Read Lament, Utter Praise: The Paradox of Mourning

Yom Hashoah candleThis Shabbat, at Yom Kippur, we will mark Yizkor, a service of remembrance, of honoring the dead.

Last Saturday night, I awoke around 2 am, remembering how we buried my sister, Suzie. That enormous mound of earth, the dark, deep hole.

Suzie died of cancer. Her youngest child was only three. I did not speak when we buried her. I did not know how.

In the immediate aftermath of death, life is undone. The world of the living persists but its existence is surreal. We long for our beloved; we are conscious only of our loss. Our mourning takes place in a ruin. No language suffices.

And yet, we must speak in order to heal. Centuries ago, when mourners appeared in synagogue, heads and faces covered, the service leader turned to congregants and insisted: “Demand the reason!” “Demand the reason!” Mourners were asked to speak, to explain.

It is easy to retreat from the face of pain. But this ritual made turning away an impossibility. We may not ignore those wrapped in grief.

Listening, we help a mourner open the heart. We honor longing and despair. We acknowledge denial and anguish. Demand the reason.

The rabbis knew that grief is many-faceted. All the behaviors of mourning are those, they say, of the ninth of Av. Mourners are directed to the Book of Lamentations, a book which records the horrific siege of Jerusalem, the destruction of the First Temple, the exile. Are you grieving? The rabbis suggest reading a raw text of anguish.

Why? Encountering the pain Lamentations describes gives us permission to acknowledge our own. It is another way to demand the reason.

The rabbis added a text not of rage or defiance, nor of grief and sorrow to the rituals of mourning. Mourner’s Kaddish, inscribed into our practice in the Middle Ages, is a song, a musical text of pure, unmitigated praise for the Divine. At the time of loss, one says nothing about it. In the face of death, one praises the Source of Life.

Our texts do everything from indicting to praising the Holy One. Lamentations gives us longing and despair – but also resistance. Mourner’s Kaddish offers laudation. The central phrase y’hei sh’mei raba m’vorach l’alam ulal’mei almayya (may God’s great name be praised) is considered, so the rabbis, the very foundation of the world. Despite the ruin, affix and affirm the existence of the earth: y’hei sh’mei raba We remain in conversation with God, co-creating the world. We find our voices, we utter words.

“Weeping, she makes weep,” reads Lamentations Rabbah. She weeps and the Holy One weeps with her. The ministering angels, heaven and earth, mountains and hills weep with her. Everything in the created world joins together and laments. We communicate through tears. No one is alone.

A distressed people builds again, praises again. Such is a fact of Jewish life. No devastation – not even the Shoah – silences the survivors utterly. Read Lamentations, the rabbis say. Recite y’hei shemay raba. It is a paradox that sustains us.

It is a paradox that permits voicing all we feel. We mourn as our hearts must, in whatever way they must. To speak from our grief; to act on what we know: Deep and profound remembrance of those we have lost will lead us to sanctify and honor life.

In this year, with hearts and eyes turned to the terrors and the horrors unfolding in our own time, we must ourselves demand the reason. Recognizing lament, responding to the imperative of praise, we must find inspiration to act. For a more peaceful world – for a more loving world. For a world in which we may speak – gently, with compassion and understanding, and, in so doing, heal.

Paths of Silence

pathI have grown to expect silence when I visit Ellie.

But during one visit at hospice house, just after I went through her favorites – Shalom Aleychem, B’shem Hashem, Adon Olam, she looked at me intently and asked, with perfect diction: “Have you fixed my dress?”

“Yes, Ellie,” I replied. “I did. It looks fantastic. I think you will be very pleased when you see it.”

A prayer or two later, she spoke again.

“It’s almost time for lunch!”

It was about 10 a.m.

“What are you having?” I asked.

“Salmon salad,” she said firmly.

I smiled. But that was all she said that day.

Ellie is dying. Her way has been long and arduous. About a year ago, a brain tumor forced her into a wheelchair. Her speech became ever more irregular. It clearly exhausted her to say more than three or four words at a time. She would sit, with all her library books around her, living in a world dominated by her own silence.

At the beginning she tried to apologize. “I know…” Pause. “… what I want to say,” she would say. Long pause. “I just can’t…” Then, she would stop. Finishing the sentence was too much effort.

“Find the words,” I would whisper in my mind, completing the thought.

For months I told her that it was my job to read her eyes. They could do the talking for her.

A few months ago, she moved from the wheelchair to a hospital bed. I took her on walks with me. I’d narrate our stroll, ask her to do everything with me in her head. Sometimes I imagined every little thing we saw, every place we visited just as it unfolded in my own imagination.

Now and again, I asked her if there was anyone she knew with us. Once, she named her husband, Irving. I officiated Irving’s funeral in 2012.

I’d tell her when I could feel the presence of God – in the air, the sunlight, the green of trees. I’d tell her all the things I was sure of: How God loved her, how I loved her.

I saw Ellie last Friday. I don’t know if it is the tumor, but there is, now, a terrible, bulging lump on her forehead.

She mouthed a “yes” when I asked her if she wanted me to sing Shabbat prayers for her. So I sang. Suddenly, she burst out with a complete, utterly convincing sentence. “I hate having to turn my head,” she said.

So I got out of the chair, stood at the foot of the bed, held my guitar like a cello, and played “It’s a Wonderful World.” Ellie likes that song.

But I am wracked with doubt. Is this what she needs or wants? Do I speak of fear or blessing? Do I invoke God’s compassion and tenderness?

I can no longer read Ellie’s eyes. She looks at me most of the time, but not always. Sometimes she looks at paper she is crumpling in her hands. Sometimes, she stares across the room.

I drive home in my own silence, grieving.