Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Conflicting Emotions

(Illustration by Solomon Yudovin)

On Sunday afternoon, I stood on a hillside in a cemetery as my great aunt's coffin was lowered into the earth. At 93 years-old, she was the last of her siblings to pass away and thereby close a chapter in our family's history.

I have such conflicting emotions about the events on Sunday because I was very close to my great aunt who was an exemplar of kindness and hakaras hatov. She was a person who was a source of encouragement to others because she was continually happy and only spoke about the good points of others.

I think, however, that my conflicting emotions about Sunday stem from the fact that I cannot simply go to a funeral without becoming extremely agitated with the unconventional way funerals are handled in my family. Five years ago, one of my great-aunt's older brothers passed away, was cremated, and his ashes were scatted in a Jewish cemetery on the graves of his parents and brother and sister. I was so incensed about this idea at the time and felt helpless because I had absolutely no say in what happened. This pain was coupled with the knowledge that my own grandfather had been cremated as well.

With these experiences in my past, I walked into the Jewish funeral home on Sunday to be greeted with a funeral featuring an open casket. To make things worse, there was a half-hour before the service began and family members and friends gathered around the open casket cried, hugged, and even engaged in idle chit chat. I was horrified at the sight of people standing with their backs to an open casket and laughing with their friends. I wanted to scream at the lack of respect these people were displaying. But, I remained silent. Who was I, only a grand-nephew, to make a scene in front my great-aunt's children and grand-children while she lay in the room before us? In reality, what could I have done?

At the cemetery, I helped carry her coffin. My great aunt's son was across from me on the other side and began to ask me about my family; making me uncomfortable as we carried his mother to her final resting place. Once again, this sacred moment was shattered by small talk.

I threw a shovel full of earth on my great-aunt's coffin, as is tradition, and went over to give words of comfort to her son. I told him that not only is his mother now together with his father, but that I also remembered that there were other family members buried in this cemetery. I told him that that now she is also together with her parents and her brothers and sister; that she has left one family and has returned to another. He responded, "They are also buried here?" When I explained that they are buried at another cemetery, he quickly added, "Oh, you mean together in a metaphysical way."

I drove home with this comment echoing in my mind since I perceived that he used the word "metaphysical" in place of "make believe" or "hocus pocus". I lamented the fact that in today's society that many people have lost the ability to take the concept of a neshoma returning to its source in a literal manner. I reflected on how many sacred moments that I have witnessed in recent months that were marred by unthinking people; a bris in which people stood taking pictures with their camera phones over the mohel's shoulders; a wedding where members of the wedding party complained about being hungry and continually inquired when they would get to eat; and now this, sons standing with their backs to their mother's body while they laughed and engaged in small talk.

I have no more words. Perhaps I do not belong on this planet any more.


At January 23, 2007 at 5:52:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Deat ASJ,
I fully share your feeling, as far as I also had this kind of behavior in my family. I could also add the chatting while reading the Hagada on the Seder of Pessah evening, and talking about business between minha and neïla on YK day... What can you do? Basically, nothing...

At January 23, 2007 at 7:43:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ASJ, (if that is your real name ;) )
you need to learn more Rebbe Nachman. Or chassidut in general, but especially Rebbe Nachman. I'll hilight two points that would help:

1. According to the Baal Shem Tov, when we judge someone else, we are really only judging ourselves, so it is important always to judge someone l'chaf zchut, because in that way you are actually ensuring a merciful judgement on yourself, literally. He doesn't say this in hypothetical, he says that the reason this person doing this act was put in front of you is to expose a particular part of yourself, and HaShem never judges someone until they have judged themselves first. (in a manner I described above) (My wife pointed out that this is just an expansion on the expression which Chazal use that kol ha'posel, b'mumo posel.)

2. Rebbe Nachman says that finding the good points in someone else, even in the worst r'shaim of Bnei Yisrael, will bring them over to the side of goodness and actually MAKE them good. By finding whatever good there is to be found in them, you are actually bringing that good out to dominate the bad that is readily apparent in them.

3. Tzeddakah teaches us that we have a mitzwah to help our family before we help other Jews. From which we can learn we are put with the family we have for a reason--to help them and to be helped by them. It's a very big tikkun to work on your family relationships and not avoid them. I have a lot of irreligious relatives, but they are good people and I recognize that they don't know better and I can't teach them better (because who am i?) so instead our family leads by example--and some of their children actually get turned on by our religiosity and return to the fold..

Just some things to think about--things I think about, anyways. It's still extremely hard.

For me it also helps if I remember that most of the Neshamoth around today are recycling to complete one or two more mitzvoth, and so their actions/observance may not be indicative at all of their level or what they are here to do. Really all of this is judgement is only for HaShem, all we have is to accept and show loving kindness.

At January 23, 2007 at 8:02:00 AM EST, Blogger torontopearl said...

"...that were marred by unthinking people."

ASJ, perhaps, rather... "Unknowing people"! People who don't realize that it is wrong to do what they do, to say what they say. Perhaps you are that family link who can help change the way they think, who can help enlighten them in a "simple" way...

At January 23, 2007 at 8:35:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"talking about business between minha and neïla on YK day... What can you do? Basically, nothing... "

The Rambam sais that one should go live in a midbar in certain cases, and I think his advice should be considered in some way (I'm not saying we should all move to a desert, but there is something to his advice!!) For one thing we should spend more time in soltitude (that's also part of hisbodedus) and also try to live in less populated areas (villages rather than cities) when possible. As far as davening alone when shul's davening is distracting, here's a great article that discusses these issues: http://koshertorah.com/PDF/Daven-alone.pdf

ASJ: you're not the only one who feels that. May be we'll bump into each other in outer space somewhere ;)

At January 23, 2007 at 8:48:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Avraham was one"- Yechezkel 33
Avraham served Hashem uniquely in that he was one- that he resolved in his mind as though he was the only person in the world. He paid no attention to the other people of the world, who had turned from the path of Hashem and created obstacles and difficulties for him.
Not on his father, nor any of the others that stood to discourage him, rather he related to his life as though he were the only one in the world, and this is the meaning of "Avraham was one".
And so too for anyone that desires to enter into the service of Hashem, it is impossible to enter except by means of this concept- to imagine in their mind that no one else exists in the world, except him alone. And they musn't pay any attention at all to any person who would discourage them or hold them back. (For example, his father, his mother, father-in-law, his wife, children, etc.).
Nor should he pay any heed to the difficulties and obstacles posed by other people of the world, who mock and prevent and create obstacles to the service of Hashem.
A person must never consider or pay attention to this at all, rather only to live within the aspect of "Echad Haya Avraham"- Avraham was one- as though there was no one else in the world.

Likutei Moharan Hashmata(between sections 1 and 2)

At January 23, 2007 at 8:54:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Consciously or unconsciously, you are mourning for the Shechina. It is in the merit of this that the final redemption will come in the end, bimhayra vyomaynu. Don't be sad- the whole world was created for your sake.

At January 23, 2007 at 9:02:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If nothing else, such events (that is, the ones we're halachically allowed to attend)expose our family members somewhat to our point of view, and this could have positive effects we'll never know.

We also need to realize that a moment can be made sacred for us no matter what foolishness surrounds us.

At January 23, 2007 at 9:27:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ASJ, I'm sorry for your loss.

I agree with Bob Miller's comments. I also think that sometimes people are just really uncomfortable and aren't sure how to conduct themselves.

At January 23, 2007 at 11:20:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ASJ: Why didn't your family want to use a normal kvuro with chevra kasisha? I once came with a minyan to help for a kvuro somewhere in upstate New York. There was an old beys hakvoroys, and chevra kadisha came there to do everything needed (they also called for a minyan from New York) all of whom were several chasidim. The man who was niftar wasn't obeservant, as well as apparently his relatives (one of them looked like a hippie, but he was willing to participate in reading Tehilim etc.) They decided, that a proper yidishe kvuro should be done, and they called for a minyan and chevra kadisha.

At January 23, 2007 at 12:24:00 PM EST, Blogger der ewige Jude said...

It is especially you that belongs on the planet
Once there was a wheel and it turned and spun. At the center of the wheel was an intricate and beautiful hub, it was very powerful and held the entire wheel together. Even the most distant parts of the wheel on the outside rim, that rose and fell with the motion of the wheel, though they tended to pull away, were held to the wheel through the strength of the hub. Then sixty years ago an axe was taken to the hub of the wheel, and the wheel was shattered and flew apart. Because of the motion of the wheel some of the pieces flew very far, those on the rim the farthest. The wielders of the axe wished to destroy the wheel and they gathered the pieces of the hub and cast them into the fire and they were lost. Some of the hub remained, but it was shattered and could not turn. But now, now, there are those that are returning and they strive to restore the hub. And as they come in they draw other pieces with them. Slowly the wheel is being restored and as it starts to turn it will draw back those lost pieces of the rim that flew the farthest and have forgotten they were even part of the wheel.

At January 23, 2007 at 1:57:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just saw your blog and I wanted to share something with you.

Almost two years ago, my mother passed away in Los Angeles, and by many open and hidden miracles she had a proper burial and tahara, even though my family is not frum. My family and 99% of other unaffiliated Jews have no idea of what is a Proper Jewish Burial.

So I started an organization, but unfortunately I have not had the time or resources to pursue this further. Please take a look, www.jewishburial.net its plan is to inform people that there is a choice that can connect you with your ancestors. The situation today is terrible and getting worse. Jews being cremated, and having very improper burials. As far as I know there is no organization today that can appeal to the non religious Jewish population regarding a Jewish Burial. Giving someone a proper Jewish burial could be one of the biggest chesed a person can do.

There is so much to say about this subject. It’s such a business. The Chevra Kadishas of most cities are vilified by the local Jewish Funeral Parlors. As I was a part of the Chevra Kadisha of Passaic for a short while, I expericanced this myself. Just to let you know when my mother passed away my family called the local Jewish funeral parlor, and they took the mais. Then right when I found out, I called the Chevra Kadisha of LA, and they told me that the Funeral Parlor will give my family a hard time releasing the mais to the Chevra Kadisha, which they did. They called the Chevra Kadisha thieves, and that they try to steal business away from us… Unbelievable!! (This local Jewish Funeral Parlor also asked my family for my Mothers favorite dress, as they will bury her in it) They didn’t even offer Tachrichim (shrouds)or a tahara of any kind)!!

So that’s it for now. I am interested in keeping this channel open, and growing this organization (as a Chessed) to educate the Jewish world that there is an option of having a Traditional Tahara.

At January 23, 2007 at 4:56:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shalom, dear brother
My condolences upon the passing of your aunt.
May the Living G-D, Baruch Hu, lift your heart and hold it in His hands. Know that you are in my prayers. You do belong on this planet: we'll follow in HaShem's ways together, and together make tikkun olam. You are in my prayers.

Yesha Galluzzo

At January 23, 2007 at 5:04:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too live out of town and Part of the Chevra Kadisha.
I go through these things all the time.
I leave crying for the uplifting of the Shechina. In this I find Solace that this crying is the tikkun itself.
You have a big zchus to feel the pain of the shechina Hakadosha.
H-shem says back Emo Anochi Btzara - I am with you in your pain.

Your Friend,
Yaakov SHalom

At January 24, 2007 at 8:28:00 AM EST, Blogger Akiva said...

Yitz - you read ASJ wrong...not Korach, Pinchas.

At January 24, 2007 at 9:26:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't read ASJ as korach, or pinchas (Pinchas was relating to willful sinners that were creating a chillul HaShem,(according to the little that I know, excluding acc. to the Ishbitzer.) there's no parallel.), I read ASJ as someone who was having trouble understanding why the people around him were acting in a way that was so painful to him.

I was taking the focus away from the outside people and bringing it inwards.

or at least that was what I intended.

ASJ, (&Akiva)
if what I said came off as harsh it was not at all intended that way.. and of course, how could I have said all that in a harsh manner while being blind to the implications of what I was saying?

Perhaps I was projecting. Your trouble reminded me of the hard time i'm having with people in my own setting, and how hard i'm trying never to let them frustrate or upset me, and above all not to judge them.

that was the whole of my meaning, I wasn't trying to criticize (anyone) at all.

Really, when these kind of things bother us, we need to learn more chassidut. That's what I took away from your post (and my comment) as a personal lekach. (and said just about as much in my own post that referenced this one.)

Looking back at my comment, I was more shocked that while I thought 'baruch dayan emeth' when I read your post. In my comment I didn't mention anything at all about how you must feel. (I lost my great aunt this year, she had suffered for the past ten years of alzheimers and my parents took her in to their home. She never had any children but she helped my grandmother to care for my father and his siblings, so she was like another grandmother to me.) I'm sorry about your Aunt, and that you couldn't give her the last respects appropriate to her. Know that HaShem is metzaref machshavah tovah l'ma'aseh in ways that we will never begin to know. It was important that you were there for her, and that you so much wanted to do what you were physically unable to.

At January 24, 2007 at 9:13:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...


My quick thoughts upon reading this: At what point were you notified of the levaya? Could you have 'brought the Avos' to request a proper burial before it was too late? (By explaining the Kedusha for the Neshoma.) If not, there was not much to be done. Perhaps reflect on 'from where' your emotional turmoil stems, for the honor of HaShem, or from somewhere else.

It is the Baal Shem Tov who says that everything in life that we see is a lesson waiting to be learned. Your emotional turmoil may indicate that this is an area for you to get more involved with and help bring Kiddush HaShem to the world. (Such was the case with Pinchas.)

There are many yidden who just don't know, but are nevertheless gutte neshomas, and Hashem watches over them.

Chassidus Chabad teaches that we need to stretch ourselves out of our comfort zone in order to grow (and do teshuva). Also, that inside every Jew is a Pintele Yid waiting to be ignited with Yiddishkeit.

Definitely, this was an opportunity for you to share some of your knowledge with them in a deeper way. Maybe by informing them of the respectful behavior wherever appropriate would have opened a channel for future questions from them to you about such matters. One never knows the real effect kind words from the heart have on misguided people.

About your Aunt, believe me she saw everything. Even if you were to have spoken in a whisper to her expressing your apologies that they didn't know any better. Anything you would have done would have been to her benefit.

When I came to the nursing home where my Mother was, on the morning that she passed on, I spoke to her neshoma, asked forgiveness, and a few other thoughts - but as soon as I started speaking to her my eyes were drawn upward to a spot above where she was laying. That was where her neshoma was. I knew she could hear me.

PS Was this in upper darby?

At January 24, 2007 at 10:49:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While it's easy to be frustrated with actions of others -often all to rightly so- we must keep in mind two things:

-These people lack a religious background and therefore their lack of attention to what is right, however painful, is due to their ignorance.
-People react to pain in different ways . . . often in a matter that is even contrary to common decency - inappropriate laughter, small talk and the like are often defense mechanisms used to cover up emotions that people have trouble relating to.

I feel your pain though . . . to often our choice to be religious comes to a glaring front at the most awkward times -Weddings, funerals, gatherings and the like.

Just take the higher path and be lead by means of good example

At January 25, 2007 at 12:29:00 AM EST, Blogger Jack Steiner said...


As others have mentioned I think that there are probably several things going on, there is a certain level of ignorance and discomfort.

It is an odd combination that can make things tough. Try not to take it as a personal affront.

At January 28, 2007 at 10:36:00 PM EST, Blogger therapydoc said...

That was quite a story. With people who are different the best approach, if you want to touch their lives (maybe influence) is to try to get into them, try to get to know what makes them tick, what makes them happy. We're all much, much more alike than we are different, if you check our DNA.

At January 28, 2007 at 10:59:00 PM EST, Blogger Neil Harris said...

I am sorry to hear about your loss. It's sad when family members don't have a clue about what OUR concepts of Kavod HaMeis is all about. Your presence there in ways that you probably might never know was an influence on the neshama of the departed and your family members.

It really is an issue of lack of exposure to our value system. Try as we might to be undersanding and tolerant of our non-observant family members, things like this do draw the line in the sand. Parhaps having a kiddush on her yartzeit next year will help!


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