“Out of the ruins of the past, Jerusalem has been rebuilt, and out of the fragments of the memories of the past, the Jewish people have been reborn.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
There are some who go through life without the need for God, for symbols, rituals, or traditions and suggest to others that we each make our own way through life’s passages. I listened to a woman on the radio recalling the suffering she experienced with the death of a much beloved husband. She preached that mourning was personal, not communal. Each mourner needs to find her own path through the pain. Do what feels good. Lie in bed all day. Don’t get dressed if you don’t feel up to it. It isn’t necessary to send thank you notes to acknowledge those who have sent cards, letters, flowers or donations in the name of the loved one. Yet, writing notes of thanks, gives the mourner an opportunity to find reasons to be grateful at the darkest time. Each note written reminds the mourner that she is loved by others. Each time she puts pen to paper she will remember some special moment that she and her husband shared with that particular member of the family or that particular friend.
We live in a society that expends enormous amounts of energy sharing every moment of life with tweets, Facebook and all manner of social media, yet death is to be made into a private matter. Death is not a private matter. Just as God was present to bless Isaac after the death of his father, Abraham, and bury His beloved Moses, in our desire to imitate God, we, too, want to honour the dead and comfort the mourner because each death is a loss of light to the Lord. Death is no more a private matter than birth. We come into the world to family and community surrounding us with love. Family and community are there for us in death.
“Fear not death; we are destined to die. We share it with all who ever lived, with all who ever be.” Ben Sira Ecclesiaticus
Religion provides the mourners and the community with rituals, tradition and symbols to honour the one who has died, give voice to those who remain behind and provide them a way back to the living.
We follow ritual and tradition for the same reason we follow a map; to get from one place to another without losing our way. My parents died fourteen years part. I had already traveled with friends and family as they had walked the path of grief. I participated in the rituals and traditions of death, burial and mourning with them. Accompanying others becomes a dress rehearsal for the day when we must face the death of a loved one, when we must say good bye to a friend, a spouse, a parent and the most painful of all, a child.
When it was my turn to grieve the death of my parents, and with the death of my mother, my last parent, accept becoming an orphan, I wasn’t completely bereft or lost wandering in the desert with no landmarks to point the way, because the rituals and traditions were familiar to me and comforted me; say this prayer, stand over here, move over there, shovel the dirt over the casket to confirm that death is real. I walked along the path with my friends and family walking with me, holding me upright.
Following the burial, many practice the tradition of a communal meal. Food nourishes the body, and the community in sharing in the emotional pain, nourishes the soul. Religion provides a path that has been followed for centuries, a road that takes us from shock and numbness, loneliness and loss, to emotional and spiritual healing. We light candles. We sit together. We talk. We eat and drink together. We share memories of the one who has died and we cry, together. We learn to believe that we will once again find meaning in life. We behave as if it were true and with time we once again feel that we belong with the living.
“You have turned my mourning into dancing, you have stripped off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy” (Psalm 30:11).
Death will not defeat us.
But we must never forget those who came before us so we have rituals and prayers that remind us of those who have departed and remind us of the gifts they left-the morals, values and ethics that we continue.
I read an article in “Reform Judaism” Winter 2103 by Rabbi Rosalind Gold, a Reform Jew from Reston Virginia, who, following the death of her father, discovered that she preferred that only those saying Kaddish Yatom should stand. She felt “a deep sense of communion with the other mourners, as all of us shared a life-changing experience.” This after years of leading her own congregation where all stood. Standing with everyone somehow lessened her connection with those she was remembering. Standing only amongst those saying Kaddish made that day special for her, differentiating it from all the other days.
And I have come to the opposite conclusion: those saying Kaddish should never stand alone. I come from a Conservative background. It was at a Reform synagogue that I came to that conclusion. The Rabbi reminded us that we stand for the millions who have been taken from us with no one to remember them, to pray for them. That we stand together to remember those for whom no descendants are present.
For the six million, and then for the aunts and uncles, cousins for whom there are no children to say Kaddish to keep them alive. For as long as there is someone to say Kaddish we remain alive. We are one people. We are Am Yisrael. We stand for each other, forever.
I read this poem in Times of Israel February 27 by Rachel Kennelly. The last stanza speaks to the sanctity of standing together, always.
In the DP camps after the Holocaust,
when the Jewish people heard about the founding of Israel,
they danced for the people
who could not dance for themselves.
Not enough Jews are dancing anymore,
but there are always people to dance for.
If we are not for ourselves,
who will be for us?