Like I Told You, It's an Honor
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Our parashah this week is Aharei Mot-K’doshim, meaning “After Death – Holiness.” In the spirit of Jimmy Breslin, this morning I want to share not the numbers, but the stories of our communal loss. Aharei Mot-K’doshim, after death, holiness: stories of after death, death itself, and perhaps most painfully, and where we shall begin, lifnei mot, before death.
Such things should not be ranked, but I have found the cruelest aspect of our communal losses to be the experiences lifnei mot, before or preceding death. My thoughts turn to the father of one congregant who had not been feeling himself and who went to the hospital accompanied by his wife of fifty years. She sat in the waiting room as tests were conducted. A medical professional came, greeted her, and handed over her husband’s cell phone and personal effects, instructing her to go home: he had tested positive. All she wanted was to stay at his side, to be with him as she had for the last fifty years, but it was not to be. I think of another congregational family having to make end-of-life decisions for the family patriarch dying in a hospital room. In my experience as a rabbi, there is nothing more heartbreaking than a family conversation on whether to withhold care for a loved one, except having to make those decisions from a distance. I have never, until this month, had to recite the death-bed prayer to a person over the phone, and I hope I will never have to do so ever again. I think of one individual, a Holocaust survivor who had survived Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen, who had rebuilt his life in America – blessed with four children, ten grandchildren and four great-grandchildren – who died last week without his family at his side. I think of two other congregants who died alone. In both cases, without next of kin, we arranged their burials with their lawyers and representatives. Death is cruel enough as it is, but nobody, nobody should ever die alone. It is not just the number of deaths, it is the nature of each person’s passing that has taken a staggering toll on our congregational families and on all of us.
And if this is what precedes death, then the realities of death itself are equally shattering. Funerals, as any clergyperson knows, are the most intimate and moving times to be with families: grieving together, weaving the narrative of a loved one’s life, and providing the family with the social support of the community. But for these last months, funeral services have been transformed. There are no public gatherings and no funeral services; everything happens at graveside. Plaza, Riverside – the funeral homes we work with – are doing the best they can given the sheer volume and backlog. Families are assigned a time slot – 2:00 pm on a Tuesday; 11:00 am on a Wednesday – you take what you are given. Every cemetery has its own rules. Some limit burials to just family, some to no more than five, some allow no family at all. Sometimes the rules change; you don’t actually know until you get there. In order to protect the gravediggers, the mourners are required to remain in the car as the casket is lowered. Only then is family given permission to go to the graveside. Brothers and sisters, spouses – standing at a distance with masks and gloves. There are no handshakes or hugs. Inevitably, one person is holding an iPhone so another can watch from a distance: a child or a sibling not present, who couldn’t get on a plane or couldn’t take the health risk. There is a Psalm, a word of Torah, and an opportunity for anyone to share a memory. There is no pomp or pageantry, no elegantly crafted eulogy, no playing the deceased’s favorite song. Everything is from the heart, with raw, painful, free-flowing tears. In all its unfair inhumanity, there is something deeply authentic about it all. You cannot shovel earth, because that would require passing a shovel, so you grab a handful of earth – or three or ten – and you throw it in your loved one’s final resting place. You recite kaddish and the memorial prayer, and then . . . you get back in the car. The service ends as abruptly as it began.
Post-burial Jewish rituals – shiva, shloshim, and otherwise – as the rabbis themselves understood, are meant both to honor the dead and comfort the bereaved. But the rabbis never imagined a moment like ours when public assembly is forbidden. Children are not reconvening in their parent’s home for a meal. The community is forbidden from gathering; there is no minyan to recite kaddish. Many go home from the cemetery to an empty house. The enormity of a loved one’s death takes time to take hold; shiva is one of the many mechanisms that help people absorb and accept loss. But if you go home alone, as several have reflected to me, the shock and disbelief linger razor-sharp. Without context or community to process, it doesn’t actually feel real.
Under the circumstances, the synagogue has tried to do our best with online shiva. A time is set, a Zoom link created, an email sent, and an hour spent “together” online. With a combination of psalms read, memories shared, condolence notes written in the chat bar, and kaddish, it is part funeral and part memorial service. In all its stilted awkwardness, in all its deficiencies, it is not without merit. Loved ones gather from the four corners the world, from across the span of a person’s life, from childhood to college and through adulthood. Individuals who would otherwise never make it to shiva can make it to an online shiva. People share memories and, more importantly, people listen and can see other’s faces in a way you just can’t in a crowded room. Loved ones are honored and mourners are comforted. It is not the same – it is not nearly the same – and it is heartbreaking to think of the mourner staring at the blank screen when the Zoom session ends, but it is better than nothing. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if in years to come, when life and death, please God, return to normal, mourners will announce hybrid shiva times, some in person and some on Zoom. COVID or no COVID, I would bet that Zoom shivas are here to stay, and I am not sure that is such a terrible thing.
For all the heartache and all the continued constraints, these past months have not been without moments of profound humanity. A man told me of the kindness of a hospice nurse who suited up in PPE just to place her phone next to his father’s ear, as he and his daughters expressed their love for father and grandfather, just minutes before his soul entered God’s eternal embrace. I think of the graveside funeral of a man who had narrowly escaped the clutches of Nazi Germany, whose son found comfort in the knowledge that his father was granted proper burial, a mitzvah denied to the Six Million. I think of another graveside funeral one windy day, when the scribbled notes being read by a grandchild blew from his hands directly into his grandmother’s grave. The moment could not have been scripted, and it granted the family so much comfort that every subsequent speaker placed their notes into the grave after speaking. I think of another funeral where health and geography prevented family from being present so photographs of everyone were lovingly placed in the grave. I think of the uplift one woman experienced upon entering a Zoom shiva as she realized the number of lives her father had touched. I think of one congregant, who, arriving at home after burying his brother, looked out his front window to see ten physically distanced members of our community standing outside to daven with him so he could recite kaddish. I am reminded of the old story attributed to the Maggid of Dubno about the king who had a diamond with a scratch on it, that no one could repair until a rabbi came and incorporated the scratch as the stem of a rose that he engraved on the diamond. We are a long way from being able to create beauty from the hurt and damage we are all suffering. But at the very least, I would like to think that even now all those scratches and cracks can let in the light of humanity and God. Even now there is holiness, kedushah, before death, in death, and after death.
As for me, these months have been filled with the most trying, exhausting, and rewarding stretch of my pastoral career. I am heartbroken that the pace has not permitted us to check in on the bereaved with greater frequency. We need bereavement groups led by social workers; we need volunteers to make check-in phone calls. Clergy need to reflect on how we can care better for our synagogue members even as we are off to respond to the next passing. We are far from perfect, and I will be the first to name our shortcomings. I would only ask for your patience and forgiveness as we try to do our best in this dark hour.
And in all of it, to be sure, I am reminded why I became a rabbi: to be brought into the confidence of people’s lives with their humanity at its most raw; to be extended the opportunity to let the wisdom of our tradition ease a person’s sorrow; to be present to remind people that even when they are most isolated, they are not alone. Excepting the health care professionals on the front line who are literally saving lives, I am hard pressed to think of a more worthwhile vocation. The clergy team, your clergy team, as always, stands ready to serve. Like I told you, it’s an honor.