When I auditioned for this pulpit a very long time ago, I delivered a sermon on my favorite section of the siddur. It occurs in p’sukei d’zimra, when most of you are never in shul, and it is part of Psalm 147, and it describes God as:
Ha-rofeh l’shivurei lev u’m’chabeish la’atz’votam
Moneh mispar lakokhavim, l’khulam sheimot yikra
The healer of broken hearts and binder of their wounds
Who counts the number of stars , calling each one by name.
My understanding of those verses has remained remarkably consistent over the years, but their importance has grown enormously. Last night I focused on the second verse. Today, I offer you some musings on the first.
Fear is a very powerful force in the life of we human beings. Some of us are consumed by it; others try to push it away. But one way or another, fear claims a part of our lives. It waxes and wanes along with circumstances, but it is never absent. I have never been afraid of flying in an airplane, even now in the aftermath of September 11. But I know that it takes only a brief noise – a pop, a grind, a hiss – when I am in the air to flood my brain with an ocean of imagined disasters. We breathe the air, drink the water, walk the streets without a moment’s thought, but a single rumor can cause our breath to quicken and panic to rise in our hearts. When a madman murdered a child on the streets of Alexandria, we saw every bike ride as a mortal danger. When crows died of West Nile virus in our neighborhood we viewed every bug as an assassin. When an airplane struck the Pentagon, we clamored for armed guards in our synagogues and schools.
Fear is not an inherently bad emotion. It is right and proper to be afraid of some things – it keeps us from taking unreasonable risks. It is right and proper to afraid of some people, for good reason and for bad reason. You should fear the consequences of hurting those who love you – that’s for good reason – and you should fear the antagonism of those who hate you – that’s for bad reason. It is right and proper to fear God, because over-familiarity breeds not only contempt, but also disrespect.
I have found that what I fear most, however, is death. I am not quite so afraid of dying, mind you. My father, of blessed memory, taught me by his example to face dying with neither fear nor resignation. I am simply, and often irrationally, afraid of death.
Maybe it comes as a surprise to you, especially if you and I have shared a journey through bereavement. Like most people to a greater or lesser extent, I like to have some measure of control of the world around me, and there is no controlling death. I am grateful that our tradition has such strong and powerful rituals for dealing with death. I have learned them well, the way you learn how to take a hot pan out of the oven or to wear gloves and goggles when handling a chain saw. Those safety precautions put a distance between hand and heat, between person and power.
But we were not created to live our lives in fear. We were created to be strong and have courage – we have been saying it every day for forty days: be strong and let your heart take courage, the words of Psalm 27. Without fear, there would be no courage. And so the time has come for me to face that fear. The time has come for me to have courage. And I hope to persuade you to have courage, too.
If you do not know Karen Kaufman, you will soon. She is the one about to glow bright red as I talk a little bit about her. Karen once served as president of this congregation, something that requires a substantial amount of courage in and of itself, but it is the least of her accomplishments. Karen has risen like a phoenix from an overabundant share of personal challenges, and she has been my conscience in the aspect of my rabbinate in which I am the least effective. Her personal life is none of your business, except to demonstrate the uselessness of letting fear get the upper hand. Karen is afraid of nothing, near as I can tell, and that includes me.
A few years ago, two people surprised themselves by finding love. Karen was a single mom and Col. Martin Kaufman was a decorated soldier and very single life-long bachelor. They fell wildly in love, married and planned a life together. Then Marty had a relapse of the cancer he thought he had beaten.
As I told you, I am afraid of death, and I found every excuse to avoid sitting at Marty’s bedside. I finally made it there just a couple of days before he died. He had needed me all along, but he especially needed me to assure him it was all right to let go. I gave a great eulogy and led a moving and meaningful funeral at Arlington Cemetery. But I had not been there before, and I had not been there afterward. And I tell you all with both gratitude and admiration that Karen made that fact very clear to me.
While I rummaged in my box of excuses, Karen took note of the people who were there and stepped into the breaches that formed all around her. Some of them were close friends. But many of them were just acquaintances, especially those who took shifts sitting with Marty’s body as we waited the long time it took to arrange a funeral at Arlington.
And as Karen emerged from the complicated aftermath that any tragic death leaves in its wake, she undertook strengthen for everyone in this congregation what she had received in her time of need.
Death, though inevitable, is not contagious. You may catch the cause of a person’s death, but you cannot catch death. Confronting death – not as an intellectual exercise, but as a practical concern – requires a certain courage. The questions that are raised in the presence of a corpse are unanswerable. Where are you? What part of you is missing? Why can’t we reverse this event? And, of course, when will this be me?
And I distinguish between sadness and fear. Loss provokes sadness because a relationship has been severed or unrealized. Fear is a lonely and internal process, and therein lies the reason that courage must be summoned from within.
If you do not know Lynne Sandler and Gary Greenbaum, you will in a moment. Now than Karen is heaving a sigh of relief, Lynne and Gary will squirm in the spotlight. There isn’t a good idea at this synagogue that hasn’t enjoyed involvement from one or both of these two folks. Like Karen, Lynne has served as president of the shul. Gary has yet to bear that happy burden, which is either a testimony to his finesse or his patience. A few months ago, they and Iris Henley and David Sattler and I met to discuss an idea whose time has come. It is an idea that needs two devoted and gently persistent guides. And with generosity of spirit, Lynne and Gary have stepped forward.
For while courage cannot be provided for you, even by the Great and Powerful Oz, the opportunities to discover courage can indeed. That lesson has been taught over and again in the aftermath of the attack on our country. Thank God there are smaller and gentler ways to learn the lesson.
There is a continuum from illness to death, as you know. Not every illness results in death – far from it. And not every death is preceded by an illness of any appreciable length. Yet every compromise of a person’s body holds the potential to begin a spiral, and every death leaves behind a trail of empty spaces that need to be filled. And if we are to be true to our ideals, then we must be partners in the work of harofeh l‘shivurei lev u’michabesh la’atz’votam, partners in the work of the healer of broken hearts and binder of their wounds.
Do you have the courage to ride the spiral with a lonely sufferer? Do you have the courage to fill some of the empty spaces left behind someone who has died?
These are the opportunities that Karen and Lynne and Gary will facilitate for you, as they will for me.
Building on the fine work of the Bikkur Cholim group begun by Paula Hersson-Ringskog and Ingrid Willenz-Issacs, Karen has herself and with others reached out to those in need. Some of you have enjoyed her healing presence, and so you know. She told me what her goal for bikkur cholim is: to be a presence in our congregation so that everyone will have a place to turn in their time of need, and that no one should ever be or feel alone.
Karen echoes a wonderful midrash about Rabbi Yochanan, who visits the ailing Rabbi Chiyya. “Give me your hand,” he says to his friend, and lifts him from his sick bed. Later, Rabbi Yochanan takes sick, and others must come to his side. “Why can’t he lift himself?” asks the midrash. And it answers, “The prisoner cannot free himself from prison.”
Do you have the courage to share Karen’s goal? Are you willing, with some painless training and enjoyable study, to overcome your fear that you will not know what to say, how to behave, when to intrude and when to step away? You can, you know.
Also part of Karen’s goal is to provide shomrim for those who have died. Our tradition insists that between the time of death and time of burial a body is not to be left alone. Though most burials take place within a day or two, there is almost always an overnight period during which the body must be guarded. Certainly there was a time when we worried about morbid thieves who would steal the body, and certainly there is an element of superstition involved with this practice, but it is an act of extreme respect and devotion. The vessel that contained a soul, though empty, still receives the honor guard it deserves for meritorious service.
Those of you who have sat in a funeral home for a few hours, often in the middle of the night, have commented to me on the peace and satisfaction you feel in the performance of this mitzvah. It is a time to reflect, to show respect and, if you had a relationship with the deceased, to grieve privately and personally.
Karen also wrote, “I think that since this is a relatively new program for our congregation, it will take time to educate our members and to help them build the courage, if you will, to do this mitzvah. It is very emotional and I believe people have to reach deep into their souls for the strength to do this whether or not they know the person. … And, our list [of shomrim] is growing. Not only with people who have been in these situations, but with people who feel in their hearts the need to help. And I think that's what it takes.”
Do you have the courage to share this goal? Are you willing to overcome your fear of facing some ultimate questions about life and death by showing compassion to someone who may have been a total stranger? You can, you know.
And we will be compassionate and patient as you search your heart for the strength to decide.
Both bikkur cholim, visiting the sick, and sh’mirah, sitting watch with a deceased, are practices that are in place in some measure in our congregation. In some cases, we have responded admirably. A stream of people reached out to Eleanor Pearl during her decline, and even four and a half years ago we managed to provide shomrim for Marty Kaufman over the many days between his death and his burial. Eleanor was active in every aspect of synagogue life, and Marty was young and died a tragic death. We have other illnesses, other deaths of dear members whose circle of friends is not so large, or whose advanced years are reflected in the inability of their contemporaries to help in this task. I wish I had the words to encourage you to do better. Fortunately, Karen has those words.
“We are a unique congregation in that we build a wall of strength when it comes to the well-being of a congregant. I for one feel that I have leaned on that wall so much over the past 20 years that I can never give back the equivalent. The blanket of comfort our congregation offers is a great source of strength to a family that has lost a loved one and to others when there is no family to support them. I have been in these situations, and while I have been fortunate to have built a family in my congregation, others have not. My goal…is to [establish] a presence in our congregation so that everyone will have a place to turn in their time of need and that no one should ever be or feel alone.”
This past summer, my own growth through my fears was helped by two friends, two long-time members who succumbed to long illnesses. Morty Ruben and Sam Turk have been part of Agudas Achim longer than most of you can remember. Though there were many years between them, they died similar deaths. Chronic conditions robbed them of their ability to breathe well, and the fatigue induced by staying alive rendered them mostly silent during their last days.
When it became apparent that their days, perhaps their hours, were few, with the permission of their families, I recited for them the vidui, the deathbed confessional. It begins with a prayer for healing – “may it be Your will, Lord our God, to grant perfect healing to this person” – but continues with a dose of realism. “If it is not your will that he recover, may his death serve as expiation for all his sins.” And I asked them both to recite the Sh’ma with me. From a place deep within, the words came out clearly and distinctly. Their souls were purified, just as they were last Yom Kippur.
You have recited a similar vidui many times these past 18 hours. Together with this congregation, supported by that wall of support, you have had the courage to overcome your fear of acknowledging your shortcomings. God willing, we will walk from this room together tonight to face another year.
But after the last confession of life is recited, preparation for burial includes a purification of the body as well. The ritual is called toharah, and it is performed by a small team of Jews who wash the body from head to toe by pouring water over it, and then dress the body in the plain linen shroud in which it will be buried.
Quite obviously, I hope, men tend to men and women tend to women. Not so obviously, every effort is made to preserve the dignity of the situation. Before beginning, the team recites a meditation that asks for the forgiveness of the corpse for any unintentional indignity. The body is draped in cloth and exposed only as each section is washed. And, once placed into the casket, the body is not exposed again, unless it is to verify the identity.
If your fear of death is like mine, this brief description is enough to make your heart accelerate and your breathing quicken. It is human nature, it is cultural conditioning, it is no reason for feeling less than human. But there is a source for courage in this situation. With a consciousness of the sacred nature of the task at hand, with the knowledge that you are healing broken hearts and binding wounds – not for the deceased, but for the family and the community – you will draw support from the team that undertakes this holy effort. In fact, that is its name: Chevrah Kaddisha. In proper English it means “The Sacred Society; in the vernacular, “Team Holiness.”
And thanks to Lynne and Gary, you can learn what is involved in this mitzvah before you commit to participating. Beginning on November 4, as your Adult Education brochure indicates, we will offer four classes over seven weeks on guiding others through bereavement, including what a Chevrah Kaddisha is and does.
To this point, we have relied on a most devoted cadre of Orthodox Jews from Maryland to meet our needs. But with the demise of most of the independently-owned Jewish funeral homes, local mortuaries increasingly serve our congregation. Our ability to care for our own is not only a convenience, but also a statement of the values and principles of Conservative Judaism. Our sister congregation, Olam Tikvah, has successfully supported a Chevrah Kaddisha for many years. And with two of our most devoted members guiding this process, you can be assured that we will succeed as well.
I know that you have come to expect a gut-wrenching sermon from me on Yom Kippur. I will be truthful – I have come to expect to write one. When I volunteered to devote this sermon to this topic at my meeting with Gary, Lynne, Iris and David, I secretly regretted it immediately. But events have a way of putting a new context around situations. It turns out my gut has been wrenched more than enough over the last few weeks. Not having to generate the emotion is something of a relief.
Still, the sense of fear that is so powerful has rallied in our hearts. We are afraid of war. We are afraid of terror. We are afraid of death. And we look for courage, for a way to respond that will not allow fear to take the upper hand and paralyze our lives.
You lined up to donate blood for strangers. You reached into your pockets to provide relief for unknown survivors. You travel longer and slower for the sake of the security of anonymous others. You have found the courage for them. You have found the response that makes you a healer of broken hearts and a binder of wounds.
The people sitting around you now are your family. Like you, their fear is a lonely place in their souls, a place in which their confidence in courage seems most remote. Like you, they face the ultimate questions any death provokes with the secret worry that no one will care when their strength wanes and the life ebbs.
Find the courage to overcome those fears with others and you will find the courage to overcome them for yourself. Together, we can do God’s work, healing the broken hearts and binding wounded souls.