Embracing Sukkot

I have to admit, that I have always had a certain ambivalence toward the holiday of Sukkot.  It is called tFeatured imagehe season of our Joy, and I’ve watched people over the years build their sukkahs, shake their Lulavs, and do all the things we do on Sukkot, but it has been a difficult thing for me to enter into.

There are several reason this has been a difficult holiday for me.  First, I come from a family that didn’t build a sukkah.  My grandparents came from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where they lived in tenements, and only the very religious built sukkahs on their fire escapes.  Most people there went to the local synagogue and used the congregational Sukkah.  My parents came from the Bronx, where people lived in apartment buildings and instead of building sukkahs, they also went to the local synagogue.  When my family moved to Long Island, we had the room to build a sukkah, but we went to the local synagogue and used theirs.  Later, when I raised my family, I built sukkahs when my kids were young, but to be honest, construction was not my thing, and it got cold by then, so sitting in a poorly constructed (sometimes they fell apart, and sometimes they blew down) sukkah in the cold and sometimes rain, did not give me the feeling of Joy. I did not experience warmth or Joy on this holiday.

Secondly, Sukkot comes on the heels of Yom Kippur, which immediately follows Rosh HaShana, not to mention Slichas (repentance).  By the time Sukkot comes around, I’m holiday’d out.  I’m tired.  Then to have to build a sukkah in a few days, just seems like too much.

I spent several years attending Hasidic Sukkot celebrations, and they were fun, and I enjoyed it very much.  I was glad they did it, and was glad to be a part of it, but if I built my own collapsing sukkah, it would not be the same.  I was following the same pattern as my parents and grandparents.  I was just going to someone else’s sukkah.

Another aspect was the “season of Joy” aspect of the holiday.  I always felt it was a bit contrived.  I always felt Joy was an emotion you felt spontaneously.  It was not supposed to be planned.  It always gave me the feeling of it being forced.  I’m not one to “fake it till you make it.”

This year, with only a few days until Sukkot, once again, I found myself without the physical and emotional strength to build a sukkah.  Some good friends from our congregation were building one, so I figured I’d just go to their house and use theirs.  I got my lulav and esrog, and we gathered with other people from the congregation.  We were not a large group, but we had a great pot luck meal, we went into the sukkah, lit holiday candles, made kiddush, and shook our lulavs and esrogs.  We sat around for 5 hours, enjoying our time together.  Everyone got along with one another, and there was a fellowship that I could only describe as “sweet.”  It was at that moment that I embraced Sukkot.  Not just the rituals, but in the midst of the rituals as our setting, after all the stress of the preceding holidays, there was Joy.  It was not contrived.  It was not forced.  It happened, and it was beautiful.  Next year, I build a sukkah!

Connecting With The Dead

Featured imageThere are a lot of con men out there who make a fortune from people who miss their departed loved ones, and want to communicate with them.  They are only too happy to relieve people of their money so they can supposedly communicate with their departed relatives.  They speak in generalizations, and people wanting to believe, latch onto whatever they say, in hopes of hearing words of comfort.  Taking advantage of people and exploiting their grief is unconscionable in my opinion.

Recently I went to grief counseling at the local hospice where my dad passed away.  The counselor was trained and comforting. I told her that I am unable to express my grief at home because I don’t want to upset my mom, and that when I do express grief, my mom says that my grief is not as bad as hers.  The counselor pointed out that my grief is mine, and my mom’s is my mom’s, and hers does not negate mine.  When someone grieves, no one can say their’s is worse, and therefore yours doesn’t matter.  Each one feels the loss in their own way, and they can’t be compared or say one person’s is worse than another’s.  I own my grief, and my mom owns hers.  The idea was freeing in a way.

I was surprised when she asked me how I “connect” with my dad.  I told her that I only pray to God, not to deceased relatives. She said that was not what she meant.  She meant in what ways to I remember my dad.  I told her that I I have been blogging about my grief, and it has been an outlet to express my pain.  I also share about my dad in anecdotes when I’m speaking.  She said writing is a good way to express my feelings, but when I share stories about my dad, I’m connecting with him.  I’m recalling memories of him and in some way, and its a connection.  I realized that when I share about my grandparents, I am also connecting with them.  The comment also helped me understand my mom.

Since my father passed away, my mom talks constantly about my dad.  Not just her expressions of missing him and wishing she died with him, but she constantly is sharing stories of their lives together;  when they were young and first married;  when I was born, or when we went somewhere on vacation.  My mom was using these memories to connect with my dad.  By recalling the past, she was holding on to him; comforting herself with a time when he was here, and how happy she was.

Stories can be powerful tools to teach values and ethics, but they can also be comforting tools to bring us to another time, when we were with people we loved.  Up until now, I tried to get my mom’s mind off the past, but I now realize that was not helping her.  I let her tell her stories, so she might comfort herself with her memories.  I probably will use some of them in my messages, partly because I’ve heard them over and over, and partly because they make my dad more alive to me.  The book of Ecclesiastes says, “It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart.”  In the House of Mourning, we find wisdom and comfort.  The best way to bring comfort is to listen to those who mourn.

Eishet Chayal, The Woman of Valor

Featured imageA woman of valor, who can find? Her worth is far above jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and nothing shall he lack. She renders him good and not evil all the days of her life. She opens her hand to the needy, and extends her hand to the poor. She is robed in strength and dignity, and cheerfully faces whatever may come. She opens her mouth with wisdom. Her tongue is guided by kindness. She tends to the affairs of her household, and eats not the bread of idleness. Her children come forward and bless her. Her husband too, and he praises her. Many women have done superbly, but you surpass them all. Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a God-fearing woman is much to be praised. Place before her the fruit of her hands. Wherever people gather, her deeds speak her praise.

This passage from proverbs 31 is read every Shabbat at dinner.  It describes a godly woman.  Surely, not all women measure up to the standards of the passage. But the point is, it describes a strong, capable woman.  It does not describe a mindless, weak woman who is no more than a rubber stamp for her husband.  A godly woman is a capable, formidable woman.  She is robed in strength and dignity.  She is charitable and extends her hand to the needy.  It was these qualities that I saw in my wife when I was courting her.

It also describes her husband.  It says that he has full confidence in her, and she renders him good and not evil.  This is the part that’s difficult for me.  Husbands always think they know better than their wives.  We are wired differently and approach problems differently.  I always think I know better, and that she should have done things differently or said things differently.  I found that I need to have full confidence in my wife’s many good abilities.  I need to trust her to do the right thing; not based on wishful thinking, but based on the good abilities I know she has.  When I don’t do this, it leads to frustration for us both.  Its a hard lesson for me.  I always want to orchestrate things.  Sometimes you have to let people be themselves and not push them to do things the way you think they should go.  I am a blessed man to be married to my wife.  As the scripture says, I am rising up and calling her blessed.

I’m my father’s son, and my dad, who was a wonderful man, dominated my mom.  I need to not be so domineering. I wind up arguing with my wife about what she does or says instead of trusting her good sense.   I need to learn to trust my wife to do the right thing, because I know that she renders me good and not evil all the days of my life.  These aren’t just words; they are a struggle for me to put into practice.  I struggle because I have been burned in the past.  It’s not my wife’s fault, its my struggle to overcome my relationships before her.  I am grateful that my wife is a strong woman, as well as a kind woman.  She is patient with me as I struggle with my past.  I look to God to help me always see my wife for who she is; a righteous woman who is a wife of noble character.

Another Perspective On Gay Marriage in a Secular Society

Featured imageThere has been an awful lot written on both sides of the issue regarding Gay Marriage.  I do no plan on adding to it, except to say that everyone has a right to their own views on the subject, and everyone’s religious beliefs should be respected as their beliefs, not just what is current or politically correct.  I’m not a homophobe, and I’m not a bigot.   I’ve seen scripture twisted in all directions to support or exclude the concept of Gay Marriage, and that’s not what I intend to address here.

What I have a problem with, as a religious professional who seeks to honor God in the performance of my religious duties, is the government forcing or penalizing me if I choose to not perform a marriage between two people of the same sex.  Making that choice should not have the pressure of Government intervention.  My dilemma is, how can I ask God to bless anything if I honestly don’t believe he blesses it?  I do no perform weddings for many other reasons; if I don’t believe a couple is well suited to each other, if they are of mixed religious backgrounds and would result in family conflicts, if they have a violent relationship, etc.; why should performing a gay marriage  be a mandatory situation for me?  I also have to wonder why any couple would want me to perform their wedding if they understand its not something I believe in for them. Surely there are clergy or Justices of the Peace, who would gladly perform their wedding.  It makes me wonder if they are coming to me to force me into a situation I might not wish to be in.

I have gay friends, and if they wish to get married, and if they thought I’d have issues performing their wedding ceremony, I’d assume they would not ask me to perform the ceremony.  I might attend their wedding to be personally supportive of my friends, and I’m sure some people would object to that, but its my choice.  It’s also my choice whether or not to perform a wedding ceremony; any wedding ceremony.  When local and federal authorities make it a crime to not perform a wedding because it’s a same sex wedding, they are infringing on my beliefs and choices.  That is just wrong.

The solution, as I see it, is that legally, everyone, gay or straight, should have a civil union, and go to civil authorities for those unions.  Religious marriages should be something separate, in addition to a civil union.  This is how its done in Eastern Europe, and it works fine.  If the government wishes to sanction same sex unions, that is their prerogative.  They should not be dictating to religion what they must do, with threats of taking away their tax exempt status, or fining their clergy for acting on their conscience.  If couples of the same sex wish to be in a civil union, that’s their business, but the government  should stay out of religion.

This is not about religion as much as it is about government telling religion what to do.  The Bill of Rights prohibits the government from ESTABLISHING any religion, or restricting the religious practice of religion.  The reason I do not want the government to dictate to religion, is that in my opinion,  government has lost its moral compass, and religious people do not trust the government to ram its secular values down our throats.  I don’t want to have to make a choice between my conscience and the government, but if I have to, I choose what I believe to be right in the eyes of God, and I expect others who want their views respected, to respect mine.

The Lost Child Within

Therapists and counselors talk about us Featured imagehaving an “inner child.”  The inner child is the little kid inside of each of us that motivates us to and governs our responses to what is going on in our lives.  When my grandmother received the diagnosis that she had macular degeneration, she felt lost, and even though she was 85 at the time, she felt like crying for her mother.  The rest of our family gathered around her and supported her, but there was no comforting her.

Its been two months since my father passed away, and I feel like my inner child is a lost child, looking for his parents.  My father is gone and I feel the loss accutely.  I miss my dad’s presence in my life, buying him small things that made him happy, and seeing his face light up.  I have my mom with us, but she too is lost without him.  Not only can I not lean on her for support, I recognize her fragility, and can’t say anything around her that will upset her.  I expressed my ongoing depression to her in her grief, and she asked why I was upset.  I told her I lost my father.  It was as if she didn’t realize that I was going through grief of my own.  Not a day goes by without her breaking down crying, feeling God punished her by letting her live after my dad died.  We do things to try to make her happy, but there is really no comforting her.  All we can do is be there and show that we care.

Life is going on around me, and I continue on with my life, but deep down I feel lost.  God gives me strength and comfort, but I’m hurting and have not way to express it.  I reach out to others with comfort because that is what I do.  Its heartfelt and genuine, but I am not a happy person.  I know I will be happy again, but at the current time, my life is a painful struggle.  I miss my dad, and miss the mother that was a comfort and encouragement.

What does a person of faith do with these feelings?  I know that some people try to ignore their feelings, but that is not emotionally healthy.  I have trusted God through the most difficult times of my life, and He has always been there for me, strengthening me and upholding me.  He has brought kind, caring people around me to comfort and encourage me; some religious, others not, but they have been kind and have made a difference in my life.  I let them know their words and gestures of comfort matter, but I am still left with this crushing weight on my heart.

I still feel like a lost child, but I lean on God, and know I’ll be happy again.  He will see me through this difficult time, and won’t let go of me.  I focus on doing the right thing, and reaching out to others.  My own grief helps me feel the grief of others.

So I move ahead, feeling like a lost child, who is not out of the sight and reach of the One who loves me.  King David, in Psalm 27:10 wrote, “When my father and my mother leave me, then the LORD will take me up.”   I have never been forsaken by my parents, and I would never forsake my children, but life is such that there is a time they will not be with us.  I also believe there is a time that we will be reunited. I look forward to that time.  In the mean time, we suffer our separations, trust God, and abide.

My Inner Grief

I have nFeatured imageot let anyone see how deeply I am grieving the loss of my father.  I miss him so much. I knew several weeks before he passed that he had little chance of surviving.  There were too many things against him recovering.  I knew, but I couldn’t tell anyone.  I was grieving even then, but I couldn’t let my mom or my sisters know.  I needed to maintain my composure to give them hope.

In a way, my dad knew he wasn’t going to make it too.  He told me that before my grandfather died, he was on pills and had many physical problems.  He told my dad, “this is no way to live.”  My dad didn’t like it, but he understood it.  A few weeks later he died.  As my dad was being wheeled up to the ICU from the emergency room, he held my hand and said, “Michael, this is no way to live.”  He was letting me know he was tired and wanted to go.  I understood, but I didn’t like it.  They brought in a social worker to talk with me.

I feel like a lost child.  I had my dad, my role model and hero for my entire life.  Every day of my life, my father backed me.  He stood by me even when he didn’t approve or agree with me, because I was his son.  I was so proud of him.  I moved to Florida to be closer to him, and was so happy when I moved my parents into my home so I could take better care of them.  He only lived in my house for nine months, but I believe he was happier and had a better life with us.

I am grieving even now, but I can’t show it too much because my mom is so sad and depressed and she needs me to be strong for her.  I listen to her every day, expressing her grief.  She asks God why He took my dad, and she thanks God for giving him to her for so many years.  She has been a model of faith and trust in God in the face of so great loss.  She feels like she has lost her reason for living.  She needs to lean on me, so I need to be strong.

The day I sat down with the social worker in the hospital, I knew he was dying.  They put him in the ICU.  I went into the hospital chapel and cried.  Thankfully, no one else was there.  After that brief moment of grief, I needed to be strong for my mom and sisters.  I shed a few tears at the funeral, but even there, I needed to be strong for my mom.  Her grief is deep, so bearing it is very hard.  Eleven days later, I went out on my patio, lit a cigar, and cried.  After a good cry, I went inside and continued to be strong for mom.

I know its not emotionally healthy to hold it in, but there aren’t many outlets.  Prayer is an outlet.  I will be checking out grief support groups.  I can’t afford to come apart at the seams.  God has given me comfort and support, and I am grateful.  I truly believe God is merciful and kind.  I believe my dad is with Him.  I believe I will see him again, and we will be reunited.  While I have no desire to die at this time, I no longer fear it.  In some way, I look forward to the day I will be with my father again.

I write this post through tears and sadness.  I miss my dad.  I know I will miss him for the rest of my life.

Saying Kaddish: Continuing Through The Grief

In my last post, I talked about sitting Shiva.  Shiva is a wonderful custom that is designed to comfort mourners.  Technically, the people who are considered mourners are not everyone who grieves.  It is laid out in the Torah, based on the people for whom a Kohain was allowed to make himself unclean by connection with a dead body.  According to the Torah in Leviticus 21:Featured image2-3, a Kohain may not be near a dead body because it would render him ritually unclean.  It makes exceptions for the death of a spouse, son, daughter (also grandchildren), brother, sister, mother or father (also grandparents).

After the week of shiva, there are other traditions of mourning that comfort.  Going to the synagogue to pray with a minyan, a group of men and reciting mourner’s kaddish.  The reason for going to the synagogue, or praying with a minyan (ten men), is because they represent being in the community of Israel.  Because of this requirement of having at least ten Jewish men, the tradition says that whoever joins a minyan to enable someone to say kaddish, participates in the soul of another Jew.  Saying kaddish is about the soul.

Mourner’s kaddish is wrongly called, “The prayer for the dead.”  Kaddish is actually a prayer that praises God for His greatness.  It is a prayer that benefits the living.  There are several versions of kaddish, which have different functions in Jewish prayer, and they serve as dividers between the different portions of the Jewish prayer service.  Most of those versions have different melodies that are beautiful.  Mourner’s kaddish has no melody.  It is recited more as a declaration.  The other types of kaddish may be said by anyone, but mourners kaddish is the exclusive domain of the mourners (see above).  While Jewish tradition teaches that by leaving someone behind who goes every day to bless God’s Name for eleven months, merits the soul of the dead, the practical truth is that saying kaddish daily with a minyan is actually very comforting for the mourner.  It adds a rhythm to life, and over time, begins to comfort the heart.  I can’t explain it, but I experience it.

I’ve been at services where the entire congregation stood up to recite kaddish with the mourner.  I felt it took away from the unique position of the mourner, and they missed an opportunity to provide comfort to those who grieved most deeply.  I’ve seen other services where the person said kaddish, and the last stanza, “Oseh Shalom,” which has been put to music beautifully in Jewish traditon, was sung by the congregation.  It saddened me, because it took away from the somber nature of mourning, and failed to comfort by making a prayer of grief into a song fest.

Saying Kaddish is a structured prayer that has congregational responses at various places.  There is something bolstering about standing to recite kaddish out loud, and the rest of the people giving the structured responses.  Its encourages you, like you are not alone in your grief.  It also gives you a sense that you are  doing something constructive to work through your grief.  It gives you the feeling that you are carrying out your responsibility.

The period for saying kaddish as a mourner lasts eleven months.  It structures the mourning period, and places a definite end to it.  Emotionally, that is helpful.  You don’t feel that it goes on forever, and helps you move beyond your grief.  When the eleven months are completed, the mourning period is over.  You still miss the person you lost, and you still think of them so many times, but you have the feeling that its okay to move on with your life.

Some people either don’t have the confidence to recite kaddish in Shul because of their lack of hebrew proficiency, or because they don’t have the time to go to shul, or in some cases, are not interested in doing it.  They sometimes will make a contribution to a shul and they will say it on the person’s behalf.  Others don’t see the relevance of the tradition. While there may be valid reasons why a person would contract it out or ignore the tradition entirely, in a real sense, they are missing out on a very comforting tradition.