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"BHC is a vibrant, caring community that warmly welcomes, embraces and engages..."

- Martha Weiman

Thoughts After a Funeral

February 4, 2011

©Rabbi Andrew Busch
Baltimore Hebrew Congregation
February 4, 2011

Misheniknas Adar, Marbim b’simchah

When the month of Adar arrives, joy increases.

The way the Jewish calendar works, this year, 5771, should be doubly happy, for this year, as a leap year, there are two months of Adar.  Purim will not even show up until March 20, in the second month of Adar.

There is a lot of joy that has been shared with me in the lead up to tonight, the first night of Adar.  I heard about a great-grandchild and grandchild on the way, same pregnancy, bringing joy to multiple generations of BHC.  I scheduled a wedding, again actually for a multi-generational BHC family.  (Yes, they were two different families.) There has been joy over this last week and there will be happiness flowing for so many in our community and our lives over the coming two months of Adar.

Misheniknas Adar, Marbim b’simchah

Whatever our frame of mind, we should remember that we are taught to toast life, L’chaim, and that on this Purim BHC will celebrate life both here and in Israel as I lead an Israel trip in March. 

Yet, with the same force rejoicing of New Years Eve in the years following the death of a spouse or the bittersweet nature of Mother’s Day in the years following the death of one’s mother…. Yet, with the same awareness that when we gather for a wedding, one of our cousins may not be present due to illness, or that we go on vacation knowing that a close friend is facing a crisis.  Thus, for our community, Adar arrives with a heavy feeling.  As most of you know, Mitchell Perlmeter, the 17-year-old son of Rabbi Rex D. Perlmeter, our rabbi emeritus, and Rabbi Rachel Hertzman, died suddenly this week at home in New Jersey. 

You should know that Rex, Rachel and their family have been deeply comforted by the outpouring of love from many fronts and sources.  They have specifically appreciated the support they have received from those who were at the funeral yesterday, from emails, from the cards that I know have begun to arrive.  They understand the power of the hugs and the silences, the poems and the good wishes.

I will not attempt to eulogize Mitch.  I have known him for a decade, yet so many of you knew him better than I did.   Rabbi Steven Kushner spoke of him so well at the funeral and captured his smile, his love, and his spirit, knowing full well that words can not explain what has been lost.  This Shabbat, I want to pause to remind us of the power of our reaching out to one another in moments of loss.  We so deeply understand that our words cannot fully capture the essence of one who dies, young or old.  We know that whether we are speaking of Mitch or of Megan Estey, a BHC high school student who died last year this week.  We know that this limitation is true for any death, young or older. 

However, our need to share words and thoughts are powerful.  Our ability to pay respect with memories and tears is even soothing.  Numerous times over this week, BHC members have mentioned one book to me. Even as I prepared these words, someone spoke to me of Rabbi Harold Kushner (no relative)’s Why Bad Things Happpen to Good People.  This popular 1981 book has helped so many; I once spoke with an older Indian man while paying a condolence call upon a neighbor. He spoke to me of the comfort that this rabbi had brought to his Hindu perspective.  Kushner wrote of theology and psychology, of the limits of God, our questions, and the answers.  He wrote of the importance of letting others into your life at the moments of our losses, saying:

So, often, when I meet with a family after a death and before a funeral service, they will ask me, “Do we really need to sit shiva, to have all those people crowding into our living room?  Couldn’t we just ask them to leave us alone?”  My response is, “No, letting people into your home, into your grief, is exactly what you need now. You need to share with them, to talk to them, to let them comfort you.  You need to be reminded that you are still alive, and part of a world of life.”

We are allowed to curl up into a ball at moments, but how important it is to allow others “into our grief.”  The mourner is allowed to have a break, a walk,… a nap.  However, Jewish tradition teaches us to allow others to embrace us.  Maybe this openness acts a bit like a bandage.  A bandage doesn’t really cure the wound.  It is rather superficial, temporary even.  A bandage isn’t like surgery or stitches, or even medication.  However, that bandage on the right wound will allow our scars to prepare to heal.

Heal the scars of deep loss, you wonder?  Isn’t that too simple?  Frankly, that healing possibility is not too simple, if we remember the two Rabbi Kushners’ warnings towards the limitations of our thoughts and actions.  Then we can begin to move forward just a bit.  Rabbi Harold Kushner has taught us of the limitations of our theology and our actions.  God can be found in our embraces and our thoughts, not in any easy or complete answers and certainly not in this death itself.  Rabbi Steven Kushner taught us at the funeral to embrace the family at the center of this loss and to be inspired by Mitch’s life to be our best selves possible. 

Rabbi Naomi Levy spoke to us earlier this winter.  In one of her books, she also taught of the power of limited healing:

There is no such thing as a perfect healing.  Our scars will remain with us always.  There are two ways to approach the scars that remain within us.  We can despise them and look upon them as signs of weakness.  We can find the strength to turn our curses into blessings, to transform our suffering into wisdom and compassion.

Ah, wisdom and compassion.  Maybe you are smarter than I feel.  However, I think we can really reach for and hope for that compassion far more than any wisdom.  Kindness is easier to achieve, and possibly more powerful, than understanding.  As friends sharing in mourning, we should reach for empathy before we assume any knowledge.

I have learned a loud and clear lesson from rabbis and teachers, families and mourners themselves.  That teaching is that despite the many words that I may speak now or often speak at funerals, it is not the words themselves that may help to lay spiritual bandages towards the imperfect task of comforting others.  It is being present that really helps those we care about.  It is caring more about their needs, for at least a brief moment, that will really be our gift to them.  Being silently present is often more powerful than asking, and certainly than answering, questions.  A hug or a hand on a shoulder is the simple gift we can try to impart.  Those hugs and hands and silence are even possible in notes and emails.  A brief word, a haiku rather than a sonnet if you will, is the written equivalent of a caring embrace.  Less is more, when are trying to give the gift of our love and caring.

I sometimes include in services words given to me by two rabbis after their father's death.  The brief poem is lesson to those of us trying to care for mourners, among others.  A writer named Mark Nepo wrote: 

Still, it is next to impossible to do this alone.
We need the loving truth of others to be well.
Inevitably, when one is thrust into life, into crisis, into transformation
Without notice or instruction,
Some come with us and are forever changed
While others watch as we are forced out to sea.
It is the power of love that enables those who come along
And in truth, a language of experience is unearthed
That cannot be translated to those who stay behind.

So may we go with our friends, Mitch’s family, Megan’s family and the others we know.  Misheniknas Adar, Marbim b’simchah. It often feels that life seems far too complicated, but that complex reality brings joy and tears.  May we go with those for whom we care as Adar brings joy for some within our community, even as the week brings tears for others.  Acccepting limitations, may we come with them and be forever changed.  Ken Yihi Ratzon.

Rabbi Andrew Busch
Baltimore Hebrew Congregation
February 4, 2011