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Rabbi Jack Riemer

Rabbi Jack Riemer, a well-known author and speaker, has conducted many workshops and seminars to help people learn about the inspiring tradition of ethical wills and to prepare their own. He is rabbi of Congregation Beth Tikvah in Boca Raton, Florida, and the head of the National Rabbinic Network, a support system for rabbis across all denominational lines. He is co-editor of So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them, and editor of The World of the High Holy Days (Bernie Books) and Wrestling with the Angel (Schocken).

The Right to Cry
A Home Dismantled with Devotion
So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them
We Remember Them

We RememberThem 

At the rising of the sun and at its going down
We remember them.
At the blowing of the wind and the chill of winter
We remember them.
At the opening of the buds and the rebirth of spring
We remember them.

At the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of summer 
We remember them.
At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of autumn
We remember them.
At the beginning of the year and when it ends 
We remember them.
As long as we live, they too will live; for they are now a part of us,
As we remember them.

When we are weary and in need of strength  We remember them.
When we are lost and sick at heart  We remember them.
When we have joy we crave to share  We remember them.
When we have decisions that are difficult to make  We remember them.
When we have achievements that are based on theirs  We remember them.
As long as we live, they too will live; for they are now a part of us,
As we remember them.

The Right to Cry

Chayey Sarah - Rabbi Jack Riemer

I had a funeral last week which disturbed me very much.

I knew the family but not very well. The man who died was not a member of this synagogue,   but he came to services here once in a while---usually for Yizkor. He would come with his wife, and I would see them coming down the aisle, holding hands. I was never sure whether they held hands as they walked because they were lovebirds, or because they were up in years and needed to hold on to each other for balance. But either way, I used to see them here in the synagogue a couple of times a year.

And then, last week the man died, and the family asked me to officiate at the funeral. And I noticed something very strange at the service. This man and his wife had been married for almost sixty years. And yet, she sat there at the service, with a broad smile on her face, as if she were at a reception, and not at the funeral of her beloved husband. .

And then, when I went to pay a shivah call, my suspicions were confirmed. I came in the afternoon, when the house was quiet, and there was no one else there but the old lady and her children, and so we had a chance to talk. I said to her that I thought it was a beautiful service, and that it was nice that so many friends and neighbors came. And she said to me: “Tell me, rabbi, was I there?”

And then I realized what had happened. The reason she sat through the service with a smile on her face was that she had been tranquilized before the service began. The children meant well. They didn’t want her to spoil the dignity of the service by screaming or wailing. They didn’t want her to ruin the rabbi’s eulogy by crying loudly. And so, with the help of the doctor, they had narcotized her. They had given her sedatives so that she would not disturb the service by giving vent to her emotions. And as a result, when I came to visit her the next day, she had no idea whatsoever that she had even been at the funeral. .

I must tell you that I was very upset. The children may have meant well, but I think that they had no right to do what they did.  I believe that they had no right to dope their mother up to the point where she had no idea where she was during the funeral. They had no right to deprive a woman who was losing her mate after more than fifty-six years of marriage of the opportunity to cry and wail if she wanted to. Who says that the rabbi’s eulogy is so important that she had no right to interrupt it with her tears? Who says that a funeral service has to be so dignified that a person does not have the right to scream and cry when her heart is breaking?

I tried to explain that to the children, but it was too late. The deed had already been done. And so I want to explain how I feel about this to you instead, so that, if this situation should ever arise in your family, you will know what I feel is the right and the proper thing to do.

I believe that a person who has lost a loved one has the right to weep and the right to wail, if they want to. I believe that we are not stoics, like the Greeks, for whom crying was a sign of weakness. We come from the Mediteranean, and in that part of the world, crying is a sign of sorrow, and not a sign of weakness.

I want to bring three witnesses to testify with me today that weeping at a time when your heart is breaking is proper, and---more than proper---that it is a mitzvah of the highest order.

The witnesses whom I want to call to testify today are Abraham, our father, Gustav Dore, the famous painter, and W. H. Auden, the poet. The person who called these three to my attention was Rabbi Mishael Zion of Israel. Listen, will you please, to what each one has to say:

First, Abraham. The Torah tells of the death and burial of Mother Sarah. It tells of how Abraham came to Hebron to bury her. It tells of how he purchased a family plot—for her and for him and for their children. It tells of how he paid an exorbitant price for this piece of land. That part of the story we all know.

But there is one word in the story that I never really noticed before. It says: “Abraham came lispod lisarah, V’LIVKOTA”—that Abraham came to eulogize Sarah, and TO WEEP OVER HER. I never paid much attention to that word before, but notice that Abraham not only gave the eulogy over Sarah when she died; he wept over her.

It is no wonder that he cried at her funeral. After all, they had been through a lot together. They had journeyed together from Mesopotamia to Canaan, and then from Canaan to Egypt, and then from Egypt back to Canaan. And at each one of these moves, she had been at his side, caring for him, sharing his dreams, supporting him along the way.

They had lived through years of infertility until finally, finally, finally Sarah was able to have a child. They lived through terrible tension in the house, until finally Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael had to be separated.

They went through the breaking up of the partnership with Lot, and they went through infertility, and they went through many other problems during the many years  of their marriage, and so, when Sarah died, Abraham wept. He was not worried about what the people of Hebron would think if they saw him crying. He couldn’t have cared less. The death of Sarah was like an amputation for him. His heart was breaking, and so he cried. And I, for one, think more, and not less of him for doing so.

The second witness that I want to call upon today is Gustav Dore. Gustav Dore was a famous  nineteenth century French artist and sculptor. He did many paintings of biblical scenes, and each of these paintings is not just a reproduction of the biblical story. It is a midrash on the biblical story Rabbi Zion pointed me to Gustav Dore’s painting of the burial of Sarah. ‘Reb Google’ pointed me to Wikpedia, and there I found the painting, which I have put onto the Shabbat sheet so that you can see it.

What do you see when you look at this picture?

You see that Abraham is being carried out of the cave! I am not sure who the people who are dragging him out after the burial are. They may be his sons: Ishmael and Isaac, or they may be some of the Hittites. But it doesn’t matter. In the artist’s imagination, Abraham is so bereft, so heart-broken at the loss of his beloved wife that he has to be carried away from her grave.

And if you look carefully, you see one more nuance in the painting. The caretakers are putting in the slab of stone that closes the tomb of Sarah, and Abraham is looking back longingly, as they take him away.

I love this picture, because it makes the point that it is no disgrace to cry. On the contrary, it is a sign of the love that bound these two to each other that Abraham is crying. And I understand why Abraham is looking back with such heartache as they put in the slab of stone and close the tomb of Sarah. The artist is conveying the message that from now on Abraham will be separated from the woman who has been his partner for so many years. He will be separated from her until the time comes when he too will die, and will join her in the cave. And so he weeps. And Gustav Dore is telling us in this painting that he has every right to.

Now the third witness. Rabbi Zion led me to a poem by the English poet, W. H. Auden, that I want to share with you. It is a poem that expresses the anger of the poet that life is going on outside, while his heart is broken. How can the sun still shine? How can people be going about their business? Don’t they know? Don’t they care?

Listen to the poem, and feel the anguish of the poet:

“Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone.
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

 

Let airplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message he is dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves.
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

 

He was my North, My South, my East, and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest.
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever. I was wrong.


The stars are not wanted now; put out every one.
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods,
For nothing now can ever come to any good.”

What a powerful poem this is!

The poet orders all the clocks to stop—for time cannot, and should not go on any more.

He orders the dog to be fed so that it will not bark, for nothing has the right to distract him from his grief at this moment.

He tells the pianos to be silent, and orders that there be only muffled drums,

As the coffin comes out, and the mourners come,

For how can there be music at a time like this?

He orders airplanes to hover overhead,

Skywriting the words:’ he is dead’,

He feels that there is no need to explain who the ‘he’ is. Surely everyone knows.

He wants black ribbons to be put on the necks of all the doves in the parks

As a sign of public mourning.

He wants the policeman to wear black gloves for the same reason.

“For he was my North, my South, my East and West.”

Without him, the poet feels completely disoriented. He only knew who he was and where he was in relationship to the one who is now gone.” He was my working week and my Sabbath rest,” he says. Without him, I no longer know how to measure time. Without him, how can I care, or even know, the difference between work time and rest time?

“I thought that love would last forever. I was wrong.” How can one come to terms with the fact   that the love which was the center of his existence has come to an end?

“‘The stars are not wanted now. Put out every one.

Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.

Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods,

For nothing now can ever come to any good.”

Does that sound like hyperbole to you?

It doesn’t to anyone who has ever lost a soulmate.

And therefore, if W. H. Auden had been at the funeral that I was at this week, if he had seen this mother who was tranquilized so that she would not spoil the dignity of the service, he would have said to the children: “Shame on you! How can you cheat a person of the right to express her pain?” And I think that he would have been right.

We have become much too polite a people, much too elegant, much too refined.

There was a time when mourners ripped a garment, with their own two hands, as a way of expressing their anger at the loss of someone whom they loved. Now they wear a small, black ribbon, which the undertaker politely cuts for them. There is no anger being expressed: just a small, trivial meaningless ritual is being observed, without understanding, and without emotion.

There was a time when the mourner sat on a low stool during shivah, wearing slippers on in stocking feet, and people gathered round him to give him comfort. Now the mourner wears a suit, for he must look well in the presence of company.

There was a time when the mourner sat still, and people brought him food. Now he is a host, who must worry about whether everyone who has come to visit gets enough to eat and drink.

What would Abraham say, what would Gustav Dore Say, what would W. H. Auden say, if they came to one of these shivah houses, and heard all the small talk that goes on over the head of the mourner? I think that they would say: For God’s sake: Stop! This is not a salon! This is the home of a family in pain! And therefore, be silent, unless the mourner wants to talk. And if you must talk, talk about the loss, talk about the character of the one who has died, and do not fill the air with small talk and with trivia, for if you do that, you are hurting--not helping-- the one whom you have come to comfort. And you are desecrating-- and not honoring--- the memory of the one whom you have come to mourn.  

If I have spoken too harshly today, I apologize. I know that not every loss is a catastrophe, and that not every mourner needs to mourn in exactly the same way. I know that some people can cry, and that others cannot, and I know that every person has the right to mourn in accordance with their own nature. But if I have spoken strongly today, it is because I feel for those who have been robbed of their right to cry, and who have been deprived of their right to express their anguish.

The family that I spoke about is not here today. The children have gone back to the cities from which they came. But I have spoken to you today, in the hope that you will take these words of mine to heart. I have spoken to you today in the hope that you will understand, if calamity ever comes to your house, that the right to cry is sacred, and that you must never take it away from anyone who needs it.

And to this, I hope that you will say: Amen.



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