Rabbi Mordechai Rackover

A Lament


ISSUE 72 | PRACTICE | FEB 2017

His name on the screen was a surprise. Last time we’d seen each other was at a wedding. I remember how happy he was with his beau. They danced and I thought, this might be the first wedding I’ve been to where two men waltzed and it wasn’t a gag.

 

But I couldn't pick up. I sent the expected iMessage: about to teach. everything ok? I got the unexpected response: not ok. my partner is dead.

I called. We spoke through a veil of convulsions and tears. He had left the world.

 

And, when people die, you call a rabbi. And I got the call. And my poor child. He was so broken and then as we spoke he told me the story and then he asked what he should do.

Practice. What are the practices that we do when someone dies?

Practice. And every time I see the word I think of Allen Iverson but he has no place in this story. For him practice is not something that can change anything. Famously saying, “how am I going to make my teammates better by practicing?”

 

But I’m a rabbi and Jews are obsessed with practice.

 

We have practices for everything. We put on our right shoe, then our left shoe and then tie our left and then our right. We wash our head first. We cut our nails in a particular order. Some don't do toes and fingers on the same day. Some never clip on Thursdays. We eat milk before meat. But never milk after meat. Sex without lights and without any clothes is preferred. Handwashing: before bread, after bread, after sex, after the bathroom, upon awakening, after haircuts, after blood tests/giving blood, after funerals and cemeteries, after touching your shoes, scalp, or popping a zit. There are literally hundreds of thousands of governed behaviors.

 

Not every practice has the same weight. And not every community of Jews uses the same scales to measure. The European “Shtetl Jew” in the 17th century may have seen each behavior as integral to their service of God. They may have feared evil consequences if they missed even one. Today the uninformed Jew, the assimilated Jew, has reverted to the Shtetl Jew’s status. They may not fear evil outcomes but their answers to their children’s questions of “why” are the same. “Because that’s what we do. Ok. Just do it.”

 

Other Jews throughout history have been able to differentiate between Biblical Commandments, Rabbinic Commandments and Customs. Biblical Commandments are also known as Mitzvot. Mitzvot are most famous for devolving upon a girl at her Bat Mitzvah or a boy at his Bar Mitzvah - since they are now, Jewish-legally-speaking, adults they have to do Mitzvot. It’s a little strange. Imagine if 13 years olds could drive, vote, register for the army, file 1040s and go to jail for stealing a popsicle.

 

Some popular, and by popular I mean well-known, not well-practiced, Biblical Commandments: Do not kill. Do not eat pork. Rest on the Sabbath. Honor your parents. Eat matzah on Passover. Don’t eat bread on Passover.

 

Rabbinic Commandments are different. They come about through interpretation and tradition. While the Bible prohibits the lighting of fires on the Sabbath, the Rabbis prohibited turning on and off light switches. The ever-popular Hannukah candle-lighting ceremony is Rabbinic in origin.

 

The Customs known as minhagim in Hebrew are so so numerous. These are often derived from interpretive notions, folk-customs, lore known as midrash, and myriad other parts of our collective memory. The Bible never speaks about nail-cutting, or about how to have intercourse, or how much bread to eat at Friday night Shabbat meals we have laws and practices for each and every thing.

 


 

In some religions practices that are meant to bring enlightenment are static, reserved for a particular place and a regimented time of day. I cannot imagine what it would be like if my religious practice was divorced from my constant life. Be it cutting my nails or having sex or showering, the behaviors I need to do to be more enlightened must, by necessity, be part of my everyday life.

 

Jewish practice is entirely different than the practices we have all become accustomed to discussing in our public discourse on religion, health and mental health. Jewish practices are pervasive. They are available to me in every moment and in every situation. They are regimented from waking to sleeping (even while asleep as one should turn half-way through the night and never sleep on one’s stomach according to Maimonides), from birth until death. In the bathroom, the synagogue, the study hall, the supermarket, the concert hall, the list goes on and on.

 

Yet, there can be no practice in Jewish life without the right state of mind. “Mitzvot require intentionality” is a rabbinic dictum that most follow scrupulously - I am now doing this commandment. I am now eating a matzah. I am now putting on my prayer shawl. I am now giving charity. Thus we are always seeking through every activity to achieve the right state of mind and the behavior that matches it.

 

Of course not everyone is practicing in the same way. And we aren’t all obsessively compulsive about every aspect of life and law. But, at least for me, knowing that that framework exists speaks powerfully to the Jewish desire to make every moment and every interaction, with people, with the physical world and with the spiritual world, a meaningful one.

 


 

And then someone dies.

 

My student, my child is crying on the other end of the phone and I am standing next to a piano in the foyer of my school. He wants to know what he should do. Because, of course, Jews do.

 

What you should do is nothing. Silence.

I explain: According to Jewish law when someone loses someone close to them, a relative, they are called an onen. An onen is in a state called aninut - deep sorrow - because of the passing of their loved one. An onen is exempt from all positive practices. There is nothing to do.

 

This is a profoundly shattering moment for people. They are being told that although in their entire life there has never been a moment free from an intentional and regimented behavior, they are suddenly required to do nothing.

There are boundaries to this - one may not transgress any Biblical commandments - so one is not free to do anything that is prohibited, it’s not time for a BLT. One is free to skip anything that is required. For example: prayer, handwashing, the recitation of blessings before and after eating, and other practices that are obligated.

 

Stunning and deeply wise aninut is a response to two issues, one explicit and one implicit. The explicit issue is the care for the body. In Jewish law we have very strict procedures for preparing a body for burial. Aside from the cleaning and care of the body there is also the requirement that the body, now devoid of an activating force, a soul, needs to be safeguarded.

 

The implicit reason: when you lose a loved-one you are in no state to affirm your beliefs and love of the Creator. Doing mitzvot and minhagim constantly connects a person to God. Or, if you are into practice but not the Divinity, it constantly connects a person to a clearer sense of self and self-awareness. But death is a shattering of the flow of life. Death is crashing break in the routine and it makes it impossible to effectively grow and do.

 

After we spoke I felt that I had let him down. I was very upset. I came to realize that it was because he is not a constant practitioner that being an onen was a hard thing. My student is so very Jewish but he is not constantly doing Jewish.

 

Thus this short essay: when we spend our whole life as an onen it is nearly impossible to recover meaning when we need it. This is a profound revelation for me. Aninut is an aberration. If it is the norm that we live a life of on and off behaviors it is impossible to recover a sense of difference when it is most needed.

 

This is not a critique of my beautiful student. He is so much more tuned in than so many. He probably doesn’t share my lament.

 

It is a lament for the loss of loss.