Poetry from Rabbi Pamela Wax

a woman sitting on the floor
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After my younger brother Howard took his life in May 2018, I found my way back to poetry (after a hiatus of over 30 years) to ground me in my grief. Poetry has served as a medium to express grief cross-culturally for centuries, so, perhaps, this is no surprise. In fact, I’ve been told that Apollo is deemed both the god of poetry as well as the god of healing.

In addition to morning minyan (see attached poem), writing poetry became — and still is — my primary spiritual practice. It held and comforted me, giving me a container and a structure for meaning-making. My full-length book of poetry, Walking the Labyrinth, is the product of that deep dive into my grief, my regrets, my faith, my family of origin, my brother’s mental illness and suicide, my own mortality, and my ultimate healing. Though it is my story and deals with the particular pain of losing a loved one to suicide, I believe it speaks universal truths for anyone who has loved and lost—and anyone on a journey of self-discovery.           

                                             —Pam Wax, pwax@bcn.net

Mo(u)rning Minyan

Praise to the women and the men who get up early to praise God:
not from the warmth of bed or sipping coffee at the kitchen table

while eyeing the red-winged blackbirds feeding in the backyard,
but by shlepping to synagogue because a minyan of ten is required

for some prayers to be raised. Praise to those who come
through rain or snow, or when they feel under the weather,

or even though they don’t believe in a God who hears prayer.
Perhaps they come because the sacred is whomever

they sit next to. They know the man who has lost his wife
and want him to know he has not lost everything; the mother whose son

OD’ed gets out of bed every morning, and so will they. They know
the woman whose father died twelve years ago on this Hebrew date

will be there. After she recites the Mourners’ Kaddish, she will share
a glimpse of the man she remembers: Tell us something about your father.

Your spouse. Your brother. Your daughter. Each day they hear vignettes, yarns
of regret, epics of exile and migration. Praise to those who come back

to stand witness to grief, to hold the space for the sake of those who remember
their dead. Praise to those who accompany me as I sit in the corner,

wadding tissues and hallowed prayers that tether me to a now-hollower
world. A set table—a daily time, place, litany, with a changing

cast who escort me through the gauntlet—deserves praise. I pound
my chest at the words I sinned and I transgressed, remorse bruising

my skin, and when I give thanks for my loved ones, I still list my brother
among them, though he left on purpose, untethered to God or man.

And here is a poem that addresses my journey towards reclaiming joy (“Joy” is, ironically, my middle name):

The 42nd Day of the Omer, 2020

I become ever more joyful as I get closer to the day on which Torah was given… 
That’s why I dance ecstatically after the Counting of the Omer.

— The Baal Shem Tov

I spoke about joy on the evening

of his second yahrzeit,

and in the morning I spoke

about wilderness. Then, I baked

a chocolate soufflé with strawberries

in a microwavable mug, one minute

and thirty seconds, rather than

a leaching rainbow palette of M&M

pancakes he might have preferred.

I wiped my lips, went out to the garden,

and planted my parsley and beans,

something I would not, could not

do a year ago, in the midst of weeds and chaos.

In the afternoon, I sat with 300 people

on Zoom and taught again about joy,

and again about wandering and coming

home through the desert. We sat in silence

together for a time, breathing in hope,

breathing out uncertainty. And then

in his honor, I turned on my music,

stretched my hand toward him,

                                                             and danced.


About Rabbi Pamela Wax 1 Article
Rabbi Pamela Wax was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1994 and has served as a hospital chaplain, a congregational rabbi, as the assistant director of adult Jewish learning at the UAHC, and as the spiritual care coordinator at a social service agency in White Plains, NY where she ran a spiritual healing center for 19 years, offering pastoral counseling and spiritual journeying opportunities for writers, meditators, and seekers. She has been a devoted teacher and student of Mussar for over 20 years. She is now the author of Walking the Labyrinth (Main Street Rag, 2022) written in the aftermath of her brother's death by suicide. Her chapbook, Starter Mothers (Finishing Line Press) will be published in 2023. Pam's poems have received awards from Crosswinds Poetry Journal, Paterson Literary Review, Oberon Poetry Magazine and the Robinson Jeffers Tor House and have been published in many other journals. Her essays on Judaism, spirituality, and women’s issues have also been published broadly. Pam facilitates spiritual poetry writing workshops and walks labyrinths in the Northern Berkshires of Massachusetts.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for these comforting verses as I observe today my sister’s second year Yartzheit; she died from an accidental overdose but was plagued most of her life from a variety of mental illnesses.
    May your brother and my sister Rest In Peace and may we survivors find the strength through poetry and eloquent prose to endure our grief.
    Your powerfully moving words came precisely the right moment.
    That is a blessing.
    Thank you.

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