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We Can Compare, but Cannot Judge (Yizkor of Passover 2019)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

“We Can Compare, but Cannot Judge”
The loss of a loved one can be crippling. Facing life without the presence of our beloved requires time for healing. Jewish tradition sees this process taking place over the course of a year. After the funeral, when the pain is most acute, Judaism encourages days of “Shiva”, when friends and family actively surround the mourner with support and love. Then a month period follows when the house is free of visitors, but the mourner is still not expected to participate in all of life’s activities. For the first year, the mourner learns to adjust to life without their beloved. This time period can witness vast mood swings, guilt, or depression, but hopefully healing as well. After a year, the mourner should be strong enough to live life again amidst their loss. Most follow this path, but there are those that don’t.
There are a few accounts of death in the Torah. Those affected mourn and then recover. However, there is one person in the Torah who doesn’t recover from his loss, and I completely misjudged him until recently.
Jacob sends his favorite son, Joseph, from the south of Israel to the north to find out how his other sons and sheep are doing.
Joseph never returns. The brothers hated him so much, they originally planned on killing him, but they settled on selling him as a slave to Midianite traders who eventually sold him in Egypt.
When the brothers returned to their father, they concocted a story about Joseph’s disappearance (Genesis 37):
32 And they sent the fine woolen coat (of many colors), and they brought it to their father, and they said, “We have found this; now recognize whether it is your son’s coat or not.”
33 He recognized it, and he said, “It is my son’s coat; a wild beast has devoured him; Joseph has surely been torn up!”
34 And Jacob rent his garments, and he put sackcloth on his loins, and he mourned for his son many days.
35 And all his sons and all his daughters arose to console him, but he refused to be consoled, for he said, “I will descend on account of my son as a mourner to the grave.”
The rabbis try to understand why Jacob wasn’t consoled, for mourning should only last for one year.
Furthermore, since Jacob was depressed, he lost his gift of Divine Inspiration and Prophecy, for God’s spirit rests only upon the joyful. For 22 years, until he was reunited with Joseph, Jacob lost this precious gift. The rabbis seem to ask, “Why continue to be remain in mourning at such a loss? “Shake out it of your system for your family’s sake!” Remarks like these influenced my misunderstanding of loss.
Elizabeth Kubler Ross pioneered research on grief and mourning, and she introduced the concept of a five-stage mourning experience:
denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Those suffering from terminal illness, and their family members, usually move from one stage to another. The rabbis feel that Jacob was stuck in the Depression/Guilt cycle, for he felt responsible for sending Joseph to his death. The brothers’ hatred of Joseph was well-known but nonetheless, Jacob sent him on this dangerous mission. Because Jacob felt that he was the cause of Joseph’s death, he remained stuck in the stage of depression and never moved on to acceptance.
For over a year now, I’ve been leading a bereavement group, Sunday mornings at 9 AM at our synagogue. Groups like ours help people who have suffered a loss cope, share and learn about mourning and grief. Generally the people who come pass through the five stages and move on. Yet, some don’t.
Like the rabbis critical of Jacob, I could not understand those observing extended mourning. Why weren’t they able to acclimate to “normal” life?
And then, through the group, I came to understand grief better.
One of the Guidelines of our group is respect:
Respect: It is important to respect you own grief as well as others’. Every relationship and loss is different and therefore people will respond differently. This is ok, but is also why grief can be a lonely process. There is no one or simple path to follow. It is important to respect everyone’s right to grieve in their own way. We can compare, but cannot judge.
What I’ve learned over time in the group is that not everybody goes through the five stages in the progressive order, nor does everybody reach the stage of acceptance.
“Every relationship and loss is different.” In my experience doing funerals, I’ve seen hugely different responses to loss even among siblings. Some are extremely distraught while some don’t even show up at the funeral.
As we enter Yizkor, and contemplate the sadness of loss, let’s take a moment to forgive ourselves and perhaps our siblings. Whether we feel we’ve mourned too little or too much, been depressed or experienced too much guilt, or noticed this in others, let’s realize that “Every relationship and loss is different.” Jacob was unable to move on after the loss of his beloved son and some people follow Jacob’s path. “We can compare, but cannot judge.”
When it comes to mourning, it would be wise of us to learn to forgive ourselves, as well as others.

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