Coping with Loss….A Yom Kippur Thought Piece

Rabbi Geri Newburge
Rabbi Geri Newburge, Associate Rabbi, Temple Emanuel, Cherry Hill, NJ

Adam, the first human, was created on the 6th day.  The sun shone for him throughout the entire first day, Shabbat, but he became frightened when he saw darkness encroaching at the conclusion of this first day.  He feared that the world would be dark forever.

God consoled him by giving him knowledge and 2 stones; Adam struck these 2 stones together, created fire, and recited the blessing (of course) BARUCH ATAH ADONAI ELOHEINU MELECH HA-OLAM BOREI M’OREI HA-AISH – blessed are you Adonai our God Ruler of the Universe, creator of fire- the same prayer we use in havdalah over the candle.  The gift of fire, or at least the tools for fire, lit his surroundings and world, easing his transition into the dark night.  It is easy to imagine how Adam felt loss over the peace and tranquility of Shabbat, and uncertain about the next moments of his existence.  This first divine gift provided Adam not only with reassurance and a new tool but also helped him emotionally during a critical time.

This story from the Midrash (These are the Words, p.85) is instructive.  True, it teaches us about the conclusion of the first shabbat, but it also teaches us about difficult moments in life, anticipated and unanticipated.  Certain challenges we know we must face, like death of others and ourselves, but other challenges are surprises- both happy and sad. Loss, like Adam’s loss of light, is, unfortunately, a part of life, but with loss comes an opportunity for growth. Loss and growth is really about change.  Judah Goldin, biblical scholar, once wrote, “To change we are all subject, perhaps most profoundly when we offer greatest resistance; adaptation, on the other hand, requires genius” (Inventing Jewish Ritual, p139).

And it’s true, the only thing that we can ever be certain about is that things will change.  How we ride the waves of change is often up to us.  If one stops to consider the breadth of deprivations, rewards, and transformations in the course of life, it is staggering.  There is the loss: of a job, whether by termination, resignation, or retirement; the loss of health, the loss of mobility, the loss of independence, the loss of certain privileges, the loss of a car, the loss of a friendship or a relationship, the loss when children move out of the house, or even into the house, moving out of your home.   Or consider the sense of loss, or even transformation when: your children start preschool, elementary, middle school, high school, or college; or when you start your first real job (no more late nights during the week- or at least fewer).  Rabbi Harold Schulweis calls these “riteless passages”–moments of significance that simply happen, without notice or celebration.  They sap emotion and spirituality from us.  Instead we need to embrace them and create a consecrated moment or occasion from them.  Shulweis reflects on this eloquently in a poem:

Artists, aerialists
on a swinging trapeze.
Letting go one ring to catch another, to climb to higher heights

Hold on and let go
a courageous duality that endows our life with meaning
Neither denying the past nor foreclosing on the future

The flow of life, the divine process
gives and takes, retains and creates.

Old and new yesterday and tomorrow, both in one embrace
The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh
Blessed be the name of God

(In God’s Mirror, Harold Shulweis)

When confronted with such a potpourri of milestones of life, what do we do?  Quite often, nothing, as most of us are not “genius” at change.  We need to change this question to: what can we do?  The answers are dependent on the individual, the situation, and the needs.  There are options like counseling or encouragement from friends.  It is essential to know that Judaism offers support at these times.  In fact, one doesn’t have to go very far to find it.  Several Jewish websites (www.ritualwell.org, www.myjewishlearning.com) contain prayers or rituals for retirement, separation, aging, moving, new home, new job, friendships, and more.  Or one could move beyond electronic data and do something communally based. One congregant was diagnosed with breast cancer, sadly one of too many.  She went through several surgeries and treatment and was finally pronounced cancer free.  At the conclusion of her treatments, we created a special havdalah ceremony to define her life- a distinction between the time of cancer and now cancer free.

By distinguishing these periods of transition and change we satisfy emotional and spiritual needs which too often get pushed aside.  Even more significantly, by acknowledging and embracing the holiness in such seemingly commonplace events we are enriching our lives in another way as well.  In a study on centenarians it was discovered that one of the secrets to living so well and long was that the centenarians felt “a love of life, a strong spiritual belief, and the ability to be adaptable. ”  In other words, they were able to grow with the changes during life.

Judaism is a beautiful religion-offering us customs, rituals, and prayers to guide and sustain us at every turn in life.  One can take on an additional Hebrew name, immerse in the mikvah, recite any number of blessings, meditate, blow the shofar, do tikkun olam, havdalah, make a piece of art reflecting the situation and so much more.  It can be something private or communal.  If we look at havdalah as an example, we observe how this ritual possesses great potential to bridge whatever adjustments life brings us.  In one of our best camp songs, Gesher Tzar M’ode, we sing “All the world is a very narrow bridge, the important thing is to not be afraid.”

Havdalah, comes from the Hebrew- l’havdil, to make a distinction.  Just as Adam recited the blessing over the fire at the end of Shabbat, we recite the havdalah blessings at the conclusion of Shabbat, making a distinction between a holy time to a profane one.  Havdalah is symbolic of marking a time or event, a before or after so to speak.

The first blessing is over the wine:

Hebrew blessing over wine for Havdalah

Blessed are you Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine.

Wine is the symbol of joy in our tradition. We use wine, or grape juice, at every holiday, bris, baby naming, and wedding.  These are times of great happiness (God willing), and we bless the wine to sanctify the occasion.  Yet, these are also powerful moments of transition- we miss loved ones who have passed away, those adorable babies don’t come with an instruction manual, and sharing a house and home with someone else brings stress along with much love.

We don’t want to find solace with the wine; rather it is the ritual, carrying on traditions handed down to us that provide continuity through an ever changing existence.

The second of the havdalah blessings is over the sweet smelling spices:

Hebrew blessing over spices for Havdalah

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, Creator of the variety of spices.

Our rabbis teach us that we are granted an extra soul on Shabbat, and so as Shabbat ends, smelling the beautifully fragrant spices offer us comfort as we lose this extra soul and our respite of the week.   The rabbis, as always, are brilliant and insightful- I think this was their way of ensuring that we take a moment to reflect on what we are losing, and what we are gaining.  In other words-Take a deep breath, and you will get through whatever is coming your way!!!

Then we come to the blessing over the fire, what offered comfort to Adam that first night:

Hebrew blessing over fire for Havdalah

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, Creator of the lights of the fire.

Each havdalah we thank God for the creation of fire. Fire brought comfort to Adam during a time when he was not sure of the world around him.  Fire offers light in a time of darkness.  What will be your fire in the darkness, or even in the dusk?

The final blessing recited in Havdalah is over the difference between the sacred & profane:

Hebrew Blessing over separation between sacred and profane

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who distinguishes between holy and profane.

Ultimately, this is a blessing over the separation of different things.  We are not just making a distinction between Shabbat and the rest of the week- we are creating a time and space when we move from something special to something “normal.”  Just as when we light shabbat candles we move from something “normal” to something special.

As we continuously change between different roles, losses, rewards, decisions, and responsibilities we must honor these pivotal moments.  We are a generation that is blessed to have a wealth of resources and not feel tied solely to traditions of the past.  We can be creative, dynamic, vibrant in how we mark the passage of time and event, and the growth in our lives.

Tomorrow, at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, we will recite havdalah.  It is a fitting conclusion to a deeply spiritual and emotional day.  Join us, or meet with us during the year, so that we can partner with you through the peaks and valleys.

May God bless all that is holy and all that seems commonplace in your lives.  May God bless each of you as you cross those narrow bridges in life.  Gemar chatimah tovah – may you all be inscribed for good.

About Rabbi Geri Newburge 2 Articles

Rabbi Geri Newburge was ordained as a rabbi in May 2003 from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (Cincinnati). She is a member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). Rabbi Newburge grew up in South Florida and graduated from the University of Miami with a B.A. in Religious Studies in 1994; then, in 1995 she moved to California to pursue a M.A. in Religion at the Claremont School of Theology. She received her degree in May 1997. Rabbi Newburge is married to Rabbi Eric Goldberg who is the Rabbi Educator for Temple Shir Ami in Newtown, PA. Rabbi Newburge has extensive congregational experience and joined the outstanding staff of Samaritan Healthcare and Hospice in southern New Jersey in 2014 where she serves people of all faith traditions and spirituality.

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