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.

In Memory of My Father

In memory of my father, Robert Krishef, February 11, 1931 – November 19, 2015.

At the opening and closing of Parshat Vayetzei, Jacob encounters God, angels. My father encountered angels. My father was the kind of person who you wouldn’t expect to encounter angels. His father was not particularly observant, not a synagogue goer, and for the most part, neither was my father. He was a rational, clear, thinker. But my father had amazing stories in which he was directed away from dangers by a force that he was absolutely convinced came from outside of him. And my father had an encounter at night, like Jacob’s night encounter, that gave him the strength to make it through his father’s funeral. More on this in a bit.

When my father needed to think, he would go into the basement and sit at or near his typewriter. He was a person of the written word. We used to joke that my grandfather was a man of very few words. My father, though by no means a chatterbox, was the kind of person who would be the center of any room. People lined up to speak with him. People were drawn to him because like a good journalist, he could talk to anyone.

My father was the smartest person I know. It’s a kind of a family joke that he was never wrong. But the amazing thing is that was so rarely wrong that that it’s best to assume that he was in fact always right. He wasn’t arrogant about it. He was just the kind of person who can converse about just about anything and you’ll know that his analysis is spot on. He admitted when he didn’t know the facts of a situation, but his grasp of the principles behind the facts was truly astounding.

My father was the kind of person who could engage anyone in an interesting conversation. He can sit down at a party and people will come to him to talk about politics, sports, business, or anything else on their mind. Basically, he understood people – how they think, how they act, how they react. It doesn’t matter whether he was analyzing a political debate, a B’nai B’rith board, or a sports team – he knew people. Because of this ability to analyze, he had an instinctual understanding of basketball, baseball, and football. I’m not sure about hockey, but he watched anyway. My father was drafted to serve in Korea, but because of poor depth perception, could not shoot a gun effectively. Nevertheless, those eyes could watch a pitcher throw a ball and identify a fast ball, a slider, a curve ball, a breaking ball, and probably a knuckleball as well. He could call balls and strikes accurately from any seat in the stadium or in front of the television. He could look at a runner and tell you if he was going to try to steal. He could look at the arrangement of football players on the field and tell you run or pass, to which side, what kind of play it will be, and how the defense is getting set to react.

My father used his ability to analyze as a journalist as well as in his chosen career, public relations, drawing on his deep insight into what motivates people. I like the idea that he was not in advertising, which is a more of a kind of manipulation of the consumer. Rather, public relations is the art of getting information about an event to the people who already have an interest in being a part of that event. It requires an understanding of the kinds of publications people who are interest in X read, and placing an article about X in those publications.

He wrote books, he owned and edited a country music newspaper. He was a columnist and the editor of the American Jewish World. He loved words. And when his father died and he didn’t think he was going to be able to make it through the funeral, he went to the place where he created words. That’s where his encounter took place. He felt a tap on his shoulder, a glow poured over him, he asked Pop to give him strength, and he got it.

I’ve always drawn my strength from my father. I don’t know what I’m going to do without him. On the way into town last night for the funeral, I took out my laptop and started writing. I reread the transcript of some of the stories I recorded, his encounters with guardian angels, that he told me just 8 days ago, the day after we heard the final diagnoses. I told him then that the only way I was going to be able to get through the funeral was with his help. Sharing stories was his way of giving me, his children, and God-willing his grandchildren, a bit of his wisdom, humor, intelligence, strength, and insight.

The last story he told me was of a prayer after a less than successful date when he was in his late 20’s. Praying was something he only recalled doing three times between his childhood and this moment. He wanted to meet and fall in love and have children. He prayed that he would have children who would turned out to be better than himself. He prayed that they would have children, his grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so forth. He prayed not for children who would create some magic formula or become president of the United States, but just to be good, compassionate people, to make a difference in other’s lives, to contribute somehow to society.

This was his final message to me. I offer it to my children Zachary, Solomon, Sarah, and Harrison who are watching from home, as well as to Jared, Alyssa, Jack and Alex, and I offer it to you. If we embrace that message and become 1/10 of the mentch that my father was, then his memory will indeed have become a blessing. Y’hi Zikhro Barukh.