For Congregation Ner Shalom, August 15, 2014
A couple weeks ago I wrote an essay in my blog about going through my mother's basement back in Niles, Illinois, and the stories and sadness that were emerging for me from those long sealed, dusty boxes. I shared the essay with a new friend, a rabbi friend, that I've only known for a couple months. He emailed me back and said, "I didn't realize you were an avel. I wish you constant comfort and strength through this year of mourning."
Those words hit me hard.
Avel. The Hebrew meaning "a mourner." A word that signifies a special status that one maintains for a full year following the death of a next of kin. I felt myself choking up, feeling "seen" in a way that I hadn't been. And feeling "seen" made me feel the loss all over again. I wasn't used to being visible as a mourner. After all, in our culture, we don't have good words for people who are in mourning. If you lose a spouse, you're a widow or widower, and you stay that way. And while in Hebrew a yatom, an orphan, can be of any age (I choked up similarly a few months ago when a friend called me yatom sheli - my orphan), in English the word "orphan" applies to a child, and pretty much a child only. An adult who loses parents and says aloud, "I'm an orphan" is judged as self-pitying or overly theatrical. An orphan child who grows up will, at some point, gently morph from saying "I am an orphan" to "I was an orphan."
In our culture, "mourner" is an ephemeral state, situationally dictated. A mourner is someone at a funeral. Mourners can even be hired for the day. And then, after that funeral, you have no status. And you become invisible. But in Hebrew, avel is an attribute that sticks beyond that difficult day. It allows you, even requires you, to be seen. This designation reminds those around you to judge your actions and your moods not in a vacuum, but against the backdrop of loss. Not just at some moment where you are publicly singled out as a mourner. But in your day-to-day life, when you're running errands with jaw-clenched stoicism, or when you're having a private moment of crazy grief that can take any surprising form, even screaming obscenities at inanimate objects. For instance last night, driving home, trying to send a text message in a compliant and safely hands-free manner:
Me: Siri, send a text to Anne and Suegee.
Siri: Do you mean Anna Bell Kaufman or Anna Mollow?
Siri: I'm sorry. I don't understand what you mean by "neither." Do you mean Anna Belle Kaufman or Anna Mollow?
Me: Neither one.
Siri: I'm sorry. I don't understand what you mean by "neither one." Do you mean Anna Belle Kaufman or Anna Mollow?
Me: I mean somebody else entirely.
Siri: I'm sorry. I don't understand what you mean by "somebody else entirely." Anna Belle Kaufman or--
At which point, crazy with rage, I hurled an uncharacteristically graphic expletive at Siri. To which she replied, "I'm sorry. I don't understand what you mean by," and then managed to repeat the profanity with absolute precision.
Anyway, the point is that being in grief means that sometimes you're just bonkers. And when your loss, your avelut, is invisible to others, no one knows or remembers why you keep sliding off the deep end.
But Jewish tradition does in fact encourage us to to be visible as mourners, to show up publicly as avelim. The custom is, as we know, for mourners to recite the Kaddish prayer, and to do so, when possible, publicly, in a minyan, a community of at least ten people. As I remind us whenever we're together, the words of Kaddish, in the Aramaic that was once our everyday tongue, are words of praise. In the face of loss, sometimes because of loss, we are called to express wonder; we acknowledge that the workings of this Creation are bigger, deeper, higher than we can possibly imagine or understand. But now that Aramaic is more remote for us even than Hebrew, it is not the lofty sentiment that speaks to us. Rather it is the heartbeat-like rhythm of this prayer - yitbabam v'yitbabam v'yitbabam - that hits us most profoundly, and that we associate not with death itself, but with the Jewish experience of death. I just finished reading Philip Roth's The Human Stain, and this little insight about Kaddish jumped out at me:
Most people in America, including myself . . . don’t know what these words mean, but nearly everyone recognizes the sobering message they bring: a Jew is dead. Another Jew is dead. As though death were not a consequence of life but a consequence of having been a Jew.
The traditional way of reciting the Mourners' Kaddish, in which only the avelim, the mourners, rise, was another way to make sure that you, the mourner, were seen. And in that moment of being seen, you would inevitably see your own altered state. The modern progressive custom of the whole room standing, either in support of the mourners or in the name of the 6 million, is beautiful also and well intentioned. But it inadvertently neutralizes loss and renders individual grief invisible. Standing as a mourner among a bunch of non-mourners has the perverse effect of making me, at least, feel more alone than I felt starting out.
That said, I do think there are times in which we are all in fact, and not just symbolically, avelim together. And I think right now is one of those moments. There is a pervading mood of loss and desolation that everyone I know has been experiencing for many weeks now, and that has only been deepening with each new turn of events. We're all feeling Robin Williams' loss this week with a surprising keenness. Because we were already primed for it by the grief we feel about the war in Israel and Gaza and all the senseless deaths there. But of course that grief itself was an explosive extension of the grief we already felt about three murdered Yeshivah bochurs and one cruelly killed Palestinian boy. And those shocking acts came on the heels of or intertwined with other things: the downing of a passenger plane over Ukraine; the still inconceivable kidnapping of some 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria. And even grief about ISIS overrunning far-away Iraq, which brought with it the death of many members of ethnic minorities there, and the death of any lingering hope we might have had that despite our bungling invasion of that country we might somehow have left it better than it had been.
It's been a season of tremendous grief. It courses through all of us. What we are feeling this summer is not polite sympathy, such as we expect from those who obligingly stand to say Kaddish alongside the mourners. But real personal grief. We feel it and we act on it without naming it. Not just Jews. The country. The world for all I know. We feel it, our children feel it through us. Our pets probably feel it. Our tempers are short, our misunderstandings are frequent, our ability to find the right words eludes us.
This is because we are impaired. Impaired by grief. Traumatized might or might not be overstatement, but impaired is not. We are impaired like any avel is impaired. We can't always trust our reactions, we can't always trust our better selves. We don't know when we might start screaming at Siri.
But maybe there is some comfort available. This is the season for it, after all. After Tisha B'Av, after our holiday marking the destruction of the holy Temple, where the ruined Jerusalem is described as a widow; after this holiday of desolation comes a season of comfort, of slow, step-by-step emergence from our broken state, culminating with the last blast of the shofar at the ne'ilah service at the end of Yom Kippur, when we are, once again, we hope, whole. During this time in between, our tradition hands us weekly haftarah portions of comfort.
This week's haftarah, from Isaiah, offers repeated and insistent declarations that we are not forgotten, that we are engraved on God's hands like a divine tattoo, that our children carried off to captivity are bound to return, that our desolate city will once again be alive and bustling.
These prophecies might have been comforting to our conquered and exiled ancestors. But we are cynical moderns. We know that on the global scale there are rhythms of loss and regeneration. We know that destroyed cities fill up again. But we also know they don't fill up with the people who were lost in the conquest. The hope offered by Isaiah is pretty, but pretty hard to accept.
Still, Isaiah has some advice that might speak to us. He says:
Look to the rock you were hewn from,
To the quarry you were dug from.
Look back to Abraham your father
And to Sarah who brought you forth.
And there is something here. Which is, when you are without landmarks, and it feels like there is nothing to steer by, look back to your roots. When the path ahead is dim or unimaginable, turn around and look back at the path where you came from. If nothing else, it will be familiar. Re-orient yourself with what you know. When you see yourself plowing ahead in a panic, stop. Breathe. Inhale some of the good stuff at your source. Is there guidance there? How to handle loss? How to mourn?
Yes, there is. Our rock, that Jewish rock that we were hewn from, gives us some guidance. It says there is a name to this experience and if you name it then you can see it and you can be seen. Avel. That is the name. You are a mourner. We are all mourners. And seeing each other that way, seeing ourselves that way in these hard times, allows us to give each other some extra space. It allows us to give ourselves some extra space. To look at others with compassion, to look at ourselves with compassion. To care for ourselves the way we'd care for a dear friend who has suffered a loss. What might we say to our bereaved selves? Take time to breathe. Eat ice cream. Take a walk. If we are still going to have something to say or something to do to make this world better, we need to be careful and cared for so we can play our part and play it well. So, avel, take some special care of yourself.
And, one other piece of guidance. That quarry, that Jewish quarry we were dug from, that old tradition that seems to go back to Sarah herself, suggests that when we are in mourning, we say Kaddish. When we feel the pain of loss - the death of loved ones or a respected icon or innocent people far away or even the death of a long cherished hope or belief - we honor that loss with a Kaddish.
So in this summer of grief, say Kaddish. Not a symbolic Kaddish but a real one. Even if you don't know what the words mean. Even if you don't know the words at all. Think how this Creation is bigger than all of us. And notice that through all this loss, you are not gone yet. You are still here and that is your heart that is beating and beating. Yitbabam. V'yitbabam. V'yitbabam. V'yitbabam.
Thank you to Ellen Atzilah Solot for pushing the point this week that it's not just me.