Ben Herman
Building Community, One Person at a Time

Encountering Death

As the musical Hamilton teaches us, “You have no control who lives who dies who tells your story.” Death is one of the most difficult topics. Yet it is one we are reminded of every Yizkor. As former Miamian Rabbi Rami Shapiro writes, “Reality shows you time and again that you have no control.”[1] He continues, “Every landing gives you the illusion of liberation, but every landing is followed by another tumble.”[2]

We have had so many tumbles this year as a Bet Shira community. We have lost many prominent members, including David Mermelstein z” l, whose El Malei Rahamim for the 6 million will be seen via a video recording from last year. Many congregants have lost friends from the Champlain Towers South collapse. Others are mourning losses from COVID-19.

The Institute of Jewish Spirituality has taught me that the best way to deal with death is to honor and befriend it and the feelings that come with it, rather than throwing them under the rug or pretending that they don’t exist.  As Rebbe Nahman teaches, “There is no happiness without sadness; no pleasure without pain; no fullness without loss. They are inseparable.”[3] We recognize that feelings, like so much of life, are messy and complicated and that they are not easy to decipher. Rabbi Irwin Kula writes, “In the Jewish tradition there are no sayings like ‘passed away’ or ‘final resting place.’ We are to call death by its real name-feel the blow, sink into the loss, let it subsume us-and we’re to do it in the first twenty-four hours after someone dies. We need to deepen, rather than minimize, our sorrow and express our anger. Only then can we hope for reconciliation and return.”[4]

Yom Kippur is the day on which we acknowledge our mortality and rehearse our own death. Not literally as Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi did, lying in a casket with the Hevra Kadisha doing a tahara on him while alive, but spiritually. We do not eat or drink, engage in sexual relations, wash, wear perfumes or oils. We wear a kittel, the plain white robe in which we will be buried, saying that no one is better than anyone else-we all came from the same origin, and we will all pass away. Rabbi Irwin Kula puts it as follows: “The opening practice of Yom Kippur frees us from all our promises and obligations. We imagine ourselves as no longer married, a parent, holding a job that we’re responsible for. These parts of ourselves die, and we’re left alone to contemplate what life would be like without its usual trappings and delights. Who are we without them? The next evening, we are, in a sense, born again. We accept our obligations back, hopefully at a higher or deeper level of appreciation and meaning. Or we recognise that we need to let go of obligations that have distorted or confined us. It’s like when I go on a spiritual retreat, time just to reflect and contemplate, and then return thinking, ‘How can I be a better husband, a better father, a better son?’”[5] Mitch Albom writes in The Five People You Meet in Heaven, “The most painful events have a meaning we never could have understood at the time. There’s also a sense that we can have heaven right here. Heaven is the moments when we can hold it all together, even when it’s almost too much to bear.”[6]

In a class on resilience for rabbis of the Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Mychal Springer, my former Assistant Dean at the Jewish Theological Seminary and currently the Director of Clinical Pastoral Education at New York Presbyterian Hospital, talked about her early experiences with COVID patients.[7] She was speaking about March 2020, immediately after COVID had been labelled a pandemic and before the CDC had come out with recommending masking for the common person. Rabbi Springer recalled walking to work at New York Presbyterian and seeing refrigerator trucks outside of the hospital because the morgue was full. One day she was working with a nurse when a code blue came over the loudspeaker. The nurse jumped up, rushed over, and said, “I was just with that patient yesterday.” Mychal said she recognized that “even though we were swimming in death, she had to go to her patient.” That is precisely what Yom Kippur is about-the preciousness of every life and not taking any moment in life for granted. We put on our kittels, and we draw close to death. It reminds us to take seriously our “one wild and precious life.”[8]

Rabbi Springer was on my interview committee when I applied for rabbinical school at JTS. In the interview, she asked me “Do you have any doubts?” and when I said “No,” she followed up with “What would you do if you developed doubts?” This time it was my turn to ask her a question. I asked how she personally stayed sane and remained resilient when encountering death so palpably each day. She responded that she walked to the hospital through crossing Central Park and made sure to intentionally walk each day hearing the birds, as well as using that time to call friends and others she cared about. The people on the other line would often remark in surprise, “Is that a bird?” By taking the time to connect with nature and with loved ones, she was able to maintain some semblance of normalcy in an unprecedented time.

The lesson Rabbi Springer taught me as I encounter death is to acknowledge the brokenness of life. Out of the brokenness comes the agency that is resilience. We must make choices in the limited time we have to be present and continue forward. While there is much we cannot do, yet we must do the best we can to be present where we need to be at any given moment. In so doing, we reinforce the message that every life is precious to us, and each moment is sacred.

As we approach Yizkor, we acknowledge that we don’t know why things happen. We don’t know why we are sometimes in the right place at the right time and others are in the wrong place at the wrong time. We can’t answer why Theresa Velasquez, who had just flown in from LAX to see her parents, perished in the Champlain Towers, whereas Sharon Schechter was able to survive by climbing through the rubble with her dog. Similar questions were asked during 9/11 and the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue Complex: why were some late to work or to shul that day or didn’t come in at all, whereas others came earlier than they were accustomed and perished? It is not for us to ask Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die. Instead, what we need to do is to recognize that life is messy and that we should view each moment as a gift rather than taking it for granted. In doing this work, however, we must acknowledge our own mortality rather than denying it. Rabbi Jack Riemer writes, “No one can claim to be wise about life whose wisdom does not include a relationship with death.”[9]

What we must do when encountering death is twofold: first, we need to recognize that our feelings about death and those who have passed on change over time. It is human to have “moments of acceptance and moments of resistance; moments of fighting and moments of softening.”[10] Second, we must understand that when one’s life has been completely shattered, there’s no way to imagine wholeness, and trying to do so can short-circuit one’s grief. As SY Agnon writes, “Kaddish is not to God but for God; it’s a way to reconstruct God, to rebuild reality after it’s been torn asunder. God has been diminished by this death, and so needs to be magnified. It’s a practice for building back a sense of meaning in the face of devastation.”[11]

This is an especially difficult year to find meaning in life, with so many deaths of loved ones, those who have passed from COVID, hurricanes, flooding, fires and the collapse of Champlain Towers South. Yet what we can do is choose how to respond. Either we can be saddened and angry and stop there, or we can use these encounters with death to remind us of the importance of making every moment count. As we remember our loved ones who have perished, may we choose to do exactly that-to make the most out of each precious moment that God gives us to strive to make a difference for ourselves and for our community. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

[1] Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Surrendered-the Sacred Art: Shattering the Illusion of Control and Falling into Grace with Twelve-Step Spirituality (Nashville: Turner Publishing Company, 2019), pg. xvi

[2] Ibid, xviii

[3] In [3] Rabbi Irwin Kula, Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life (New York: Hachette Books, 2006), pg. 252.

[4] Ibid, 275.

[5] Ibid, pg. 280.

[6] Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven in Kula, p. 280.

[7] Rabbi Mychal Springer, Class on Resilience Through Jewish Theological Seminary and Rabbinical Assembly, July 28, 2021.

[8] Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day.”

[9] In Kula, 266.

[10] Ibid, Pg. 269.

[11] In Kula, pg. 277.

About the Author
Rabbi Ben Herman is the Senior Rabbi at Mosaic Law Congregation in Sacramento, California. He has previously created initiatives and helped implement programs such as Drive In Shabbat, a Drive Through Sukkah, a student-led musical service called Friday Night Live, Shabbat on the Beach, and the United Synagogue Schechter Award-winning Hiking and Halacha. Rabbi Herman also serves on the Rabbinical Assembly's Conversion Commission as well as its Derech Eretz and Social Action Committees. He is a Mahloket Matters Fellow with PARDES and has previously been part of JOIN for Justice's Community Organizing Fellowship as well as the Institute for Jewish Spirituality's Clergy Leadership Program. Rabbi Herman's focus is growing the membership through outreach and relational Judaism, including creating Havurot, implementing engaging programming and enhancing the Educational and Young Family programs at Mosaic Law. Rabbi Herman earned a Bachelors Degree in History, Hebrew and Jewish Studies with Comprehensive Honors in 2005 and received Rabbinic Ordination with a Masters Degree in Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2011. Rabbi Herman married Karina in June 2014, and the two of them are very excited to be living in Sacramento and in California, Karina's home state. They welcomed daughters Ariela Shira in February 2016 and Leora Rose in December 2018.