Consider and Converse: A Guide to Levaya - Accompaniment

Artwork by David Wander
Artwork by David Wander

Consider and Converse: A Guide to ‘Levaya’ — ‘Accompaniment’

Introduction

Sh’ma Now _curates conversations on a single theme rooted in Jewish tradition and the contemporary moment. At the heart of this issue of _Sh’ma Now _is the theme of “levaya” — “accompaniment.” Judaism stresses four moments that require accompaniment: accompanying the seriously ill and dying; accompanying guests four steps out of our home; accompanying the bride and groom on their way to _yichud (their first moments of being alone); and accompanying a baby into the world. To address our theme,I solicited essays that share a profound wisdom about how we sit with, walk with, and observe people in need.

Sh’ma Now has never viewed learning or “meaning-making” as solely an individual activity. That’s why we have included this guide, which is specifically designed to help you to consider the idea of going forth independently or with others, formally and informally.

How to Begin

This guide offers a variety of suggestions, including activities and prompts for individual contemplation and informal or structured conversations. We suggest that you use this guide to share reflections and thoughts over a Shabbat meal, or, for those who are more adventurous, to lead a planned, structured conversation, inviting a small group of friends and family to your home or to a coffee shop. If you would like more information about ways in which this journal can be used, please contact Susan Berrin, Sh’ma Now editor-in-chief, at SBerrin@shma.com. You can also print out a PDF file of the entire issue at http://forward.com/shma-now/.

Guidelines for Discussion

If you wish to hold a structured conversation, the following guidelines may help you to create a space that allows for honest personal exploration through sharing:

  • Create a sense of shared purpose that can foster the kind of internal reflection that happens through group conversation.
  • Remind participants of simple ground rules for conversations. For example: Avoid commenting on and critiquing each other’s comments. Make room for everyone to speak. Step into or away from the conversation appropriately. No one participant should dominate the conversation. Let silence sit, allowing participants to gather their thoughts.
  • For each of the questions below, we recommend that you print out the article in question, or provide the link to it, and we ask that you take a moment to read it in print or on screen, before the conversation begins.
  • Allow people a few minutes to absorb the article, perhaps even to read it a second time, before moving into the discussion.

Interpretive Questionscan focus the reader on the ideas in the articles.

  • Rabbi Elliot Kukla introduces readers to the transitional moments in Judaism that require companionship. Among the four specific moments are accompanying the seriously ill and dying; accompanying guests four steps out of our home; accompanying the just married bride and groom on their way to yichud (their first moments of being alone); and accompanying a baby into the world. In these moments of accompaniment, he writes, we “can neither fix suffering nor safeguard joy, but we can ensure that no one is alone.” Turning to the book of Ruth, Elliot finds comfort in the model of the deep friendship between Naomi and Ruth; Ruth becomes an exemplar of the value of accompanier. How do you understand the purpose and the role of the accompanier? What are the serious challenges of the role? Why does Judaism choose these four moments as ones calling for accompaniment? What is the difference between friendship and companionship?
  • In NiSh’ma, our simulated Talmud page, three writers explore a talmudic verse about the need for and the scope of caring friendship. “Rava said, ‘This explains the folk saying, “Either friendship or death,” since one who has no friends is better off dead.’” (Taanit 23a)Rabbi Jon Sommer connects the loneliness of Honi the Circle-Maker to the isolation and loneliness of prison inmates. He cites the biblical text of God seeing Adam isolated in the Garden of Eden, where God “compassionately declares that it is not good for a man to be alone.” And yet, “despite our recognition of the mental, physical, and emotional damage that can be caused by this deeply traumatic isolation, our penal system endures.” How should we approach the national issue of the isolation of these prisoners? Does Jewish wisdom offer advice about addressing loneliness and alienation? What does Jewish wisdom teach us about incarceration and the trauma caused by penal institutions?

Reflective Questionscan help one to integrate the ideas in these articles with one’s own sense of self.

  • Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow, a hospital chaplain, writes about the creative tension that exists between her role as a rabbi, hoping to help someone in need, and her role as a chaplain, knowing that the most helpful thing she can do is to simply sit there and be fully present for the dying person. She trains hospice care workers and volunteers to sit with an individual without any plan to “fix” them, without awkwardness. How do we accompany those in need without crowding them? In what instances is simply being there preferable to doing something? Jewish history offers us some situations in which we are instructed not to accompany someone —such as the High Priest on his path into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. What distinguishes that solo journey into the Holy of Holies? Are we alone in death? Is the process of dying meant to be a solo journey too?
  • Batya Cohen, a midwife, or “doula,” who lives in Jerusalem, writes about accompanying a baby on its journey into the world.She writes about her demanding role, but acknowledges the privilege of attending a birth. She shares a slice of her day at work: “I go to each shift knowing that I have the opportunity to bring compassion and kindness to a family going through a peak emotional moment in their lives.” What are some of your experiences welcoming new babies at a brit milah or a baby-naming ceremony? How do rituals around welcoming a baby serve not only the family but also their guests and their community?
  • Rabbi Richard Address writes about the challenges and hardships of aging as one’s peers die and one is increasingly isolated on life’s path. He writes, “None of us knows how much time we will be granted, and we recognize that the ‘ultimate aloneness’ is what always attends us on this
 If we allow it to, the acceptance of this aloneness can free us to see in this life stage continuing opportunities for our own spiritual enlightenment.” Are you aware of elders who walk through life alone, and can you reach out to them to share their journey? Why are one’s elder years so fraught with loneliness? Is it merely that close friends have died, or is it an existential condition? Either way, how can accompaniment assuage the ‘ultimate aloneness’ that attends us on our final journey? How do you understand the line from Psalm 90:12, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom”?

Your Comments

Sh’ma Now 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, Sh’ma Now requires 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 and will be deleted. Egregious commenters will be banned from commenting. 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 Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

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