Grief, Yom Kippur Morning 5778

on Sunday, 01 October 2017. Posted in Rabbi


Yom Kippur Morning – Grief

Near the end of my sabbatical this past summer, Colleen took a call from a woman who seemed very eager to speak with me. She assured Colleen it could wait, and so it did until I returned. But I understood from Colleen the urgency, and called the woman back just as soon as I could.

It turned out that she was in her mid-forties, and her wife was dying from brain cancer. She had been reading a lot about death and grief. She was particular moved by Sheryl Sandberg’s postings. If you don’t recognize that name, Sheryl is the CEO of Facebook. Her 47-year-old husband David Goldberg died of a heart attack in 2015 while on a treadmill on a family vacation. Sheryl wrote much about how her faith and religious traditions sustained her – her writings first appeared on her Facebook page. And so the caller asked me if I would help her, after her wife died, to “have a shiva and a sh’loshim.”

I immediately realized from the way she worded her request that she was unfamiliar with the Jewish traditions surrounding death and mourning. I asked if she or her wife were Jewish, and discovered that neither were. And so I explained shiva and sh’loshim to her, and then helped her explore possible ways that she might be able to get what she needed by borrowing from the Jewish traditions. A few days later, I read her wife’s obituary in the Concord Monitor. Although I never heard from the caller again, I learned from a friend who knows her that our conversation had been helpful in giving her a framework in which to grieve.

Grief. We are a community all too familiar with grief this year. Later this afternoon in our Yizkor service, when Gary Sobelson reads the names of TBJ members and close family members who have died this year, he will read 30 names.

As most of you know, one of those names is my father, Robert Leonard, who died on March 6. Since my earliest memories, I was a daddy’s girl, the child who followed her father everywhere and took so much delight in how he doted on me. A second name Gary will read is Deborah Silverman, Cantor Shira’s mother, who died on June 11. When Debbie and I met 17 years ago, we quickly became close friends. Then she became my mother-in-law. Then I became her rabbi. Our relationship was deep and rich.

I’ve learned a lot about grief this year. This morning, I share with you some of those lessons, along with what you all have taught me about grief and grieving.

As Sheryl Sandberg quickly discovered, the Jewish practices around death and grief contain tremendous therapeutic smarts. Back in 1974, author Audrey Gordon wrote in a book entitled Jewish Reflections on Death, a chapter called “The Psychological Wisdom of the Law.” Let me unpack it.

From the time of death until the funeral, mourners are in a state of what is called aninut, or deep sorrow. During that time, nothing is required of the mourners other than the planning of the service and burial. That is it. It is a time to take care of the most immediate need, and to feel. The emotions are likely to be messy and all over the place. In addition to the sadness, there may be relief after a long illness; shock in the event of a sudden or violent death; despair when a child or parent of young children dies; anger when the relationship was difficult or the deceased was an abuser, an addict, or just plain mean; or disappointment when words remain unsaid.

Every feeling, every emotion is the right one. Every person mourns differently. One mourner may need to look at every photo of the deceased. Another may need to hide in bed. The third might be in “doing” mode, making arrangements with the funeral home or cemetery.

We honor the memory of our loved ones when we give each other the room to mourn as we each need to.

Following the funeral and burial, we enter the period of shiva. Shiva means “seven,” as the traditional period of mourning following a burial is seven days. The reality of most people’s lives is that we don’t take one day or three days for shiva, never mind the full seven days. I did after my father’s death and it was one of the greatest gifts I could have given myself.

Most people in this community associate shiva with having a reli­gious service in the home. But that’s not what shiva is about. Shiva is about mourning and allowing people to provide companionship, comfort, and food, which are the obligations of the members of the community following a death. It’s not about the service. Back in the days when Jewish communities were small, if everyone was visiting the mourner when it was time to pray, they said the service then and there. That’s how a service became associated with shiva. My grandfather died when I was 16. My mother observed shiva for the full seven days. I don’t remember a single service in the house.

Shiva gave me the chance to talk about my dad – the great, the good, and even the not as good. I could put him and my relationship with him into perspective and context.

One night at shiva when I was still in New Jersey, a man whom we did not know came to the home. He introduced himself as someone who grew up in the same neighbor­hood as my dad, though he was four years younger. My dad died at the age of 82, and this man had not seen or spoken to my dad in nearly 65 years. But he made a shiva call after seeing my dad’s obituary in the paper simply to tell us that my dad was the nicest guy he ever knew, who let a kid four years younger hang around, never being dismissive or nasty. With­out shiva, we would never have heard his story.

Shiva also allowed me to connect with those of you who told your own stories of when your parents or another close relative died. These gave me great comfort. Sometimes we laughed together. Sometimes we were near tears. As our shiva book reminds us, “Who among us has not passed through trials and bereavements? Some bear fresh wounds … and therefore feel more keenly the kinship of sorrow; others, whose days of mourn­ing are more remote, still recall the comfort that sympathy brought to their sorrowing hearts.”[1] Thank you for sharing your loved ones with me.

Following shiva, we enter a period called sh’loshim, which means 30. It tells us that for the next 23 days (assuming a full seven days for shiva), we are now slowly returning to our lives. We go back to work. We may accept social invitations, but usually just for a meal or conversation. During sh’loshim for my dad, CONTY, our youth group, hosted a concert with the young musician, Spike Kraus. I wanted to attend to support CONTY, and I wanted to stay away because I wasn’t in the mood. So I came and I sat in the vestibule, greeting attendees, but staying out the actual concert room. It was the perfect balance for me. I also forewent the Purimshpiel and other moments of hilarity. I attended the auction and listened to the jokes with only half of an ear – sorry Donna and Steve.

Our tradition teaches that after sh’loshim, for the entire first year of mourning, we re-enter the world at the pace that feels right for us. My re-entry was probably slower than many who experience the death of an 82-year-old father with whom he or she had a wonderful relation­ship, for shortly after I emerged from sh’loshim, Debbie’s health began to take its toll and we moved to her last few weeks of life. I hope and pray that I became for Shira the supportive presence she was for me, while I also did all that I could to learn how to be with and support a three-year-old who would suffer the death of two grandparents in a three-month span.

We are not sure what Liba understands or remembers. But we tell her and she tells us that while Grandpa and Bubbe are no longer alive, they live on in our hearts.

For a death that is sudden, unexpected, or otherwise tragic, these Jewish mourning periods can provide a safe structure during a time that is otherwise pure hell. Sheryl Sandberg wrote about sh’loshim, “I have lived 30 years in these 30 days. I am 30 years sadder. I feel like I am 30 years wiser. It was a long 30 days – the longest of my life by far. And I was, in many ways, marking those days because every single one was just a victory to live through. It wasn’t just the grief. I felt like I was sucked into a void where I would never really be able to catch my breath. My brother-in-law described it as a boot sitting on his chest.”

For some, the best way to get through the grief is to live a bit higher, inspired by what the deceased taught us. My childhood friend, Jill Ginsburg, a physician living in Portland, Oregon, did a second sh’loshim following the first 30 days after her mother’s death. Jill’s mom stressed with her children the obligation tzedakah, to help out those in need. Jill honored her mother’s memory by putting a $100 bill in her purse each morning for 30 days. Some time during each day, she gave the money to a person she encountered who seemed to need the cash, a boost, some love, a meal, an affirmation, or even a “thank you” for being awesome. Jill, like Sheryl Sandberg, posted her experiences on Facebook, encouraging others to honor their loved one’s memories in ways that fit their budgets and desires.

Grief, of course, is not just about working through the Jewish time frames. A blogger named Jamie Anderson writes that “Grief … is really just love. It is all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.”

What do we do with that unspent love? My friend Jill gave it to 30 people who needed a bit of human recognition. My father-in-law, Russ, became the baker that Debbie had been, showering the people in his life with cakes, cookies, and pies. Sometimes, we need to say to the deceased what we didn’t have the time – or the courage – to say in life. We can sit at a grave and converse. We can talk with a friend or therapist about what need to articulate. We can write a letter that we will never send.

I found that writing was an extraordinarily therapeutic way to deal with my grief – and I did not initially realize that this was what I was doing. I love to write. I was a writer before I attended rabbinical school. As I began my sabbatical, I intended to spend a great deal of time writing. One of my challenges as a writer has been finding the right topic. I’m not a fiction writer. I write what I always called “creative non-fiction” and what I learned might be called “the braided essay.”

I bought a book entitled 642 Things to Write About. I paged through and nothing caught my eye. And then I saw it: “Write about a natural disaster you lived through.” I immediately thought of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the 7.1 tremor that shook the California Bay Area while I was living in San Francisco. So I wrote. I considered more natural disasters and storms I had experienced: 1980’s summer heat wave; the blizzard of 1978; and hurricane Donna, which hit New Jersey the day I was born in 1960. My writing expanded to human disasters as well: the second Intifada – the Palestinian uprising while I lived in Jerusalem; I even touched a bit on living in New York City on 9/11.

It became clear to me that I was writing about loss – loss of lives, loss of property, loss of equilibrium, and loss of innocence – without having to write about the loss of my dad. This was incredibly healing. A wise therapist once told me “the psyche knows no time.” One loss conjures up all other losses.

I wrote not only about loss, but also and perhaps more importantly, about memory and remembering. Our tradition teaches that the way we keep our loved ones with us is by remembering. Yizkor, our memorial service, comes from the Hebrew root zion-chaf-reish, “to remember.” It is the obligation of every Jew to remember. Remem­bering lets us hold our loved one as we want to – I think of my dad buying me my first puppy when I was nine, standing proudly with me at my bat mitzvah, asking me when he first met Shira, “why couldn’t you have met her sooner,” and sitting on the floor playing with Liba, even when his bones ached from his metastases.

What do we do with the difficult memories – the hurts, the let downs, the disappointments, the neglect, and even the abuse? Our memories are allowed to be selective. We can choose to put out of our minds that which causes too much pain. At the same time, we can use those memories as life lessons or we can reframe them into something less painful. During a funeral at which I officiated many years ago, I remember saying about the deceased who had abandoned his family, “The greatest gift he gave you was to get out of your lives and let your mother raise you.”

Elie Wiesel describes our patriarch Isaac as the most tragic of all Biblical characters. His father appears to be willing to offer him up as a sacrifice. The text tells us that he and Abraham walk down the mountain separately unlike their journey going up. Wiesel writes, “He is alone – on the verge of despair. And yet he does not give up. On the contrary, he strives to find a place among the living.”

Isaac’s mother, Sarah, dies just after his father takes him up the mountain and binds him to the altar. These two experiences – the binding and his mother’s death – allow him to develop empathy for Hagar, the mother of his brother Ishmael whom his father had expelled from the family. The midrash teaches that he sought her out, acknowledging their losses to be different, but their pain to be similar.

The death of a loved one – a beloved loved one or a challenging loved one – can leave us feeling broken. Broken is an okay place to be. Sometimes, brokenness falls in the midst of wholeness, like the sh’varim three blasts or the t’ruah nine blasts of the shofar, which come between two calls of t’kiah, the whole note.

Sometimes, brokenness is next to wholeness, as we learn in the midrash on the broken tablets. According to our tradition, Moses picked them up and placed them in the Ark of the Covenant right next to the second set of whole tablets.[2]


Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican priest from Austin, Texas writes: “The human heart is sufficiently complex that we can be both deeply grateful for the good we experience daily, and simultaneously mourn brokenness. If we do not allow sorrow and gratitude to exist in the same moment, we lose the ability to have both. We’ll shame ourselves out of grieving, which in turn prevents us from embracing wonder and gratitude. Mourning and thanks­giving are not only not opposed to each other, but often grow together, so intricately entwined that we can’t stifle one without killing the other.”[3]

By allowing our grief, our mourning, our brokenness to live in the midst of or next to wholeness, we eventually move to a place and time where we will actually feel joy.

In 2015, when Vice President Joe Biden’s son Beau died of brain cancer, a talk on coping with death from a few years earlier resurfaced. In discussing his first wife and son who had died in a car accident forty years prior, Biden said:[4]

“There will come a day – I promise you… when the thought of your son or daughter, or your husband or wife, [and we can read into this, father or mother or any loved one] will bring a smile to your life before it brings a tear to your eye. … It will happen.”      

Sheryl Sandberg describes it like this: “About four months after Dave died, I was at a friend’s bar mitzvah, and a childhood friend pulled me onto the dance floor. And a minute in, I just burst into tears. I ran out of the room really quickly, not really know what was wrong. And then I realized what it was: I felt okay. I felt okay. For one minute four months later, I felt happy. And I felt guilty.

“My friend Adam said to me, ‘Of course you haven’t felt happy. You don’t do a single thing that would make anyone happy since Dave died. You’re waiting to feel better in order to do something that will make you happy, but really it goes the other way. Give yourself permission to do things that make you happy.’”

Grief, loss, mourning. They are messy. They linger. They abate. They return. And they teach us.

Our shivah minyan book contains these words:

Build me up of memory

loving and angry, tender and honest.

Let my loss build me a heart of wisdom,

Compassion for the world’s many losses.[5]

Ken y’hi ratzon, may this be God’s will. And may 5778 be a year of health and well-being for us and all of our loved ones.


[1]Mishkan T’filah for the House of Mourning, page 1a

[2]Bava Batra 14b


[4]Vice President Joe Biden as quoted here:

[5]Debra Cash, Mishkan T’filah for a House of Mourning, page 13b.

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