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Death is a time of emotional upheaval for people of all faiths. Whether we mourn parents, children, friends, or spouses, the pain of loss forces us to feel longing, grief, and remorse along with a seemingly endless variety of emotions. Fortunately, the religious rituals surrounding the death of loved ones can often help us ease our pain, channel our emotions in a more constructive direction, and move ahead with our lives.
As part of its continuing coverage of how Reform Jews can apply Jewish teaching and tradition to cope with the difficulties of life in contemporary society, Reform Judaism magazine has devoted the "Focus" section of its Spring 2000 issue to five articles on the powerful rituals through which Jews can sanctify the end of life and come to terms with the losses that remain. Providing in-depth analysis of issues ranging from the funeral oration to the five traditional Jewish times of mourning, the "Focus" allows readers to closely examine the many ways that Judaism helps survivors handle loss.
"Tender Truths," the first article in the section, explores the meaning and the potential of the hesped, or funeral oration. According to Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, the author of the piece, eulogies that offer excessive or exaggerated praise are forbidden by Jewish tradition; according to the Shuchan Aruch, or code of Jewish law, he who delivers such an oration "brings evil upon himself and upon the deceased." With this in mind, Wenig offers guidelines for a more balanced oration, in which the speaker shows that a person's failings do not erase his or her merits; that weaknesses are often the flip sides of strengths; and that for every one of the deceased's failings, there may have been an admirable quality. "A hesped which evokes compassion, forgiveness, or praise from individuals who otherwise might have harbored anger against the deceased rises to [a special] level of piety and loyal love," she writes.
In "Final Touches," the next piece, award-winning writer Nancy Kalikow Maxwell writes a personal account of a tahara, the ritual washing and dressing of a corpse. Often considered the ultimate mitzvah, because the recipient can never acknowledge or repay the act, tahara is an ancient ceremony not often practiced by contemporary Reform Jews. For Maxwell, who describes the process through the eyes of someone who had never before performed it, the ceremony is a kind of awakening, placing her into contact with her roots and helping her understand the continuity of the Jewish people. "Suddenly, I am part of the permanence of the Jewish people who have performed this ritual for centuries," she writes. "All the generations are here with me now in tahara."
The Focus continues with "On Being the Kaddish," by Patricia Z. Fischer, a mother who lost her firstborn son on the battlefield of Lebanon. Struggling to "remember the dead in order that they may live," Fischer describes the profundity of her grief and sadness, and the steps she took to begin to get through it all. "Depression and sadness are only a small part of the grieving, of its purpose - which is to heal, to live," she writes. "That, finally, is what it means when we say his memory is a blessing."
Anne Brener, a scholar of Jewish spirituality and healing, examines the five traditional Jewish times of mourning as the basis for creative ways to remember those who have died. In "Relationships Never Die," she urges grieving survivors to identify some of the physical, emotional, and intellectual qualities of the deceased that continue after death, perform mitzvot in his or her memory; and use the four Yizkor (memorial services) and the Yahrzeit (which marks the anniversary of the death) to both remember the loss and move forward at the same time.
Finally, in "Dancing in the Kitchen of Memory," psychotherapist and author Nadine Kraman reflects on the art of making gefilte fish - "a dance which my mother and father had perfected over the years" - and mourning her father. In the deeply personal account, she comes to terms with her father's life: not just the sad final days, when he visibly weakened before his family's eyes, but the better times as well: his sense of humor, his leadership, and, of course, his skill at cooking one traditional Jewish dish. As she and her mother cook, they both manage to make peace with death - albeit with sticky hands.