Friday, April 15, 2011

Take Time to Mourn

This week’s portion Acharei Mot, begins with an instruction for Aaron concerning the things he must not do immediately after the loss of his two sons. G-d tells Moses to instruct his brother not to enter the Holy of Holies until a period of time has passed. Aaron must allow his grief to pass before he can resume his duties as High Priest. He must give himself time to recover lest he enter the presence of G-d with thoughts of his own loss rather than of the needs of his people. He must take a Time Out. When he is ready to resume his duties, he must bring a sin-offering to atone for himself.

Two weeks ago, in Parashat Tazria, we similarly read that a woman, having given birth, must also wait a prescribed period and then bring a sin-offering.

But wait a minute – what is the Torah trying to tell us? Does having a baby, or losing one’s children, make one stained by sin? Is the implication tantamount to ‘blaming the victim’? In a word, no.

Ibn Ezra explains concerning the woman giving birth: the offerings are for any bad thoughts she might have had toward her husband while in the throes of labor. In other words, this acknowledges that when we experience trauma, we may think, or even say out loud, oaths that we will regret later. The sin-offering is the ancients’ way to move beyond our thoughts and words, and get on with our lives despite them.

Today, absent the Beit Miqdash, we don’t have such a neat way to turn from anything we may have said at a bad moment. Instead, we must get together with the one against whom we have said the negative things, and beg their forgiveness. Some Jews ritually go around among family and friends immediately before Yom Kippur and ask for a blanket forgiveness “for anything bad I might have said to you, deliberately or inadvertently, in the past year.” Perhaps there is some value in such statements. They remind us that we often do have loose tongues and do say negative things – knowingly or not – to and about those who are closest to us. But the ritual falls far short of what we would ideally do. And that would be to recognize immediately or soon after we have attacked someone with our words, and beg forgiveness then.

But I want to return to the premise in the opening verses of this week’s Torah portion. That Aaron must take deliberate steps, and allow some time to elapse, between losing his two sons, and the resumption of his duties.

In normative Jewish practice today, we have certain ritual behaviors that are prescribed when we lose a close relative. Most of you know the term, shiva, as in sitting shiva. Of course, the word is Hebrew for ‘seven’ and it refers to the practice of remaining in one’s house for seven days after burying a loved one. Some of you know some details of the practice. The mourners sit on low stools and do not groom themselves. Mirrors are covered. Friends and acquaintances come to the house of mourning, bring food, sit with the mourners and provide a minyan for thrice-daily prayers so that the mourners can say Kaddish.

In our contemporary world, many Jews eschew these practices. Those who generally see themselves as being not-very-religious, or not religious at all, see them as a burden. In our go-go world, the idea of stopping all activity for seven days to mourn seems out of synch and will only push back other daily needs that do not stop. Just as an example, if you’re working, your employer is unlikely to grant you a week off to sit shiva. Instead, you’ll have to take a week of paid vacation, a precious commodity for most working Americans. But when we fail to mourn effectively, we rob ourselves of an important tool that can help us to come to terms with our loss and help us to contextualize it and move on with our lives.

Yesterday was the yahrzeit for my own father, who passed away six years ago. I did not observe shiva, nor did I observe sheloshim, the second stage of mourning for the remainder of the first month. Clara, the kids and I travelled from Germany where we were living then, to Virginia as my father was dying. The day after the burial, we were winging our way back to Germany. Two days later, I was on my way to Kuwait to help our troops there celebrate Passover. I’m not trying to make myself a hero. The trip had been planned for months and I was loath to cancel it in order to observe shiva. But the truth is really more wrapped up in our go-go lifestyle and buying into the mentality that I did not need to sit for seven days to Get Over It. I buried myself in my work, especially the important work of helping deployed troops celebrate a major holiday. That would be more therapeutic than taking a week of my life to sit and mourn. I fell for the mentality that has, and will overcome many of you when you experience a loss. Let me get up, dust myself off, and get on with my life. But that is exactly what our mourning practices are designed to achieve. To balance this need, with the need to remember, and honor, the one whom we’ve lost.

Over my rabbinic career, including my three years here at Beit Torah, I have officiated at many funerals and tried to help many families through the mourning process. As a liberal rabbi, I’ve never ‘pushed’ families against their inclination to do the traditional Jewish funerary practices. A time of loss is, after all, not a time of judgment; it is not a time to give even the appearance of trying to use guilt to make someone do what they’re not inclined to do. But in all honesty, as I think back upon the experiences of those whom I’ve served – as well as my own experience of loss – I don’t think I’ve done them a favor by not suggesting the traditional mourning practices, at least in some modified way.

In our contemporary world, it is indisputably difficult to stop our busy lives for a time to observe shiva and sheloshim. In the same way, it is against the grain of our mentality to stop our busy lives every Friday evening to observe Shabbat for a day. All these practices feel burdensome in the context of our rational mindsets. But in eschewing them, we rob ourselves of something precious. We transgress traditional Jewish practice, and that is unlikely to trouble us. But we also deny ourselves important and therapeutic tools for living lives of balance.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column in the congregational bulletin on the importance of being present here on the weeks of your yahrzeits. To have the opportunity to say the Kaddish prayer in the embrace of community. To spend just a moment remembering and honoring the one whom you’ve lost. Most of the congregation did not take my words to heart. I continue to read the weekly list of names for Kaddish and note that few of the families are represented here in our sanctuary. One member actually took me to task about my column; she telephoned to tell me that she was “offended” that I should suggest that mourners have an obligation to be present for the weeks of their yahrzeits. That’s very sad. I wasn’t trying to lay guilt, but to use my knowledge – both the theoretical and my personal experience – to help you to work through your respective losses.

Aaron is told to put aside his duties for a period of time, to give himself time to breathe, time to mourn. The message isn’t that his duties aren’t important – he is, after all, the High Priest. Rather, the message to take away is that his own mental health is important if he is to continue to serve in his vital role on behalf of the People Israel. But you don’t need to take it from the text, take it from me: it’s important for each one of us to find the time to honor both the memory of the dead, and our own need for context and closure. Jewish practice provides us with tools to achieve these ends. They are not intended to be burdensome. They are there for your benefit.