Tag Archives: death

How do I tell Dad that Mom has died?

How do you tell Dad that Mom has died? This challenging question confronted old friends this past week.

Compassion is such a difficult practice. It is often so difficult to know what is the right thing to do for another person.oldyoung hands

 A friend’s mother recently passed away after a protracted decline. Sadly her dad is suffering from dementia. My friend and her siblings struggled with whether they should tell him that his wife, their mom, has just passed away. Would he find the loss overwhelming? Would he even comprehend the sad news they would share? He has a right to know and grieve the loss of his wife. But if the news was too much for him to handle, should they wait until there was a better time to inform him?

 Further complicating things, he was physically unable to attend the funeral.

 Both options, to tell him or not, are based on compassion for dad. But which one is right for him? She reached out to me for counsel.

My first suggestion was to consult dad’s doctor, someone who knows him and is skilled in these medical issues. The doctor can help ascertain how aware is dad of his surroundings. The children, all adults, can also shed some light on dad’s cognitive abilities, but they are emotionally very close to the situation and may not clearly assess how well dad will process the news. It is likely that despite all attempts to know, it is all but impossible to appreciate how much dad truly understands.

 We cannot know how people will react to this kind of news even without the complications of these circumstances. Maybe dad will have only a moment of clarity or possibly the news will stay with him. He may work through his grief or become overwhelmed by it. I have learned along my journey that we actually only have moments together. Sometimes these moments last and create enduring memories. Sometimes they fade away. The best we can do is to be fully present in each moment together and hope that it endures. The struggle that this family confronts is a struggle we all face, for each of us will experience loss and then try to reconcile with it in the aftermath. We can try to anticipate how people will respond, but we need to be careful in presuming too much, acting for them instead of allowing them the dignity of exercising his or her own agency.

 The Talmud teaches that we treat parents with honor and respect.   Might the ways we do that include withholding speech or information that would be hurtful? If dad still has some comprehension, won’t he feel the sadness in those surrounding him and wonder why his wife no longer visits? Further, how will he react if he learns of his wife’s passing long after the fact without the chance to mourn her loss? Arguably we honor our parents when we include them in even the most difficult things, rather than attempting to protect them. Each of us will be called upon to grapple with a similar situation. We must take the utmost care to ensure that our motives are true and that we act in the best interests of our parents and not fulfilling our own needs disguised as compassion. My friend’s struggle was because she loved her father and wanted what was best for him.

 Zichronah Livrachah may my friends’ mother be a blessing for the family. May her father be given the opportunity to know that too.

The Time for Common Heroism is upon Us.

Heroes, it is said, act without thinking of the fear before them. Fear can paralyze, placing us in what we classically describe as Mitzrayim, the narrow places. Although most of us are not heroes, most of us are people who respond with empathy and compassion to those in need.

 When we rise above our fears we can achieve great things. When we act out of fear, we are reflexive and often myopic and ultimately selfish in our self-protectiveness.

 The unfolding tragedies in the Middle East, the hopes of an Arab Spring becoming, to extend the metaphor, the harshest of Winters, have left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced. What was once considered home is now an impossible place of hopelessness and despair.

 As Americans, as Jews and as human beings we are compelled to answer the immediate desperate cry for help. World governments, first and foremost the United States, must tackle the underlying causes of this devastation work to resolve these problems. But you and I can make a difference to the people in immediate risk for their lives. We can support humanitarian efforts to provide sanctuary, medicine and food and further we can actively support efforts to resettle refugees.

 Refugees are carefully screened before granted permission to come to the United States. HIAS is in the forefront of coordinating with government agencies after these people are vetted. Our fear cannot let us turn a blind eye and keep us from engaging in the compassionate work our tradition commands.

 L’Shana Tova

Shabbat Shalom in a World Desperate for Peace

We wish each other Shabbat Shalom, with the image of Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body seared into our minds. This horrific image profoundly disturbs the peace we are supposed to welcome and embrace. The suffering of countless victims of war in places like Syria and Africa is unimaginable.   The willingness to risk life itself to escape gives us some measure of the conditions that exist in the places from which they flee.

 Europe cannot turn its back on these people and we here in the United States must also be ready to offer help to those that flee. Moreover, the world must be willing to address the circumstances that have created these desperate situations. The time to act is long overdue.

Shiva at the Diner

 One of the most difficult things we experience is the loss of a loved one. Death takes them away from us. We struggle with our new reality, whether the loss was sudden or even if it was expected, the moment of truth is not as expected.

 Death is a complicated emotional process in which we experience loss, then grief and then we try to move forward. Jewish tradition gives us some wonderful coping mechanisms that acknowledge and honor the departed, our relationship to that person and a means of working through the loss.

 When we attempt to circumvent or short-circuit the process we lose out. In our fast paced world, we want to “get it over with,” and move on. I frequently hear the need to return to work, which is more a desperate attempt to escape the discomfort of the current situation and not deal with it. Some of us suppress or even ignore our feelings attempting to deny the pain, leaving things unresolved. Our feelings will however come back to haunt us. A perfunctory approach does not serve us well. Our hearts just do not work that way. Judaism has a better way to deal.

 Shiva, the traditional Jewish mourning period, is seven days (the word Shiva is Hebrew for seven). It is tempting to shorten this period to a three-day Shiva, or even a one-day observance. I did once hear of a family that decided they would sit Shiva Saturday night at the Italian restaurant/diner. These recastings of Shiva are reflections of everything but the acknowledgement of a profound loss and the grieving process that accompanies such a loss. Sadly, the people who survive are the ones who suffer as a result.

 Our Jewish tradition wisely helps guide the survivors through the process. You quite literally sit with your grief, fully acknowledging this place and the loss. Your family, friends and the community gathers to support you in your time of aloneness to share that indeed you are not alone. You experience what we all will experience and we are both connected and strengthened by this knowledge. By being together we say you will get through this with our support and love. The community continues to show its support and love through the institution of the synagogue as a place where you can find not only solace but a caring community that can help you reintegrate as the immediacy of the pain begins to find a place in your heart rather than on your sleeve.

 There is joy in life and pain in its loss. How we navigate these is what family, friends and community is all about. The traditional Hebrew phrase we share with someone who experiences a loss might be translated as: “May you find comfort in this place among family and friends.” This is among the values that makes embracing Judaism something sacred and profound.

G*d’s Burning Questions: A Tribute to Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu Salha, and Razan Abu Salha

The following is a re-post of Rabbi Michael Bernstein’s piece.  Thoughtful and wise as always, Rabbi Bernstein’s words are worth contemplating.

Shabbat Shalom

 On Tuesday, February 13th, Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammed Abu Salha, and Razan Mohammed Abu Salha were shot to death by a man living next door to them at an apartment complex in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  Because they were observant Muslims and the man who murdered them had expressed what he called anti-theist views against believers of all faiths, there is an open question as to what motivated this murderer to pull the trigger and whether the killing was an act against the faith professed by these three students – whether they died because they were Muslims in America. For me, however, as I learn more about the incredible acts of devotion, kindness, and service to humanity performed by newly wed Deah and Yusor, and Yusor’s younger sister Razan, I am moved above all by how being Muslims in America shaped how they lived.

  Deah Barakat was a dental student who, among other projects, raised money for and led a mission to Turkey in order to provide urgent medical procedures and preventative oral care for Syrians whose lives had been ripped apart by war and turmoil.  His work on behalf of those in need also informed his messages on behalf of seeking peace for all without exception.  While the  views of the world and its conflicts he expressed were in solidarity with Palestinians and other Muslims, he explicitly spoke out against violence done against Jews and against anyone who thought killing was the answer.   He was a supporter of interfaith programming, including participation in sharing Ramadan with Beth Meyer Synagogue in Chapel Hill.

   What would be the last months of his life was a celebration of his love for his wife Yusor, a Muslim woman and fellow dental student.  Yusor spoke powerfully about the blessing of being a Muslim in America on this StoryCorp recording and posted on social media about the practice of wearing the hijab, a full head covering, from the perspective of women’s empowerment.  Her sister, Razan, was an award winning artist who, along with Deah’s brother Farris, was instrumental in helping to create an incredible video that affirmed the forward looking and hopeful mindset of Muslim students at North Carolina State University in a way that also showed the playfulness and individuality of a community often treated as monolithic by others.

  Deah, Yusor and Razan spent a significant part of their lives responding to a burning question read this week in the Book of Exodus (Mishpatim).  This question arises in an unexpected place, an enumeration of laws of civil behavior that is explicitly concerned with not favoring any party in a dispute or legal proceeding.  And yet in the midst of cases involving oxen being gored or goring others, and the laws of lending to those in need, the text breaks out of its legalistic tone and demands to know what would happen if a lender insisted on taking the only coat of a poor person as collateral and did not make sure to return it before the sun set.

  “This is his only cloak, in what will he sleep?”  If a person has no cloak, no wealth, no protection either from nature or from malice, no one to care about his or her well-being —- “In what will they sleep?” And in many ways it was questions such as this that led Deah Barakat to dedicate his talents and his time to trying to alleviate suffering in Syria seeing what he could provide as a dentist as his version of the cloak. It is the revelation that G*d demands our attention for each person’s well-being  that drives the kind of reflection on faith that inspired Yusor and Razan to articulate so powerfully how their beloved traditions must lead to understanding between different people and be a source of communal responsibility.

  For me, this bittersweet opportunity to learn more about these three remarkable people, “three winners,” as those dear to them have chosen to name them, has made me think of Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker, may their memories be a blessing, dear friends murdered  nineteen years ago by Hamas terrorists practicing a faith that is so unlike the understanding of Islam that these three students professed .  Unlike the killers of Matt and Sara, it is not clear that the man who murdered Deah, Yusor, and Razan hated everyone like them.  However, like Matt and Sara it is clear that the murderer’s cruel, unfathomable act of violence took from the world people whose incredible faith, talents and commitments to do good would have brought so much more compassionate insight into a world so in need of love. I imagine them having much to learn from each other should they meet  beyond this world.

  A beautiful commentary called the Kli Yakar (“Precious Vessel”) reads the question “In what will he sleep?” also as a reference to the tradition that when a person dies their soul is cloaked in the good deeds they have done on behalf of others.  If a person refrains from helping someone in this world, “In what will that person sleep” in the next world?  Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammed Abu Salha, and Razan Mohammed Abu Salha are, I believe, among those clothed now in the deeds of the righteous.  Yet we are poorer for not having the new answers that they would have provided to G*d’s burning questions.

 May G*d, to whom we call by many names, provide for these witnesses an abode in Paradise, may their memories be a blessing to all they touched and the entire world.

 Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Michael

 

My ambivalent relationship with Charlie Hebdo

Je suis Charlie, Je ne suis pas Charlie

Now that the dust has begun to settle around the recent tragic murders in France I wanted to share my thoughts.

My heart goes out to the families of those murdered while at work at Charlie Hebdo. The fanatical rage that drove the two assassins to kill cannot be justified. They destroyed lives and made a mockery of Islam. But my compassion for the people does not extend to the magazine known as Charlie Hebdo.

Our society embraces free speech as a fundamental virtue. What makes free speech truly free is not the defense of easy and virtuous speech, it is rather in the defense of the ugly and the difficult even the vile and despicable. It is here that free speech is truly free. Only if all speech is defended then all speech is protected, including yours and mine. Our caveat has been to limit free speech so that it cannot be the direct cause of harm to others; we cannot yell “Fire” in a crowded theater is the standard example offered. That is not the only censorship we should consider however.

We must self-regulate. Civility and decorum require we consider how our words affect others. That is based on a respect for our fellow human being and the knowledge that words are powerful and can inflict hurt and emotional pain. We often do not account for how our words impact others and we should before indiscriminately lobbing verbal or written bombs.

Charlie Hebdo is not my cup of tea. Its purpose appears to be to offend wherever and however they can. Charlie Hebdo did not single out Islam for disrespect and mockery; Charlie holds nothing sacred. The tabloid seems to respect little more than its own sense of entitlement and right to print whatever they could to offend whoever they could. This attitude effectively limits their bite. Sometimes there is incisive social commentary, but it is rare enough that most of us do not subscribe to Charlie Hebdo.

The magazine was reportedly on the verge of bankruptcy; its circulation had all but dried up. Charlie Hebdo exercised the right to free speech and we exercised our right to protest it by ignoring the rag. That is how civil society deals with such things. Mocking everything means valuing nothing, including the right to express such things. Outrage over the mistreatment of one of the world’s great religions is however understandable. Carnage however, in the name of protecting the religion, does nothing but defile that religion and threatens one of the greatest of all human rights.

Klinghoffer Continued

In response to my teacher and friend who posted a comment on my last submission on “The Death of Klinghoffer”

 My quarrel is with the Met not the writer of Klinghoffer.

I am a defender of free speech even when that includes writing something reprehensible. I recall the Nazis marching in Skokie and the right of these evil hate-mongers to spout their bile. My commitment this core constitutional and human value required I defend the right to march in the public space of the town even though the march was designed to promote hate and incite anger due to the venue. But the Met is different.

The Met has selectively and deliberately decided to produce Klinghoffer. This season there are 24 productions, six (6) new and 18 revivals. The names include: Mozart, Bizet, Verdi, Puccini, Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Bartok, Shostakovich, Donizetti, Wagner, Lehar and Offenbach. Englebert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel is also on the schedule for a bit of fun and amusing fare. And then there is John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer.” It is outrageously conspicuous. For an institution of the Met’s esteem, the choices it makes for its productions are important sending a message to the world. The Met sullies her reputation and gives an imprimatur of respectability to this work by producing it without regard to the repercussions.

 I do not usually stand on the side of censorship. And in fact, I am not. I would be deeply offended if some lesser institution, the off-Broadway equivalent of the Met, were to produce Klinghoffer. But I probably would not be adamantly opposed. I am struggling with the fact that I have not actually seen Klinghoffer and yet I have taken a stand against its’ production. I accept the inherent problem with my situation.

 I guess the immediate contrast would be to argue that I would see Richard Strauss’ Salome at the Met. It too has outrageous and highly provocative material. For a substantial amount of time, it was banned- sometimes due to the sexuality involved sometimes due to the depravity involved, sometimes due to a combination of both. Ultimately, Straus’ gravitas forced people to give it the benefit of the doubt. Adams has a few noted pieces in his repertoire and has earned critical acclaim. However, at this stage, I am not prepared to put John Adams and Richard Strauss in the same category.

So I conclude that this is a very bad misstep for the Met. It is inappropriate and unworthy. The subject is vile and contemptible. The production almost seems like a gratuitous attempt to be controversial and relevant. But it is not. It is merely offensive, inappropriate and wrong. I understand that Peter Gelb (the Met) and Abe Foxman (ADL) have been working together to lessen the impact of this production. I probably will need to experience this opera to better understand it, which may alter my opinion. But for now, the Met would have served all of us including itself better were Klinghoffer not part of this season’s lineup.