Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
May 13, 2016 / 5 Iyyar, 5776
My apologies to my dear readers for the lateness of this message. We’ve had a number of unfortunate incidents and illnesses that have absorbed my time. Here specifically, I want to extend my condolences to the entire Zidell family on the passing of Min Zidell. Her funeral will be held here at Neveh Shalom on Sunday at 1:30 pm. Barukh Dayan Emet.
Laura and I endured five years of medically unexplained infertility. It was a painful time in our life. We hungered to start a family, and were denied without explanation. Our adventures chasing after fertility will have to await another time.
When our prayers were finally answered, we had a heightened awareness of how precious and fragile life really is. The kindest example of chen, of grace, is life itself. There is something rather than nothing, and we each are granted a few short moments bathed in the light of sun, moon and stars during which we can learn to love and thrive.
Existence is miraculous, scientifically unlikely. It is the great gift, yet one we too often overlook. Needless to say, when Laura’s belly finally began to swell, we wanted to celebrate the impossible and mundane fact of this growing life. So we engaged a doula, or birth companion to be present and help facilitate the birth of our wonderful boys. For those unfamiliar with the role, a doula is someone who offers their wise presence both leading up to and after the birth of a child.
Our doula was a friend and my rabbinical student colleague, Carrie. How appropriate that was for reasons personal and communal. Throughout our Jewish traditions, we find such doulas of the soul–people who feel called to witness how life enters into this world, such as the midwives did in Egypt.
I’ve been thinking about the other end of life, and how we also help to escort life from the world. Partly this is because our community has suffered a great many losses. In equal measure, a couple of months ago Laura taught me that there is a burgeoning career for “end of life doulas,” who help people transition out of this world. I was moved by this, because it is often one of the tasks in which we rabbis are sometimes called to serve. This is one of the most sacred and noble parts of my profession, and I feel privileged to share with families the mystery of death and departure.
That may sound strange to many of us. After all, death and loss can be painful, and many people are frightened of encountering death up close. I understand that, because my own relationship with mortality has changed over the years. In my late teens, a great many family members died within a few short years. Then in college, my best friend was killed. Rather than helping me grow comfortable with the inevitable end we all face, these early losses scared me. They simultaneously opened a path upon which I’ve been traveling ever since, in which the fear has receded and I am better able to fully stand in death’s presence.
This of course, is the same road we all march upon. In a certain way, it is the message of our tradition, in which we face death and loss without yielding to despair or fear. Just this past week, we observed Yom Hazikaron, Israeli Memorial Day, immediately followed by Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence day. Calendared in this way, we come to understand that death is not just an end, but also a prelude.
Judaism, as you probably sense, has long been a democratic tradition, and we have many customs that encourage each of us to become such doulas of death–people who can face all aspects of life without becoming derailed in the process. We have a wonderful group of people who serve on our Hevra Kaddisha. With great care, they wash and tend to the bodies of our loved ones before burial. Other members will serve as shomrim, guardians who ensure that the deceased is accompanied and never left alone before burial. Anyone whom I have spoken with who has served in this capacity speaks glowingly of the profound beauty such sacred tasks engender. We can always use more such volunteers.
Finally, as our Jewish burial rites themselves demonstrate, we are all called upon to help bury our loved ones. Each of these actions offers the potential to deepen us. In a connected vein, over my time here, I have been deeply moved by how many families have gathered by the bedside of a loved one, helping them and witnessing them as they pass from life to death. In an age where families are often dispersed, it has been heartening to see so many members of our community embrace this precious final stage of life.
There can be tremendous disquiet around death and dying. For those who choose, we can transform that anxiety into an act of beautiful witnessing. We each can become doulas of the soul. In so doing, our own lives become all the more precious.