you scared? Did you ever think you would die”?, I would ask. “I didn’t think about it that way. That is what we all did. There was no other way,” he would answer as a matter of fact.
My teenage brain could not understand. I needed more. Finally, he told me that six months after he returned, while getting ready for Shabbat dinner, he burst out in a deep cry for a half hour. He wiped off his tears and went to have dinner with his family. He didn’t remember processing the reaction with his parents. “I guess I needed to let it all out somehow and that was my reaction. I have never thought much about it since,” he told me.
Needless to say, as we commemorate Veterans Day this week, we are a nation so exhausted from almost fourteen years of war. As much as we try to extricate ourselves from battle, there is no clear end in sight. We no longer send ALL of our children to serve and I wonder if we have lost our connection to the “soldier’s narrative.” My father’s generation didn’t think they were anything special because they were all obliged to serve our country. It didn’t matter if you were made to be a soldier or not.
I am as opposite of a soldier as my father was in his day. But in a strange way, I long for his time when service was not an option. He grew up faster. He understood obligation to others sooner. He learned to navigate a complicated world before he graduated college.
We don’t know the soldier’s story today because we are not asked to serve ourselves. During this week when we honor those who fight on our behalf, I think it is our obligation to know the America whose stories are too often hidden. And, it is time that all of us think about service of all types. Many of us are not cut out to; or inclined to fight as soldiers, but we live in a country crying out for us to serve in a variety of ways which can help us become whole.
My ten-year-old son, Jake, has become excessively frightened by lightning. He used to be mildly scared by the noise of thunder. But his fear was augmented by one random event this past summer.
While our family was at a restaurant celebrating a win after one of my son’s ballgames, a storm popped up. During this typical Northeast summer thunderstorm, the building was hit by lightning. We heard the giant crack of thunder simultaneously with a brilliant burst of light. A window in the restaurant shattered and the power went out. The staff gathered us into a protected room away from the broken glass and calmly helped us wait until it was safe to drive home.
It was a dramatic event for sure, but now my sweet boy shutters at the thought of a rainstorm. After talking with other parents who have children the same age we realized that he and his friends are at the stage in life when they first butt up against the realization that there are some things in life they cannot control, and—perhaps more upsetting—neither can their parents. The lightning strike was his light bulb moment of fear, followed by the awareness that his parents could not protect him from all of the vagaries of life.
Jake’s way of dealing with his new-found insecurity is to exert what he believes is a form of control. Every day, he takes my iPhone and checks weather applications to watch for storms. He feels this will make him safe. Logically, he knows that nothing can stop a weather system from moving in, but the more superstitious part of him supersedes logic. No matter how much Jake learns about meteorology, it’s not going to stop what really makes him afraid. He has now been introduced to the fact that the world is sometimes random.
The vexing aspect of this fear is that he, like so many of us adults, spends more time pretending he can control the uncontrollable than he does working on understanding what he can do to protect himself in the case of a real emergency.
This is what we human beings do. We feel terrified of the unknown and so we pretend to control what we can’t touch. Our faith can sometimes becomes one of superstition instead of self-care and preparation. We don’t visit the doctor in fear of the diagnosis. We don’t set up our child’s nursery in fear of tempting the evil eye to visit upon the womb. We wear red bracelets to ward off evil.
We all feel attached to certain family traditions. But I worry when superstition becomes a proxy for our religion. Our faith can be one that encourages us to live healthy and secure lives; one which prepares us to face all of the challenges which come our way. Expending energy on that which we cannot control will only steal away from the aspects of our lives which we can indeed control.
Randomness is frightening. The unknown shakes us to our core. I pray regularly that lighting does not strike any of my children. But in the meanwhile, my wife and I do our best to prepare them for the realities of a life which comes along with extraordinary blessing and the reality of physical and cosmic storms.
If any Holiday teaches about finding joy in the midst of fragility, it is indeed these days of Sukkot. All of our structures are relatively temporary. When we realize we can only control certain aspects of our lives, we might find our way to a bolstered inner-compass and a perpetuated sense of calm.
One of the reasons I love the fall is because of the NFL. Although I need to garner all of my religious faith to remain a Jets fan, I absolutely adore watching the weekly games with my son.
I am sure that I am not the only parent in America who had some explaining to do this past Sunday. Each day it seemed that yet another player was deactivated for horrific acts of domestic violence. The press kept reporting that it was a “bad week for the NFL.” I disagree. It was a bad week for America. Unfortunately, it takes something as popular as the NFL to focus our frenetic, multi-tasking minds on to an issue, which is horrifyingly prevalent across our nation.
This space is too small for me to take it all on, but I would specifically like to address the issue of corporal punishment of children.
Life was different when I was raised in the 1960-70’s. It did not happen often, but my parents hit my siblings and me when they thought we crossed certain lines. With hindsight, I can say some of it was effective parenting and some of it crossed the line.
I can still feel my father’s wallop across my five-year-old rear end, as I was about to run across the street. He gave me one hard spank, grabbed my arm, looked me right into my eyes and said, “You never cross the street without an adult. You could get badly hurt.” I cried from the physical and emotional pain, but I never did it again. My father feared for my life and he protected me in the way he knew best.
My mother also hit me a couple of times and once took it too far. As a divorced parent of four, she tried desperately to keep us in line. We were rambunctious and probably a handful for her. She once hit me with a belt for misbehaving. Even at twelve years of age, I knew then that the punishment did not fit the crime. I told her so and added that I would remember it for the rest of my life. I have remembered it. It did not significantly define my childhood or my life, but there was nothing helpful about it in terms of helping to shape me into a better person. In fact, it took me a while to draw close to her again. We did draw close and were deeply connected until her death.
My wife and I make a conscious choice not to hit our children. I don’t think that makes us better people than those who choose to do so within appropriate boundaries. Our youngest is still not careful enough when she crosses the street. We have talked to and even yelled at her. I wonder sometimes if a “potch on the tuchus” might be more effective. If we don’t get through to her with our current parenting approach, I would regret her getting hurt forever.
Adrian Peterson, the star Minnesota Vikings running back, crossed the line when he beat his son with a tree branch (a “switch”). I don’t think a four-year-old child can do anything which deserves the kind of beating his wounds seem to indicate. Peterson said that he did so because his parents raised him in the same way. That is a dangerous excuse. How we were raised has great impact on us all. But, it is up to each of us how we integrate it all into our own parenting philosophy. The impact of these decisions lasts a lifetime.
Judgment is one of the hallmark themes of this Holy Day season. We should indeed be wary of how we judge others. And, still, we must speak out to protect the innocent, even if they happen to be connected to our favorite players on our favorite teams. We do, indeed, have a lot of explaining to do to our children these days.
These past weeks have brought a recipe of complication and hardship which have sent us reeling in disbelief. From Ebola, to ISIS, to racial strife, to the suicide of a comedic hero, to existential danger in Israel. I find myself waking in the middle of the night to check the news wire and see if things have gotten any worse.
I know I am not alone in my concern for our fragmented world. And yet, I also wonder and worry about us….you and me. I don’t just mean “worry about us” as it relates to world events. I worry that the world keeps throwing so much at us that we stop making time to look in the mirror to be sure that we ourselves are in balance. I am not suggesting that we be selfish. But I wonder if we use the complications of our world as a disguise from doing our own inner-work.
I fret that we obsessively watch the world; react to the world; yell at the world—and, then, well, we forget to look at the mirror and inquire about our own role in the drama we call life.
We rabbis are beginning to prepare for the Jewish Holy Days. The coming season is one we refer to as the season of Teshuvah—of turning; of change, of reflection, of renewal. In the coming weeks, we will be reminded that we all have primordial purpose; a reason we are here on earth. During the year, our vision becomes clouded and unclear. The burden of our responsibility is heavy; indeed, we work diligently to fulfill everything we are supposed to get done and be for everyone else. And, so, we forget to remember why we were put here in the first place. We forget that we are unique and important and vital to the cosmic process of our beautiful universe.
These days, we cannot help but be called by events in the world. We are summoned to do our part in picking up the pieces of brokenness. I hope we feel the need to create clarity in the fog of confusion. But, we are also called upon to change and evolve as human beings if not first, then at least simultaneously.
I am asking my community during these days to pay attention to the complexity of the world, but to also take a few minutes away from the world’s noise and reflect. I am asking them to think about how they are doing; to think about why they are here; to think about how fulfilled they are in life; to think about their relationships; to think about their jobs; to think about how they act; about the way they are treated.
How are we doing in the midst of the madness? While the world has gone a bit mad, I wonder about all of us, who constitute in small pieces, the makeup of our world. The world does not just exist on CNN; it exists within our own reflections as well. When we look, I wonder how it is that we love, speak and share. I wonder about our sense of compassion, sensitivity, jealousy, anger, guilt, joy and sadness. I wonder which parts of ourselves we need to change, so the world can change also.
The world is trembling. There is much for us to say and do in response to it all. But in the meanwhile, I am thinking about what we owe ourselves in our own process of evolution.
I hope as we head towards the Season of Change, that we find the renewal within to help renew our world.