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Reflections After Shiva by Rabbi David Baum

Updated: Aug 8, 2023

Click Below For Recording of the Funeral

As the summer comes to a close, I have to share that this has been the most difficult summer of my life. We have gone through a lot as a family, some of which we have shared with the world, some of which we will not share to respect the privacy of our family members.

My journey to mourning began on the saddest day of the year, Tisha B’av, when we mourn national destruction. The previous evening, I taught a lesson on theology and how Jewish thought makes sense of evil in the world. It came down to a profound test of faith: how can we accept a God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and good despite the tragedies we have faced in our history? The next morning, our congregation held a joint service with Bnai Torah Congregation for the Tisha B’av service where I was supposed to read Torah and Haftarah.

That morning, our mother texted us that she had received word that after being on the lung transplant list for a week, they had unexpectedly found a match for her and she was beginning to prepare for surgery. She told us not to rush down because it will take some time. I walked into Tisha B’av services with a joy I hadn’t felt since our son was born on the 7th of Av. During Shacharit, I received a call from my brother. I could hear him weeping on the phone and felt the worst. Our joy and hope turned into loss and despair as our mother had taken her final breaths. I walked back into the chapel with a face of tears, handed my Torah/Haftarah reading to a colleague, and walked out in a daze, not knowing exactly what to do. I saw my mother’s rabbi and teacher from their previous congregation immediately, Rabbi Hector Eplebaum. I told him what had happened, and he embraced me with kindness and love. I picked up my sister, crying together in the car ride down to Miami, to see our mother. We received so many calls and texts on the way down; word was traveling swiftly. At first, we tried to answer phone calls but were too shocked and dismayed to speak coherently.

At the hospital, my mother was surrounded by her loving husband of 50 years, her three children, her siblings, and their spouses. For the first time in a long time, she didn’t have oxygen flowing into her to help her breathe, she wasn’t gasping for breath, and she wasn’t coughing. She was at peace. I cried over her, held her hand, and kissed her. Even though she had already passed, we prayed for her.

The next days were some of the worst of my life, but also the most meaningful. Our original nuclear family began its journey as a family of four for the first time since 1987, but we were surrounded by the love of new souls, spouses and children, who joined our family since my sister was born. The funeral was brutal and beautiful. Shiva was a blur, but we felt the love and support from so many family, friends, and community members in South Florida and beyond.

During shiva, I was reminded of my mother's wisdom.

My mother did not share her wisdom through stories and pithy quotes, but she often shared a teaching from her father. As an immigrant family, they had very little in terms of material things. He would often say, “worry about your own money; don’t worry about others.” She expanded on this in her life. She would often say, you don’t know what is happening behind the closed door of a family’s home. They may seem perfect behind a gilded house of gold, but they could be suffering inside. It was an expansion of the well-known teaching from Avot: Who is wealthy? One who is content with his or her portion in life. During this week, I didn’t think once about who wasn’t present or who did not reach out to pay their condolences, rather, I focused on who was with us during the most difficult time in our lives.

Shiva was a surreal process. I knew the rabbis were immeasurably wise, but I experienced it myself sitting shiva as a mourner, and taking on the restrictions imposed on our lives.

My mother taught us lessons not just in speech, but more importantly, in deed. She lived out kindness in a way that she never wanted anyone to see. She performed so many acts of true hesed in her life that we are just now learning about through the stories people have told us at shiva. She never bragged about her many accomplishments, except maybe her family whom she often posted about on social media.

Over this last year, I have been part of the Institute of Jewish Spirituality’s Clergy Leadership program. Through the program, we are studying sacred Hasidic texts and incorporating these 17th - 18th-century teachings into our lives today.

Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl (1730-1797) wrote the following in his work, Me’or Eynayim:

“The truth is that human beings cannot remain on a particular rung with constancy, since “the life-force ebbs and flows” (cf. Ezek. 1:14); it comes and disappears. When you are attached to God, you feel the pleasure of that surge of life. But then it vanishes and you fall from your rung.

Why does a person have to fall? The meaning of this contains secrets of Torah. One of these is the possibility of attaining a yet higher rung than one had previously reached. Every being is preceded by a non-being. When you want to proceed to a higher rung, you need to lack for something first. Therefore you have to fall from your prior rung.

When you are in such a fallen state, you still need to struggle to rise up to God within your current existence. You need to have faith that “the whole earth is filled with God’s glory” (Is. 6:3) and “there is no place devoid of God.” God is there in your present state of being, though in highly reduced form…”

Throughout this period of aninut (period after the death of a close relative but before burial) and aveilut (formal mourning), I have felt the presence of God, and my mother’s soul: in the embrace of family, friends and colleagues, in the food we’ve been served, in the tears we have shed and the rare laughs. But there were other places as well, for example, on Shabbat morning, I witnessed a beautiful scene. We open our spiritual home for members of the JARC community, a home for Jewish intellectually and physically disabled adults, on Shabbat. Two older men were sitting next to each other’s and one man couldn’t bend over to tie his own shoes. His friend, who sat next to him, bent down, and tied his shoes for him without even being asked. I saw it in my son’s camp counselor, an 18-year-old, who paid a shiva visit to comfort us and our sons. and the 12-year-old bat mitzvah girl who insisted that she attend a shiva minyan to comfort her rabbi and his family.

I want to live in that world; a world of kindness where we perform these acts without the need to be recognized by the world in a social media post. I want to live in the world that my mother created for us - a world of joy, justice, strength, love, humility, and kindness.

I will be taking some time to continue to process and heal. I am so grateful for all the messages I have received, but I honestly haven’t read through them all. I promise to answer you all, but it will take me some time. I kindly ask for your patience as I continue this journey.

Thank you for your continued support.

I want to end with some words that gave me comfort during this time from Rabbi David Wolpe’s book Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times.

“When we suffer a loss, people try to fix it for us. We cannot stand to see others who are not all right. I have seen people who have lost spouses be told, shortly after the funerals, of other people who are perfect for them. Because our own vulnerability is so frightening, we feel that if only we can fix it for someone else, we will be safer. The deep losses of life are not fixable, however, and the greater the loss, the more inappropriate the strategy of solution.

Those who are in trouble need a calmness of soul from those who care for them. We have to be able to look upon their distress and allow them to bear it. We can share their sadness; we cannot fix their pain. In the book of Job, when Job's friends first see him after the succession of tragedies that befall him, they sit on the ground beside him and weep. Their first reaction is admirable. Only later, when they try to explain to Job why this happened to him, are they condemned. What loss cries for is not to be fixed or to be explained, but to be shared and, eventually, to find its way to meaning.

When we experience a loss, a hole opens up inside of us. It is almost as if the loss itself plows right through us, leaving us gasping for air. We bleed through that opening, and sometimes old wounds are reopened. Things we thought were safely inside, patched over, healed, prove painful again in the wake of the new pain.

Very slowly, the immediate agony subsides. Around the edges of that opening, things begin to heal. Scar tissue forms.

The hole remains, but instead of allowing only a constant stream of emptying, it begins to permit things to enter. We receive some of the love and wisdom that loss has to give us. Now is when loss can have content beyond the ache. This is the time to create meaning. Pay attention to what comes in that open space. Nothing can make the pain go away. Making loss meaningful is not making loss disappear. The loss endures, and time will not change that truth. But now it has some purpose.”

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