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.
Today will be a difficult day for my family. And for me. We should be celebrating the first birthday of my nephew, Rylan Foster Gelb, but sadly his brief life was cut short on his eleventh day from a rare genetic disease called Galactosemia.
I never had a chance to meet Rylan or to hold him. And that makes the grieving process all the more challenging for me and for my young children who never met their first cousin. In the months following his death, my sister-in-law Stephanie, while deep in her own grief, desperately searched for ways to keep Rylan’s memory alive. She came up with a few wonderful ways for people to perform mitzvot and acts of loving kindness and then pay those good deeds forward. Stephanie and her husband Hylton have used the tragic death of their newborn son to improve the lives of thousands of others in such a short time.
I was thinking of this last night when I learned about an easy way to support the cause of Pancreatic Cancer research by purchasing Hanukkah candles on Amazon.com. My colleague and teacher, Rabbi David Wolpe, posted a tweet on Twitter with a link to buy a box of purple Hanukkah candles for $20 on Amazon and 100% of the money goes to Pancreatic Cancer research. With a couple of hours left in “Giving Tuesday” I quickly clicked the link and ordered candles in memory of my uncle, Jerry Gudes, who died of Pancreatic Cancer in 2009. After I ordered the candles, Amazon asked if I would like to post my purchase to Facebook and Twitter to let others know about this product (and charitable cause). When I posted to Facebook with appreciation to Rabbi Wolpe for the tip, I mentioned that Rabbi David Wolpe and his brother Rabbi Dan Wolpe lost their father, Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, to Pancreatic Cancer. This led Rabbi Dan Wolpe to also click the link and buy Hanukkah candles in his father’s memory. Talk about paying it forward!
My sister-in-law and brother-in-law have created several initiatives to encourage people (young and old) to make the world a better place and pay it forward. The first thing that they created was the Kounting Kindness website in memory of Rylan. This is a place where individuals or families can share their stories of how they were kind to others in honor of Rylan. Just this week, a friend shared that he paid the bridge toll of the car behind him in memory of Rylan and later heard that this act of paying it forward went on for many cars thereafter. One woman posted, “I brought our new neighbors muffins and welcomed them to our street. They were so grateful.” It’s also become a forum for leaving stories of ways that others have been witnessed being kind. “A woman leaving as I was driving up to a space gave me the rest of the minutes in her parking ticket!” posted a woman.
Stephanie and Hylton Gelb have also set up a new scholarship fund at The Galactosemia Association of Midwest America (GAMA) to financially assist families with conference or evaluation expenses. The Galactosemia Foundation organizes a conference every other year in various locations around the country and this scholarship fund will help families pay for conference registration and offset travel expenses. The goal is to help families become more educated and make lifelong connections with other families. The second goal of this memorial scholarship is to financially assist families to be evaluated by a medical professional specializing in Galactosemia because there are currently only a few specialists around the country who have experience in the treatment of Galactosemia.
Finally, my sister-in-law and brother-in-law, together with our family and friends, have donated a Buddy Bench. The purpose of the Buddy Bench is simple. It is placed on an elementary school playground to eliminate loneliness and foster friendship among the young children. The Buddy Bench helps spread the message of inclusion and kindness. Stephanie chose to have the custom designed Buddy Bench placed on the playground of Forest Elementary School in Farmington Hills, Michigan, which is the same school that both she and my wife, Elissa, attended as children. What’s so special for me about this Buddy Bench is that it can be seen from the windows of my home. Already in the few short weeks since it was dedicated, I have seen many children taking advantage of the Buddy Bench to let other children know they are lonely and need a friend, and also for children to include others in their activities at school recess. The Buddy Bench has the opposite effect of bullying because it strongly encourages children to be inclusive and kind to others. Just this past Shabbat, a six-year-old girl approached my wife and I to let us know that she found a new friend by going over to the Buddy Bench when she saw a little girl sitting there waiting for someone to approach her. What a significant way to bring more kindness into the world.
It’s remarkable how the tragedy of an infant’s death can bring about mitzvot. These acts of kindness have helped to bring a touch of joy to the memory of my nephew Rylan. It’s a challenge to find ways to turn such a negative event into many positive initiatives — especially during the grieving process — but I give my sister-in-law and brother-in-law tremendous credit for what they have done. The kindness that Rylan Gelb has brought into this world is exponential and will only continue to grow. May the short life of Rylan continue to bring blessings into our world and make it a kinder place for us.
I was hip for a week. For one week, I had a stripe of purple hair mixed in with my usual brown shiny locks. I loved it! I felt bolder, braver, and more fun. Most of all it just made me smile to see it in the mirror.
Frankly, I needed to smile. A couple of weeks earlier, a good friend died of aggressive breast cancer. Her untimely death woke me up. I understood in a new way how fragile and short life is. It is a cliché that we need to live life as fully as possible while we have it—but it is true. We do. My friend lived life loud, literally. She had a big presence and a booming voice. You always knew when she was in the room. She embraced all things silly and fun, and let you know you were missing out if you did not participate.
In the midst of my sadness, I realized that I needed more fun in my life. I was missing out on some things. Since adolescence, I have wanted to dye my hair some funky color, purple, blue, hot pink. Yet, I never have. I felt the time had arrived.
So, I walked in to a hair salon and asked to dye my hair. The hair stylist suggested I go an easier route and put in a pre-dyed hair extension. She explained that it would last a month or two and was cheaper and less complicated than dye. Five minutes later I had purple hair!
I felt liberated. Finally, my inner punk was on full display.
I texted friends and posted a picture on Facebook. The out pouring of joy and support was immediate. My favorite Facebook comment was “Ok, You’re my rabbi.” I was further astounded by the number of women who told me that they were jealous, that they wanted to be that brave, that they wanted to do it too!
Sadly, a week later, my purple hair extension silently slipped out of my hair. Apparently, my never before dyed or processed hair was too “healthy and silky” to firmly hold it in place. If only I had been more of a rebel when I was younger….
I would have liked it to last longer; however, the week with purple hair was a revelation. I learned several things. Many, many women like me are putting off being their whole selves, or true selves. I was astounded by the number of women who shared with me how they wanted to do something similar, yet something was holding them back.
As a rabbi, I encourage others to be their best selves, to bring their dreams and aspirations in to reality. So if you have something you want to do, be it dying your hair a funky color or changing a major part of your life—just do it! Life is short, if you let your fears and doubts hold you back from being who you want to be and achieving what you want, then you will miss out on something precious.
I also learned that people are far less judgmental than you think when you present yourself strongly and confidently. When people asked why I had purple in my hair, I answered honestly, I needed a little fun in my life. I got smiles and nods in return.
I love doing out of the box things as a rabbi. I have never fit into boxes very well. My sense is that most of us don’t. So watch out! The purple hair is likely to come back. Or I may try something else….I am open to ideas. How else can I express my inner punk?
Living in a house full of readers, I often find my book—the book that I reserved from the library to read on Shabbat afternoon—sitting on someone else’s nightstand with someone else’s favorite bookmark peeking out from the pages, a clear signal that someone else has staked a claim to my book. I am annoyed, though only until I remember the many times my spouse has warned me away from a book that he knows I won’t enjoy.
There is only one genre about which we tend to disagree: biography/memoir. He’s a scientist who prefers non-fiction and literary fiction, while I’m an artist who is hungry for personal narratives that demonstrate the writer’s source of inspiration. That’s why I was surprised when he devoured Bringing Bubbe Home: A Memoir of Letting Go through Love and Death, by Debra Gordon Zaslow. He finished it in a single afternoon and insisted I read it next. “You’ll love it,” he assured me.
Bringing Bubbe Home is so personal that I immediately feel as if I’ve known Debra my whole life. She is a gifted storyteller and writer, and she shares her story of the decision to bring her 103 year old grandmother home from an assisted living facility—to care for her until her death—with unwavering compassion and honesty.
The book stayed with me long after I’d finished reading the epilogue; hours after the havdalah candle was extinguished and the peace of Shabbat had departed from our home, I was still thinking about Debra’s family. I wanted to recommend the book to my spouse, but realized that he’d already read it. I considered giving it to my friend, with whom I swap books regularly, but she is still in the first year of mourning her mother and Debra’s detailed account of Bubbe’s death might be too painful for her to read right now.
So I recommend it to you. If you read only one book during Jewish Book Month, please let it be this one.
“Do not go gentle in to that Good Night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light”
These two verses by Dylan Thomas came in to my head the other night unbidden and would not leave. I had not read this poem written by Thomas about his dying father since high school. Yet, the verses echoed through my head. In order to quell the refrain, I went to find my battered and much beloved copy of The Norton’s Anthology of Poetry. To my great surprise, the book opened immediately to the page the poem was on, as if it knew just what I was looking for. God works in mysterious ways.
Reading the poem in its entirety, I burst into tears. Yes, I thought. This is how I feel. All around me the light seems to be dying, and I am angry. I am angry that in 2014, we have an African American president, yet black men are incarcerated and shot on the street by cops in ever increasing numbers. I am angry and scared that an epidemic like Ebola is killing so many in Africa and is making its way to our shores. And on a more personal level, I am angry that cancer can capriciously cut short a vivacious person’s life.
Life is not fair, and I am angry.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
I am not good with anger as an emotion. In fact I hate it, I makes me uncomfortable. I don’t know how to control it or express it in a positive way.
As this refrain, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” echoes in my head I realize that I have to do something, or it will tear me apart.
Meditation and prayer do not calmly disburse it.
Yelling at God through tears does not help either.
So, I have decided to embrace my anger. I am going to wear it proudly, and try to use it for good. God gave us anger to be a motivating force. The best social movements were started because people were angry about the status quo. Abraham angry at his father, rebelled against his culture and created a new religion. Moses angry at the mistreatment of Hebrew slaves led them out of Egypt. The daughters of Zelophechad, angry that they could not inherit their father’s property because they were women, petitioned Moses to change the law, and won. In modern times, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and African American civil rights would not have been won without righteous anger fueling the causes.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Instead of trying to carefully stomp it out the rage. I will use it to feed the light. Pirkei Avot teaches “You are not obligated to finish a task but neither are you free to neglect it.” I may not solve the problem of police brutality in America, or find the cure or Ebola. I may not be able to save my friend from cancer, but my anger will fuel me to keep trying to make the world a better place.
The absence of this anger would leave me with nothing. No will to move forward in the world. So for now, I am holding on to it in all of its fiery glory.
“Do not go gentle in to that Good Night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
The images of the secular New Year—Times Square, Champagne in fancy glasses, funny hats and noisemakers—are all fun and happy. By contrast the images of Rosh Hashanah—a shofar, people praying, apples dipped in honey—are more subdued and complicated. They suggest introspection mixed with hope, intention and possibility.
And I’m glad it is this way because this combination of emotions allows both for the celebration of that which might be in the year to come and face the reality of loss of all that is no longer possible.
Sitting in the same space we sat in last year and hearing the same somber tunes we hear year after year grounds us in continuity. We know that come what may, we can be sure this place, these sounds, these words will be here again next year, just as they were here last year, just as they were here ten years ago.
But the continuity also reminds us of what has changed in the last year. Some of the changes are for the better, the new love, the child now wearing a tallit for the first time, the new job, the new home. But not all the changes are for the good. Looking around the sanctuary, or the dining room table, at familiar faces we may be acutely aware of those who are not there. Or maybe the tunes and prayers are familiar but the sanctuary and all the people because you have had to move communities after a messy divorce or a job change. Maybe the clothes are old because buying new ones was simply not an option with this year’s finances. Our losses, whatever form they take, can be painfully clear at Rosh Hashanah.
The liturgy of the season returns to the refrain, “Hashiveinu Adonai, Elecha, V’nasuvah, Hadesh Yameinu K’kedem” “Return us Adonai to you and we will return, renew our days as in the days of old.” The traditional understanding of this prayer speaks to the need to rededicate ourselves to the path of Torah so that the presence of God will be as profound as it was in ancient times. But my own experience with the loss of loved ones at Rosh Hashanah, gave me a different way to understand it. Loss can alienate us from God and from that which is holy, we need help and support to be able to feel grace and the presence of the sacred. We want to feel the feeling of blessing that has slipped away.
My favorite version of this prayer, one set to the Rosh Hashanah nusach or tunes, is somber and has the power to bring me to tears. I remember the last day of my grandmother’s life, the first day of Rosh Hashanah over 25 years ago. It was the only time I ever saw her pray, I got to hear her sing the traditional tunes. The next day she was gone. Each year since, on Rosh Hashanah I am returned to that special relationship and to her absence.
At Rosh Hashanah, we do need to look forward and imagine how we will improve ourselves, our communities and our world in the year to come. But we also should allow ourselves to grieve for that which has been lost and is not retrievable. Services might be somber, but it is also appropriate cry and feel the power of the music, the sounds, the liturgy and the visuals the moment. Our sense of loss can and should propel us to reach out to those who are still with us, to seek help and support for that which we cannot change on our own. Judaism gives us permission and space to feel both the joys and the pains of life. Unlike the celebration of the secular New Year, Rosh Hashanah encourages us to take stock, not to ignore the bad, even as we hope for a better year to come.
As we cross from 5774 to 5775, the Akeida (the Binding of Isaac, which is traditionally read on Rosh Hashanah) tells us to look both ways so we can perceive the fullness of our reality.
As he looked up, Abraham saw the place from afar (Genesis 22:4)—three days before, God commanded Abraham to offer his son as a burnt offering on a mountain. Even though he is still far away, the moment Abraham sees the mountain he begins to anticipate his grief. He doesn’t raise his eyes again for a long time.
We all know what this feels like. This past summer, many of us stopped looking up as well. We “saw from afar” news of rockets falling on Israel and on Gaza, the murder of another black child—this time in Ferguson—the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria, Robin Williams’ suicide, and the spreading threat of ISIS. We were flooded with images of beheadings, pleas from helpless parents for the release of their captive children.
And to avoid the pain, we learned to look down. And in looking down, we missed everything else.
Did you hear – just this month – about teachers at an elementary school in Cudahy California, who got together to donate 154 sick days to a Carol Clark, a sixth grade teacher who was diagnosed with breast cancer? Or about the zoo in Victoria that released five endangered species, including Tasmanian devils, back into the wild after their populations grew back to a healthy size? Or about the UN report that the ozone layer is recovering?
As Abraham looked up, he saw a ram (Genesis 22:13)—in Rashi’s commentary on the Akeidah, he quotes a midrash that the ayil, the ram, is one of the ten things in existence before the creation of the world. According to this midrash, the ram was always there and Abraham just never saw it. With his eyes cast to the ground, Abraham has forgotten something central about the very nature of the world around him.
And with his gaze lowered, Abraham nearly kills his son Isaac (and some say, the news of what Abraham has gone off to do actually kills Sarah). In the moment he raises the knife above his head, Abraham has come to imagine that nothing else is possible. But when he lifts his eyes, he sees a new possibility, a new way of being in the world.
Like Abraham, we learn to expect disappointment and loss, rather than to notice the unexpected wonders that surround us. In order to protect ourselves, we learn to lower our gaze. We get into the habit of looking down at the brokenness and shadows in our world, jobs and relationships. And like Abraham, we cannot perceive reality until we start to look up and see that something else is possible. The Akeida comes to us this year to teach us to look both ways before crossing.
How do we do this?
Before bed each night, my partner and I share with each other five things that we are grateful for. Some people keep a gratitude journal. There’s even a Facebook meme going around of sharing what you’re grateful for, and tagging other people to do the same. There are so many ways to strengthen our instinct to look up, and get better at noticing what is going right.
On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate yom harat ha’olam, the birth and renewal of our world. As we cross into 5775, we aren’t merely surviving anymore. We aren’t just trying to hold back the knife, or protect ourselves from what is going wrong. We can and must work on flourishing—lifting our eyes to find a saving ram, connecting to the nourishment of our food, feeling the love of an old friend.
Before you cross into the new year, take on a practice that will help you break the habit of just looking down, and help you to look up and see what is good in this world.
It was one of those nights. I could not sleep at all. Sadness and worries crowded in. I went to bed after reading that Sam Sommer, an 8-year-old boy, had died of cancer. I first found out about his diagnosis in 2012 from his mother, Phyllis’s, Facebook status. We are Facebook friends. As a fellow rabbi and mother, Phyllis was someone I followed regularly. She had also just been admitted to a Fellowship program I run for rabbis called Rabbis Without Borders. Due to Sam’s diagnosis, she decided to defer her acceptance to the program. We have never met in person.
Yet, because she and her husband chronicled Sam’s cancer journey on their blog Superman Sam, I feel very close to them. Each time I read the blog tears would come to my eyes, tears of joy when Sam was doing well and tears of sadness when he was not. Phyllis and Michael’s posts on the blog were so open, honest, and full of love for their child it was impossible not to be drawn into their story.
Some people decry the public way many of us live our lives today, sharing intimate stories on our blogs and though our Facebook updates. Just a few months ago, I had a conversation with a rabbinic colleague who was uncomfortable with NPR host Scott Simon tweeting his mother’s death. He felt that somehow this public sharing of death took away its sacred nature. I could not disagree more.
Our modern American society has tried to whitewashed death. We want to push death away, pretend it is not difficult and painful, pretend that it does not have to happen, that our medical community will find cure after cure. We are afraid to speak to our children about death, or have them visit grandma or grandpa in the hospital lest it upset them. Yet death is a part of life. We cannot ignore it.
Over the past year and a half I read Phyllis and Michael’s blog with reverence. I know they did not share every detail of Sam’s journey with us. Some things are meant to be kept private. But in sharing what they did share, we, the reading public, were taken on a journey of childhood cancer. Going on this journey with the Sommers made me a better person. That may sounds grandiose, but it is true.
Most days I am absorbed in the drama of my own life, the daily arguing with my daughter to do her homework, balancing career and family, answering millions of emails, and generally living life. Checking in with Sam a few times a week reminded me to feel grateful for what I did have. Reading the blog reminded me to pray each day, a deep prayer of thanks for my life and the people in it, and caused me to send prayers of healing for Sam and others I knew who were suffering. I was more gentle and compassionate to my own family because I had this regular reminder that life could change on a dime.
Going public with your own or a loved one’s journey towards death is not for everyone. I completely respect that many people want and need to keep their journeys private. But for those for whom it is cathartic to write, blog, Facebook, and Tweet, I am thankful that we now have these tools available to us. Reading others’ stories and how they find incredible reserves of courage, strength, and love in the face of death makes us all stronger. We can learn that moments of great happiness can occur while the body is dying, that when we face things honestly and openly we can lessen the fear of the unknown.
I don’t think we can ever fully take away the fear and pain of death. It is a part of life. However, if we discussed it more openly and shared our stories, I would like to think that we could learn both how to die more peacefully and mourn more freely. What is more sacred than getting in touch with our emotions, and helping others navigate theirs? In my mind this is God’s work, helping us be more human in all of its messy glory.
Thousands of people are now mourning with the Sommers. I can only hope that the outpouring of love that has occurred on social media since word of Sam’s death arrived is buoying the Sommers though these incredibly painful days.
May God be with them on this new journey without Sam.
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My colleagues Joshua Ratner and Alana Suskin have offered their perspectives on kids trick or treating, and generally engaging (or not) in this week’s Halloween rituals. Notwithstanding all that they have already said about the opportunities to bring Jewish values to bear on everything from respect for the dead to the choice of candy purchased, I’ve often used this time of year as an opportunity to share some interesting and lesser known dimensions of Jewish thought and folklore. When it comes to questions of ghosts, spirits, and questions of the afterlife, I am fascinated not only by the content of the ideas found in our tradition, but in the human questions and needs that drive them.
There is a vast menu of beliefs and ideas to choose from when it comes to questions of the afterlife in Jewish teachings. One of the best surveys of the entirety of our tradition over the centuries can be found in Rabbi Simcha Paull Raphael‘s book ‘Jewish Views of the Afterlife‘.
If we begin with Biblical sources, the fact that is often most novel to those I have studied with is not the fact that consulting with mediums and those who can speak with ghosts and spirits is banned in biblical law, but that the tradition clearly accepts the existence of such spirits and the possibility of communicating with them. Much of Jewish law is concerned with not mixing categories or crossing boundaries set between two things, and so it is no surprise that the crossing of the ultimate boundary between life and death would be taboo. And yet, in I Samuel, 28, when King Saul is desperate for guidance from his deceased advisor, the prophet Samuel, he breaks the very law that he himself has enforced in his kingdom, to communicate with the dead. He finds ‘the witch of Endor’ to assist him:
28:7 Then said Saul to his servants: ‘Seek me a woman that divines by a ghost, that I may go to her, and inquire of her.’ And his servants said to him: ‘Behold, there is a woman that divines by a ghost at En-dor.’ 8 And Saul disguised himself, and put on other clothing, and went, he and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night; and he said: ‘Divine for me, I pray of you, by a ghost, and bring me up whomsoever I shall name to you.’ 9 And the woman said to him: ‘Behold, you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off those that divine by a ghost or a familiar spirit out of the land; why then do you lay a snare for my life, to cause me to die?’ 10 And Saul swore to her by the Eternal, saying: ‘As the Eternal lives, there shall no punishment happen to you for this thing.’ 11 Then said the woman: ‘Whom shall I bring up for you?’ And he said: ‘Bring me up Samuel.’12 And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice; and the woman spoke to Saul, saying: ‘Why have you deceived me? for you are Saul.’ 13 And the king said to her: ‘Be not afraid; for what do you see?’ …
While rabbinic literature develops ideas about where we go after we die, the purification of the soul in Gehenna, and the existence of a ‘world to come’ (a term which is used to mean multiple things), it is in Kabbalistic literature (the Zohar) and later Hasidic sources that are infused with the teachings of Jewish mysticism that we find the richest well of writing on ghosts and spirits, and the ability for such entities to make themselves known in our world. Clearly, these ideas drew on beliefs and folklore from other cultures and traditions in the places where Jews lived, but they take on their own, particular Jewish flavor. Kabbalah speaks of the three (and later five) levels of the soul and, while the highest level is reunited with the Source of all Being, the lowest level was believed to still be present, and wandering in our material world, at least until the physical body from whence it came has decomposed in the ground.
A ‘good’ spirit was an ‘ibbur’ and could inhabit the body of another living person for some period of time as an ‘additional soul’. Its purpose was often to help in a matter of this world and, when the help had been received, it would leave and continue on its journey.
A malevolent spirit was a ‘dybbuk’, understood to be the lower soul of someone who had done something so unspeakable that this level of soul could not even enter Gehenna for purification, but was condemned to wander out of body. When it came across a living person who also had committed a particularly serious sin, or was vulnerable because of being in some transitional state (about to get married, pregnant, for example), it had the possibility of entering a human body to possess it, and the end of such a story was seldom good. A classic play, that was also made into an early silent movie, featured such a story of ‘The Dybbuk’. Stories such as these had power in communities prior to the time that conditions that today we would recognize as epilepsy, schizophrenia, or bi-polar disorder, were understood.
This weekend I’m coming to the end of a short course I’ve been teaching at my congregation on Jewish views of the Afterlife. While the historical review of beliefs, folk tales, and rituals, has been educational, the most powerful part of our time together has been the sharing of experiences when we have felt the presence of a loved one who has died. Many have had experiences at the time of someone’s death, or in the months following, myself included. While there are many possible explanations for these experiences, including psychological explanations, the emotional power behind them provides a great deal of comfort and, for many, the hope that there is a reality to a ‘world to come’ where the spirit or soul continues, and where we will be reunited with loved ones.
So… whatever you do or don’t do with your children at Halloween, the pervasive presence of images and stories of ghosts and spirits at this time of year provides a wonderful opportunity to dip into Jewish sources on these topics, reflect and share together and ask yourself, ‘what do I believe, and why do I believe it?’
Below, Rabbi Alana Suskin explains why her family doesn’t trick-or-treat. To hear from another Jewish mom with a different perspective, check out: “Why I Let My Jewish Kids Trick or Treat”
I feel fairly ambivalent about Halloween. On the positive side: although winter in the DC metro area is an exercise in perfect misery of cold and drippy wet, the end of October is still decidedly fall and can still often be quite nice: not yet rainy, not terribly cold, sometimes there are still bright leaves on the trees. So there’s the mid-autumn thing.
There’s also the neighborhoodliness of all the folks putting on a show for the kids, an opportunity for people to meet and interact with their neighbors, which these days can be a rare exercise.
There’s also a few pagan friends I have who look forward to their religious observance of Samhain (the pre-Christian, Celtic name for the holiday upon which the roman church based All Hallows’ Eve when it couldn’t rid the local populations of their age old observances). I’m pleased for them.
But most of all, with the more recent innovation of making a big deal out of what was a relatively small deal when I was little, I am Thrilled. To. Happiness. about the post Halloween sales of orange fairy lights and other useful sukkah items for the year to follow. (Yay!)
All that said, I don’t trick or treat, and neither does my child. And because we’ve talked about it, and he understands “we don’t observe that holiday,” at least at this point (he’s nine) he doesn’t seem to mind, even though he does have friends—even Jewish friends—who do.
Right now, what we do is help other kids celebrate their holiday by giving out candy (and if he eats a few Snickers bars, that’s fine, although he was sad when I explained to him that even though there are actually no authenticated cases of non-family members harming children with Halloween snacks, we can’t make candy apples or other treats to give out because people are afraid that someone might hurt their kids by giving them something harmful) and if he wants to dress up for them in a costume, he can do that even though our dress up holiday is Purim.
We have also talked about whether the values of Halloween are Jewish values: whether demanding gifts from others is a Jewish value (we didn’t get into the under threat of “trick” part), and we talked about how Judaism views death and dead bodies, and whether displaying “funny” skeletons and ghosts is in line with Jewish tradition, which views the human body, even after death, as holy, which is why Judaism forbids displaying corpses, even those of criminals after execution, and why it is considered a very holy mitzvah (obligation, and good deed) to be part of a chevreh kadishah l’metim (holy society for the care of the dead) in which one takes care, gently and with reverence for the soul which inhabited it, of the recently deceased corpse.
Which is why, when one is sitting with the body after death, making sure it is never left alone, one does not say certain prayers in the same room as the deceased’s body, lest the soul feel mocked because it cannot engage in that mitzvah anymore.
And it is also why, when it was in town, we did not go see the museum exhibit in which the corpses of people who had been preserved were posed in all sorts of positions for display of their inner workings. We talked about how, although Jewish tradition believes that the soul separates from the body after death, the body is a gift to us from God, and is an important part of us, to be treated with respect during life as well as after death, which is why we do not tattoo it, or mutilate it for any reason other than medical necessity, or throw it away until we have fulfilled the missions that God assigned us and then we are taken from it.
For us, the whistling In the dark of Halloween in making light of skeletons and ghosts and displaying them is not in line with the love we should have for those who passed from this earth before us, and whose love sustains us—and are not a threat to us—even after they are gone.
Finally, I find myself enormously disturbed by the sexualization both of little girls in their purchased costumes, but also in the adult celebrations in urban gathering areas (etc). While I firmly hold that the value of tzniut (modesty) is far more about respectful speech, humility, non-conspicuous consumption both in dress and in possessions, and deportment in general, the overemphasis on sexuality for women, let alone little girls, is not a value I share or wish to.
Which is why, since so few people know or observe the pagan, or even Christian origins of the day, it could be reasonably considered an “American” holiday, (Thanksgiving’s origins, on the other hand, are decidedly American, but its themes are religious in a way that is perfectly in line with Jewish values), we nevertheless do not celebrate Halloween.
One of my beliefs about Judaism is that as Jews we live and can model countercultural values, and it seems to me that, at least in my own home, Halloween is a time when we can model our difference—in a very quiet way.
I don’t, of course, go around harshing everyone’s mellow—I don’t criticize those who find a bit of harmless fun in it, I don’t even suggest that those Jews who enjoy it ought to refrain and I certainly don’t have anything against cupcakes, chocolate, or little kids spending an evening outside int he dark. But it is an terrific opportunity to have a discussion with your family about Jewish values, about how we view death and life, sexuality (for older kids), and the difference between Purim’s dress up where we are obligated to give food to others, and Halloween’s where we demand it from others.