The Greatest Transition

Mrs. Miriam Liebermann


I would like to thank Rabbi Haikins and Rabbi Zohn for orchestrating this project. Obviously, there is a need for it, and I hope that it will bring comfort to many people. I find this to be rather a daunting task. We know that the foremost menacheim is HaKaddosh Baruch Hu Himself, as we say at the end of a shivah visit: “HaMakom yenacheim eschem.” However, I will do my utmost with the tools Hashem has given me to hopefully help you and also give you some chizzuk and nechamah along the way. Before I begin, I'd like to share my own personal story and how I actually came to be sitting here, sharing these thoughts with you. My favorite phrase from Hallel is, “Mah ashiv laHashem kol tagmulohi alai,” how can I repay You, HaKaddosh Baruch Hu, for all You have done for me? Normally, we would translate tagmulohi from the term gomel, for example gomel chassadim tovim, one who grants kindnesses. We’re thanking Hashem for all He has done for us. But there is another interpretation. Avraham Avinu made a se’udah for his son Yitzchak after he weaned him, as the passuk says, “b’yom higamel es Yitzchak,” on the day that he weaned Yitzchak. The term higamel is used, related to the root of tagmulahi alai. So when I am saying “mah ashiv laHashem,” I’m actually thanking Hashem for having weaned me. I realize now, in retrospect, that Hashem did a pretty good job of weaning me some thirty-five years ago. I lost my father suddenly at a family gathering. I got married soon after, and then I was expecting, but unfortunately – and I still get teary over this – we lost our first pregnancy when I was seven months pregnant. It was a very difficult time for me. This was all within twelve months. At the time I was in social-work school, and I basically made a promise to myself that afterward, when I was qualified to do so, I would help other people who are going through difficult circumstances; baruch Hashem I have had the opportunity to help many others over the years. So I recognize that Hashem weaned me at the time; He was saying, “Miriam, dear, until now everything has gone okay, but forgive Me, I’m going to have to make life a bit tougher for you. I want you to grow up and I want you to become more sensitive. I want you to be able to reach out to others. There is a journey you have to travel on; these losses are going to project you into a certain journey, and we have to get started now.” It’s now so many years later, and I can thank Hashem for having weaned me, although it was so difficult at the time. Over the years I picked up a lot, both from experiencing life and as a voracious reader, and I am very eager to share with you many of the beautiful thoughts and concepts that I have picked up. So, let’s begin. I'd like to start first with a beautiful concept that Rabbi Yechiel Spero discusses in his sefer on Tishah B’Av. The chapter is entitled, “What is True Nechamah?” Rabbi Spero quotes from Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, who always discusses etymology, to go back to the first time nechamah is mentioned in the Torah. It says in reference to the Dor Hamabul, the generation of the Flood: “Vayar Hashem ki rabah ra’as ha’adam ba’aretz,” Hashem saw that there was evil, He saw the wickedness of man upon the earth; “v’chol yeitzer machshavos libo rak ra kol hayom, vayinacheim Hashem ki asah es ha’adam,” Hashem reconsidered having made man. And the next passuk tells us, “Vayomer Hashem ‘emcheh es ha’adam,’” I will wipe out the man; “asher barasi, mei’al penei ha’adamah mei’adam ad beheimah, ad remes, ad ohf hashamayim, ki nichamti ki asisim,” because I have reconsidered My having made them. It wasn’t a nechamah for Hashem at that point that He had created man. He was disappointed in man. Rather, we are told to interpret the word nechamah differently. The word nechamah means that it’s a time, an opportunity, to reconsider, to reevaluate, to look at the situation from a different perspective, to reorient one’s viewpoint. That is really what nechamah is; it helps us to reorient ourselves and look at the difficult situation from a different perspective. I hope to share with you different thoughts today that will help reorient you and give you a different way of approaching a painful loss. Before we do that and share more philosophical solutions to our pain, first we have to talk about the fact that grief is a real process. There is a grieving process one must go through after a serious loss. Dr. Miriam Adahan, a prolific writer, a wonderful psychologist and a dear friend of mine, has written many books and many articles too. Amongst them is a beautiful article called Good Mourning, which first appeared in The Jewish Observer. She allowed me, very graciously, to reprint it in the book called Saying Goodbye that I had the privilege of writing about nine years ago or so. She talks about grief as of the waves of an ocean; there are times when it peaks, when the grief is unbearable, and there are times when it dissipates a bit and you are able to get on with your life. But this is a process one has to go through. You must give yourself time to mourn before starting to look at the loss from a more intellectual perspective. I would like to mention the book I just mentioned, which I wrote. It’s interesting – I wasn’t looking to write a book, and Hashem sort of propelled me on a certain journey. I began writing about twenty-one years ago. Because of that, I was approached by Dr. Neil Goldberg, with whom I work in the A TIME (A Torah Infertility Medium of Exchange) office – I became involved in that because of the loss of my own pregnancy – and he asked me to be a ghostwriter for him. I asked, “What’s your book about?” and he told me it was about grief and mourning. So I told him I had been collecting articles about that just for myself. When I had my losses there was no support whatsoever. There were no support groups. No one was available to discuss my losses with me. My husband and I were totally on our own. As I said, I was in social-work school at the time, so I attended conferences on grief and bereavement. I read everything I could find on the subject – from the Torah perspective and from the secular perspective because there was very little out there then in the Torah literature. Everything I collected then, all the hard-earned wisdom, is contained in this book called Saying Goodbye. If you take a look at the cover, you see two hands releasing a butterfly. of course, we know the analogy that a man is here in this world, and the neshamah goes up to Shamayim and becomes a butterfly released from its cocoon. But I questioned the fact that the image was of a child’s hands, and this book is not written for young children. Then I realized that the truth is when we lose someone dear to us, when we lose a parent, we’re all young children who just want our mommy back or want our daddy back. Deep at heart we are young ones who just want the affection and caring, and we want to be with those whom we love. There is one final thought I’d like to share with you before we really get into the crux of the matter. There is a beautiful vort from the Kotzker Rebbe. We say in Shema several times a day, “v’hayu hadevarim ha’eileh asher anochi m’tzavecha hayom al levavecha,” and these words that I commanded you today should be on your heart. Why on your heart? I would think the mitzvah, the commandment, should be within our hearts, bilvavecha. Why al? So the Kotzker says so beautifully that if we learn the concepts, absorb them, put them on our hearts, then when we need them they’ll fall in. But if we never learn and never hear these concepts, they are not there for us to absorb at the time when we need them. So even if you’re not ready right now to hear these words of nechamah, perhaps you’re still feeling very raw, perhaps your loss is very recent, but still read them, take note of them. Some of them are really very, very insightful and words of wisdom that could be helpful for you. In the future you might want to share them with your spouse, friends or siblings because I really believe it is these concepts that will help bring healing. I'd like to discuss with you a little bit of the Torah perspective on death, which is really a very positive one. In fact, we talk about this in Saying Goodbye. I maintain that if we would talk about death in the elementary school years, when Sarah Imeinu or Avraham Avinu dies, when it’s not so personal and doesn’t hit home, it’s not so terribly painful. If we would become accustomed to the concept, it wouldn’t be so jarring and horrendous when it hits home and it hits close. Rabbi Zev Leff asks a wonderful question: “Do you have a neshamah, a soul?” Certainly you are going to respond, “of course I have a neshamah!” He answers, “I beg to differ. You don’t have a neshamah, you are a neshamah, and you have a guf, a body.” Because we get so carried away with our world, we often forget that in essence we really are the soul, not the body. Someone who takes it further along is Rabbi Itamar Schwartz. In one of his sefarim, Da es Atzmecha, he discusses the concept that man is primarily a neshamah – not a guf. He illustrates this in various ways that really hit home for me and are very relevant. He says, for example, that if we see ourselves as a neshamah primarily, then if we have a loved one who is living across the ocean, even if we are not with them physically, we can be with them emotionally. We can have a soul relationship even if we’re not there together with each other in one room. I have a daughter who lives in California – I live in New York – and I called her one day and said, “Racheli, do you feel me? I’m there with you right now.” It was such a comforting thought for me to know that we’re really together even though we’re far apart. l’havdil, when I was sitting shivah for my mother about a year and a half ago, Rebbetzin Ruthy Assaf shared with me a wonderful point. We were discussing my relationship with my mother, and like many of us, there were ups and downs in our relationship. Rebbetzin Assaf pointed out that whatever differences we may have had during her lifetime, at this point, now that my mother had reached the realm of being purely neshamah, everything else just fades away. All the extraneous details that we would get caught up on were totally irrelevant now. She advised me to now work on building a new relationship with my mother, on a soul-to-soul level. That was very, very comforting for me. So if we see ourselves as a soul, we can relate to even these who have gone on to a better world. My dear friend Mrs. Chani Juravel tells an incredible story. She had a friend, a woman who unfortunately passed away recently. Toward the end of her illness, Chani went to visit her. This young woman said to her, “Chani, do you recognize me?” The truth was that Chani did not recognize her, so she said to her, “Well, you know, you look a little bit different, but when you talk, I know it’s you. I know that you are my dear friend.” And this woman said to her, “Chani, don’t feel bad. I’m actually happy – when I look in the mirror I don’t recognize myself either, and that’s when I know that who I am is not my face. It’s not my facial features or my body. Who I am is something much, much deeper. It’s my neshamah, it’s my soul.” So that was a gift. This woman understood that this was a gift from HaKaddosh Baruch Hu to help her understand that it is the soul that is the essence of who we are, and the soul will last on to eternity. For those of us who have lost loved ones, there are so many ways we can still connect. I mentioned before how Rebbetzin Assaf suggested I connect to my mother on a neshamah-to-neshamah level, a soul level. I know that when I lost my father very suddenly many years ago, it was really a wrenching time for me, and I was trying so desperately to hold on to him. I had his sefarim, his sefer Tehillim, his siddur, but on a more physical level, I had his sheepskin gloves that I used to wear. I still remember walking home with my father from shul as a young girl, and we would walk hand in hand. By wearing his gloves I felt that I was connecting with him again, in a physical sense. Then at some point, I misplaced the gloves, and I was heartbroken. until I realized, you know what, Miriam, you don’t need his gloves anymore. He is part of you. Who I am is so much who my father was. I really modeled myself after him to a great extent, and he is within me. I was able to connect with him on a neshamah level, and that was very comforting for me. Chani Juravel, wrote a beautiful article (Binah, July ‘08), in which she writes about the kohanim, the priests in the Beis Hamikdash. The word kohen comes from the word l’kavein, to direct. She is actually quoting Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, who says that the kohen’s job is to guide us and direct us in every aspect of our lives. When Aharon died, he didn’t die a death as we know it; Hashem took him up to the Next World. Moshe Rabbeinu asked Aharon, “Tell me what happens.” He was trying to understand this mystery of death. What is so frightening about death is that what happens is unknown to us, and the unknown is always very scary. The medrash tells us that Moshe asked him, “Mah atah ro’eh,” what do you see? Aharon understood that he was not able to share the details of what he saw at the time, but he did tell him, “Halevai kodem zeman basi lekan,” if only I would have arrived here even earlier. He found that the Olam Ha’emes, the World of Truth, was a wonderful place to be. It was not a frightening place, it was not a scary place; it was a wonderful place to be. Reb Shimshon Pincus takes a further lesson from these words. He says that the transition from life to death is probably the most frightening transition we will make in our lives. There are many transitions that we come across, but if when touched by death, we can face it with equanimity, as Aharon did, then we’re able to face anything that life throws at us. We have to understand that it’s from HaKaddosh Baruch Hu and that we will be able to handle it all with the tools HaKaddosh Baruch Hu has given us. There is a wonderful line that singer Mordechai ben David shared after Hurricane Sandy, when unfortunately, his studio in Seagate was totally destroyed. “When I took stock of all the damage, and it was very significant, I called my Rebbe, Reb Yitzchak Meir Morgenstern in Yerushalayim, and he said to me, ‘Mordche, the important thing isn’t what’s left downstairs, but what remains upstairs; that’s what needs to last’” (Mishpacha). I think we all understand the idea that we have to work on that which is eternal and not get so caught up in the physical world down here. I'd like to share with you a fabulous article by Rabbi Aryeh Zev Ginsburg (Mishpacha, December ‘10). The article was called “This Is Not The Way It’s Supposed To Be.” We all have an image of how our life should turn out, but we very often face detours or roadblocks, and it can be very disconcerting. Rabbi ginsburg discusses how life is the way Hashem wants it to be. We each have a journey we have to travel along. He tells the story of a very impoverished Yid who travelled to Radin to discuss with the Chafetz Chaim his difficult situation. This man asked for a berachah and commented, “Would it hurt if I only had it a little easier?” The Chafetz Chaim responded, “How do you know? Maybe it would hurt you if it was a little easier! HaKaddosh Baruch Hu is kulo rachamim, Hashem is compassionate. Don’t you think Hashem would make it easier for you if He could? Obviously the reason he doesn’t make it easier is because these are the best circumstances for you to be in. You have every right to ask for it to be better, but you cannot say that it wouldn’t hurt you to have more.” Rabbi Ginsburg also shares a story: Rav Sternbuch was walking with his beloved Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Schneider, and a student approached him for a berachah. Rabbi Schneider said, “What kind of berachah would you like me to give you?” The talmid replied, “A life without any problems.” Rabbi Schneider replied, “A life without problems – that’s not a berachah. There is no such thing as a life without problems. I believe that the definition of life includes the challenges we go through. Rather, ask for a berachah that whatever challenges Hashem sends you, you should be able to cope with.” And now here comes a line that I’m so enamored with. Rabbi ginsburg quotes Reb Tzaddok Hakohen, who says that we see our responsibilities in dealing with challenges in the very laws of nature. Seeing the sunshine in the middle of a dark gloomy day is how we can manage to overcome our challenges and deal with them. We each have to experience a spell of darkness before we see the light. The night comes before the day, and the dark storm clouds fill the sky before we are blessed with rain. So we have to realize that these are the challenges that Hashem has given us so that we can grow and develop. Rav Mattisyahu Salomon, the famed Lakewood Mashgiach, says, “We need to put less faith in our efforts, and more efforts in our faith.” We know that HaKaddosh Baruch Hu is challenging us to become stronger people. Rav Yitzchak Hutner (sefer Pachad Yitzchak) says that the level we can attain through our own personal Akeidas Yitzchak surpasses any level that can be reached through other means. The truth is, there is a concept of ma’aseh avos siman labanim, the deeds of our forefathers guide us, their children, in how to behave. As Avraham Avinu went through ten nisyonos, ten tests, each of us is also faced with challenges. And we have the strength from Avraham Avinu, from Yitzchak, Ya’akov, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Leah. They created for us a reservoir of strength, of courage, of fortitude, of perseverance. We’re coming from very strong stock. We look at the generation that went through the Holocaust and how they rebuilt their lives. We have it within us to withstand the challenges. We just have to have the faith in ourselves to be able to pick up the pieces and move on. And we are fortunate that there is so much chizzuk and encouragement out there for us in overcoming our challenges. I’m thinking of the literature we have today, the CDs, the DVDs, and just the support from friends and family, which really was not available thirty, forty years ago. Let me share with you another article by Chani Juravel, again from the Binah, on parshas Chukas, quoting Rav Mattisyahu Salomon. Rav Mattisyahu Salomon discusses the difficult concept of parah adumah, the red heifer used to purify the impure during the time of the Beis Hamikdash. Rashi predicts that this mitzvah will be questioned because on surface it seems to be such a strange request. Rashi says, “gezeirah hi milfanai,” it is a decree before Me; “ein lecha reshus leharher acharehah,” we are not able to probe further to understand the parah adumah; we have to take it at surface value. Rav Mattisyahu Salamon says that this statute, this chok, the parah adumah, is very much akin to the whole concept of death. Just as we cannot understand the concept of parah adumah, we can’t question the whole concept of death. Why a person goes, why his time has arrived, it’s a gezeirah milfanai, a decree from Hashem that is beyond our comprehension. The deepest of exiles that we are in is the exile of doubt and depression. We hope that the divrei chizzuk will help bring us out of this particular galus and that with all the divrei chizzuk we should be able to serve HaKaddosh Baruch Hu with equanimity; the challenges can be difficult and daunting. But there is a greater picture that we can’t fathom right here. I think to myself often that Hashem took Avraham Avinu out and showed him the stars and told him that your children will be like the stars of the heaven. I have been looking, studying and researching different analogies. one of the analogies is that ideally we have to be like the stars, to rise above, so that we can see the world from a more global viewpoint. We can’t understand what happens when we look at our life just from our more narrow view; but if we rise above, we can go up to the heavens and see. We can understand that there is a rhyme and reason to the world and the way HaKaddosh Baruch Hu runs the universe. We have to take ourselves above, out of the picture, and try to see it from a more global perspective. Another idea about the stars that really hits home for me too is that the universe is quite incredible. Hashem created the celestial beings, and many of them are orbiting around up in the heavens. What is incredible is that each has its own orbit, and they don’t collide with one another. Similarly, each of us is a star. HaKaddosh Baruch Hu put us here with our own journey and our own orbit that we have to follow. It’s like we’re catapulted out into the universe, and we have to follow our orbit, our destiny. And I won’t collide with anyone else; Hashem gave me the tools that I need. My destiny is not going to interfere with someone else’s. We each have our own journey, replete with all its own challenges. When I go through a nisayon, I often think to myself, “okay, HaKaddosh Baruch Hu, You tested me, and I hope I passed. Do not test me again, please! Enough! I hope I passed this test.” There is a beautiful article by Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum (Yated Ne’eman, April ‘06) taken from the Penimim al Hatorah. He discusses the parshiyos of Tzav and Shemini, when Aharon lost his two sons, “vayidom Aharon,” and Aharon was silent; he didn’t respond. Rabbi Scheinbaum talks about other gedolim and other great people, how they dealt with their challenges. He talks about the Chafetz Chaim who lost a cherished son, Reb Avraham. And he points out that the anguish the gedolim felt is as great as our anguish. But they were able to transcend their personal emotions because they saw the total context. They understood that Hashem directs and guides world events, and all that occurs is the manifestation of Hashem’s Divine will. We too have to keep that in mind. In parshas Chukas we read the phrase, “Zos haTorah adam ki yamus b’ohel,” this is the teaching regarding a man who dies in a tent. Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank (The Torah Treasury, Sefer Otzar Hatorah, Artscroll/Mesorah) presents a question. This passuk is talking about the parah adumah atoning for tumas hameis, the impurity from a dead body. Why do we say “ki yamus b’ohel,” a man who dies in a tent? Why don’t we say a man who dies in his home, in a bayis? Rabbi Frank refers us to Koheles, where Shlomoh Hamelech talks about man returning to his eternal home in the World to Come, and he uses the phrase, “ki holeich adam el beis olamo,” when man goes to the house of eternity. Why in parshas Chukas is it a tent, and there we are referring to beis olomo, the house of eternity? Because this world is a temporary world. We started off talking about how we get caught up in the materialism in this world, and we have to remind ourselves constantly that this is not the Olam Ha’emes, this is not the World of Truth. We are living in tents. Chag Hasukkos, when we dwell in the sukkah for eight days, is supposed to reinforce within us that we are really living in a temporary world now. Rabbi Ezriel Tauber shares a phenomenal concept in an article in which he addresses a group of childless women (Mishpacha, April ‘13): “I am not a navi. I cannot tell you if you will have children; but if you don’t have children, please don’t think of it as a punishment. You must have raised your large families in your previous lives, and now you are here on a different mission.” Isn’t that amazing? You must have raised that family in a different life. The Zohar talks about gilgulim. We can’t understand this, but perhaps in a previous life you have had those children that you so desire now. We hope everyone should be blessed with children, but when we have a difficult time in this world, we can remind ourselves that perhaps we had it easier in an earlier life. In this life, however, Hashem wants us to grow and reach heights that we had not reached before, therefore we are being challenged to strive for a higher level. Another beautiful thought I’d like to share is from Rebbetzin Ruchoma Shain. At one point she was having a difficult time: she had fallen and fractured her arm, her house had been robbed, her sister Esther Stern had just passed away. She cried out to her friends, “What’s going on? Why am I being punished? Did I do something so terrible?” She approached her nephew, Rabbi Moshe Aharon Stern, the Mashgiach of Kaminetz Yeshivah in eretz Yisrael, to explain to her what was going on. He answered, “This is part of a gezeirah, a decree, for Klal Yisrael. This is not about you personally.” Rebbetzin Shain derived tremendous comfort from that. When we are going through a hard time, it’s not always about us personally; it’s about the world. Perhaps the world needs a tikkun, some kind rectification, and our pain and suffering will help bring a tikkun to the world. Perhaps it’s an atonement for us or for someone else, but again, it’s one of those things we cannot understand. This is a chok, just as the parah adumah is beyond our comprehension. And we really don’t have too much choice in the matter. We have to accept it and move on. Rebbetzin Leah Cohen is a very beloved educator, the initiator and director of the Jewish Renaissance Center located in my neighborhood. The JRC was originally started by Rabbi and Rebbetzin Cohen and by Rabbi Yitzchak Kirzner, who unfortunately passed away at a young age. This was a tremendous loss for all of Klal Yisrael, but especially for the Jewish Renaissance Center, where he taught on a regular basis. What’s amazing is that in his last years and last months, when he was undergoing very difficult treatment, he continued teaching. His students had no idea that he was ill. Rebbetzin Cohen says what a blessing it was that he did not lose his hair when he went through treatments, so the women who sat in his class had no idea that he was undergoing such a difficult time. What’s even more amazing is that while he was going through his treatments, he was giving a series of classes on dealing with challenges! In an article from a book called Jewish Matters: A Pocketbook of Knowledge and Inspiration (Targum/Feldheim), Rebbetzin Cohen talks about what a loss it was for her personally and for the whole Jewish Renaissance Center when Rabbi Kirzner passed away. She writes beautifully about death and about Rabbi Kirzner’s passing in particular: “Rabbi Kirzner was a melameid, a teacher par excellence who had an impact on so many people – women, men, young and old alike. Was it fair that he left this world so prematurely? It’s not fair if your measuring stick in life is this world only. We can’t measure life by the way we see this world. Reality for us today is our everyday lives. Intellectually, we know there is life after life, but this awareness does not participate in our daily reality. In truth, life here is only a preparation for life after life, for life in the eternal world. We are all passing players in this world, and what we’re doing is accumulating merit and working toward the Next World.” Incredibly, she says the following: “We might wonder, could Rabbi Kirzner have earned a better eternity if he’d had more years here in this world? Not so. our earnings in the World to Come are based solely on the degree to which we actualize our potential. It’s the quality of our deeds, not the quantity; did we reach our potential?” Rabbi Kirzner obviously reached his potential within those short number of years, and he was taken, but what a loss for all of us. Rebbetzin Cohen says that death is not negative, it’s not a punishment; rather, it’s a night between two days, between this world and the Next World. It is the corridor that will bring us to the Next World. It is not easy, but HaKaddosh Baruch Hu did not leave us alone. Hashem is here with us all the time, and Hashem also blessed us with the ability to invest in new relationships, to form new relationships and extend our world even further, to find other vessels for our love and for our affection, to find others to guide us and to help us along the way. In an article in Mishpacha Magazine, author Leah Gebber profiles Miriam Mazlin, a doula and grief therapist in eretz Yisrael who works, very sadly, with young women and couples who delivered stillborn babies or who lost babies shortly after childbirth. She realized that many women try to deny the pain and move on. They try to intellectualize the loss. Miriam encourages them that one has to grieve after going through a loss. She says in a very expressive fashion, “I can accept that this loss has been given to me by g-d with love, but still, I can acknowledge that I am in pain. I must honor both places in order to ultimately heal and come to a place of wholeness.” It is a very profound concept. We have to honor both places: honor the pain, but also honor the fact that HaKaddosh Baruch Hu gave us this challenge with love. A woman was having a very difficult time after her loss, and Miriam said to her, “Did you take time to mourn?” The woman said no, she was too busy, she was working, she had other children to care for at home. Miriam said to her, “Take fifteen minutes a day for yourself; take the time to grieve.” The woman did so, and baruch Hashem it was very helpful to her, and she was able to move on with her life. Miriam reinforces the concept we said before that every woman has her own journey; all we can do is help each other along the way. Just as every star has its trajectory, its own orbit, every woman has her own journey. We hope and pray that we shouldn’t be tested, but what we can do is to be there as enablers and help people to emerge from the difficult segments of their journey. We are told that every year we start the year anew. The word shanah doesn’t only mean a year; it also means l’shanos, to change. We just celebrated Rosh Chodesh. Chodesh means month, but it also means new, it means to renew. We are given the power and creativity to be able to renew ourselves, to rejuvenate ourselves and to start all over again. Rabbi Avigdor Miller says that very beautifully. He says that we go through our lives, and each of our lives is really a storybook. We go through different chapters in our lives, and every chapter has potential within it for tremendous joy, for fulfillment and for growth. It is the transitions from one chapter to the next that are so difficult. once we have made peace with the new station in life, there is certainly opportunity for growth and much happiness. Let me quote now from a beautiful article taken from the Hamodia Magazine. The Maharal MiPrague asks, “Why are we called adam, man, from the word adamah, earth? We’re told that we resemble HaKaddosh Baruch Hu, and we have a cheilek elokah mima’al, a part of Hashem within us. If that’s the case, why do we refer to ourselves as adam, created from the ground?” The Maharal tells us that what we have in common with the ground is our pure potential. When you plant a seed in the adamah and go through the whole process – you plow and you winnow, you water and prune – there is tremendous potential for growth and development. So too with man; we have the potential to become great, and it is the nisyonos, the challenges that we go through, that will bring out this potential. Says the Maharal, through struggle and even through failure, a man can transform his inner potential into actual greatness. When we’re going through a difficult time, we always have to remember that this is part of the growth process. Hashem is watering us, Hashem is pruning us, weeding us, and this is a journey to help elevate us. This is a nisayon that we’re going through. The word nisayon interestingly also contains within it what many of us are familiar with, the concept of a neis, of a banner; we can hold up the banner that we have persevered. But it’s also from the world nasa, to travel. It’s a journey we’re going on, a journey through the different chapters in our lives. An article I read just recently by Leah gebber had a huge impact upon me (Family First, December ‘12). A woman tells what a difficult time she was having. What was her challenge? This woman dreamed of having a big family, and unfortunately, because of medical reasons, she was not able to have one. So she was in mourning, on her own level. Then she started to read. And she realized that there is an entire library out there – which I am encouraging you to delve into – dealing with suffering and how people emerged from their suffering. They emerged through the darkness, the nisyonos, into a place of great light and radiance. She said: “My struggle became another stitch in the tapestry that is our nation’s history. It was a chance to personalize my relationship with Hashem.” When we go through nisyonos, we are really bonding with our imahos, with our fellow women, because we’re all in this together. None of us can emerge through a nisayon on her own. We need to consult with others, and we need the courage from others. As we go through a difficult time, we may wonder to ourselves, what is the purpose? Perhaps we’re the role model for others. Perhaps we’re the ones creating a reservoir of strength for others to delve into in order to strengthen themselves. Before we review some major concepts, there is one more item I want to mention. grief is compounded and very much complicated when there is unfinished business. I experienced two very major losses in my life. We know that death is very much a part of life. As birth is, so is death. I lost my father very, very suddenly, and there was no time for me to say goodbye. There was no time for any closure, there was no time to ask mechilah, to ask for forgiveness. It was painful for me that I had never had a chance to express my absolute adoration of my father. My mother was ill for a long time, and I saw her basically fading away, which was very, very painful. They say there is a grief that takes place, a prolonged grief, when a person goes through a lengthy illness. That was a grief in its own right. But with my mother I did have a chance to have closure, and I really made a point of taking the time to ask for mechilah, to express my affection and do a good job of the closure so I would have no regrets afterward, no qualms and no unfinished business. I would like to share with you something extraordinary. HaKaddosh Baruch Hu had given me a wonderful concept that I was able to share with my mother, and this made a world of a difference to me as we ended our relationship in this world. our relationship had not always been ideal, and I was determined to end off on a very positive note. I davened to Hashem to help me find this positive note that we were going to end off on, and that it should be a natural ending to our relationship. Dr. Miriam Adahan has a line that resonated within me. She says that often we have one child who challenges us a bit more than the others, and we might say, “HaKaddosh Baruch Hu, this is the child I davened for? This is the one I dreamed of for years? This one?” And the answer is, yes. “Yes, Miriam dear, this is the child your neshamah needs. You need this child to grow and develop.” It was basically the last week of my mother’s life, and I shared this idea with her. I said, “Mommy, I know our relationship hasn’t always been ideal, but for me to be the person whom I turned out to be, it’s obvious that you were the absolutely perfect mother. I needed a mother exactly like you. You have been perfect for me from day one.” And my mother, although her eyes were not open anymore at that time, and she really wasn’t verbal anymore, smiled. I went on and said, “Mommy, even more than that. Even if you thought I wasn’t the perfect daughter, I was the daughter Hashem wanted you to have, so in actuality I was the perfect daughter for you.” Every day until the end of her life, I reminded her and reassured her that she had been the absolutely perfect mother for me and how much I loved her and how much I learned from her. It was a huge berachah that Hashem gave me personally, to have such amazing closure, that there is no guilt and no qualms afterward; there was no unfinished business. This is not an easy task to undertake, but there is a berachah when there is a prolonged ending and you do have this opportunity. When someone dies suddenly, it is difficult that there is no closure whatsoever. The truth is, one doesn’t have to wait until the end, of course, to express one’s affection and to ask mechilah. I’m told that there were even gedolim who would say vidui every single day of their lives, never knowing if they would wake up the next morning. There is no guarantee for any of us. Perhaps the most important message of this entire session, this entire project, when we discuss grief and bereavement and moving on to the Next World, is to teach us to appreciate the value of life. The Kotzker Rebbe would say that it’s a great accomplishment to be mechayeh meisim, to resurrect the dead, but perhaps it’s an even greater accomplishment to be mechayeh hachayim, to resurrect the living. There are people who are living but are not really alive and not living vibrant lives. Hashem gave us life; it’s a blessing that we wake up every morning, modeh ani l’fanecha. We need to use our time well and make each day count. Don’t count the days, make each day count. And we should make sure our lives are meaningful and full. We should enrich our lives with relationships, with good deeds and by working on our middos. In terms of bidding farewell to a loved one, I want to mention some aspects that might be important to cover. First of all, it’s an opportunity to express appreciation and thanks and to ask for forgiveness. It’s an opportunity to express one’s assurance to a loved one that those who remain in this world will be okay. Very often, elderly parents need the assurance. They’re afraid to leave us and are afraid that perhaps we won’t manage on our own. We can assure them that they have been such wonderful role models and have taught us so well, that as much as we will miss them, we will be able to manage in this world. That could be a wonderful chizzuk and comfort for a parent as they journey on to the Next World. We might want to assure our parents that we will keep the Torah to the best of our abilities. I hope those who have the opportunity for this kind of closure can use it. Referring back to the Kotzker Rebbe, we have the expression, “v’chai bahem,” we must live with the Torah and mitzvos. V’chai bahem really means to have a vibrancy to our lives. We shouldn’t live lives on a low, quiet, even keel; sometimes we need the vibrancy, we need to have a life, to be mechayeh hachayim. So in closing, let me review with you. First of all, I hope that I offered you divrei nechamah, a different perspective on looking at the loss, although the only one who can really offer pure divrei nechamah is HaKaddosh Baruch Hu. But I hope that I and others who participated in this project were able to open your eyes and help you see your loss from a different perspective. I would like to suggest that we see ourselves, those of us dealing with loss, as playing a larger role in this world. Perhaps I am a mentor for someone else or a role model; inadvertently people will look up to you and see how you are coping. Perhaps we are adding to the reservoir of strength, hope, and courage in this world by facing a nisayon with equanimity. Perhaps we are increasing the level of spirituality in this world. We can see ourselves acting upon the precept of ma’aseh avos siman labanim; Avraham had gone through nisyonos, and we too are going through our own nisyonos. We are following a pattern that was set before us many, many years ago in how we handle our nisyonos. Perhaps our role in dealing with loss is to be mekaddeish Sheim Shamayim, to sanctify the name of Hashem. If we are able to grieve as necessary but then accept the nisayon with equanimity and rise above our pain to use it as a steppingstone in serving HaKaddosh Baruch Hu, to turn it into a meaningful act in our own lives, to grow through it, we will be creating a kiddush Hashem in this world. I would also like to suggest that we be creative in meeting our own needs. We have to keep expanding our world, and we have to keep learning and davening. I'd like to review with you some of the books that were very helpful to me and I’m sure will be helpful to you also. one is Da es Atzmecha, which people find helpful in getting to know themselves. Rabbi Yitzchak Kirzner’s sefer called Making Sense of Suffering, which I believe is taken from the series of lectures he gave while he himself was very, very ill, is an extremely powerful book. I would like to recommend the book that I co-authored together with Dr. Neil Goldberg called Saying Goodbye. I believe what is very valuable in this book are the essays in the back. These were the essays that helped me to a tremendous degree when I experienced my own losses, and I had no one to talk to and minimal support from the outside world. There is another very powerful book by Lisa Aiken called, Why Me, G-d? A Jewish Guide for Coping with Suffering. I’d like to recommend Forever with Me by Shoshana Rube. Shoshana writes about the loss of her mother, dealing with her illness and her passing, in a very powerful way. Gesher Hachayim is a classic, written by Rabbi Tukachinsky, dealing with the passing from this world to the next, seeing this world as a bridge to the real life. And of course, I’d like to mention The Neshamah Should have Aliyah, probably the newest of all these books, which has had a profound effect upon many families, turning the loss into meaningful acts, helping to elevate the departed to the next level in Shamayim. So just a couple of pointers, every shivah is different. There are so many determining factors. Is it the death of a loved one who was ill for many years? Was it a long drawn-out illness? Was it an elderly person who passed away, or was it, unfortunately, a young person who died suddenly? It does make a difference in how the mourners will react, so keep the needs of the mourners in mind when you enter a house of shivah. I’d like to mention from my own experiences that sometimes there is a shivah house where there are hundreds of people coming and going, a huge amount of action, while other shivah homes are quiet, and they really appreciate when people come and sit for an extended period of time. Take that into account. If you’re in a home where you see there is a tremendous amount of traffic, you could sit for ten minutes or twenty minutes, but don’t overstay. Please get up and allow others to take your place. It is disconcerting for people who travel a long distance to be menacheim aveil, and then they never get a chance to even talk to the aveilim because those in the front just sat there for half an hour, an hour or an hour and a half, which I have actually seen happen. This can be very painful for everyone involved. Time is an issue, but I believe space is as well. one should not sit on top of the aveilim. Sometimes we just crowd on top of them, and physically it becomes uncomfortable. A friend of mine told me she had a horrible neck ache because people stood over her while she was on this very low chair, picking up her neck the whole time. So besides the emotional comfort of the aveilim, we should take into account their physical comfort. I understand that there are certain communities where they set certain times, perhaps between twelve and one, when the family takes a break and the community knows not to come between those hours. I think it would be very helpful to institute such a concept in other communities. It’s a long day, and sometimes people are sitting literally from eight in the morning until midnight, and they do need a break once in a while. Even health-wise, they need to stretch their legs, use the restroom and eat something – and it’s not comfortable to eat in front of other people. It would really be a tremendous chessed to the aveilim to allow them that space to move out for a couple of minutes. I would like to suggest that one can also send a letter; having something in writing, a portfolio of letters expressing nechamah, is incredibly helpful for the family. We all know that the aveilus is not over in a week’s time, and to able to open up letters and see concrete words of nechamah can be so incredibly comforting for the family after the fact. I see that in some homes they put out a notebook and ask people to write words of nechamah so that the family can review it and derive the comfort they need when necessary. I’d also like to suggest that although the formal aveilus is over in one week, those who have had a serious loss need comfort for weeks and months afterward. If you can, call on a regular basis, drop in and visit and offer concrete help. Don’t say, “Call me when you need help.” Rather say, “Can I help you do your grocery shopping today?” “Can I help with the children?” “Can I do carpool for you?” – offer whatever is necessary for them to feel that you are there for them. Just last night I met with Mrs. Sarah Freund, a therapist who for many years has been working with children of Holocaust survivors. She asked me to share the following, which really applies to all those who are in aveilus. You can read a book, you can watch a video, you can attend a workshop, but the most important thing for those who have suffered a loss or trauma is to talk it out, to express their pain and then to receive the validation that they need. Again, the need for this doesn’t end after a week. So be there to validate their pain. Yes, it’s beautiful to send appropriate books; I think a beautiful gift would be, for example, to give the aveilim The Neshamah Should Have an Aliyah. But carry it out further by calling up after a couple of weeks and saying, “I’m here. Can I come over? I’d love to chat a bit.” When people would bring up my father’s name, even years later, I would cry. But I loved it. I loved it, and I wanted to hear about him. I craved the opportunity to talk about him. I’ve learned a lot from my own losses; I hope I’ve been able to incorporate everything I’ve learned to help others through this journey and transition in life. And with all this, we pray that we should not be faced with nisyonos of any sort. HaKaddosh Baruch Hu should bring Mashiach Tziddkeinu, and we should be reunited with our loved ones and receive only happy tidings to share with one another in the future.
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To Comfort and Be Comforted / Nichum v'Nechama Videos