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My Grandma Harriet died a few weeks ago, at the age of 95. She was beautiful, creative and could expertly apply her lipstick without a mirror. She was my favorite hug. She cooked up the yummiest tuna noodle casseroles and the tastiest matzah ball soup. She lived a long life full of family simchas (celebrations), fancy dinners out with my grandfather and travelling around the world. When I got the call that she passed away, I was sad, but grateful that she lived a long, rich life.
A week later, I found out that my colleagueâ€™s wife was tragically killed in a car accident at the age of 37.Â N was vibrant, involved in the wider Jewish community and the mother of three kids. She was passionate about education and inclusivity. My heart broke when I read the news of her unexpected passing.
Death confounds me. After these losses, my theology was shaken up, once again. Why was my grandmother blessed with a sweet long life when people like N are tragically taken away from us so suddenly? How is it determined: Who shall live and who shall die?
We are moving into the High Holiday season in the Jewish calendar. The Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) are a time of contemplation, reflection and spiritual awakening. The Shofar is sounded to pull us out of our sleepy routines and open our hearts. It is a time to deeply connect with ourselves. And it is a time to face our own mortality. In the “U-netaneh Tokef” prayer, it is sung, “Who shall live on and who shall die.”
As a kid, I was taught that on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), we are either written in the book of Life or the Book of Death. And on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), our fates are sealed. Like many children, I pictured Gd as an old man in the sky, who looked exactly like Moses with a long white beard and a cane. My personified Gd lived above the clouds and wrote two lists each year: those who would live and those who would die. And I worked hard to be my best self so that I wouldnâ€™t be added to that dreaded death list.
I have outgrown my childhood theology. It doesnâ€™t serve me anymore. This simplistic theology that only the good are rewarded with long life contradicts with my understanding of the world.
I don’t know why people die when we do. I don’t understand why my grandmother got to live a long healthy life while N was taken from us too soon. I continue to grapple with death. The answers to this are bigger than me and beyond my comprehension.
What I do know is that the Gd of my understanding provides me comfort in the midst of uncertainty. I can lean on The-Abundant-One when I feel scared, lost and sad. When my grandmother passed away, I felt held by a nurturing presence. I experience Gd working through my community as they surround me and my family with love. When I learned of Nâ€™s death, I cried out to the Mystery. It felt unfair and unjust! My heart cracked open and I felt a deep pain. And yet, I experienced a sense of awe at the outpouring of support and strength from the wider community. The way in which she has been memorialized in countless stories is breathtaking. To me, that is Gd.
Today, I understand the “U-netaneh Tokef” prayer to be about surrender. We are not in control. These words are a reminder of the cycle of life and death. How can I honor the ways in which death is always present? What legacies will live on? What old habits will die? This year, as I sing the line, “Who shall live and who shall die,” I will be reminded of my own mortality and how I choose to live my life this year.
My Aunt just died. She had been sick, lived to be 88, and had a wonderful marriage of 62 years. One of the sweetest people I ever knew. Her dear husband is 96 and devastated. He is in excellent health and still drives. He keeps remarking, “who lives to be 96?” He bought a car last year and the salesman offered an extended service plan. He looked at his daughter and laughed. He was lucky she was letting him get a car. My uncle is stunned to be alive and well but now without his beloved wife.
Our family is understandably sad and is in mourning. Typically in Judaism there is a funeral and a mourning process called shiva. What is unique about this case is that her husband (my uncle) doesn’t want a funeral or to observe shiva. To provide you with his perspective, he escaped the Holocaust, leaving Vienna for the US. His parents however were killed in a concentration camp. He feels that his parents had no funeral or religion associated with their death and he and my aunt decided long ago that there was no need for any ceremonies for them either.
My side of the family is quite religious and would like to observe shiva, but we completely respect his wishes. I would have gone to a funeral or to see my uncle and cousins but that is not what my uncle wants. My father has decided to sit shiva at his home (in another state). Many of my father’s cousins who knew my aunt will come to the house and tell sweet stories about her. This process will likely help my father and his brother grieve the loss of their sister. My father will say kaddish for a month (a prayer at daily services) and this too will help him grieve.
What I find so beautiful is that Jewish culture supports both wishes and both needs. Everyone grieves in their own way, and I love that Jewish culture provides us with what we need, when we need it. Grief is personal but can be lonely. Judaism provides the constructs for people to move forward at their own pace.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Connecticut, the 26 people killed, 20 of whom were children. My children are in elementary school. I was scared to tell them because I was afraid they’d never want to go to school, but with media everywhere and emotions so raw, they found out about the tragedy. I struggle with what to tell them. I struggle with letting them leave the house. I want them to go out into the world without fear. I worry that they won’t want to go to school and that they won’t want to go to sleep.
Several years ago, my second son, Sam, was scared and having trouble sleeping. When Sam used to fear monsters, I could calm his fear with helping him control his imagination. But this time the fear was real. My older son, Rob, had nearly been hit by a car while his brother was two steps away. Rob walked into the street as a car came around the corner and he walked into the side of a moving car and bounced back onto the sidewalk. Fortunately, Rob was fine physically, but emotionally, we were all affected. Sam saw it happen and became anxious all the time. The school noticed the problem too. I spoke with the school psychologist and she suggested prayer. My inner agnostic didn’t take her seriously at first, but I quickly realized that this idea had some merit. My kids already knew the Jewish bedtime prayer, the Shema. Religious Jews say it several times a day but at night, it seems to have special meaning. The translation is “Hear o Israel, The Lord our G-d, the Lord is one.” I explained to my kids that we should say this prayer together every night. It is our way of letting go of the fear and stress we have and having some faith that G-d will take care of us. As a parent, I noticed that the kids immediately relaxed and were able to get some sleep.
After the incident in Connecticut, I began to think more about prayer. I thought about the concept of saying a prayer before we eat — Hamotzi. We eat all the time, why should we take a second to say thanks? Today I realized that the act of prayer makes us realize that we can’t take the simple things for granted â€“ like our kids will be safe when they are at school. We should say thank you for what we have. The agnostic voice in my head says that if there is a supreme being, he doesn’t have time to listen to my prayer for the food that we eat. I now realize that prayer isn’t just for G-d. Prayer is for us; to save our sanity in an insane world, to give us a moment of calm and appreciation of the good things. I feel that if we have the balance of appreciation, we can ride out the tougher things like a bad day or a human tragedy with a little more strength. Prayer gives us calm, focus, and a little bit of inner peace. Oprah Winfrey used to recommend keeping a journal of appreciation — write down the good things in your life every day and it will help you avoid depression. I now realize that religion is way ahead on this concept — appreciate what you have and it will save your soul today, tomorrow and in the future. It can get you through a bad day and help you sleep at night.
In a few months, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia will be offering a class called “Raising a Child With Judaism in Your Interfaith Family.” These online classes (with two in-person sessions) teach about various Jewish rituals such as the Shema and Hamotzi. As a parent, I realize how meaningful these small prayers are toward helping us all function and appreciate the life we have. As we share more details about the class, including how to register, in the coming weeks, I hope you will spread the word about this class and encourage even the most cynical to look into it. When we watch tragedy take place in the world, I find prayer to be one of the more powerful weapons in our parental arsenal. In the meantime, I say a prayer for the families in Connecticut. I am so sorry for your loss.