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The Gift of Death

The Gift of Death

My confirmation at Temple Emanu-El did not happen in the usual manner. Away at boarding school, I could not attend weekly Sunday school class with the other young people preparing for this rite of passage. Before the beginning of my freshman year in high school I went to see Rabbi Perelman, then senior rabbi of the Temple, and spoke to him of my desire to be confirmed.  I wanted to know if this was possible from a distance, outside the weekly class structure. I think he was astonished and surprised for this may have been the first request of this nature that he had ever received.

I explained to him that it was not to satisfy my parent's expectations that I came with my request. My father had been brought up in an Orthodox family and as an adult had rejected the whole tradition. My mother felt opprobrium at her Jewish identity and preferred to socialize mainly with people from an Irish-Catholic world. No, this desire to establish Jewish identity came from my own young soul. I felt a deep affinity to the ancient tradition of a people wandering through the wilderness and in search of home.

Rabbi Perelman consented to my wish and arrangements were made for me todo weekly assignments and mail them to him. He also gave me my Torahportion to study, which I would read on Shavuot. In those days we werenot required to read in Hebrew but I was to write an essay on themeaning the passage had for me. The following June I proudly stood onthe bimah clothed in a long white robe and was confirmed with my class. As a symbol of the event each person was given a Bible with Hebrew andEnglish text, bound in white leather with our names embossed in gold. This gift from the Temple is with me to this day.

The solemn confirmation ritual would be the last time I set foot in theEmanu-El Sanctuary for many decades. My initiation into the Traditionwas the beginning of a long journey, not unlike our nomadic ancestors,that would take me from an encounter with the monastic spirituality ofThomas Merton; to an involvement in the anti-war movement of the latesixties; to a rejection of all religion, entering upon a phase ofagnosticism, if not atheism; and finally, many years later to are-visioning of religious experience through the depth psychology of CGJung and to an understanding of the nature human suffering as I havestudied it in the teachings of Theravada Buddhism.1

When my mother died two and a half years ago the thought, "I want to sayKaddish for her" welled up out of my whole being. It seemed to come outof nowhere. Mother had become a Catholic and had been buried in theCatholic rite, yet her death awakened in me a plethora of emotions andthis urge felt like the only logical thing to do to sanctify the life ofthe woman who had given me life. And so I traveled from GreenwichVillage to Temple Emanu-El for the Friday Sabbath Service on a cold anddark February evening to pray, with no other expectations.

Entering the sanctuary I was filled with awe. One feels the presence ofsomething radically other. I had forgotten the beauty and solemnity ofthis sacred space. The music spread over my whole being quieting thebody and quickening the soul. When the service began and I recited theShema with the congregation goose flesh covered me as my eyes filledwith tears. It all felt so very familiar. I believe I was experiencinga resurgence of the same silent but powerful longing that I had knownat the age of fourteen. I was returning home, to a place in side myselfand to a community of people, both ancient and new to which I felt Ibelonged. At the conclusion of the service I introduced myself to RabbiPosner and out of my mouth, without any for thought rolled the words, "I would like to join the Temple".

There is a paradox to my story as perhaps there is to many journeys ofthis kind. In her death mother gave me a sense of belonging she couldnot offer me in life. What has been given and received is what CarlJung would describe as an encounter with the archetypal psyche, or adeep connection to the collective history of a people, who are at oncehomeless and yet at home, in their endless quest for a resting place. Tobe held in a larger history that contains the personal, and by aPresence greater than the finite ego, dignifies and hallows themeaningful as well as meaningless events of a life and offers connectionto the human community.

In the Book of Exodus (40:35) we read: "At every stage of their journey,whenever the cloud rose from the tabernacle the sons [and daughters] ofIsrael would resume their march...and so it was for every stage of theirjourney". I think this verse beautifully describes the psycho-spiritualjourney. We must learn to listen and be responsive to theophanicmoments, and to patiently translate or play with events until meaningemerges and the movement of life is restored to its flow. From ourancestors who lived in fragile dwellings in the dessert after the Exodusfrom Egypt, we know that home is not only a literal material dwellingwhere we feel safe and protected in an uncertain and unpredictableuniverse. Home can be and perhaps also needs to be an interior refuge,always available and to which we can turn in cycles of joy andaffliction.

The gift of my mother's death is a rediscovery and return to eternalroots in an ancient narrative that transcends yet holds and givesmeaning to the subjective story.  An anchor in the present moment toreach up and out from the dark depths and so embrace the world.

1Theravada (pronounced -- more or less -- "terra-VAH-dah"), the "Doctrine of the Elders," is the school of Buddhism that draws its scriptural inspiration from the Tipitaka, or Pali canon, which scholars generally agree contains the earliest surviving record of the Buddha's teachings.[1] For many centuries, Theravada has been the predominant religion of continental Southeast Asia (Thailand, Myanmar/Burma, Cambodia, and Laos) and Sri Lanka. Today Theravada Buddhists number well over 100 million worldwide.[2] In recent decades Theravada has begun to take root in the West.

Lee Robbins, PH.D is a Jungian analyst in private practice in New YorkCity and on the faculty of the Gallatin School, New York Universitywhere she teaches interdisciplinary seminars in psychology and religion.

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