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Vayikra 5770
Dying Matters

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein
20 March 2010


This week, I was almost brought to tears in the middle of a funeral that I was conducting. I had read the prayers and initiated the rituals, heard a glowing eulogy that had the congregation in tears of laughter and sorrow. Yet when the grandchild of the deceased howled because he had not had the opportunity to say goodbye to his grandfather, my heart was torn asunder.

Someone who was not Jewish once asked Rabbi Akiva: “why do you keep the Festivals? Did God not say: ‘Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates?’ R. Akiva replied: I would agree with you if God had said: My new moons and My appointed feasts’ but God said, ‘your new moons and your appointed feasts.’ (Bemidbar Rabbah 21:25)

Rabbi Akiva was stating that our rituals, devoid of the proper intentions of the human condition, are meaningless and unhelpful to the human condition. When they are conducted with no thought of good behaviour outside of the worship service, that is what God detests: that words are not connected with deeds.

This is also a reminder to us that, “According to the biblical doctrine, the sacrifices have no supra-divine impact, and God’s “fate” does not depend on them in any way whatsoever. The sacrificial service is a Divine commandment which the Eternal One revealed to us in great mercy. God has no actual need of sacrifices. They are a sacred gift to humanity, and serve as a symbol and means of preserving the knowledge of the Divine with which God graced us, and to hallow God’s Name and remember God’s Covenant (Yehezkel Kaufmann, cited in Leibowitz, 19).”

For our ancient Israelite ancestors, the sacrificial system of the Temple was indeed a sacred gift. Our engagement in our prayer service right now is a sacred gift to us. It is so, as with all our rituals with which we identify, because they speak to our human condition. The Ramban, Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, the thirteenth century, Spanish, biblical commentator identifies as inherent in our religious rituals the concept that, “human conduct is expressed in thought, speech and action.”

The grandchild who howled this week, was not doing so because he had not experienced a fitting ritual but because the death was so sudden and this child so young, that dying and death had not been talked of or thought about. The concept was unformed and no ritual on earth could provide comfort for this raw exclamation of loss and grief.

Unfortunately, I have encountered a good number of adults at funerals whose expression was similar to that of the child: perhaps not in the form of an audible howl, but a palpable internal scream caused by confusion, fear and bewilderment at confronting death for the first time in their lives. British people are notorious for avoiding talking, full-stop, or at least talking about the essential in life…and death.

This week has been designated to the Dying Matters Coalition. In 2009 the National Council for Palliative Care (NCPC) set up the Dying Matters Coalition to promote public awareness of dying, death and bereavement, encouraging people to talk about their wishes towards the end of their lives.

The Coalition’s Mission is “to support changing knowledge, attitudes and behaviours towards death, dying and bereavement, and through this to make ‘living and dying well’ the norm". This will involve a fundamental change in society in which dying, death and bereavement will be seen and accepted as the natural part of everybody’s life cycle.

Changes in the way society views dying and death have impacted on the experience of people who are dying and bereaved. Our lack of openness has affected the quality and range of support and care services available to patients and families. It has also affected our ability to die where or how we would wish.

Talking about dying makes it more likely that you, or your loved one, will die as you might have wished and it will make it easier for your loved ones if they know you have had a ‘good death’.

We are so fortunate to be living as part of an incredibly caring community. Our Rabbis are always available to talk with families and individuals about their life and death. Our Care Coordinator, Jackie Goodman is available to all who wish to talk. Following the death of a loved one, our community has an exemplary Bereavement Support Group to support the process of mourning. And yet, we cannot govern what is spoken about in the homes of our members.

Our Chairman of Liberal Judaism, Lucian Hudson recently wrote in the Guardian: “Part of the challenge of caring communities is to bring "dark" subjects such as death into the light, to expunge any sense of taboo so that individuals can consider their wishes while the sun shines rather than be rushed into a decision as the end nears.

This challenge binds us together across the generations. We welcome the recent assisted dying guidelines because there are times when the language of crime and punishment is inadequate and the penalties of law add nothing to the penalty of loss. But as Liberal Jews, we continue to wrestle with the concept of assisted dying and it is healthy to hear different voices in the debate.”

There is much for us to talk about in our homes and in our Communities. A serious consideration of death and of dying and of pain is what frees us to enjoy and marvel at the life we have. This applies both spiritually and practically. "L'vayah", the Hebrew word for funeral, literally means "accompanying".
May our caring community provide the assurance that, we accompany each other through every stage of life. May God give us the wisdom and the strength to be engaged in this holy task. In that way, may God be proud of our moons and appointed feasts.


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