Sources of Comfort
Some things, it seems, are not just coincidences. As I write these words, I am still in the sheloshim – the 30 day mourning period – for my 38-year-old brother Jonathan, who died suddenly of a massive heart attack. And our parasha deals with the end of the life of Jacob, who, though he lived one hundred and forty-seven years, described his “years of sojourn” on earth as “few and hard.” (Genesis 47:9)
These are difficult times. And I know – if only through the shiva calls I have paid in the last few weeks to others – that I am not the only one feeling intense pain. Nor will I be the last. As our parasha teaches us, death is very much a part of life. It is unavoidable, and the pain which accompanies the death of those we love is a pain which never really goes away. Jacob states it when he recounts to Joseph the death of his beloved Rachel (Genesis 48:7), and I know, unfortunately, from having lost both my parents in the last eight years, that though the gut-wrenching pain has gone, the sense of deep loss – especially at poignant moments in life – still remains.
How can we find some nehama – some comfort for these losses? First, we look to family. The people who know us best – our spouses, our children, our siblings, our aunts, uncles and cousins – are often the ones who provide the hugs, the words, the freedom to cry, the shared memories which help us get through the most difficult times. I know that my surviving brothers, my husband and my children have been enormous sources of comfort for me. But as Samson Raphael Hirsch comments: “As long as children live about a father, a mother, for so long do they find in their parents a force which holds them together. Even amongst the best of children there can be small differences but as long as the parents are alive, all discord vanishes in the common love and attachment to them. After the death of the parents the bond holding the children together becomes loosened, they do not meet so frequently and become more estranged from one another when father and mother no longer form the center point. . . ” (Commentary on Genesis 50:15)
Family may not always be there to comfort us; the bonds grow looser sometimes even when the pivotal loved one was not a parent. Family members have their own ways of grieving which we may not share. Sometimes family members are so bereft, they have no comfort to give. To whom do we turn when our family can’t be there for us to cry with?
We often turn to our friends and our community. I am blessed to belong to a community which actively sought to comfort me in all the Jewish and human ways possible after my brother died: they did everything from ritually wash my brother’s body in preparation for burial (taharah), to providing minyanim morning and evening at my home for prayer services, to providing all the meals we needed for the week of shiva, to extending invitations to bring my children over to their homes so that the children could play while the adults offered tea and comfort. There are friends who have called from far away, numbers of times in the week just to “check in” to see how I was doing. And my shul has a daily minyan, where I find a peaceful place to pray, a quorum of ten Jewish adults, and the ability to say kaddish for my brother’s soul. My friends and larger Jewish community are a great source of strength for me, and I wish everyone who is suffering a loss such a caring group of people.
And finally, for some of us, we find comfort in God. I can’t claim to have passively accepted my brother’s death as “God’s will”. I’ve argued with God a lot in the past weeks (and years). But ultimately, the words Jacob blesses his son and grandsons with have deep resonance for me: “The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, The God who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day – The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm – bless the lads . . . ” (Genesis 48:15-16). These are words which I hope will apply to my brother, and to me. I pray that God – in God’s way – continues to be a shepherd for my brother’s and parent’s souls; that God is taking care of them and that they somehow feel the warmth and embrace of God’s love. And I pray, that God will continue to be a shepherd for me – and all who suffer loss – to guide us in how best to mourn and to continue living life fully, despite our tremendous sense of loss and pain. I pray that I will always be able to walk in God’s ways – and to pass on to my children the sacred rituals and morals which God has commanded of us. I pray that in teaching my children about God and our beautiful Jewish way of life, I will bring some comfort to myself, and honor to the memory of my brother.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi