I am David Balto a Washington, D.C. Chaplain in a hospital, prison, and a hospice. It is an incredible blessing to do this work as I try to be a comforting presence in places of suffering.
I want to share a teaching for Yizkor, our time to remember our beloveds, with you that helps guide me in my work and my own search for meaning.
The Zohar teaches that when a soul departs from the body for the first 30 days it is in a liminal state, neither in this world or the next. During that time a soul garment is woven for the soul. The garment is woven of the fabric of the acts of the departed and these acts become a radiant garment for the soul. The soul garment is a replica of the person’s character while in the world. When the soul is ready to ascend to the lower heaven a proclamation resounds saying “this garment belongs to this person.”
The Zohar explains:
“A person’s good deeds done in this world draw from the celestial resplendency of light a garment with which he may be invested when he appears before the Blessed Holy One. In that raiment he is in a state of bliss and feasts his eyes on the spirit of the Holy One.”
I have always loved this notion.
Sometimes for grieving families I will suggest they reflect upon their beloved and weave his or her soul garment. In this way to be reminded of the essential character of their beloved and the connection that is always present. It’s a beautiful notion to gather, reflect, repair and begin the path of grieving.
For one person the community actually undertook a month of good deeds to weave the person’s soul garment.
Weaving is so essential and it engages our whole being. And Gd is the ultimate weaver.
Psalm 139 says:
“For you created my inmost being; you wove me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.”
In the hospital, when I bless the babies in the NICU, babies so preciously small, some as small as 20 ounces, striving with every element of being for existence, my heart is touched thinking of Gd the weaver and I thank Gd for how wonderously they are created.
And on Yom Kippur we pray:
“Behold as the cloth in the hand of the weaver,
who drapes or twists it at will,
so are we in Your hand, O gracious God;
look to the covenant and overlook our sin.”
Weaving. What a blessing to weave.
The immediate time after death of a loved one is a time of keriah, tearing and devastation. After all we tear our garment (over our heart if it our parent) to remind ourselves of the overwhelming loss, how we feel torn from the world, how our beloved is torn away. We stare at the tear, we feel the rip as we are ripped apart.
We fear the tear will consume us or we will be lost within the tear.
What a lovely notion that at that time of devastation we are given the spiritual task of binding, repairing and creating. We gather the fabric of our beloved, the deeds, the hopes and beliefs, the aspirations, holding these fabrics, reflecting upon them, embracing them. Then designing the garment and mending, tying together the pieces, and weaving. How lovely to know you will create and hold the fabric of a person’s life in your heart.
Imagine. Imagine your creation for your beloved. Imagine for one of the beloveds you will pray for at the time of Yizkor. Perhaps a piece of white linen to reflect their modesty, or lace to reflect their love for the refined or soft velvet to reflect their sense of order, or a piece of worn leather to reflect their determination, or faded denim to reflect their easy going nature, or flannel to reflect their warmth or the comfort of their presence. Some pieces we may pause over – perhaps some burlap to reflect their contrary nature, or wool to remind you of the friction. Create the design. Take the pieces, weave them together carefully through the warp, tie them together, caress the fabric.
And as you weave perhaps it is sad to see the fabrics that are not there, the pain or loss that occurred, the disappointment. The incompletion, the acts or failure to act that caused pain. The soul garment is not perfect. Nor was our beloved. After all, Gd did not make us perfect, that job is reserved for Angels.
I invite you to take the opportunity to reflect upon the soul garments for the souls you will pray for in the next few moments. Summon the vision inside your heart. Look at their soul garment. Look at the fabrics that are woven. Visit them, envision them, touch them. Open your heart. Look at those attributes they were blessed with or challenged by. Look at the fabric of their garment, their intentions, wishes, actions, disappointments, reflections and teachings. The feelings, joy, pride, devotion, anger, sadness, fear.
Look at those fabrics, piece by piece. Perhaps they rekindle a deep warmth inside you, of your being cherished, of their looking into your eyes with boundless love. Perhaps they remind you of a touch, an embrace as if their garment embraces you now. Perhaps they remind you of words of pride and deep connection. Perhaps you just sit back and appreciate how special your beloved was — I am proud of you, you were so special — how their memory and the garment still nourishes you, and how much you miss them, how you wish your own garment may have some of the same vitality.
But look again, fabric changes. Remember heaven is not like our earthly existence – the afterlife is a world of truth, it is a world of judgment. Perhaps in the world of truth what looked like strong or vibrant fabric has now faded. Or you notice the holes or gaps that always existed, but you missed. Or the frayed incomplete edges that may reflect pain or disappointment. Or when you see gaps or tears you may feel diminished, frustrated, burdened. Perhaps the fabric seemed damaged or infected (we learn about dealing with a woven garment with tzaarat – an infection — in parsha Tazria and how we preserve the garment). Or the weaving is simply incomplete.
And maybe now on reflection you see beauty you missed. Your sadness.
I want to invite you to revisit the soul garments of the people who are in your heart during Yizkor. And perhaps engage in mending the soul garment, of renewing it.
And I want to suggest four guideposts to assist your journey, of seeing your beloved with fresh eyes.
First, view with curiosity. Look upon your beloved’s garment and ask what was this quality, what is this fabric? Where did it come from? If you see parts that are missing, or frayed, be willing to explore the absence and try to understand. Your beloved and their lives always have something to teach you. Be open to inquiry and learning.
Second, view with compassion. Compassion is the core of our lives. The Dalai Lama said “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” We are to walk in Gd’s ways and the first attribute we recognize is Gd’s compassion. The Talmud teaches judge everyone for the good. As we grow older and face many of the challenges faced by our beloved, challenges where perhaps they missed the mark, we can understand their actions or failings with greater compassion.
Compassion keeps the connection vibrant. Compassion is the path to healing.
Third, view with gratitude. In one way or another each one of our beloveds are our teachers, have contributed to our lives, made us the persons we are. Maybe there are attributes you try to keep. Maybe there are other qualities you reject. In all ways, however, the example of their lives guide us.
Finally, view with tears. Tears. Salt water. On Pesach we tasted the salt water when we dipped the karpas. Our collective tears. And for your beloved maybe the tears seem so far away, locked deep inside. Be open to those tears, especially the unexpressed ones.
And look at the soul garment again. Maybe now you see new fabric. Maybe now fabric that seemed incomplete now seems to be able to stretch. Maybe now you see new fabrics that you missed. Maybe you can stretch the fabric, tie it together, make it stronger, and bring new completion, new wholeness. And maybe you see a vibrancy your eyes and heart could not absorb before.
Or maybe it enables you to say the frayed fabric, the gaps, the pain, the disappointment is ok, I can better understand you. I can forgive. We can heal.
No one is perfect.
This is my journey. My father, Yitzchak ben Tzvi Hersch v Taivel, of blessed memory, and I unfortunately were not blessed with a close relationship. Whether it was his alcoholism, my inability to forgive, family battles, my insecurity and fear, one never truly knows. But we were simply not close.
But things can change. A Hasidic master once explained that after death souls can become closer “because now there are no barriers.”
As I examine my father’s soul garment, I recognize the parts of my own soul garment that are his blessing. As a chaplain there are many qualities his example, his soul garment, teach me:
- the ability to see beyond barriers and create the possible,
- the passion for being able to help people feel Gd’s presence,
- an ability to be fully present in the place of suffering, and
- trust in my intuition and know it is a gift from Gd.
And the vital lesson of his later years — striving in the words of Psalm 90 to “teach me to make each day count so that I may attain a heart of wisdom.”
So when you think of creating your own soul garment look at that basket of fabric next to you, the fabric of your character. Some from the beloved you pray for, some of your own creation.
Their soul garment will guide you.
A suggestion. As you view your beloved’s soul garment, tell their story. Tell their story, not just for them or for yourself, but also for those in your life who are your future.
Telling the story of your beloved with not only strengthen and elevate their spirit in heaven, it will strengthen the spirit of those who hear the story.
I have an interesting fact to share. They have done studies of families that suffered losses from 911 and families that suffered losses from the pandemic. And you know what they found? What is the source of strength – the ability to be present with the pain, go through the pain and be resilient? It is knowing your family story. The ability to share the family story, to create a family narrative is critical to helping people have a sense that they can deal with challenges, even the most painful suffering. And the narrative should not just be the successes, but all the challenges, failures, upsets, and disappointments, the tears, the stains, the patches, the holes. It is just simply a way to understand what it means to be fully human.
Curiosity, compassion, gratitude tears.
About a month ago we observed Yom Hashoah the day to remember the 6 million. I want to close with a poem about memory that my wife Naomi reminded me of — Birdsong, by a child in the Terezin Concentration Camp in I Never Saw Another Butterfly (a collection of children’s poetry and drawings from the camp):
He doesn’t know the world at all
Who stays in his nest and doesn’t go out
He doesn’t know what birds know best
Nor what I want to sing about
That world is full of loveliness.
When dewdrops sparkle in the grass
And earth’s aflood with morning light
A blackbird sings upon a bush
To greet the dawning after night.
Then I know how fine it is to live.
Hey, try to open your heart
To beauty; go to the woods some day
And weave a wreath of memory there.
And if the tears obscure your way
You’ll know how wonderful it is to be alive.
You’ll know how wonderful it is to be alive.
Weave a wreath of memory. The treasures of our soul garments, our beloveds and our own, always being created. Always being renewed. We are told in Exodus that Gd filled those who would do the weaving for the Mizbeach (the sanctuary) with a “wise heart.” May we all be blessed with a wise heart, an open, loving, curious and forgiving heart as we remember our beloveds.
May it be so.
David Balto is a volunteer chaplain at Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. and Western Correctional Insitution, Maryland’s maximum security prison. He and his wife Naomi are actively involved in bikur cholim aith Bikur Cholim of Greater Washington and are co-sponsors of the Naional Bikur Cholim conference. David is also a volunteer for Ruach and a student in Aleph’s program for spiritual direction.