I remember the moment vividly. I was driving home from my student pulpit in Amsterdam New York, when I got a phone call from my parents that a very close friend of our family had passed away. Ira, was one of my father’s closest friends. He was the first family friend who treated me as a rabbi even while his religious views began to veer to the right. As Ira got more religious he became more interested in my studies. Ira and I would sit in shul together and joke about our Big Ten college experiences and the Jewish world. He often spoke about living the good life and how it had nothing to do with money and everything to do with family. In a conversation I had with Ira we spoke about his crazy traveling schedule and I told him it must be fun traveling and making tons of money. He replied, “I would never wish that for you. The best times I have are when I come home for Shabbat. That’s what it’s all about.”
From the moment I got the phone call about Ira’s death my relationship with my own father changed. I have always had the closest relationship with my father. He is undoubtedly the best friend I have ever had and if you spend more than 10 minutes with us together you can understand why I am the way I am. But when Ira passed my father changed. I think for the first time he understood how precious life was and that his time on earth was not infinite. That work was work and not life. As a physician my father had dealt with a lot of death, so even early on, the loss of someone here or there did not really faze him. But with Ira’s death something changed. My father calls me every day now. He understands that life cannot only be the way he saw it, but there are more perspectives in the world. And that death is a realistic part of life but so is the change in brings in those still alive.
I often wonder what happens to us when we pass. Do we go somewhere? Does our spirit live on in some other form? How will I be judged? But I think the biggest question surrounding death is less about the person’s journey into the afterlife and more about what it does to all of us still living. Regardless of our relationship to the deceased our lives can be drastically affected by the death of a loved one. Last year in Tablet Magazine, there was an article published by a friend of mine, Anya Manning who wrote an article entitled The UnOfficial Mourner. It is about Anya’s struggles to deal with the death of her would-be brother in law, Rafi. Rafi was a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary with me and Anya was dating Rafi’s brother who she has since married. Anya discusses how she would stand at Yizkor or moments of mourning in support of her fiancé, but how was she was supposed to mourn? How does Judaism help support her mourning as the not quite yet sister-in-law? No mourning is less significant, no set of laws can tell someone what hurts inside. Judaism has in place a well-known method of consolation for those close to the deceased, Shiva, Sheloshim, and Yizkor. But others hurt as well. People are loved not just by immediate family or who Jewish or American law tells us. Anya searched Jewish texts to find a response. She sat down with her husband and learned some Talmud, Moed Kattan 20b and Shabbat 105b.
Moed Kattan states, “The Sages did not say that one should observe formal mourning out of deference to his wife only in the case of the death of his father-in-law or his mother-in-law, as it is taught: ‘If his father-in-law or mother-in-law died the husband may not compel his mourning wife to put on kohl or do her hair as usual, but he should overturn his own couch and observe formal mourning with her.” This suggests that our job as the non-immediate relative is to be alongside the mourners. To mourn with them, both because they need support and because mourning does not only take place like some magic-trick internally implanted only in those related to the deceased, but also to anyone who loved the departed.
And then page Shabbat 105b reads, “R. Simeon b. Pazzi said in the name of R. Joshua b. Levi in Bar Kappara’s name: If one sheds tears for a worthy man, the Holy One, blessed be He, counts them and lays them up in His treasure house.” It is clear that tears are shed for anyone who deserves them by anyone who wants to. Our tradition and religion while very comforting and pragmatic to those close to the deceased, does indeed make room for all types of mourners.
We all mourn in different ways and for all different types of people. Our tradition does not limit our ability to mourn, rather encourages us all to find ways to deal with death, how we need to deal with death. And for each of us and with each loss, we do not need an agenda or reason to cry. We should not need to explain ourselves. Mourning is as controllable as the death itself and all are deserving of the time to heal.
In March of 2011 I performed my first funeral. It was a bizarre feeling, knowing that my uncle was being buried to the words I spoke. But that is how I mourned his loss, by standing next to his casket, saying Psalms, and eulogizing. While my mother rendered her clothes and my sister shed tears, I looked to God and my faith for comfort. Many of us here, when we think about the loved ones we lost, whether relative or friend, whether a parent or child, whether spouse or sibling each loss is different and unique and each loss we mourned differently. Some we felt pain for months, some kept us up at night, and others we were able to move on from. It doesn’t mean we loved anyone any less or their lives had less impact on us, it is merely that mourning is an internal feeling, again without rhyme or reason. Our reaction is involuntary and has to be natural because mourning knows no other way.
Yet mourning is a necessity in some way. Even when we push the loss aside or it happens to someone we have not hung out with in a long time, death hurts us. It pushes us up against the wall, it shows no remorse, and it reminds us that we are human and we can only have so many answers. So we turn to our Psalms.
כִּי-אֶרְאֶה שָׁמֶיךָ מַעֲשֵֹי אֶצְבְּעֹתֶיךָ יָרֵחַ וְכוֹכָבִים אֲשֶׁר כּוֹנָנְתָּה
“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet.”
Is this true? Are we just beneath angels? Human beings, rulers of the works of God and yet no answer to the biggest question that lays before us. Yes. We are just below angels and we do rule parts of God’s creation. And we are special because we have feelings, we feel pain, and we a capable of mourning.
If we look at the Tanakh for stories of mourning we often find relatives who mourn in some way. But when we get to the Prophets, we learn of true friendship. And we see that our greatest leaders, who too mourned. When a young boy comes to David with the news of the deaths of Saul and Jonathon, David responds in 2nd Samuel
וַיַּחֲזֵק דָּוִד בִּבְגָדָו וַיִּקְרָעֵם וְגַם כָּל-הָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר אִתּוֹ
“Then David and all the men with him took hold of their clothes and tore them. They mourned and wept and fasted till evening for Saul and his son Jonathan, and for the army of the Lord and for the nation of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.”
And then he ordered that the people of Judah be taught a song in their memory. And when Elijah is passing, what do we learn from Elisha’s actions.
וַיַּעֲזֹב אֶת-הַבָּקָר וַיָּרָץ אַחֲרֵי אֵלִיָּהוּ
“Elisha then left his oxen and ran after Elijah. ‘Let me kiss my father and mother goodbye,’ he said, ‘and then I will come with you.”’
He is in so much pain and cannot bear the thought of losing his mentor, his friend. Mourning and longing, these are part of our story. To help humanize our characters just as it helps humanize ourselves. And these deaths change us. David is different after the loss of Saul and Jonathan. Elisha is different without Elijah.
When death happens we change. We undoubtedly change. When it’s a relative we take the time try to make sense of it. Anne Brenner writes, “While it is important to find techniques for coping with anxiety and the other difficult feelings that are part of mourning, we must also spend time with these feelings.” And it should be that because of our losses, because of every person who touched our lives, even for a second, regardless as a friend or family that we change. And we should. My father, his change, was more than natural it was essential. If we cannot honor through our actions, the life lessons we learn from each and every person, then we are not doing our best as people. If we cannot find lessons in the lives lived than we are failing. Each person, each one of us, each person who has passed, offers us an opportunity to improve and see this world under a different microscope. It is our duty to understand the lives of those who passed, to take with us and carry on their passions and their friendship. To not hide under our sorrow but to live and breathe their dreams. To reach out to the communities they loved and make sense of the world they saw, if only to better ourselves. We cannot take for granted one life, not one. Because we are all God’s creations and to understand why God would ever take away that life, we must do our best to comprehend their mission. To live like they lived, to love what they loved, and to carry on our loved ones lives.
The death of our close family friend Ira taught me that every person that comes into my life can teach me something. His life was very much a blessing and a reminder that loved ones, no matter their proximity or relation should and do change the course of our lives. Which at very minimally means we should treat every human being and every life with respect. And ideally we should love everyone around us to the upmost of our ability, because we are all connected. We are all here to change and help each other. We are all the same person, created by God, with the opportunity to do great things.
אֶשָּׂא עֵינַי אֶל-הֶהָרִים מֵאַיִן יָבֹא עֶזְרִי: עֶזְרִי מֵעִם ה עֹשֵֹה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ
“I turn my eyes to the mountains; From where will my help come? My help comes from God, Maker of heaven and earth.”
May Ira and all our friends and relatives lives have been for a blessing. May we learn from them all to recognize the value of life, and may we find the lessons to be learned from everyone no matter where our lives take us.