When my eighty-five-year-old father had back surgery, he investigated nearly every top orthopedic surgeon in Los Angeles until he found one willing to repair three levels of his lumbar vertebrae. We were overjoyed to see him recover from the spine operation, but soon thereafter, he needed a knee replacement. For all his health issues, he still maintains his Dodgers and Lakers season tickets, trades on the stock market and teaches a monthly Jewish history class. But his pleasure in life has been sharply curtailed.
Why must we endure end-of-life agony? Why must our loved ones witness our demise? According to one Midrash, the symptoms of old age are due to our forefather, Avraham. He and his son Yitzchak looked so alike they were indistinguishable. Avraham davened for God to introduce gray hair and senior moments to differentiate the aged from the sprightly. The sages suggest Avraham initiated aging so people might learn the important lesson of respecting elders.
Remaining present with the inevitability of death keeps us humble. An endless supply of time might cause us to take it for granted and, ironically, cripple our ability to get anything done. The importance of gratitude for this finite asset trumps the value of longevity.
Furthermore, since youthful vigor is fleeting, God created a scenario where we have to suck the marrow out of every life experience while we’re mobile. We must seize the day while we can still perform mitzvot, such as honoring our parents. And is there a better way to demonstrate respect than caring for the parents who lovingly provided for our needs? We can’t “outsource” the care that we give to ailing loved ones because the mitzvah of visiting the sick is for those doing the visiting; it’s for us to empathize with suffering, reclaim our humanity, feel vulnerable and give.
The gift of a large extended family means my aging parents have brothers, sisters and cousins, too. My wife Shira and I are looking at this now octogenarian generation and realizing we have entered a period of our lives that will be marked by funerals. These will be gut-wrenching slashes in the fabric of our universe.
The Jewish approach to mourning parallels the findings of modern-day psychiatric grief research.
The Jewish approach to mourning parallels the findings of modern-day psychiatric grief research. Shiva isn’t just for Orthodox Jews — this is a period to rely on the wisdom of tradition, to be open to the guidance of a halachic expert. We mourn heavy and hard and then ease back into life over a set period of time. The stages include:
- A period of “oninut” between death and burial when, despite the mourners’ despair, they must make funeral arrangements.
- The post-burial period of shiva for seven days of intense grief when the mourner stays in the house, wears a torn garment, refrains from grooming, wears non-leather shoes, sits on a low chair and keeps all the mirrors covered. Most importantly, mourners allow others to care for them. They typically receive visitors and host a minyan for daily services. If they are capable, mourners lead the davening so they can maximize opportunities for the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish. The repetition of the refrain, “Y’hei Sh’mey Rabah…” (May God’s great name be blessed forever), allows them to discern that losing their loved one is part of the master plan.
- On the seventh day of shiva, mourners change out of their torn clothing and walk around the block. This ceremonial reentry into the world of the living expresses the mourners’ choice to remain alive, active and engaged with society.
- The heaviness of loss lingers for the next three weeks until the thirtieth day, aptly called shloshim. When one loses a spouse, child or sibling, shloshim marks the end of the official mourning period. For a parent, however, a full twelve months of solemnity is observed, in which mourners say Kaddish and refrain from attending celebrations. Parents are singled out because they are deserving of the ultimate honor as a result of giving birth, raising, educating and transmitting values to their offspring.
Shira and I grapple with seeing our once superhero parents become frail. We are born wholly dependent on others, and most of us leave the same way. But pain opens doors to prayer, to relationship, to compassion. And, in spite of his maladies, my father says he wants to come with me on my concert tours. I wish he could join me on my adventures. I’m so lucky to have had a loving, supportive, concerned dad for my half-century on this earth. I’m frustrated my prayers for his well-being seem fruitless. I love him so much. I don’t ever want to let him go.
According to Jewish tradition, this world is not the end of the journey. It is but a corridor on the way to a brilliant future of our own making, thanks to the acts of service and kindness we accomplish while in this temporal form. The “dying of the light” is all part of God’s plan. The light of this world pales in comparison to the supernal light beyond. The Talmud teaches that for the righteous, the soul leaving the body is like a kiss. May we go “gentle into that good night.” God is good. Life is good. I say rage not… let us engage the dying of the light.
Sam Glaser is a performer, composer, producer and author in Los Angeles. He has released 25 albums of his music, he produces music for various media in his Glaser Musicworks recording studio and his book The Joy of Judaism is an Amazon bestseller. Visit him online at www.samglaser.com. Join Sam for a weekly uplifting hour of study every Wednesday night (7:00 pm PST, Zoom Meeting ID: 71646005392) for learners of all ages and levels of knowledge.