Monday, January 31, 2005

An Aching Soul

[This was a sermon that I delivered this past Shabbos. Many thanks to Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, whose exquisite work Tears of Sorrow, Tears of Hope, formed the basis of much of this sermon. Listening to Neshama Carlebach's recording of Return Again helped give voice to the anguish in my soul, and I used it in my sermon as well.}

[Hum the A section of Return Again]

My soul is aching. It has been all week. Ever since I arrived at work on Monday and was informed that one of the moms in our school delivered a daughter who was stillborn early that morning. All week I have tried to help our staff as they mourn the loss of life that was not to be. All week, I have felt the impact of a loss that I pray will never be mine.

Where can we find comfort? A baby born still leaves the family with no memories other than those tinged with grief. The fragments of dreams and unfulfilled hopes are strewn about, and we try to comprehend the reality of a life with such overwhelming sadness.

Our tradition teaches: “What does God do in the heavenly realm? God sits and teaches the little children who have died.” (Avodah Zara 3b)

How angry we are at a God who would allow such tragedy! What meaning can possibly be found in the death of one who has yet to take a single breath??

The rabbis were not immune to these feelings. Living in a time of high infant mortality, they were no strangers to the loss of children, and struggled with the same crises of faith as we do today. For them, and now for us, comfort was found in images of God as parent, teacher, and companion to the child.

When the rabbis imagined the World to Come, they often envisioned a yeshiva shel maalah, an academy on high, with God as the Consumate Teacher of Torah and themselves as eternal students. In the days of the World to Come, the rabbis say that the righteous will sit with crowns of light on their heads, basking in the radiance of God, who sits before them. And when the rabbis sought comfort over the loss of their children, when they tried to imagine where these perfect little ones had gone, they imagined that the children would live forever in the presence of God, the Parent of Parents and the Teacher of Teachers. More than that, the rabbis believed that it was not they alone who were comforted by this vision; God, the One who Weeps with us, was comforted as well.

[Hum the B section of Return Again]

Job wrote, “A life blossoms like a flower and withers, it vanishes like a shadow and does not endure…The length of our days are set; the number of our months are with You. You set limits that we cannot pass.” (Job 14:2, 5)

When a child is born still, that flower never blossoms. The mother and father arrive expectantly at the hospital, but return home with empty arms and a grieving heart. Ein od t’fillah bis’fatai, I am empty of prayer. That space is filled instead with tears. With shadows. We cannot yet form the words to praise Your Name, O God. So accept our tears instead. The Midrash teaches us that while all the other gates of heaven may close, the gates of tears are always open.

For many generations, traditional Jewish practice has long held that there is to be no official mourning for an infant who dies before reaching thirty days of life. There are historical reasons for this. In the Middle Ages, when Jewish Law was being codified, large numbers of infants did not survive birth. To the Rabbis of the time, relieving parents of the obligation to mourn a stillborn or an infant that was less than a month old was viewed as compassionate. Medical technology has advanced to the point that most pregnancies are viable and babies who are born with critical conditions can often be brought to health rather than die as they would have in the past. Therefore, the liberal Jewish community, recognizing that the prior Halakha robs the parents of the opportunity to mourn their child in an appropriately Jewish manner, encourages the burial of babies who are born still in order to provide their families an opportunity to begin the long healing process that often starts with burial.

[Hum the A section again]

My heart is breaking. When I am faced with a crisis, I respond by buying books. Getting my hands on anything that will give me an explanation. Some understanding. Guidance. Anything. I slip into my daughter's room at night. Poppyseed, the lightest of sleepers, rouses and blinks in the dark as if to say, "Mommy, what are you doing here." "I just wanted to be sure of you," I whisper. Beernut catches me staring at him. "Are you OK, Mommy? You have a funny look." I hug him tightly, thanking God for having him each day.

What could I possibly say or do that will bring consolation? What can I, as a rabbi, do to fill the emptiness? What can we do as a community do to acknowledge the loss of one who never knew the breath of life that comes from God? How can we provide comfort to the broken-hearted?

David Morawetz, a grieving father writes in Go Gently:
Some people give me advice:
“You must have another.
You must talk a lot about it.
You can grow through this.”
I am angry.
Some try to make it better:
“It could have been worse.
You must appreciate what you’ve got.
Life goes on.”
I want to yell:
“You are right, but that is for me to say.”
Some try desperately to avoid the subject:
I feel disappointed, disconnected.

Then there are those, the blessed ones,
who say in so many ways the only thing I need to hear.
“I am so sorry, David,”
“I am with you, David.”
The ones who, even five weeks later, ask gently, as if for the first time:
“How are you today?”
“How are you doing now?”
These bring tears to my eyes.
These you could not buy with gold.

Ultimately, it is our presence and acknowledgement of the child that can bring some amount of strength to the mourners.

El Malei Rachamin, God full of compassion, place these tiniest of beginnings, these slight and small beginnings, these tiny and tender roots, lacking form and countenance, but still desired and loved, among the holy and pure ones who shine brilliantly as the heavens. May You always envelope them in Your Eternal embrace.

[Sing lyrics of Return Again]

Return to who you are,
Return to what you are,
Return to where you are born and reborn again.

Return again,
Return again,
Return to the land of your soul.

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