“Life just keeps getting better” is a phrase that you do not hear all too often, given the “depression” that the media talks about incessantly as a mood that hovers over us like the dark clouds that come with a storm that is stalled. You can imagine how surprised I was to see this phrase next to another one that proclaims that “the afterlife is looking better, as well.” OK, you have me hooked, now. Where is this company website taking me next? The web site I was visiting belonged to a company who calls itself “Eternal Image.” They have just come out with a new line of urns, caskets and medallion headstone markers – products that reflect a life well-lived. I immediately gravitated towards the picture of the urn with the signed baseball on top and the team logo of the Anaheim Angels (but of course, who else would be a better spokesperson for such things) on the side. I needed to know if the “B” of the Boston Red Sox was available for purchase – not that I have a need for such things since I do not believe in cremation. I was happy to discover that the Red Sox were included in the initial thirteen teams represented at the present time.
Specifications: 275 cubic inches. Dimensions: 12.5” High, 8” Wide, x 9” Deep. Weight: 10 pounds. MSRP $799
I guess you need to be earning a Major League salary to afford such luxuries in death, along with the price of admission to the ball park in the land of the living! Even more hefty is the cost of a Major League Baseball casket – MSRP $4,999. However, they are worth every penny for those who are seeking a final resting place crafted from “proprietary composite and decorated with various woods that resemble the barrel of a wooden bat without the pine tar, and metals, that are instantly recognizable for the team after which it is designed, complete with interior fabric that features the team logo, on both the pillow and the trim.” The only thing missing is a rosin bag and a spittoon. Although, I am sure for a price anything more can be included…
I brought this website to the attention of a colleague who is the owner of an independent funeral home. He was quite amused by my find. But he also reminded me that the casket I was looking at does not currently fit the specifications of Jewish law. If it were solid wood, like the bats that the players use, then it would be acceptable…
As a rabbi, and now as a chaplain, I am confronting death in several different ways. Even though death is a part of life, it is the part that many treat with dread, which is why we must be careful with our words and our actions when speaking to those who are mourning a loss. In the Torah reading for this week, death comes to both Sarah and to Abraham. On many occasions I have commented on the reasons why the scribes have written the “kaf” in the word “Livkotah” smaller than the other letters, to reflect on the notions that Abraham humbled himself when he wept for his wife upon hearing about her death. Even though his love for his wife was deep, he kept his weeping private. He concealed the pain that was in his heart. Although what Abraham did was admirable and admired by the sages who comment on this gesture of love and devotion, clinicians who deal with grief and sorrow would claim that such actions are counter-intuitive when dealing with the loss of a loved one. It is better to weep real tears wherever and whenever they come, initially, and not go through such effort to hold back the feelings that are a part of human nature.
As for Sarah we learn about her death immediately after the incident on Mount Moriah, where Abraham almost sacrificed their only son Isaac. Many a storyteller speculated on how Sarah died, pairing one event with the other as though they were tied together. One story claims that Satan told her that her son Isaac had actually died. Upon hearing the news she cried aloud three times like three tekiah (prolonged) blasts of a shofar. She then sobbed three times more like three teruah (staccato) blasts. Then her soul left her. It is for this reason, among others, that we sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, not only to remember what happened, but also in remembering we bring healing to souls that have been broken.
The challenge for this week is how do we grow in our understanding of grief and sorrow, and what it means to console and be consoled? In the opening verses of the Torah portion we learn that Sarah has come to the end of a long life. If there had been a coroner’s report, perhaps it would have read that she died from a broken heart rather than from old age, but this is just speculation on the part of the rabbis. Abraham, however, was able to bear the pains of life with a greater sense of strength. Following her death, he moves on, remarries a woman who bears him more children, before succumbing to old age at the end of the Torah portion for this week. Following the death of his father, we learn that Isaac is blessed by God as he settles near Beer-lachai-ro’i. (Genesis 25:11) This is the same place where God promised a son to be born to Hagar.
The question that is raised by the sages at this point in the text is how Isaac becomes blessed by the loss of his father. The classic commentary from Rashi articulates that Isaac received the same promises as his father when Abraham created a covenant with God years back. However, another commentator claims that the blessing that Isaac received from God was one of comfort in mourning, since the blessing came on the heals of death. We learn in the Talmud in Tractate Sotah 14a that one of the ways in which we “walk in the ways of God” is by consoling the mourner as expressed in the previously mentioned verse…
I have learned from my experiences as a chaplain, and as a rabbi who routinely performs this mitzvah that it is incumbent upon all adults in the Jewish community, that it is not our responsibility to take away a person’s pain. Just as a person who is lying in a hospital bed following a certain diagnosis has to come to terms with what is happening to his or her body, the mourner has to come to grips with his or her loss – and be allowed to express the grief and the sorrow that accompanies them. By listening to their stories, we share with them the discomfort by helping them carry the burden a few steps along the way. It honors their journey without feeling the need to comment on it. And the person who bears the majority of the weight will indeed feel that relief, knowing that they are not alone in this journey through what many describe, including the psalmist David, as a “valley in the shadow of death.”
I have always been intrigued by this phrase and what it meant to those who mourn. What I have discovered is that where there is a shadow, there is also a light to be found. Even in what many consider to be the darkest of places, the psalmist has given us an extraordinary gift of insight. Beyond the pain and the sorrow there is hope for a brighter outcome. Although it may be difficult for our bodies to move, or even our thoughts and feelings to shift, when we are capable of making a 180 degree turn from where our eyes are focused into the darkness, that is where we will find the light that casts this giant shadow that threatens to overwhelm us in grief and despair. Following this light may take time to achieve. However, following this light is when we will discover the comfort that we desire to bring us back to a place of “healing” and “wholeness” – but not always to a place of “cure”.
Why is “following the light” the right path for us to follow? Perhaps it is because it is a path of gratitude. The light helps us to appreciate the many blessings that are a part of life, and the gifts and the legacies that those who precede us into the World To Come leave behind as a reminder of what life is all about. Each of us is a blessing in this world. Each of us touches others in ways that are unique to us. Discovering for ourselves what our uniqueness is, is the legacy that is left to us by our ancestors. Following in God’s ways, comforting the mourner and visiting the sick, are just two ways in which we imitate God, knowing that this is what is expected of us as God’s partner in this world, and what it means to be a friend and a support to one another.
In the Torah this week, when God consoles Isaac, we learn that in our covenant with God that Judaism does not pretend that life never hurts. Rather, Judaism gives us a mechanism to bring the blessing of love and companionship wherever and whenever there is pain and grief to be overcome. Blessing follows companionship. This is how I have conducted my chaplaincy. First I sit and listen. When the situation dictates that this is the right thing, do I follow my visit with a prayer. Throughout it all, I feel God’s presence with me, for this is the blessing that Isaac received when he tended to his father’s death with love and devotion, despite the many reasons he had for dismissing his father’s actions when they were not admirable in his eyes. In the end we all deserve the blessing from God to console and to be consoled – in compassion.