February 2008

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2008 JF


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Al Hadvash, v'Al Haoketz

Thank you, good God of mine,
for the honey and the sting,
the bitter and the sweet.

-- Naomi Shemer,
Israeli lyricist

Living Judaism

The Honey And The Sting
Life's Spectrum.
-- Adena Potok

Within the past two weeks I attended the funeral of a twenty-two year old young man, the birthday celebration of a nearly sixty-four year old man and finally, the funeral of an over 80-year old woman. While these are not in themselves highly unusual - life and its counterpart wend their way in our paths, their juxtaposition in a relatively short time gives pause.

Each event brought out people who chose to mark the lives of those being noted and to join with their families, respectively grieving and celebrating.

In the first instance hundreds of people of various ages and colors filled a fully extended funeral chapel, testifying to the vibrancy of the young man whose physical remains lay in a simple casket in the front of the room. He was eulogized in turn by a long time personal friend, by his sister, his mother, and his father. Each brought to those filling the pews vignettes of a vibrant and creative young man who brought joy and light and complexity and love in his path. It was awesome. The almost 64-year old birthday celebration brought dozens of family members and other friends who toasted, celebrating in song and poesy and simple prose the life of a beloved friend and neighbor, father, husband, brother. It was a particular joy to tell a man to his face how much he is loved, to share laughter and tears and to enjoy the foods prepared by his wife and daughter, including the birthday cake richly iced with the inscription:

When I’m 64.

The very next morning, in the same funeral chapel as two weeks before, it felt right, though sorrowful, to hear the rabbi eulogizing an 80+year old woman who’d led a ripe life, whose legacy lay not only in her work as head bookkeeper in a local day school until retirement a few years ago, but very much in her humor, her devotion to family, friends, and community. In her 70’s she spent many summers as an extra hand in Israel at army bases bolstering the troops with her vivacious presence and doing whatever chores were asked of her and her fellow volunteers. Leaving the chapel someone remarked, "She gave meaning to friendship." We felt grateful for a life fully lived.

Daily –-- even several times --- the liturgy presents to us the powerful words "Who revives the dead." The Sh’mona Esrei (Eighteen Benedictions of Daily Prayer) starts off with the reference to God as the lord of our patriarchs and matriarchs, great and strong and awesome, and uppermost, who bestows lovingkindness…remembers the pious deeds of our ancestors, with love brings redemption to [us] their children’s children, heals the sick, gives life to the dead. We end that section of individual prayer with a declaration of blessing to God, "who revives the dead."

All that preamble to the final words of the prayer?

"... who revives the dead." When there is so much, almost exaggerated, verbiage there must be meaning to it, even taking into consideration the hyperbolic style of liturgy of that era.

It has been suggested that waking after the hiatus of a night’s sleep can give one pause. We are moving from a state of non-activity, when we are not the actors we are or attempt to be during wakefulness. There is the belief that during sleep our souls are temporarily "on hold" so to speak. In fact, the traditional prayer upon awakening is Modeh ani. "I thank you (God) for having returned my soul to me with great mercy." It stands to reason, then, that in the morning when we are re-connecting to the stuff of wakefulness, we offer thanks for that act and in fact acknowledge the miracle of our presence in a new day. Stuff of an earlier, somewhat superstitious era? Even if therein lie its roots, we super modernists can take some meaning from it. (Think of it as poetry, to be accessed at another time, in the privacy of mind and musing. Think of it as continuity with our people’s past.)

Earlier in the shaharit (morning) service – in fact during the first minutes – there are two opportunities for reciting the Kaddish – a prayer sanctifying God’s name - in memory of relatives who have died in the course of the previous eleven months or whose anniversary of death we call to mind. During the course of the service there are two more such opportunities, the final one ending the service. An individual life may have ended, but the connection to God’s name is a given, forever to be articulated. The urge for life, the awareness of and gratitude for it are so keen that we articulate it multiple times.

However, the contrary can follow. We articulate it so often that we begin to absorb it into our utterances not always connected to conscious thought. I once heard an opera singer comment that sometimes between the first and last lines of an aria singers are often on automatic pilot. It puts one in mind of the opening and echoing closing lines of a t’filla (prayer) when we might rouse ourselves from a possible rush through its articulation.

So, too, we may tend to rush through the body of a day, or more, taking for granted its momentum. Sometimes it takes a moment of commemoration, of celebration or loss, to bring us up short to an awareness that this is a life we are leading, for which we are responsible – not alone but assuredly responsible. In truth, were we to be aware of every moment we would be severely hard put to get through a day. But, we have the blessings of joy and awareness and yes, of grief, to remind us that in fact our souls are functioning within us. Though on automatic pilot we may be, we are responsible for our words and actions, and it is a help to experience awareness of both the honey and the sting of the bee.

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