The URJ Reflection Project: Go Deeper on “The Memorial”

August 19, 2020Rabbi Esther L. Lederman and Rabbi Leora Kaye

As part of the URJ Reflection Project, a new set of offerings and experiences for the High Holidays in a time of social distance, we’ve also developed three short essays that allow you to go deeper into the essence of Jewish wisdom that grounds these rituals. Drawing on the themes of each of the three parts of the project — called The Spiritual, The Setting, and The Memorial — here we provide more insight into Jewish teachings around community, mourning, renewal, and life that feel especially resonate right now. We invite you to share these stories with loved ones and immerse yourself in the wisdom that our ancient tradition provides.

The family gathered to mourn their beloved father, grandfather, and brother. Friends and extended community entered the sanctuary to find their seats before the funeral began. Soft, familiar music played. Moments before the service started, each mourner placed a black ribbon on their chest. His children placed the ribbons over their hearts. The rabbi stood in front of each one, guiding them in how to tear the ribbon as a sign of their mourning, the ritual referred to as kriyah, a literal rending. The rabbi then asked everyone to form a circle, saying, “Today we form this circle with one another, acknowledging there is an aching hole where he once stood. We need this circle to hold us together in his death.” The family entered the sanctuary, and the funeral began.

Judaism offers a well of wisdom in times of mourning and grief. The rituals of our tradition help us reflect on the reality and permanence of death and loss, remind us of our need for belonging and connection to others, and keep us tethered to the beauty of living.

The trajectory of mourning in Jewish ritual moves the mourner from the immediacy of the death, back into a more connected life in community, over the course of a year. The period of shivashivaשִׁבְעָהSeven-day mourning period that begins on the day of burial. acknowledges humankind’s frailty and invites you to stop having to function in the usual way. Friends feed you and greet you. For 30 days after the burial, referred to as the period of sh’loshimShloshimשְׁלוֹשִׁיםThirty-day mourning period. , you begin to emerge from the hibernation of shiva, slowly taking on more tasks, and appearing semi-functional. Then, for the remaining 11 months, you slowly reemerge into life with a more deeply acquired understanding of how long grief takes and the community that will help you continue on.

Shiva, a word signifying the number seven, is at the core of Jewish mourning rituals. Mourners are invited to spend a full week at home, surrounded by people they know and love who come to offer comfort, nourishment, and sustenance and to remind them of two things: You are not alone, and you are still alive. People bring food, they talk, they connect with each other and the mourners, all demonstrating the very corporeal acts of what it means to be alive. The very essence of this tradition is to be together, in person.

On the last day of shiva, mourners literally rise from their crouched positions of sitting and walk around the block to signify that they are ready to re-enter society and live in the world without the person who has died.

And so, too, is it with the recitation of Kaddish and ritual of YizkorYizkorיִזְכֹּר"Remember;" memorial service held on Yom Kippur and on the last day of Pesach, Shavout, and Sukkot. — Jewish rituals that bind us to one another. The Mourner’s Kaddish the prayer said by those recalling the person who has died, must be recited in a group of 10 to ensure that that no one grieves alone; and the memorial service Yizkor is familiar to many as afternoon prayer services on Yom Kippur. Attended primarily by people who have lost a parent, spouse, or child, the congregation sits in prayer, surrounded by hundreds of others as we reflect on the lives of those we have lost, comforted that we are not alone as we reflect on their absence.

Each of these touchpoints in the Jewish cycle of death, grief, and mourning asks that we remember both the permanence of death and the selfsame permanence of memory and relationship. For Jews, death is a marker of the connectedness between people. Our rituals offer us the chance to touch the soul of the person who has died in the immediate days, weeks, months, and years that we remain alive.

During COVID, Jewish mourning rituals have adapted to the challenge of not being able to gather. In some ways, the rituals themselves have shouldered the heavy burden of responding to the needs of those who are experiencing grief, and our tradition has built rituals that are strong enough to do so. Together, mourners and clergy have leaned on our practice to offer some semblance of familiarity during a time of profound uncertainty — and the people who have navigated these dark and murky waters have found some calm in the constancy of rituals that have been carrying our community through adversity for 3,000 years.

Visit reflect.reformjudaism.org for ways to meaningfully reflect on the Jewish year 5780.

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