From the Rabbi’s Study
Winter always seems to have more than its share of loss. Whether it is because of the frigid weather, the lack of daylight, or just a reflection of our natural environment, death seems to make its appearance with greater frequency, adding gloom to the season. And this year has been no exception.
When I meet with families who have suffered a loss, I spend a great deal of time listening to stories about their loved ones, as well as discussing the challenge they face in moving on. Chief among them is confronting grief, a powerful emotion that can easily consume one’s life. For some, grief unleashes a sense of loss and pain that becomes ever-present in their life; robbing them not only of joy, but even of the ability to manage the most mundane tasks. Others, perhaps weary of grief’s power, strive to tamp it down and push it away. Yet try as they might, grief still manages to make its appearance, often at unexpected times, in undesired places.
While many people have little interest in learning the laws of mourning, seeing them as little more than restrictions on their life, I have come to recognize that the teachings we have inherited from our rabbis are less about taking away our freedom than they are about providing us with a means to manage some of the greatest challenges that a human being will ever face.
Our tradition tells us that in the wake of a loss, we should attend a service and say Kaddish for our loved one for 11 months. While some may see this as an archaic practice designed to ensure a place for our loved one in the world to come, I would tell you that this ritual was designed, less for the sake of the departed than it is for those who they left behind.
Establishing the ritual of saying Kaddish once a week, provides a mourner with a small degree of power over that which is normally beyond our control. It enables us to create a healthy framework in which to grieve. For those who may be consumed by grief, it offers permission to push it down so they can carry on with their lives, knowing that they will have the opportunity to remember their loved one when they come to services that week. And for those who seem to never want to allow themselves to grieve, it offers a safe space, where memory and tears are not an unwelcome intrusion, but an appropriate expression of their soul.
Rather than archaic, the laws of mourning help us through the most difficult and challenging of times, giving us a modicum of control over one of the most overwhelming of human emotions. And beyond this, when one takes this ritual upon oneself, and practices it because it is part of our scared tradition, more than providing us with a sense of comfort or acceptance, we can begin to see ourselves in a new light. For rather than view ourselves as human beings struggling with the uncertainties of life, we lift ourselves up, see ourselves as partners with the Divine.
Perhaps the greatest challenge we face in all of life is our ultimate lack of control over our fate. In this vast world, in the span of the universe, we humans, even the mightiest among us, are limited in our power. A giant wave, a strong breeze, a brutal cold or fierce heat can wipe us away in the blink of an eye. Our strength is limited. And this is never more evident than when we are confronted with the face of death. But what Judaism offers us, what our rituals and traditions provide, are not only opportunities to work through the deepest, darkest challenges of life, but in so doing, to bind ourselves to holiness, to feel that we are partners with the Divine, to lift ourselves up beyond this untamable world and attach ourselves to that which is Eternal.
Rabbi Sidney M. Helbraun
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