Friday, July 30, 2004

The Art of Mourning

Tragedies don’t have silver linings; they are black holes of sadness filled with pure pain. There is nothing good about death and destruction. Considering this, it would make sense for us to push tragedies out of our minds. So why do Jews focus on catastrophes?

Indeed, year after year, we have days of mourning for the various traumas of our history: exile, the destruction of the Temples, internecine strife and the Holocaust. Even on the holidays, we say Yizkor, a memorial prayer for family members who have died. We continually pick away at old wounds, repeatedly reviewing and remembering our saddest moments.

Why not forget? Some selective amnesia could make our lives, and our history, a lot more palatable. We could “move on”, and stop paying attention to dead relatives. We could consider the Holocaust, the Inquisition, the Crusades, and all the exiles and expulsions to be the irrelevant past, events that could only interest professional historians. And in so doing, the uncomfortable burden of Jewish history would finally be lifted off our shoulders. Perhaps we might even be happier.

Yet we make a point of revisiting our national and personal traumas. We do so because mourning is not merely a form of suffering; it can be a supremely creative act as well. There is a Jewish art of mourning. This remarkable art is actually a form of alchemy; it allows us to take the emptiness of suffering and transform it into redemption.

How does this happen? Well, first of all, we have to realize that discomfort is not such a bad thing. Who will change the world? The complacent, happy with their suburban homes and pensions? Serious change always begins with righteous anger. We revisit these dark moments to remind us that complacency in the presence of evil is the same as complicity to evil.

Even sadness can spur a positive response. Excess sadness can be extremely dangerous, and lead to debilitating depression. Yet the art of mourning can find a positive use for sadness as well. This is best expressed by the verse “and you shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The newly freed slave may not become a master; he must become an abolitionist. The Torah is teaching us that the response to tragedy may not be depression or cynicism or hatred; the only correct response is compassion. Rather than feeding an endless cycle of violence, the suffering stranger is commanded to transform his anguish into love.

Tragedy and suffering in and of themselves are empty, meaningless events. But it is still possible to offer a meaningful response to suffering. The art of mourning is to use tragic memories as a roadmap for fixing the world. And in this way, the art of mourning becomes the first step on the road to redemption.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

An old piece I forgot to blog......

Maximizing your 15 minutes

You can’t summarize a life in 15 minutes” is an oft-repeated platitude. While it’s true that you can’t recite a person’s biography in 15 minutes, you can summarize a life in 15 minutes. I know this, because I summarize lives all the time. I give eulogies.

Eulogies are more than mere summaries. When I perform a funeral for someone I didn’t know, often when I meet the families, they are (understandably) quite nervous. “You must mention this,” a family member will admonish me, as they recite critical information. Certain phrases are repeated compulsively, trying to make certain that I, an outsider, get the story right. It’s important to the family, because the eulogy is no mere summary. Rather, it is a public statement of legacy and memory. And legacies matter.

No one wants to live a forgettable life. This is not due to vanity. It is an essential, existential need. Man’s most powerful quest is the search for meaning. We hope that we’ve made a genuine contribution, that the sum total of our labours will have made this world a better place. And after all is said and done, we hope that’s how everyone else remembers us as well.

Maybe it’s because I’m closing in on 40, or maybe it’s because I attend too many funerals, but I’ve started to think about my own legacy. Perhaps it’s odd, but at funerals, when I listen to the family pay tribute, I wonder what the 15-minute summary of my life will sound like. I suspect I’m not alone in doing this, and that many of you think about your legacies as well.

My experience at funerals has taught me what a real legacy sounds like. First off, (for those of you in the market for sports cars), in the nearly 300 funerals I have been to, not once has the deceased’s car been mentioned. Nor have the person’s children spoken about how large his house was or which caterer he used for simchahs.These may be biographical facts, but they aren’t a part of a legacy.

The eulogies that I remember years later are about mothers who worked full time to support their family, and woke up at 3 a.m. to cook dinner; about teenagers who volunteered to fight in the Israeli army during the War of Independence; about grandmothers who lovingly baked cookies; about Holocaust survivors who had the courage to survive and rebuild; about restaurant owners who regularly fed hoboes.Genuine legacies are made of love and courage, determination and devotion.

Biographies can takes hours to recite, only to be forgotten immediately. Legacies can be summarized in a few short minutes, but they’re always unforgettable. For my 15-minute summary, I’m striving for an authentic legacy.