Monday, March 31, 2008

The Death of Shiva

Death used to make us act like grownups. Funerals required black suits, solemn expressions and somber eulogies. Even pointless traditions regarding death were carefully preserved; to this day, many English communities still use a horse drawn carriage as a hearse, in an attempt to recreate the ambience of a Dickensian era burial.

The 21st century has no patience for lugubrious traditions. It’s time to lighten up!! Now funerals need panache, theatre, and a dollop of laughter. Mourning is no longer a deep felt emotion; now, it’s a performance art!! And of course, let us not forget, the funeral is not supposed to be sad – it should be a “celebration of life”.

Forgive me my sarcasm. I appreciate why the old style funeral, more funereal than real, failed to be meaningful. Remote, wooden clergymen delivered incompetent eulogies while family members squirmed silently in their seats. Tears were banned, in order to maintain “the dignity of the service”. However, in reaction we have gone too far. Indeed, in many ways, we have perverted Judaism’s spiritual mourning practices into a fast paced pop psychology “happy meal”.

Falling by the wayside is the significant practice of observing Shiva. “Shiva” means seven, referring to the seven days that mourners refrain from any outside activities and sit on the floor and mourn. As reported in this article in the Globe and Mail (March 27th), shivas are becoming less and less common. Sadly, we are now observing the death of shiva.

Shivas are disappearing due to impatience and superficiality. Everything today must be high speed: internet, e-mails, even emotions. No one has an entire week to “disconnect” from work.

Even worse is the plague of superficiality. The mourning practices of shiva have been dangerously mixed up with psychological explanations. People think that somehow the purpose of the shiva is to bring the mourners consolation; indeed, I often hear testimonials to “how good” the shiva makes the mourners feel.

This understanding of shiva is at best half true. It is correct that there is a rabbinic commandment for friends to visit the mourners during the shiva; and yes, it is the friends’ responsibility to help console the mourners. This is why visitors come to the shiva house, but it is not the purpose of the shiva itself.

The actual purpose of shiva is for mourners to mourn, for a bereaved family to express their pain. And mourning in Judaism has a simple goal: to honor the deceased. (Indeed, when a person is buried on the intermediate days of Passover or Sukkot, the period for visitations begins immediately, while the actual mourning begins after the holiday – Shulchan Aruch Orach chaim 568:6)

At shivas, the families put their lives on hold for a week to grieve over a relative’s death and contemplate their legacy. The week of mourning publicly expresses that the family truly misses the person who has passed away. This is why the shiva is an act of honor: to be mourned, to be remembered, to be missed, is to be loved and respected.

By viewing shiva purely as a palliative for the mourners’ pain, we have transformed a sacred obligation into a vintage form of psychotherapy. Shivas are essentially grandma’s recipe for consolation, best stuffed away in a closet when the almighty Blackberry beckons. Indeed for many, all this mourning is a drag.

Tragically lost is a sense of obligation to the deceased. Often, the phrase “celebrating life” is usually just an excuse for the family to avoid mourning. Instead of honoring the deceased, we choose to honor our appointments.

The death of shiva affects us all, Jewish or not. What has really disappeared is the ethics of memory, the responsibility to remember others. In a world of high speed narcissism, the dead are tossed by the wayside while we go on “celebrating life”.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

This is an oldie from just before the beginning of the Iraq War. My family had taken part in a family mission to Israel at the end of February, 2003.

Going Home

Lisa and I just returned from a family trip to Israel. The woman checking us in at the airport surveyed our children, and, after some hesitation, said "I hope you make it home OK". Being a Rabbi, (and blessed with rabbinic telepathy), I knew she was actually thinking "what sort of a lunatic takes four little kids to a dangerous country like Israel?".

Actually, the danger is exaggerated. Attacks on Israel receive disproportionate media attention which distorts reality. The most dangerous part of our trip was when Uri, the cabbie who took us from the airport, drove at breakneck speed and tailgated while yammering on his cellphone. Indeed, statistically speaking, you are far more likely to die of a car accident in Israel (or Canada) than in a terrorist attack.

But I appreciate that it’s reasonable to worry. Bombs and Scuds are remote, but genuine possibilities. When we arrived, the Jerusalem Post had a full page ad emblazoned with the headline "Are You Prepared", which advertised protective suits and gas masks. The ad reminded us that Israel constantly lives with the possibility of war.

This reality is distressing. An Israeli friend told us how her 11 year old son, fatigued by conflict, wants to move to New Zealand, an isolated country without enemies. My own children, on their first visit to Israel, percieved the conflict as well. At the Air Force Museum, my seven year old son asked: "Abba, why does Israel have so many enemies?". Living with this question is Israel’s tragic burden.

So why did we go? We went to watch our children, visiting a school in Beersheva, feel right at home in the classroom with their Israeli brothers and sisters. We went to meet the remarkable volunteers from ZAKA, who are available 24/7 to help at accident scenes, administer first aid, and if necessary, to locate body parts for a proper burial. We (a group of 80 parents and children) went to express our solidarity with Israel.

Most importantly, we went because it’s home. It was a pleasure to see our children discover Israel for the first time; Hebrew everywhere, Kosher McDonalds, archeological sites. We visited Beersheva, the city of Abraham and Sarah, and Jerusalem, the city of David and Solomon. Watching our children connect to the Kotel was a priceless experience.

When we arrived at Ben Gurion airport, I glanced at an ad; I don’t remember much of the ad except for words "higatem habaytah", "you’ve come home". When I saw those words, my eyes began to tear, and I understood why we went. Israel is our home; it might seem crazy, but we had to take our children home for a visit.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

An Experiment

I guess this is what a sermon would look like, if I had to post them on youtube. I haven't had anytime to follow up on this first one, but please tell me what you think!! (major league thanks to Sean and Steve Bramson for videotaping editing etc., etc.)


Monday, March 10, 2008

The Optimism of Courage

My job is to inspire others. I scour the Talmud, Bible, as well as assorted periodicals, to find texts, ideas and anecdotes that inspire others.

But every so often, someone will turn to me and ask: “Rabbi, who inspires you?”. Although I may work in the inspiration business, at the end of the day, I too have a soul thirsty for inspiration.

People imagine that inspiration is best found among the learned and famous. Actually, that isn’t the case. The Talmudic sage Chanina said that he learned more from his friends and his students than he did from his teachers. My experience with inspiration is very much the same; it is often my congregants and students who inspire me the most.

Joanne, the most inspiring congregant I’ve ever known, died recently. She was a young woman in her 40’s, who’d battled a series of health problem that kept her hospitalized the vast majority of the last decade of her life. She inspired me with her resilience, fortitude and good humor. But most importantly, Joanne taught me about optimism.

Joanne was relentlessly optimistic. In her years in the hospital, her cheerful spirit warmed the hearts of everyone who met her. Members of the hospital staff became Joanne’s friends, and she became their confidante. An orderly who’d lost a child to suicide, found solace for the first time in years after speaking with Joanne. And throughout, her courageous spirit remained strong. When a doctor told her that she’d never be able to walk again, she immediately remarked “well, that’s what wheelchairs are for”.

Joanne taught me what optimism should be. Most people think optimism is all about the glasses; that is, either half empty glasses or rose colored glasses. Joanne taught me that optimism is much more than a positive perspective; it can be, indeed it must be, a defiant act of courage.

The optimism of courage goes beyond seeing the bright side of things – instead, it sees humor and hope as ammunition in the war against tragedy. All humans face the same adversary: the angel of death. Joanne heroically battled the angel of death with the only weapons she had, her smile and her optimism.

Joanne had wicked sense of gallows humor. Even while staring death in the eye, she could laugh. One day, in a heart to heart conversation, I mentioned to her that in my entire rabbinic career, I had never seen a case of tragic suffering like her own. A humorous remark or two followed, and somehow, by the end of the conversation, we were laughing together. But these jokes were more than shared laughter; actually Joanne was waging war, laughing in the face of the angel of death.

Joanne understood the optimism of courage. She will continue to inspire me for the rest of my life.

May her memory be a blessing for her family, and for happiness warriors everywhere.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Hello, Israel

I can be an annoying Rabbi.

Every week during Shabbat services, I harangue my congregants to say hello to visitors to the synagogue. I push, prod and cajole my members to greet any new faces. In my mind, a community that isn’t welcoming isn’t a true community.

Unfortunately, the art of being welcoming has been lost. We simply don’t feel comfortable making small talk with new faces. Greeting strangers is actually taboo in larger cities. Urbanites mumble a perfunctory hello to salesclerks, and don’t dare to make eye contact with strangers on the street. In row house suburbs, neighbors barely know each other’s names.

Perhaps we are too busy, or just too rude, to bother to say Hello. In our Blackberry-Laptop-Cellphone culture, we are always occupied with something or someone, except for the person standing in front of us. Human interactions have been compressed into an orderly row of e-mails. Communities are now “virtual”, anonymous megabytes masquerading as true companionship. Why say hello when you post your greetings on Facebook?

Living in a culture of remote controls and remote friendships leaves us hungry for true community. The Talmud relates that the great Rabbi, Yochanan Ben Zakai made a point of offering greetings to strangers. R. Yochanan’s greetings were not just an expression of one Rabbi’s sensitivity; they are a reflection of man’s existential need to connect with the people around him. Man, the social animal, needs to say hello to keep his soul alive. Indeed, TV shows that feature small towns like the fictional Mayberry, and friendly gathering places like the bar in Cheers, derive their popularity from our hunger for true community. The commuter who rides the bus with her face in a book and takes the elevator while averting other people’s eyes, can finally sit down, turn on the TV, and vicariously experience a much warmer place.

Israel is one place where old fashioned community values live on. The old proverb, “A stranger's just a friend you haven't met”, (immortalized in this Simpson’s episode) could be the national motto of Israel. People everywhere strike up conversations: taxi drivers, fellow restaurant patrons, people standing at bus stops. Israel feels like Mayberry, the country, a small town stretched over a small homeland.

The secret to Israel’s warmth might have to do with exile. Maybe, after being second class citizens, Jews are happy to finally belong. Maybe years of homelessness and wandering has made Jews into better hosts. Perhaps, Israel’s warm spirit is the giddy joy of a people delighted to be in a homeland they can truly call home.

On a trip to Israel last month, my wife and I happened upon a Mira, a jewelry maker with a store in downtown Jerusalem. Long after the necklace was chosen and the purchase made, we chatted with her, discussing our lives, families and values. It was another country and another language, yet nothing got lost in translation. We immediately connected, because in Israel, there are no strangers. We all come from the same shtetl, and are happy to finally be home again.