There Is No Death

The Kind of Consolation That Provides True Catharsis

josh nathan-kazis

By Leonard Fein

Published June 15, 2013, issue of June 21, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Consolation is on my mind, doubtless because just the other day I addressed a convention of a truly extraordinary organization called Kavod v’Nichum, Honor and Comfort. They’d gathered in Philadelphia, and because I once wrote some words expressing my awe at their devotion and their decency, they invited me to be with them. They are volunteers, not morticians, who specialize in taharah, the ritual washing of the body before burial. I cannot imagine myself doing taharah; projecting, I expected a sparse crowd, a couple of dozen at most. Instead, I encountered a hundred or so people — all ages, all genders — of whom, I was informed, at least 80 actually do taharah. In a world of chaos, disorder, indifference, they move towards holiness.

The Shabbat after Tisha B’Av is known as Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation, for the haftarah on that day is from the book of Isaiah, who wrote “Be comforted, be comforted, my people.” Because of its timing, just after the day that commemorates the destruction of the first Temple and also the second, it is a ritual expression of the determination to move from darkness to light.

When considering consolation, my favorite passage is not, however, Biblical. Instead, it come from Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago.” When the loved one of a friend dies, this is the message of condolence I send:

You are anxious about whether you will rise from the dead or not, but you have risen already — you rose from the dead when you were born and you didn’t notice it…. What happens to your consciousness? Your consciousness, yours, not anyone else’s. And now look. You in others are yourself, your soul. This is what you are. This is what your consciousness has breathed and lived on and enjoyed throughout your life. And what now? You have always been in others and you will remain in others. And what does it matter to you if later on it is called your memory? This will be you — the you that enters the future and becomes a part of it. And now one last point. There is nothing to worry about. There is no death.

I believe those words. I believe they express exactly what we mean when we say “may her memory be for a blessing.”

The more common challenge is not what to write but what to say, finding the right words to speak during the embrace at a shiva call. I’ll never forget what most people, with the very best of intentions, said to me when they came to shiva after my daughter Nomi died. “Oh my,” they’d say, “this is the very worst thing a parent can ever experience.” The devil on my shoulder wanted to respond, “Really? Thank you for pointing that out, it hadn’t occurred to me.” The angel on my other shoulder intervened and caused me to sigh my agreement.

Yet once, the right words were spoken. A rabbi friend from New York was coming to Boston, where I live, to pay a shiva call. On the plane, he bumped into Rabbi Larry Kushner, whom I knew casually, and when he told Larry where he was going, Larry decided to tag along. I was receiving visitors, consolers, at my home in the morning, going to the shiva house — my daughter’s and her husband’s house — for the afternoon and evening gatherings. It being early in the day, the two rabbis came to me at home. And the first words that Larry Kushner spoke were, “Tell me about your daughter.”

I did, at much greater length than he’d likely anticipated, and the telling was wonderfully cathartic. It always is, even when the telling in the fourth or fifth time in the course of an evening. The remembering trumps the mourning, reminds us that Pasternak was right: There is no death. The loved one, now a memory, has entered the future and become part of it. And this moment is the beginning of that future; the house of mourning has become a house of remembering, as well.

I was jarred in Philadelphia when I chanced into a session on cemeteries and their management, with much talk of “product” and revenue streams. But that, too, is part of — you should forgive the expression — the burial industry, and the best of the funeral directors, those who refrain from trying to convince their clients that pine or poplar and muslin are insufficiently respectful, know and accept the choices people make.

May all of us live to a hundred and twenty. May all of us, when our time is up, be attended by folks as kind and as giving as the folks from Kavod v’Nichum.

Contact Leonard Fein at feedback@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.