Tag Archives: end-of-life

Jewish Sacred Aging Radio

Pleased and proud to help my friend and colleague Rabbi Richard Address launch Jewish Sacred Aging Radio!

For the initiation of this wonderful project, Rabbi Address, Rabbi Simcha Raphael, and I had a lively insightful conversation about questions surrounding the unique challenges of the later stages of life. Listen in by clicking above or on this hyperlink:

http://jewishsacredaging.com/jewish-relationships-and-jewish-views-of-death-and-afterlife/

The three of us bring our unique areas of expertise together in our lecture series we call:  L’Chaim! Jewish Wisdom for the End-of-Life Journey.

This month we are presenting at Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park Wednesday evenings.

Reach out to us to bring this extraordinary series to your community!

V’Etchanan- Our Legacy, What Do We Leave Behind?

Moses continues his review of the journey through the wilderness in this week’s Torah portion, V’etchanan. He recalls the trials and tribulations and what it means to be in relationship to God. Moses tells the people that he will remain behind; Moses will die here in the desert and they will move forward to the Promised Land. Moses reviews the Law and we encounter a core Jewish teaching, the Shema followed by the V’ahavta.

We all know the words to the V’ahavta. It has been committed to our memory due to the recitation more times than we are able to count. In it we learn that loving God requires the active practice of the laws we have been given and that active practice requires that we teach these laws to the next generation, our children. We hear Moses recite this prayer to the people, but how might it sound if Moses internalized the V’ahavta as he accepts his fate preparing B’nei Israel to leave him?

If Moses was speaking personally, the language of the V’ahavta prayer might change. He might wonder if his children, the fledgling nation of Israel, have learned the lessons he spent his life living and teaching. In that, Moses resembles us, or rather, we who are parents resemble him. We invest our lives nurturing and teaching our children, hoping we instill good values so they may find a meaningful life based on a solid foundation. Are they ready to “fly on their own from the nest” is a question we all ask. We look back on our lives as parents and wonder; “Did I do it well enough? Were these lessons embraced?” I imagine Moses’ personal V’ahavta entreaty, and ours as well, might go something like this:

“I pray I have taught you well.
I hope the lessons and values I shared you have embraced,
And you will carry them and me in your heart
Down whatever path you choose for your life.
May these principles guide you
In the choices you make and the actions you take
From the moment you wake in the morning
Until it is time to rest at night.
Wear them proudly in your deeds and in your thoughts
So that everyone you meet will know
They have entered the presence of someone who tries to live life
Virtuously and with integrity.”

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Devarim– Moses teaches about him and us

 Devarim is the great repetition that isn’t.  Moses’ speeches in Devarim are a wonderful retelling of a story, but so much of it is not true; at least much of is does not comport with the stories of the previous books of Torah. So what is going on with Moses?

 Viewing Moses as a person and not the mythic Prophet, Teacher and leader, Moses is doing what so many of us do. He is trying to understand his place in history, trying to figure out whether his teachings and leadership from slavery to peoplehood was really worth it. In simple language, Moses asks himself what we ask ourselves in the sunset of our lives: “Did I do good, did I make a difference?” Even the great Moshe Rabbeinu seems to question if he did the right thing and if ultimately he will make a difference in the world. For us, the answer is an unequivocal yes, but for him in that place, he was unsure.

 Moses’ stories are retold with a tweak here and an embellishment there. In these Deuteronomy versions, Moses recalls himself prominently and his actions are above reproach. Here at this place in his life, Moses knows he is at the end of his journey and what he has done is all that he can do. There is a sense of authority in his voice, as he needs to reassure the people who will continue forward without his leadership, and there is a sense of desperation as well as he needs to reassure himself.  It is here that we can relate to Moses the man, as we sometimes find our loved ones doing as he did.

 For those of us with older parents or grandparents we too see similar behavior in their retelling of their exploits during the journey of their lives. And the subtext of their stories echoes the issues and fears of Moses. We are our most compassionate when we lovingly hold them and respect their stories as recounted. It is our way of saying to them yes my dear one, you do matter, you did make a difference to me. I will love you and remember you for these and all the other gifts you have shared.

Finding Relevance in Eikev

Robin Williams’ untimely passing touched the hearts of many of us.  He touched our hearts because we had a personal connection.  His gifts of comedy and acting his brilliant artistry found a way into each of us.  And now we lament his passing on a personal level.

My father died about the time that Debbie Friedman passed away. Debbie was an iconic figure. Her passing created a tragic sense of personal loss in the Jewish community.  And as deeply as I cared for Debbie, I was more focused on the loss of my dad.  It was then that I noticed how we routinely find some losses to deeply affect us and others devolve from a human connection to a mere statistic.  

This approach to death is a coping mechanism;  If each death affected us deeply, we would be overwhelmed by the emotions and paralyzed.  The mind and heart do what they need to do in order for us to move on about our lives.  But beneath this, for those who are lost, what do they leave behind?  

This is the question I find myself asking about Moses in the Torah portion Eikev.  Moses is the iconic humble servant.  And yet, in this portion, Moses repeats several times that it was because of what he did that saved the people from oblivion.  Moses’ humility moves to the background as the need to be relevant takes over.  

Might Moses be scared?  He is the last of his generation, the generation that was to completely perish before the people would enter the Promised Land.  Might Moses be scared that he would fade into oblivion, and be a simple footnote to history?  The extraordinary experiences of creating a nation over the past 40 years might be obscured while the people are so focused on moving forward into the promise that the future holds.  

History and our entire tradition holds Moses up as the great leader and teacher.  We still recall Moshe Rabeinu with awe as we retell the stories of his life inextricably bound to the unfolding of our people’s destiny. But Moses did not know that at the time.  In this, his second discourse, Moses knows the end is drawing near.  In the remaining time left to him, Moses struggles to share the highlights of forging of a rag-tag group of slaves into B’nei Israel, about to enter and conquer the Land.  He can hope that his entire life’s work means something to those he has shepherded.  But it is only his hope that they will remember him, embraced his teachings and teach the generations to come; that they will become the people who God has offered as possible.  Yes Moses, we did hear and we did learn and we are still struggling to achieve the vision set before us.  

For our elders, this might explain the strident moments in your conversations with your children.  For our children, this might offer insight into the motivations of your parents.    Knowing this might help us to better understand the personal connection between parent and child.  We will feel the loss when our parents are gone.  But we can share and appreciate the wisdom of our elders now, while they are present in our lives.

Discipline at what Personal Cost?

Leaders or anyone concerned with the welfare of others can find themselves confronting a challenging personal conflict.  We saw this recently play out in parsha Shimini. Here, the story of Aaron is an extraordinary narrative illustrating the real tension in trying to navigate the waters between public and personal needs.  In parsha Shimini, there was an imbalance between the two competing needs and the cost of doing one at the expense of the other was overwhelming. 

Nadav and Abihu, Aaron’s sons are killed because they brought an offering of “alien fire” before God.  But instead of grieving as any father would, Aaron is admonished not to acknowledge this tragedy in any way.  He is to attend to his sacred duties. The needs of the Kahal outweigh the personal need.  So Aaron tries to fulfill his duties as the High Priest, as Moses instructed.  Aaron is completely silent, suppressing everything related to this horrific incident.  It is only when Moses chastises Aaron’s remaining two sons for improper ritual that Aaron breaks his silence.  Aaron yells at Moses, unable to contain the emotion that has been bottled up inside.

 Moses was so disciplined, that the needs of the Kahal came before everything else including mourning the loss of the two young men, his nephews, Aaron’s sons.  Moses could only see the need to properly perform the priestly service to the Almighty on behalf of the people.  But it is not his sons that have been slain.  Aaron tried to accede to the demands of his position and do as Moses instructed.  He however was unable to maintain the discipline of Moses. But when Aaron broke down and showed his pain, Moses was moved and in an act of humanity consoles his grieving brother.

 How often are we overwhelmed when a decision has to be made?  Often life confronts us with an “either/or” choice.  We do not have the luxury of the “both/and” that we speak of in our theoretical and lofty discussions.  So often we judge others by the choices they make, when in fact, they often do not see that there was a choice at all.  I recall a profoundly difficult time when this happened to me.

 We sat in shock in the hospital waiting area immediately after my mom’s death.  My dad started to cry.  Then suddenly he sucked it all up, steeling himself to the situation saying, “I have to be strong.” And the tears stopped flowing.  I on the other hand, could not “be strong.”  I needed to grieve, whatever form that took.  I remembered a conversation I had with my mom where she asked me if I would cry for her when she was gone.  I did.

 The differences in our reactions to her death created a rift between my father and me.  I needed to mourn in my own way and I could not do it with someone who was trying to impose such control.  How different might our experiences have been if I could have understood the discipline my father was trying to exert upon himself.  We might have found strength in each other and maybe even the space to share this profoundly sad moment in much more supportive ways. If instead of harsh judgment, I could have found compassion.  If instead of toughening himself for some idealized vision of what it meant to be the head of the household, he could have shared his grief with me.  It took me a long time to begin to understand.  If only I knew then what I know now.

Go Forth, But not Alone

Lech Lecha

I had the privilege of officiating at the funeral and first evening Shiva Minyan of a lovely man.  It came time to share a D’var Torah during the Minyan and I spoke to Lech Lecha, our Parashah and God’s command to Abraham to “Go Forth- to a land that I will show you.”  The Hebrew is in the singular, in other words God is speaking directly to Abraham, instructing him what to do.  As we learn in the story, Abraham does indeed venture out from his father’s house and into history, becoming our Patriarch, a father to those as numerous as the stars.   Abraham did need to respond to God’s challenge, but he was not alone.

Sarah was Abraham’s wife and partner.  Although God does tell Abraham to “Go forth,” Sarah stood by his side throughout the process.  The two of them acted together.  And there is significance in that.  As I ruminated over the circumstances in which my D’var Torah would be shared, I wondered if in fact the beautiful story of my friend, as related to me by his widow, was a representation of what Abraham and Sarah experienced.  It takes an extraordinary person to embark on an extraordinary venture.  But would he or she have the courage to do it without the love and support of a trusted partner? Could someone reach for the stars without a companion to provide strength, someone willing to walk with you by your side?  And even if a person were capable of achieving “greatness” without any one else’s support, could such a person be the progenitor of a people?

I believe the answer is no.  And herein lies a teaching of our Torah portion.  We cannot achieve true greatness without the support of others.  One can achieve, but without others to share and give strength, the venture is selfish.  Lech Lecha, you must do it but you cannot do it alone.