Tag Archives: dying

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.

Reaching out to others is a profound gift

I vividly remember that September night in 1987. We had left the hospital earlier that evening knowing that the end was near.  The hospital called a few hours later to let us know it had arrived.  We stood at mom’s bedside holding vigil.  Each of us tried to say goodbye in our own way, a stroke of her hair, a whisper into her ear, holding her hand, a prayer in our hearts.  The truth is we were only trying to say goodbye; none of us could bear the thought of being without her. And then it was over.  Once the monitor was turned off, the silence was intense.  And although I was standing before my mom with my father, brother and sister, I felt profoundly alone.

 But there was another presence in the room.  We had called our close family friend and Rabbi earlier that day, and he came to us in the middle of the night.  I honestly cannot remember what he said. But I do remember feeling as though I was standing at the edge of the abyss, staring into blackness.  His gentle touch somehow made me feel like I was not completely alone.  He could not take away the pain, no one could. But the echoes of the psalm reverberated in my mind; someone was beside me as I began to walk in that very dark valley. Rabbi’s presence helped me to begin the process of grieving her loss, then picking up the pieces and beginning to move forward.

 My work as a hospital chaplain and as a rabbi has given me many opportunities to be with people in their time special time of grief, vulnerability or need.  I am privileged to offer this wonderful gift to others.  But it is not a gift limited only to rabbis.  We all have the potential to reach out to others in profound and meaningful ways. We offer ourselves to be present, to listen, to make a meal, to call a couple of weeks later just to check in, these are extraordinary ways that each of us can make an important impact on another’s life.  At the time when a person feels most isolated, we can reassure them that they are not alone.