This paper will discuss the power of Livui Ruchani, spiritual accompaniment. I offer why it is essential to the health of our communities and provide strategies for us to imitate Hashem, and answer the call to fulfill the law of Messiah and bear one anothers’ burdens to create a healthier encounter with grief and build healthier communities.
I was on call the evening that I got the call to come to the Neuro-ICU where a mother was going to give birth. She was going to be induced to deliver her full-term stillborn son. It was a very high-risk situation. They had requested a chaplain.
The expectant parent’s day had begun as a normal one as they went about their routine preparing to welcome their first child whose due date was just days away. They had worked so hard the last three years to turn their lives around—done the work to kick an opioid habit, found a job, found an apartment. Lorraine’s loss of her older children to CPS during her years of drug addiction would be redeemed with this miracle son, a symbol of their rebirth from addiction into the land of the living. Their future was full of hope brighter than anyone had expected just a year before. Every day Lorraine had kept her appointments at her out-patient methadone treatment clinic. Even at nine months pregnant, she took the bus daily, faithful to doing everything she was supposed to do to rebuild her life.
It wasn’t clear what caused the fall that day on the bus. Now, she was hemorrhaging internally, her baby was dying, and life-saving surgery was not an option due to a tragic set of complications. Thirteen hours later after heroic efforts, Lorraine was going to survive this trauma, at least physically. And beside her, in the arms of Xavier, was her perfect, beautiful, but lifeless 8-pound son.
As you read this true story, you may have already had an emotional reaction. I invite you to put the paper down at the end of this paragraph and sit with that emotion for a while. Observe it. What are the physical sensations you notice? Does it make you remember a time you felt that feeling? By taking time to observe your feelings and reactions, you are taking a first step toward building healthier, more resilient communities who are capable of holding space when crisis and grief intrude.
Often when such events strike, our response is to react or to turn away. We shake our head. As part of the national conversation, we send our “thoughts and prayers” in something of a “spiritual bypass.” We don’t want to feel those feelings much less dwell with them.
We are intensely uncomfortable with tragedy and the meaninglessness of it. How can sense be made of such tragedy? We want meaning—we are meaning-makers extraordinaire as human creatures. We struggle when there is a void—when no answer can be found, we want to make one up. We would rather organize the sock drawer than contemplate the questions that flood our mind: What if? Why me? Why my baby? Is God cruel?
Well-meaning but equally uncomfortable friends are shocked by the event and the misery it causes and offer to bring food. Often at a loss for words, they may provide awkward spiritualisms that bypass any sense of connection and might remind us of Job’s friends: “God must have wanted him more.” Instead of comforting and healing there are disconnection and isolation.
In our Western culture, we are so unwilling to confront deep emotional pain associated with mourning that we have sanitized the bereavement process. Death often occurs away from home. In some parts of the country where I worked as a chaplain, family members never see the body of their loved one during the dying process or after death. They have all arrangements handled by the funeral home or crematorium and may hold a service as a memorial, if at all. It is as if the loved one just disappeared.
When nothing makes sense, and the pain is searing, or the scene is too horrific to bear, we scramble to find something to tether ourselves to reality or we numb out. We will even accept a non-reality as a safe harbor when the shock of excruciating loss threatens to sever our ties to rational thinking in a storm of brutal events that may take away every frame of reference.
Why do we do this? We want joy without recognizing that without grief, joy has no substance.
It is like a sinusoidal wave on an oscilloscope: without a valley, there is no peak. It is just a flat line. Life is like that.
The light of a single flame will reach every corner of an utterly dark room. When we think of this well-known metaphor, we see the contrast between light and darkness, and how a small amount of light can drive out the darkness. Dark is not the opposite of light, it is the absence of light. We often instinctively apply this kind of light vs. dark when thinking of joy vs. grief. Grief is not the opposite of joy and joy will not drive out grief. Grief magnifies joy and joy magnifies grief, and they are both required to have either.
The interdependency of grief and joy creates a difficulty because we quite naturally want to avoid emotional pain in ourselves and others. Increasingly, people are choosing the “flat-line solution” of suicide, along with alarming and record high levels of opioid and alcohol abuse, as well as other numbing out behaviors. We choose cynicism, fatalism, tuning out on games, internet, and television. We smoke, Facebook, and engage in mindless behaviors that keep pain at bay for a while. When we are uncomfortable with grief and grieving, we fail to connect with the pain. When it is someone else’s pain, we want to fix or comfort the other so he or she can get over it. We get “in our head” and analyze the situation (think of Job’s friends) instead of connecting emotionally.
This has to change. We have to learn to cope and to help one another cope.
We have to be brave enough to connect.
True connection requires a great deal from us: First, we must do the work to metabolize our grief and pain so that it is a part of us, not controlling us. Second, we must learn the art of Livui Ruchani to bind ourselves to one another and so bear one another’s burdens and fulfill the law of Messiah.
Our growing edge then, as individuals and members of community, is to allow ourselves to be taken to the fullness of our grief when, Heaven forbid, tragedy strikes, and allow ourselves to learn to dance with two partners at the same time—joy as well as sadness—and see that as the stuff of life. Instead of avoiding, denying, numbing and otherwise escaping this difficult tango we learn to absorb it, metabolize it, and make it part of who we are as a soul having a human experience. We become more of who are meant to be. We become what a community should be by sharing the burden in a connected, soul-centered way.
“My name is Killer Jack. That’s the name I picked for myself because the other part of me, he’s just a coward. All he wants to do is hide because he’s afraid to die. I’m not afraid of anything. I’m going to get through this chemo, and I’m going to make it.” I was glad for his optimism.
His bravado and brave front turned out to be a useful foil against his deep fear of dying. We regularly visited for short periods during his recurrent hospitalizations for his chemo. He liked to call me “Chappy.” My goal was to earn his trust and give him a safe place to speak freely,
His guard came down one day. “I’ve decided I’m not afraid anymore. Did you know that when a butterfly larva enters its chrysalis, inside that external shell, its insides are completely reduced to a chaotic mush? And look what happens! It’s not dead. It comes out a beautiful butterfly. You have to let the process do its thing.”
Killer died the next week peacefully.
When we step into the sacred work of building a resilient community, to bear one another’s burdens we need to connect and then let the process “do its thing.” We can’t direct an outcome, and this kind of uncertainty can be a challenge. We must learn to do this. This kind of connection is called Livui Ruchani, spiritual accompaniment.
Livui Ruchani—to Bear One Another’s Burdens
In Livui Ruchani, the Hebrew invokes a visual image of two souls that cleave together in a way that makes each stronger. I think of a garden trellis for a tender vine. It is a support that allows the vine to bind itself for a time until it is sturdy and no longer subject to bending and breaking under its own weight. With the support stake, the vine can flourish and grow as intended.
Livui Ruchani is the act of entering into the space of one’s neighbor, in a non-judgmental, agenda-less way, to empathetically be with the neighbor’s experience and emotion. It is not about rescuing the other, which creates an unbalanced relationship between the “rescuer” and the “victim.” It is not about helping the other either. It is about being with the other. No explanation. No fixes. No helping. Just letting the process do its thing. It is about presence and connection.
What were your reactions to the story at the beginning of this paper? Did you want to stop reading and avoid an excruciating ending? Were you shocked? Did it bring up any old pain for you? Now imagine that you could immerse yourself in the pain of the parents, of the doctors and nurses, of the extended family in the waiting room in the way they were experiencing it. Feel their grief without making it yours: this is the biggest challenge we have—we must learn to lean into each experience without allowing it to consume us. Chaplains in training have supervisors and cohorts to help them recognize when they become enmeshed and to help then discharge any pain absorbed in the line of duty.
This kind of support should be the goal of lay-led pastoral care teams as well. One only has to observe the national reaction to scenes of immigrant children separated from their parents to see how deeply and emotionally involved we can become even with strangers. We all have to learn to find our composure to be effective as pastoral and spiritual care providers and this also is done with the support of a care team. To ignore this need increases the risk of secondary trauma, compassion fatigue, and burnout among caregivers.
To witness the suffering of children and loss of young life is a frightening challenge even in its aftermath. I think that is how it should be because it is a signal that one’s feelings are in the right place. Something is alarming when new life is cut short by death. In our communities, we must learn how to be present, and how to connect in times of crisis, no matter how much it may unsettle us personally. The good news is that we have the wisdom of the Sages and the expression of that wisdom in the writings of compassionate rabbis and contemplative teachers. They teach us how to dwell in the tension of uncertainty, to marvel and wonder at mystery, and to go to the edge of the abyss of terrible pain. Best of all, we have the model provided by Hashem: he weeps with us when we suffer, he suffers with us, and he is always with us in our time of need. We are called to imitate him, to be holy as he is holy. We must not shy away from also being present in the time of need of our neighbor.
It is within our power to mirror His unending love in deeds of kindness, like brooks that hold the sky.
Resist the Rescue—Sometimes the Fiery Furnace is the Way to Go
The story in Daniel of the fiery furnace provides an example of Hashem’s accompaniment in our time of need. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to take the path of chillul Hashem (desecrating God’s name) and chose the fire of the furnace, confident that Hashem would deliver them (Dan 3). Daniel’s companions chose kiddush Hashem (sanctifying God’s name) and were thrown into a furnace so superheated that it killed the guards who were ordered to bind them and throw them into the fire.
Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.” He answered and said, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.” (Dan 3.24–25)
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were unhurt. Their garments were not singed and had not even the smell of smoke, yet all their ropes were gone. That which was used to bind them before the furnace was burned away while they were in the furnace. The hermeneutic here is that our trials can often serve to eliminate some element of our Yetzer Hara (evil impulse), perhaps something of which we were unaware. Pain, like rope, can serve a purpose if we allow it. When we accompany someone, we have to be willing to let pain do its holy work. Killer reminds me daily, “Just let the process do its thing.” There may be ropes we cannot see that need to be burned away.
Who was in the fire with them during this terrifying trial? The man in the fire was perhaps literal, perhaps a symbol of Livui Ruchani—spiritual accompaniment—from Hashem. Did he rescue them from the fire? I imagine he said to the three companions, “I am with you in this fire.”
There are times we are spared the furnace. When my brother, Michael, was dying in Harborview hospital, a Level I Trauma Center in Seattle, after a horrific accident, it was a miraculous provision of a rare snake venom drug not approved by the FDA that saved his life even though he lost a leg. Other times, our path, kiddush Hashem, requires us to be delivered through the furnace. We do not explain, command, control, or expect whether we will be spared from, or delivered through, a severe trial. We choose kiddush Hashem and leave the rest in the hands of the True Judge. Either case requires Livui Ruchani.
I take comfort in the promises in Psalm 91 and consider it a model to imitate: “Because he is devoted to Me, I will deliver him; I will keep him safe for he knows My name. When he calls on Me, I will answer him; I will be with him in distress” (vv. 14–15 jps). He promises to deliver us, keep us safe, answer us, and be with us. As we learn to imitate him, we will step up and provide this to one another because we love him and we love our neighbor. We will bear one another’s burdens and fulfill the law of Messiah.
Perhaps Livui Ruchani is what James, the head of the Jerusalem ekklesia, had in mind when he wrote: “count it all joy . . . when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:4 esv). We learn from our trials how to be present for others in their afflictions. We become more and more like Hashem when we take our hard lessons and turn them into spiritual accompaniment for our community.
What Would Livui Ruchani Look Like in Our Communities?
A vibrant community with Livui Ruchani as a core part of its value system would be a love-in-action community where there were clear channels, other than the rabbi alone, to identify a need and receive support and care. Pastoral care and wellness coaching would be competent, confidential, and wholeheartedly available to everyone in the community, with lay staff and volunteers finding mentorship and supervision to build their capabilities and skillset.
Livui Ruchani is a high bar, yet it is within reach if we build it with a strong foundation. The practice of Livui Ruchani depends upon three fundamentals:
1. one’s relationship to Hashem,
2. one’s relationship with oneself,
3. one’s relationships with others.
First, our relationship with Hashem begins with a concept of who we are as Hashem’s creation. In my practice, I most often refer to the Elohai Neshama of the Shacharit prayers:
My God the soul you placed within me is pure.
You created it; you formed it, you placed it within me and
You safeguard it within me. One day you will take it from me,
And return it to me in the World to Come.
Our relationship to Hashem comes from the fundamental reality that the Holy One who created the cosmos created us “in our image, after our likeness” (Gen 1:26).
Why is this so important? First, most people do not feel worthy of the genuine love of another person, let alone the love of Hashem. Soul wounds accumulated through a lifetime are real, and the experiences and hurts one bears contribute to beliefs about the way the world works and about who one is at the deepest level. When we, in our community, can see one another as Hashem sees us, it brings healing and trust in a judgment-free zone where unconditional love is present and given. When we embrace Hashem as the safe center of love and embrace our humanity, we have established the foundation of offering love to others.
Second, this leads us to what may be the most critical and most challenging task of Livui Ruchani: our relationship to ourselves. You must love yourself and forgive yourself as Hashem forgives you. If you believe that you are not worthy of Hashem’s unconditional love, you will not be able to represent Hashem’s love for others. Love your neighbor as yourself is the teaching here. Be willing to explore any sense of unworthiness you hold within you. Practice teshuvah and self-forgiveness relentlessly. You must love yourself first before you can love your neighbor under the best of circumstances. You must love yourself before you believe that holiness and imitating Yeshua and the Father are possible. Self-love is even more necessary when your neighbor needs you and is in the midst of great pain.
Third, all of us are unique, beloved creations of Hashem, with divine souls and animal souls. According to mystical tradition, soul wounds accumulated in the course of daily life encumber our capacity for holiness. We are each unique and following our unique derekh (way). Thus, every encounter we have with one another is uniquely shaped by the experiences of both parties in a combination of holy and profane, sublime and imperfect. Livui Ruchani requires us to respect that difference and to hold space for it in a loving way even though we have differences. The power of being seen and unconditionally accepted is a powerful medicine that can lay the foundation for connection, trust, and the necessary soul work to metabolize grief.
The compelling drivers for Livui Ruchani: Love one another; Be holy as I am holy; Bear one another’s burdens.
We must pursue Livui Ruchani in a community and learn to take on this sacred work, visiting those who are afflicted, caring for one another, and being present for one another in times of grief.
And Rabbi H.ama, son of Rabbi H.anina, says: What is the meaning of that which is written: “After the Lord your God shall you walk, and Him shall you fear, and His commandments shall you keep, and unto His voice shall you hearken, and Him shall you serve, and unto Him shall you cleave” (Deuteronomy 13:5)? But is it actually possible for a person to follow the Divine Presence? But hasn’t it already been stated: “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:24)? Rather, the meaning is that one should follow the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be He. Just as He clothes the naked, as it is written: “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21), so too, should you clothe the naked. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, visits the sick, as it is written “And the Lord appeared unto [Abraham] by the terebinths of Mamre” (Genesis 18:1), so too, should you visit the sick. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, consoles mourners, as it is written: “And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son” (Genesis 25:11), so too, should you console mourners. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, buried the dead, as it is written: “And he was buried in the valley in the land of Moab” (Deuteronomy 34:6), so too, should you bury the dead.” (b.Sotah 14a)
Notice that when Hashem consoled Isaac in his mourning, he blessed him. In the next section, we will explore how we can do this for one another.
Livui Ruchani in Bereavement and Mourning
Many people find it difficult to be present in the midst of another person’s pain without trying to make it better. That powerful urge to make the pain go away is often the signal of our personal and unresolved grief. We want to “help” and “fix.” Helping and fixing activities take us away from Livui Ruchani. Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen says that helping and fixing is the work of the ego and serving is the work of the soul. Do we want to bless those who mourn, and if so how do we enter into this work of the soul?
First, we have to overcome internal resistance. It is counterintuitive in our busy Western culture of “human doing” rather than “human being” to merely be present in an empathic way. It is difficult to believe presence makes a difference. This truth is so counterintuitive that we had a saying in chaplaincy, “Don’t just do something, sit there!”
The thing that generates so much internal resistance that it prevents most of us from blessing mourners through our presence is fear. Fear can range from shyness (many chaplains are strong introverts) to fear of doing or saying the wrong thing.
Every single chaplain trainee has done and said the wrong thing—many times. That is the point of being a trainee! There are a few things that help us learn from mistakes.
Livui Ruchani is best done with careful attention to our intentions, a support team to help with discharging accumulated “compassion fatigue,” and a willingness to learn. The first visit as a spiritual caregiver is frankly terrifying. Just do it. It is a learn-by-doing process whether it is done informally with a support team as part of the congregation or in an institutional setting. There are formal programs for clergy and seminary and yeshiva students to practice pastoral care under professional supervision with the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE). Local programs can be found online and are in most metropolitan hospitals. The important thing is to start. Overcome the inertia created by fear and commit to the process that is trial and error.
In the process of working with many people with unresolved or protracted grief (including myself), I came to recognize the inherent wisdom of Jewish mourning and consolation rituals. A list of books is provided at the end of this paper for reference since a complete treatment of halakha is beyond the scope of this paper. These books are not just tradition and halakha; they are wisdom in action for the benefit of the bereaved as well as for the cohesion of the community. Some of these practices are difficult for members of the Messianic Jewish community to incorporate. Where that is the case, I’ve offered alternative rituals that are not a replacement for tradition, but a substitute when no other options are available.
When Yeshua went to Bethany because of the death of Lazarus, Lazarus had been already in the tomb four days (John 11:17). He had died and was wrapped in his grave clothes and laid in the tomb soon after death, within 24 hours (Deut 21:23). Yeshua’s intention was to demonstrate that he was the “resurrection and the life” and this required waiting until after the third day. This is an indirect reference to the belief that the soul lingers after death in case it may re-enter the body and life is restored. Yeshua’s waiting was to ensure that was no longer the case.
Perhaps this is part of the reason for such respect and honor of the deceased (kavod hamet) in preparation for burial immediately following death. The sacred burial society, Chevra Kadisha, ensures that the body of the deceased is accompanied continuously following the death (shemirah), that the body is treated with respect and modesty and prepared for burial with ritual washing (taharah) and dressing (tachrichim) in a simple linen shroud covering the entire body and a tallit for men (some communities will also permit women who wore a tallit in life to be buried in one). Psalms are recited throughout the process. There is no embalming or other treatment for the body since the burial service will be soon and the casket is always closed. This is so we leave this world just as we entered (Eccl 5:14).
Tradition does not allow for cremation even though the practicality of it is financially attractive.
This is more difficult when burial is arranged through non-Jewish funeral homes. My experience has been that funeral directors are willing to make accommodations within reason for requests made in advance, respectfully and specifically. When my mother died, we were able to expedite the burial, and I was allowed as much time as I needed to wash and dress her myself at the funeral home in a private area. I was not able to procure a linen shroud, so I purchased white linen clothing with no fasteners or pockets, white cotton stockings, a large linen shawl, and a simple linen snood.
This deeply intimate act for my mother, the last time I would see her physical body, was an important step in my own healing. Perhaps it was personally possible because of my proximity to the dead and dying on a daily basis as a palliative care chaplain. It felt holy but acutely lonely and I would not recommend that anyone do this alone.
Kavod hamet is a mitzvah each Messianic Jewish community should consider in some form. There are other ways to express this—for example building coffins such as Tom Karlin, a Catholic, describes in Bury the Dead. He is the father of my naturopath who remembers participating in the coffin building for her mother as an ultimate act of honor and love even though she was a very young child.
Burial with a Graveside Service
Jewish burial services force mourners to confront the finality of death as a departure from this world. As hard as that sounds, it is another element that is essential to processing grief. From the time of death, mourners are in the stage of aninut where feelings run from relief, in the case of one who has suffered a long illness before death, to shock, denial, rage, and uncontrollable crying. At the end of the burial service, the mourners transition to shivah, the week following burial.
A burial involves a simple service and internment that can be all done at the graveside. A canopy is set up at the grave to provide some protection from the weather. The simple pine coffin that is specially prepared for Jewish burial is present and may be covered with a cloth. The setting is quiet and unadorned without music or flowers. Chairs may be provided for the family at the graveside. Several customs assist mourners in the expression of their emotions prior to the service such as the ceremonial tearing of garments or a black ribbon (keriah). A torn garment may be worn throughout shivah and into sheloshim (the thirty days following burial) and will eventually be either mended or ceremonially discarded.
The liturgy may include Psalms 23, 90, 91, Ecclesiastes 3 and the prayer Tzidduk Ha’din.
The interment service is marked by the casket being lowered into the grave. A pile of fresh dirt and a shovel compel family members to take a full shovel of dirt and release it onto the top of the casket. The best way I can describe the sound is a resonant echo of eternity that touches the soul. The service is closed with the Mourner’s Kaddish in Hebrew when a minyan is present. Our communities do a great service when they participate in the mitzvah and ensure a minyan for Kaddish.
The week of shivah, divided into the first three days and then four, serves the purpose of establishing norms and protocols through halakhah intended for mourners to express grief. Modern psychology recognizes traditional Jewish mourning as a process that takes the bereaved from the grip of grief and slowly moves, step-by-step through a return to activity. It is almost as if it prevents us from what we want to do—busy ourselves with the details of the life we had before our loss and try to get back to normal as fast as possible. Rather than distract ourselves, we must embrace grief, for it is there that our souls grow. Francis Weller notes that in the journey we are broken apart and reassembled.Trauma specialists such as Peter Levine, Bessel van der Kolk, and Laura van Dernoot Lipsky identify the importance of community for the traumatized individual to be able to process the trauma in the safety of a witness, allowing them to go inward while they are guarded against unexpected harm.
Anita Diamant notes that during shivah, we dwell with all the clues and reminders in our home of the departed, and memories of the life of our loved one. For a full week, we take the time to be surrounded and affected. There is a profound ritual of the soul to touch, feel, remember, hold, embrace and release so many elements of the one who has died. Everyone does this in their way—there is no “right” or “wrong” way. The art of shivah in a community is for us to be a witness without words to this potent and beneficial process.
Shivah has many halakhic details prescribed that are outside the scope of this paper. Books such as Lamm’s Jewish Way of Death and Mourning and Anita Diamant’s Saying Kaddish (New York: Schocken, 1998) provide valuable instruction for those who wish to explore this for their benefit. Francis Weller’s book on the Wild Edge of Sorrow, Rituals for Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief provide alternatives for those for whom halachic practice in the fabric of the community is not realistic.
Sheloshim is the 30 days following the burial, including the week of shivah. It is the beginning of the process of return to normal life, although some activities are still proscribed.
When my mother died after 12 years of Alzheimer’s, I found myself emotionally swirling in the mix of sadness that she was indeed gone combined with relief that she was no longer being ravaged by the disease that left her in such a helpless state. My rebbetzin helped more than she may ever know by stepping in after the service to insist that I was relieved of all responsibilities at the shul for 30 days. Again, the practice is there to allow the process of grief to “do its thing” without interruption by our hurried return to busy daily routines. She had to insist, and I was grateful.
Kaddish is the prayer repeated daily by mourners in the presence of a minyan (I assume egalitarian communities with Jewish men and women constituting a minyan). The rhythm and words of Kaddish seem to reside in the Jewish neshamah (soul), and the repetition is immensely comforting in a time of loss. Tradition allows for daily repetition (in a minyan) every day of Sheloshim for a deceased relative. For a parent the repetition is recited every day for a year. It is permitted for bereaved parents, siblings, and spouses to say the Kaddish for a year as well, and many do.
Recently I was contacted by a friend who was unable to reach her own rabbi for guidance. The question regarded the halakhah surrounding the saying of the Mourner’s Kaddish when no minyan was present. Without a minyan there is no Kaddish and Kaddish may not be said in private because the prayer is not just one of personal remembrance; instead, it is adoration of Hashem, and this is done in public in the midst of the community. Perhaps this may serve as a driver for gathering regularly. Imagine the sense of belonging and connection for a mourner who recognizes the community gathers for the purposes of supporting Kaddish.
In these cases, there are alternative prayers that are not Kaddish or a replacement for it, but that address the need of reciting a prayer as part of a gradual return to the mourner’s new normal. Renewal and Reform communities often have collections of prayers and a variety can be found through an internet search.
Unveiling/placing a monument
“Thus Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Ephrath—now Bethlehem. Over her grave Jacob set up a pillar; it is the pillar at Rachel’s grave to this day” (Gen 35:19–20 jps). According to Lamm, the pillar (monument or simple headstone) serves three purposes:
1. to mark the place of burial so that Kohanim may avoid defilement;
2. to designate the grave properly so that friends and family may visit;
3 to serve as a symbol of honor to the deceased.
Some say that that the monument should be placed soon after shivah. My personal experience has been that families need time to design or decide on the monument. Some allow for placement of the monument at the 1-year anniversary of the death.
The 12-month period makes sense because the mourning period is entering a new stage, particularly for children who are coming to the end of mourning for parents. One year is somehow very significant and the burning of the yahrzeit candle is an appropriate ceremony to mark the milestone. As I watched the flame naturally go out on my mother’s yahrzeit candle, my heart knew that something had completed. Another reason for waiting for the one year period is that, as the yahrzeit (anniversary of death) approaches, ritual and ceremony are anchored by the placement of the monument, as well as the candle lighting for the yahrzeit. This is another opportunity for community to accompany the mourner on the passing of one year of mourning. There is an unveiling ceremony involving the recitation of a liturgy in the presence of community and Lamm is an excellent resource for the details.
Yahrzeit is observed after the first year upon each anniversary of the death. Lamm observes that yahrzeit may be observed for suicides and sinners. The yahrzeit commemorates the deceased and gives the bereaved another opportunity to continue the ongoing process of metabolizing the impact of loss. Wine and meat are avoided at a minimum, and fasting during the day until minchah is often observed. If one begins the fasting on a yahrzeit, it should be continued on subsequent yahrzeits as well.
The candle of yahrzeit is significant. The wick and flame are symbolic of body and soul and candles, rather than electric lights, should be used whenever possible. The candle is lit before sundown the evening before the anniversary (using the Hebrew calendar) and allowed to burn until it extinguishes itself, about 25 hours. My personal preference is to procure the beeswax yahrzeit candles in glass containers (for safety) because the sweet fragrance of honey combined with the brighter flame is, for me at least, honorific to my elders for whom I light the candles.
Mishnah study and charity in honor of the deceased are customary. On the Shabbat prior to the yahrzeit, the mourner should receive an aliyah. Again, community is an essential witness to the mourner’s observance and process through time.
Messianic Jewish communities may find halachic observance for mourners challenging—allow for compassion to rule. The halachic traditions for mourning and kaddish are what binds us. They also can leave some people out. Where a minyan of any kind is not available, or for the loss of stillbirth and miscarriage, halakhah prevents the benefit of tradition practice. Find ways within the community to recognize and support those who have losses that might leave them in a position where their needs are not met. This would be particularly true for parents for whom a miscarriage or still birth leaves them with profound mourning and little recognition of their grief in halakhic observance. Unrecognized grief and loss are at high risk of becoming protracted grief that has a long-term adverse impact, so seek ways, outside of halakha if necessary, to help.
Embrace the mystery
Recognize that there is a lot of room for mystery and the unexplainable and that we must resist trying to make sense of that which we do not fully understand. There is no explanation this side of heaven for the loss of a child, or for something like Alzheimer’s disease, and it is beyond us to try to come up with an explanation—in fact, it is well enough to leave it alone.
Chagigah 14b introduces this in the context of PaRDeS:
The Sages taught: Four entered the orchard [pardes], i.e., dealt with the loftiest secrets of Torah, and they are as follows: Ben Azzai; and ben Zoma; Ah.er, the other, a name for Elisha ben Avuya; and Rabbi Akiva. . . .
Ben Azzai glimpsed at the Divine Presence and died. And with regard to him, the verse states: “Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of His pious ones” (Psalms 116:15). Ben Zoma glimpsed at the Divine Presence and was harmed, i.e., he lost his mind. And with regard to him, the verse states: “Have you found honey? Eat as much as is sufficient for you, lest you become full from it and vomit it” (Proverbs 25:16). Aber chopped down the shoots of saplings. In other words, he became a heretic. Rabbi Akiva came out safely.
Mindful of this warning, Rabbi Dayle Friedman uses PaRDeS as a way to approach Presence with those who are grieving or mourning. It has four levels: fact, emotion, meaning, and soul. The story of the four who entered PaRDeS is pertinent here and will be discussed more at the end.
To summarize these four areas for PaRDes as a model for Presence:
Peshat is “literal” or face-value in the context of Torah study. As we practice presence with one another, Peshat corresponds to the physicality of our world—that which we encounter with our five senses. It is the world of facts, data, and information. The key words to listen for are “When, where, what, how.” Peshat is the level from where most of us operate, particularly in times of distress. It is the level we go to in our discomfort, because facts are the least threatening thing with which we have to deal and they give us a sense of control over the situation. Ever do small talk about the weather in a social situation with strangers? That’s an example of easing the discomfort in social encounters, and it does serve a good purpose in breaking the ice and leading into a more personal conversation. In times of great distress, we often seek to manage heightened levels of uncertainty as if to forestall reality by gathering details. How did this happen, what will you do next, when will the doctor see you?
In practicing Presence, be mindful of fact-collecting. It isn’t wrong to do it; however, dwelling in Peshat to the exclusion of the other levels has the risk of preventing the kind of comforting connection that blesses.
Remez is allegorical. In Livui Ruchani, it corresponds to our emotions—the feelings we bring into every circumstance, both consciously and subconsciously. When you are present in the world of Remez in Livui Ruchani, you sense. Remez is the level of connection, of empathy, which brings one into the feelings of the other.
How can we practice this? Rabbi Friedman invites us to be sensitive to unspoken verbal cues: body language, posture, breathing patterns (it is said “a sigh is a silent scream”), facial expressions, and tone of voice. Verbally acknowledging what we sense and see from the other is a powerful form of connection. When we do this, we send the message, “I’m here with you,” not just as a physical body, but also as one who is prepared to be together with the other.
As with the Rabbis who entered the PaRDeS, it is essential to have done the preparation necessary to enter into this soul work and “come out safely.” Professional pastoral care providers are trained to be prepared for encounters that could trigger an emotional reaction of their own when they are present in the distress of another. For example, unresolved, protracted grief of the caregiver could suddenly express itself in an outpouring of unexpected emotion. This uncontrollable expression of grief is what happened to me as I was a teaching assistant in Biology 101 at the University of Washington, leading the lecture on death and dying when I was 22. My unresolved grief over the death of my grandfather when I was 11 came out in front of the entire classroom, and 700 college freshman were rather uncomfortable witnesses to my copious and inconsolable tears. As we seek to step into the role of providing comfort to our community, we need to pay attention to our own soul work of healing ourselves. Love your neighbor as you love yourself to be an effective caregiver for your neighbor.
The third level of PaRDeS is Derash, the interpretive world. In Torah study, it is hermeneutical, in Livui Ruchani, it is the world of meaning. The most common question encountered here is: “Why?” We are naturally drawn to this level because we need meaning. “Everything happens for a reason.” “Hashem must have wanted it this way.” When the talmidim asked Yeshua, “Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2 esv), they were seeking meaning. Job expresses the dismay of his heart, showing his grief and utter bewilderment at the conflict between his understanding of Hashem and his circumstances.
“If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humankind?
Why have you made me your mark?
Why have I become a burden to you?
Why do you not pardon my transgression
and take away my iniquity?
For now, I shall lie in the earth;
you will seek me, but I shall not be.” (Job 7:20–22 esv)
Finally, the fourth level in Rabbi Friedman’s model is Sod. Sod, the level of mystery and secret in Torah study, is the level of soul in Livui Ruchani. Connection at this level is both miraculous and healing, and there is not a prescription for making it happen.
Paloni Almoni, lay in his hospital bed, heavily sedated, on a breathing machine, following open heart surgery. His wife requested a chaplain visit because he was having a painful recovery from the surgery. She identified herself and her husband as charismatic Catholics, and the hospital room was decorated with many Catholic icons brought from home including a 2-foot statue of the Blessed Virgin. As Paloni rested midst the many life support machines, we prayed together for successful removal of the breathing apparatus and for him to comfortably breathe on his own. The next day he was better, breathing independently, but struggling emotionally and relationally: irascible, tearful, paranoid were some of the terms describing his behavior. I went into his room to visit him and found him teary. “I am a broken man,” he whispered. “My life is broken, my heart is broken.” He showed me the long, vertical scar on his chest where his rib-cage had been cracked open for a quadruple bypass. I noticed he had not eaten yet, and preferred not to try to sit up, lying in bed, clutching a pillow to his chest.
I engaged him at the level of Derash, observing that he was despondent, feeling afraid for the future. He asked if I would pray the Rosary with him and if I would please offer a prayer to the infant Jesus that was on the printed card on his bedside tray.
“I do not know the Rosary, but if you allow me to learn it as we go, I will certainly pray with you.” My mind prayed to Hashem to help me as I struggled with this choice. As we prayed each bead, I noticed he became progressively stronger and brighter.
“Thank you, so much, Chaplain!” When we concluded, he appeared to be almost a different man. Smiling, he began to express his enormous gratitude to his wife, whom he had recently married, and whom he credited with seeing him through heart disease and on his way to health.
I will never understand why I said what I said next. “She sounds like an Eshet Chayil!”
“What did you just say?”
“I said, ‘eshet chayil,’ it means ‘woman of valor’ in Hebrew. It’s a compliment!”
“I know what it means. I have not heard those words since my mother said them to me.”
Sensing my apparent confusion, he continued.
“I’m a black Jewish man from the south side of town. Paloni Almoni is not my real name. My real name is Aaron Moses. I pray Catholic prayers because my wife is Catholic. I married her in a civil ceremony, but her priest said it would not be a real marriage unless we married in a Catholic church. So we did. Here’s the picture of our ceremony. You see, I am wearing a proper hat for a Jewish man in this picture! My Jewish mother taught me, but I don’t even own a prayer book of my people’s prayers.”
“Tell me,” he asked in a hushed voice full of emotion, “do you think God hears the prayer of a Jewish man from inside a Catholic Church?”
I assured him Hashem heard his prayers wherever he might be.
The rest of our time together, we prayed Hebrew prayers, I sang the Aaronic benediction for him, which he recorded on his cell phone. By the end of our visit, he was upright in bed, eating lunch. I gave him my siddur, which just happened to be book-marked to the bedtime shema and Psalm 91, the prayer of protection.
As I was preparing to leave, he grasped my hand. “I am a Jewish man, and I love Jesus. You gave my life back to me today.”
There are no coincidences. Encounters like this are extraordinary, yet not surprising in the realm of Sod and Livui Ruchani.
In my worldview and experience, the veil that separates this world and the next is very thin, if it is even there at all. As the talmidim watched the resurrected Yeshua move through walls, it seems they must have been observers in the realm of Sod, mystery. As you venture into the soul work of Livui Ruchani for the sake of the community, you may feel you travel to the very edge of the upper worlds. Many things have no explanation. It is best that we do not mistake marble for water, but to be in wonder at what we see. There is so much we do not know, and that is OK.
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “God is not always silent, and man is not always blind. In every man’s life there are moments when there is a lifting of the veil at the horizon of the known, opening a sight of the eternal. Each of us has at least once in his life experienced the momentous reality of God. Each of us has once caught a glimpse of the beauty, peace and power that flow through the souls of those who are devoted to Him. But such experiences are rare events. To some people they are like shooting stars, passing and unremembered. In others they kindle a light that is never quenched. The remembrance of that experience and the loyalty to the response of that moment are the forces that sustain our faith. In this sense, faith is faithfulness, loyalty to an event, loyalty to our response.”
Pastoral care, the art of spiritual accompaniment, Livui Ruchani, is needed today in our communities more than ever. Disconnection, isolation, loneliness, disillusionment, cynicism, and despair are elevated at unprecedented levels in all demographics. We see high-functioning celebrities in their public persona, only to learn how tragically they were in need of help. Where I live in Colorado, the suicide rate among junior high and high school students is shocking already, and spikes with each celebrity suicide.
Livui Ruchani is about connection. The art of connecting in a safe, judgment-free, advice-free zone, a zone of Remez and Sod. It demands of us that we bear one another’s burdens well by learning what it means to apply unconditional love to ourselves. It requires that we learn to dwell in silence, in the stillness of two beating hearts, and that we have “done time” with our grief and pain so that they are no longer a hidden looming threat waiting to jump out at the next trigger.
If we commit to doing the work, to fulfill the law of Messiah, to imitate Hashem’s love for ourselves and our neighbors, the results will be the healing of ourselves, one another, our communities and the world.
Karen Worstell is a technology executive by profession, licensed as a Madrikhah through the UMJC, and trained as a palliative care chaplain. She trains individuals and organizations to build stronger community, organizations, and leaders through principles of resilience. Karen tweets under @karenworstell and @Shalominess.
1 Livui Ruchani is introduced as a term in Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman, Jewish Pastoral Care, 2nd ed. (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2013) xiii–xxv.
2 This and the following indented section are author’s anecdotes.
3 Abraham Joshua Heschel, I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology (New York: Crossroad, 1995), 58.
4 http://learningcommunity.us/documents/IntheServiceofLife.pdf, accessed July 2, 2018.
5 Tom Karlin, “Why I Build Coffins,” Bury the Dead, edited by Laura Dykstra (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2013) 36–43.
6 Francis Weller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2015). Kindle edition. Loc 274.
7 Bessel Van der Kolk MD, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York: Penguin Books, 2014); Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2009); Peter A. Levine, Waking the Tiger (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1997).
8 Anita Diamant, Saying Kaddish: How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead and Mourn as a Jew (New York: Schocken Books, 1998), 112.
9 Maurice Lamm, The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning (Middle Village, NY: Jonathan David Publishers, 2005), 188.
10 Ibid, 228. Lamm provides excellent guidance for mourners of those who died by suicide.
11 Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman, Jewish Pastoral Care. 2nd ed. (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2013) 42–55.
12 This indented section is author’s anecdote. I am using a pseudonym, not the name the patient used on his hospital record.
13 Heschel, I Asked for Wonder, 17.
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