Dr. H. David Burstein June 2009.
I remember falling to my knees and starting to cry. It was Sunday morning October 27th , 2002. I was just told that my sister Judy had breast cancer. She died April 29th , 2009 in her 57th year. During her noble battle, I have been married, moved twice, relocated my practice, and my wife Lesley has given birth to three babies.
While many of the life lessons I have learned have been centered on watching the development of our children, the juxtaposition with Judys passing has fine tuned my focus on what I know is important.
In his “Instructions for Living the Dali Lama tells us “When you lose, dont lose the lesson. I hope I have learned.
In the “Gates of Prayer siddur there is a commentary: “The Psalmist said that in his affliction he learned the law of God. And in truth, grief is a great teacher when it sends us back to serve and bless the living.
In witnessing both birth and death I have experienced two of the “inner sanctum events of life. I have not given birth, nor been deathly ill, but there is an intensity of being on the inside watching these events. You leave them a changed person. Something has been revealed about the essence of why we are here that does not come from a man made source. Whether they are lessons about responsibility or mortality, the power of the moments are there to be received.
Being in the inner sanctum can be a period for self discovery. However, some people cannot handle it. Maybe it is the intensity of the event. ( I recognize that the circumstances of death are different, nor is every child born healthy.) Some people are not prepared at all for it, or are afraid of looking at themselves too closely.
The depths of the crying from sadness while in the inner sanctum can be revelatory about parts of ourselves that we did not know existed. Afterwards you may find yourself saying “Where did that come from? It can be about the loss of the loved one. But sometimes the loss has released a displaced or repressed sadness that was never properly addressed.
As much as people are afraid of the intensity of the inner sanctum because of what they will find, others are afraid of it because of what they wont find. There is a line in the play “A Chorus Line when one of the actors sings “I heard that Karp had died and I dug right down to the bottom of my soul and cried, cause I felt… nothing. There must be a sadness of recognizing that parts of our lives are vacant. There is a loneliness.
Personally, I came away from Judys death with an enhanced gratitude for my blessings.
While we cant continually exist within the inner sanctum of life and death without burning out, people are looking for inner sanctum type moments. We do have inner circle secular experiences, like having great seats for a concert or sporting event. You leave and say “That was fun and exciting. But did it add meaning to your life? Is the purpose of your life to pursue fun and adrenaline rushes?
Within Jewish life, meaningful inner sanctum moments can occur with study. Prior to the destruction of the second Temple Judaism had been a Temple/sacrificial centered religion, where the high priests had experienced the inner sanctum events. But with the destruction, the religion evolved into a Home/Torah/Shabbat centered one. And while the power of the inner sanctum study of Torah may not be earth shattering, it has been an exciting piece by piece revelatory experience for me.
In studying the Bible as a father and now as a saddened brother, I have a deeper understanding of its lessons. Among the lessons I have learned lately:
Philosophical: Death is part of life. If there was no death, neither time nor life would have meaning.
Ethical: Visiting the sick is more important than visiting a shiva house. While not trying to minimize the comfort given to the mourners after someone dies, the visits by the “inner core of relatives and friends to the dying person as they enter “into the valley of death is critical. With a lot of mitzvahs in Judaism, the reward is in the doing. I left visiting my sister in the final weeks of her life with a greater sense of having done good than I have upon leaving a shiva house.
Biblical: Watching the interaction of our three children fascinates me. I read a story that is over 3000 years old and I see it playing out in front of me. This convinces me further of the eternal truths our tradition is trying to teach.
i) In the garden of Eden: running and hiding when you know you have done something wrong even when you are not sure what it was.
ii) Cain and Abel: The older child who has been used to having the time (blessing) of the parent, thinks they are simply entitled to this undivided attention. He is warned to control his emotions because sin lurks just below the surface. When new children arrive, he looks at them as competition. Sometimes you see a meanness express itself when they think no one is looking.
iii) An eye for an eye. This often misunderstood admonishment is actually directed towards people in position of power. Just because someone does something to you, it does not give you the right to punish them back in an unjust manner.
iv) If you are planting a tree and you hear that a Messiah has arrived, continue to plant the tree. I learned this lesson after showering and dressing myself to go to High Holiday services, but I had to delay my departure because one of our children needed a diaper change.
The last seven years have been intense and meaningful. May the memory of Judy inspire me to be a better man, Jew, husband and father.
Thank you for reading this. Any feedback would be appreciated. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org