Psalm 34

“… to cut off their memory from the earth. (34:17)

When I get to the end of my life, I’d like to have made a difference. I know it’s not reasonable to think that 50 years after my death that I will be remembered as anything other than a name, and after another 50 years, probably not even that, so my goal is more modest. I’d like to be remembered for something for a generation or two. Having children is one way to guarantee that your memory will not be immediately cut off. Having the means to leave a financial legacy such as a named endowment fund or family foundation is another way. If it is within your power, how to you want to be remembered?

Psalm 13

“Lest I sleep death.” (13:4)

One should never tell a young child that someone who has died is just sleeping, unless you want to teach the child to fear bedtime. However, sleep is 1/60th of death, taught the rabbis of the Talmud (Berakhot 57b). In our unconscious state, we are closer to the world of souls. Not every dream is a message from beyond, but when the veil of our ego is lifted, we expand our ability to realize things about ourselves. Whether this expanded awareness comes from within our minds or from an outside agent is less important than our openness to hearing the message.

Psalm 144

Adonai, what is a human being that You should care about him, a mortal being, that You should think of him? A human being is like a breath, whose days are like a passing shadow. (144:3-4)

Every living thing has value, not matter how long or how short the life span. From a eternal God-perspective, their is no difference between a fertilized embryo which lives a matter of weeks or months and a person who lives a full life. God’s quality of caring and love applies equally to the child who died in utero and the elder who lives 102 years surrounded by three or four generations of descendants.

One way to understand the Jewish position on abortion is to say that it does not ignore the embryonic life simply because it is unborn but neither does it give more weight to the woman simply because she is older. Rather, it treats the two of them as equally human, but if the embryonic life is threatening the life or health of the mother, then we take the embryonic life to spare the mother’s life. In the same way, if a mugger showed a gun and declared, “Your money or your life,” the potential victim or a bystander would be justified in taking the life of the mugger.

Another way to understand the Jewish position on abortion is to see the baby as a dependent life akin to a limb of the mother. Just as one may remove a person’s limb when it threatens the health of the body, one may remove an child in utero if it threatens the mother. No matter which way one analyzes the ethics of abortion in Jewish law, midrash infuses the embryonic life with a soul. In other words, an abortion is not the killing of a soul-less child, but rather the necessary killing of a soul who is endangering another’s life.

While I have not seen a midrash which addresses what happens to the soul of a child which did not get the chance to be born, I imagine, because I believe that God cares about every soul, that the unborn soul whose life was cut off goes back to the Divine storehouse of souls. Every soul deserves a chance to live a life. A soul whose life was cut short before it could experience the trials and triumphs of a human life ought to be given a second chance to be born.

Psalm 135

 

Adonai, Your name endures forever, Your fame, Adonai, through all generations.(135:13)

We hope to live our lives so as to make a difference in the world, whether it is by raising children, the work we do professionally, or changing some person’s life (or persons’ lives) through tzedakah work. In ways large and small, obvious and barely noticeable, each one of us will have made a difference through the large number of people whose lives intersected with our own.

However, the number of us who will be remembered beyond one or two generations after we die is very small. Of the 108 billion or so human beings who have lived on this world, how many of them are still remembers 100 years, 500 years, 1000 years, after their death? Think of all of the names in the Bible or other tales of ancient literature. So many are just names, about whom we know nothing.

The name of a mortal human being, his or her fame, no matter how great, does not last. While an individual human life is a brief blip on the timeline, God’s name and God’s renown echo from earliest recorded history through the present and into the future. We may be unsatisfied with the progress of human development, at each minuscule human effort to push humanity forward. However, those who believe in a Divine Power can die knowing that although we are temporary actors playing a brief part in a very long play, our life, full of sound and fury though it may be, contra Macbeth is nonetheless deeply significant because we link our name with God’s name.

Divre Harav, January, 2016

First I want to acknowledge with gratitude the outpouring of love and support for me and my family on the loss of my father. The journey through shiva gave me insight into a profoundly healing ritual that I had never fully experienced. The first time I sat shiva was for my infant daughter. The shiva minyanim morning and evening were important, but because we had two of her siblings in the hospital, we left the house every day to go visit them and focus on their needs. This time I experienced shiva in a form closer to its intended state. Except for the travel day between Minneapolis and Grand Rapids, I stayed in the home and stayed away from activities that would distract me from thinking about my father.

I talked about my father to Marisa and kept in touch by phone with my mother and sisters. I did some writing with my father in mind, created a slide show of pictures of my father, and watched it until I could do so without crying. I also sat or lay down doing nothing but thinking about him, stories he told, things we did together, and particularly how he handled the last week of his life.

The day my father died and the following day, the day of the funeral, I was an emotional wreck. The time I spent with my sisters and my mother, all grieving the loss of this person who meant so much to each of us, was enormously healing, and the time I spent in Grand Rapids with my community was comforting. In accordance with shiva customs, I didn’t get up to greet visitors. I waited until they came to greet me. I did that because even when I was in my home, I was not a host and didn’t want to act like one, which would have taken me out of the mental space of mourner.

Some people don’t know what to say to a mourner. For this reason, some visitors avoided me, not speaking to me until they were ready to leave, when they shared a few brief words of condolence, like “I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your father.” Other people said that or the words that Judaism supplies, “May God comfort you among all mourners of Zion and Jerusalem,” as they entered, but disengaged as soon as possible afterwards. There were times, especially at the shiva in Minneapolis, that I was sitting by myself just watching people come in and stand on the other side of the room from where I was sitting.

It is difficult for many people to talk about death. To speak about my father would stir up uncomfortable feelings either about their own parent’s death or about their own mortality. They may have projected those feelings onto me, thinking that I would be uncomfortable having to speak about my father. The most uncomfortable moments for me were when people engaged me in conversation that had nothing to do with my father or when they launched into some kind of sermon telling me what I should be feeling, thinking, or believing about my father’s soul.

I found great wisdom in the traditional approach to shiva, suggesting that visitors sit with the mourners in silence and let them open the conversation however they want. I wanted to talk about my father and when I found opportunities to share stories about him, it was a comfort to me. I was looking for the shiva visitors to provide me with an opening. More than anything, I wanted them to say very simply, “Tell me something about your father.” This, more than anything, is the enduring lesson I will take away from this shiva experience. Again, I am grateful to each one of you who called, visited, sent a note, made a donation, brought food, or spoke to me personally about the loss of my father.