By Rabbi Nathan Martin
Parshat Chayei Sarah
This week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, is framed by the passing of Sarah, Abraham’s wife at the parshah’s beginning, and by the passing of Abraham at its end. Upon each of their deaths, family members are thrust into the logistics of burial.
After Sarah’s death, Abraham negotiates to acquire a Hittite burial place (the cave of Machpela) to bury Sarah. And, after the death of Abraham, his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, come together to bury him in the same gravesite that Abraham had purchased earlier.
What connects these two Torah moments is that the immediate aftermath of each loss is concrete and physical. And we carry this same impulse forward in our Jewish burial and mourning traditions today.
After burial, we have the structure of shiva (the mourning period), visits of consolation, bringing food to mourners and a general flurry of activity that helps to both comfort and distract the mourners, allowing them to cope with their grief.
But what does our tradition offer mourners after the initial flurry of activity? What does a mourner turn to in the quiet moments, perhaps weeks and months, after shiva?
Our tradition has developed several suggestions for mourners to draw upon to help guide their mourning process. These include:
- Connecting with a prayer community during the period of mourning that enables a mourner to recite the kaddish memorial prayer in memory of their loved one
- Organizing others and/or donating of one’s own time and money towards tzedakah (charitable causes) that reflects the values of the loved one who passed
- Dedicating oneself to the study of some text, often with a study partner, from Jewish tradition (or beyond) in honor of the deceased
At first glance, these practices seem to be disparate and disconnected paths. Perhaps they are meant to speak to different spiritual types. Someone drawn to justice work may be drawn into the realm of “doing” tzedakah as a way to make meaning from the loss. Others might be more drawn to language, study and contemplation as their preferred way of processing loss. Others may appreciate the comfort and predictability of being part of a regular prayer community.
But there are threads that connect these practices. Each involves an approach that carries one through the seasons, allowing the mourner to notice the ebb and flow of their grief while maintaining some kind of human connection throughout so that mourning does not remain solely an isolated process.
And, perhaps even more subtly, taking on a practice of prayer, action or learning is a way in which a mourner creates a structure of commitment to still embrace life even in the midst of loss. Each of these practices, in their own way, holds the potential for spiritual growth. By taking on a long-term practice to honor a loved one, the mourner is choosing to both honor their memory while also seeking a way to continue to improve themselves, to do something life-affirming in the midst of this broken moment.
The Japanese developed a beautiful style of pottery staring in the 15th century called Kintsugi, where shards of broken pieces of pottery are mended back together with a gold lacquer. The process requires broken shards to complete. Behind this technique is the notion that perfection in a piece of art exists only by embracing its brokenness or imperfection.
We also have a related concept in Jewish tradition. Our rabbis taught in the midrash that the Israelites carried with them the broken set of tablets in the ark during their travels through the desert, along with the whole set (Bava Batra 14b).
Perhaps it is through these images of the Kintsugi and the broken tablets in the ark that we can better understand the path of mourning.
The experience of loss creates rupture. Abraham openly mourns and weeps for Sarah (Genesis 23:2). By offering us these longer-term avenues for engagement with mourning of learning, prayer and tzedakah, our tradition is creating a path for a mourner to not only inhabit the brokenness, but to use these practices as a way of piecing back their life to a new kind of “broken wholeness,” a state where, like the Kintsugi pottery, a mourner is able to openly show the cracks in their life from the loss while at the same time finding a new path.
Like our Israelite ancestors, hopefully they are able to carry the broken pieces of their past with them while still moving forward on their journey.
Rabbi Nathan Martin is the associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel of Media. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.