B’almah is a project of Sicha, an organization dedicated to rabbinic enrichment. B’almah addresses a particularly important area of rabbinic enrichment; namely, to help rabbis address moments when mortality is in the air, when care and continuity are most valued.
Matters of loss – illness, infirmity, frailty, death, grief, recovery – are among the ubiquitous moments in a rabbi’s pastoral work.
Such moments often take rabbis by surprise. In addition to the obvious challenges of meeting an array of emotional needs, moments of loss make other claims on the rabbi’s energies and resources. Personal and family time give way to loss. Rabbis must realign other rabbinic responsibilities to fit the measured time before Shabbat, holidays, or other community events.
A Rabbis’ Manual offers suggested scripts for responding to loss. But more than being the caretaker of rituals, a rabbi must be a model of caring for diverse personal needs. The strength to gently hold a range of emotions, as well as the insight, intuition, and empathy to guide are not “by the book” talents. Such capacities might not come as easily to some rabbis as to others, although they are necessary for every rabbi.
Regardless of a rabbi’s deepest strengths and highest aspirations, one’s facility with responding to loss is crucial to a rich and full community life. What are the resources that help rabbis meet such moments?
B’almah offers resources that represent the creative thought and artistic expression of ancients and moderns who respond to loss. Whether in liturgy, ritual, law, exegesis, story, essay, philosophy, or poetry, these texts share the core vocabulary and images of Jewish religious imagination, bringing the past into conversation with their own present moment. Most of the B’almah topics listed below offer ancient and modern voices that carry a theme across generations.
B’almah offers online and face-to-face opportunities for individuals and small groups to study these themes, enabling rabbis to reach both within and beyond personal experience in ways that can make them increasingly renewable, self-discoverable, and self-sustainable.
B’almah topics have also been incorporated as themes for the annual Sicha rabbinic study retreat held each spring in the mountains of North Carolina. Among the retreat themes:
- Leave-Taking: The Paradox Of Parting
- Let Memory Be A Blessing
- A Time To Tear And A Time To Mend
- Mehayei HaMetim: Life Among—And Beyond—Our Losses (theme for this year’s retreat)
For further information about B’almah learning opportunities or annual study retreat, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Honoring Fragile Strength: Visiting The Sick
Jewish tradition resists the idea of the in-valid. Not even extreme illness undermines the vitality of a life that progresses with its unfolding perspectives. It is a modern imperative to value the place of the infirmed within a whole and healthy community. How can ancient Jewish traditions help contemporary communities to restore the art of visiting the sick?
• Honoring Fragile Strength
Reflections On A Life’s Work: Integrity Versus Despair
How shall we evaluate our lives in the seasons when that work feels necessary; perhaps at the close of a career, a relationship, or a life. Ancient sages and modern poets draw from deep Jewish imagination to present examples of the search for coherence and value in a life’s work. We see our own brave and fearful insights in these timeless reflections offered with gentleness and self-critique, anger and amusement, regret and reconciliation.
• Re-collected Life
• The Angel Who Redeems – Amichai
• After Many Years of Life – Amichai
Ethical Wills: A Legacy of Ideas and Ideals
The ancient tradition of Ethical Wills prompts us to ask an important Rosh Hashanah question: What is the best of ourselves that we can offer to a renewed world?
• My Ethical Will
Leave-Taking: The Paradox Of Parting
Ancient rabbinic stories about moments of final parting offer deep and insightful wisdom concerning the paradoxical drama of leave-taking, of holding on by letting go. As we tell the ancient stories of holding on by letting go, can we imagine ways in which the ancient plots are also ours, helping us to both leave and take at moments of parting?
• How Much Have I Learned: The Death of Rabbi Eliezer!
• Leave Taking: The Death of Rabban Yohanan
• My Father Was God – Amichai
From Clenched Fist To Open Hand
The image of a life’s journey from the clenched fist of the newborn to open hand of the elder is one example of how Jewish tradition portrays the journey of a lifetime. How does this ancient image, among others, prove helpful to us at various life stages?
• From Clenched Fist to Open Hand
• She is Free – Amichai
A Blessing For Bad News
Although we usually think of a blessing as the utterance that marks a happy occasion, there is a blessing, a beracha, for bad news. In broadest terms, a beracha, a blessing, marks a moment that is momentous; it marks an experience that has implications for the future. A blessing for bad news signals that loss, overflows its initial moment, flowing into an unanticipated future. What do we learn about the dignity of response to loss from this beracha-moment?
• Blessing for Bad News
Anninut: The White-Hot Fire Of Grief
Anninut—anguish—is the time of mourning between death and burial. During anninut, a mourner is silently held by family and community, but not held accountable for words, or for emotions. Jewish tradition wisely identifies and charts this rocky, uncertain terrain of grief onto the larger map of mourning. What does anninut teach us about how we, as mourners, family, and community, respond to the white-hot fire of early grieving
• Early Mourning
A Time To Tear And A Time To Mend
The tearing of a garment, or a ribbon that is a stand-in for a garment, is the marker of public grieving. According to traditions, the kinds of loss that prompt tearing include, not only the loss of a loved one, but that of a teacher, and a prominent leader. Further, one tears a garment if someone, even a stranger, dies in one’s presence; tearing is also the response to the desecration of either a Torah or a holy place. Do these uses of tearing, beyond the normal, move us to be more responsive in our encounters with loss? Would we be well served to expand our view of “a time to tear,” named by Ecclesiastes? And what of Ecclesiastes’ , “a time to mend,” which follows? Might a ritual of mending serve of awareness of mourning and its rhythms?
• A Time for Tearing and Mending
• Invisible Mending – C.K. Williams
Jewish traditions of carrying loss address both the literal and the figurative aspects of bearing up. As a community of mourners, we literally bear the physical weight of loss to the cemetery. Having lowered that weight, we carry the loss of mourners, family, and community from the cemetery back home. Ancient traditions about bearing loss teach about community responsibility for carrying and caring. The local, feet-on-the-ground nature of these traditions challenge us to expand and express their best lessons in a mobile world in which long-distance burials and far-flung communities of mourners are realities on the rise.
• Bearing Loss
Kaddish was originally the great doxology—the formal, praise-filled conclusion—of study and worship. Kaddish ultimately became the universal marker of a life’s ending. Do the core ideas of the Kaddish serve us today? Does most of its meaning reside in its comforting ancient sound and cadence? Does the literal meaning of the Kaddish inspire or inhibit us?
• Mourner’s Kaddish
• So Will I Be Magnified and Sanctified – Amichai
Eulogy: Speaking Beautiful Truth
Weep for the mourners, not for the soul that is gone…So begins an ancient rabbinic eulogy. It starts by telling the truth. A eulogy’s comfort rests in its truth about that which is lost, and about that which is enduring. These are the beautiful truths that deserve to be spoken. Can we speak them?
• Eulogy- Beautiful Truth
• After Many Years of Life – Amichai
God Full Of Compassion
In the moment of loss, the traditional memorial prayer, El Malei Rahamim, God Full of Compassion, speaks in soft and sacred tones of compassion, peacefulness, and eternity. A modern Israeli poet challenges the claims carried by the comforting and familiar language of this iconic memorial prayer. He provokes the timeless question: Can we be carried by the words even if we leave that meaning behind?
• God Full of Compassion – Memorial Prayer
• God Full of Compassion – Amichai
Covering Mirrors, Uncovering Truth
An old Jewish tradition teaches us to cover mirrors in a shiva house; a covered mirror reflects loss. How shall we reflect on banishing our reflection? What do we discover by covering? Can we create meditations for the moments of covering and of uncovering our mirrors?
• Loving Reflections
• From My Mother’s House – Leah Goldberg
Candle And Soul
The Lord’s candle is the human soul, says the ancient proverb (Proverbs 20:27). The soul is attached to the body as a flame to its wick, says the poet, Yehuda Amichai. The burning candle makes visible the powerful and fragile connection between soul and body. Candles burn where mourners live with their loss. A seven-day candle often lights the shivah week of mourning. The anniversary of a death, or other memorial days, prompt the kindling of a “Yizkor” candle. Is it always the case that a memorial day prompts the candle that, in turn, invites memory? Perhaps, irrespective of the calendar, a memory can prompt the candle in whose light any day can become a memorial day. Can the rich legacy of “candle-customs” lead to new customs, blessings, and meditations?
• Candle and Soul
Shivah: Moving From Breakdown To Breakthrough
Mysterious are the origins of the seven-day mourning period, shivah. Even the ancients could only imagine and speculate. Was shivah an innovation of Jacob’s children when they buried him? Did God create shivah anticipating the grief soon to flood the world in Noah’s day? Perhaps shivah might be called seven days of re-creation during which mourners, surrounded by community, sit with loss. Is shivah a sacred isolation; a protection from the world? Or, is it a quarantine, a ban from the world? What meaning do we bring to and take from shivah—a week that can mark a world completed and also a world renewed?
• Two Shiva Stories
• Seven Days of Community Mourning
Language of Silence
Silence has an honored place in Jewish mourning. Jewish traditions teach that at times, silent presence is our clearest eloquence. Silence is a voice that too often goes unheard in a noisy world. Do we still benefit from the language of silence? How do families and communities learn to make use of silence during shivah and other times of loss?
• Demanding Silence
• A Heavy Silence – Zelda
From Regret To Return
Loss prompts retrospection and, often, regret. Perhaps words, actions, intentions, and attentions to the departed were not as full-hearted or as consistent as they might have been. Similar to the Days of Awe, such thoughts at times of loss prompt the impulse to Teshuvah—the reflective purposeful and creative turn towards a life of renewed values and commitments. How can an individual mindfully enact the resolve prompted by loss? Might such an enactment take form as a private or a public ritual?
• Regret and Return – Maimonides
Remembering: When The Past Bursts Into The Future
Jewish traditions, beginning with the Bible, value and require both remembering and forgetting. During a year of mourning, how can we articulate and appreciate the value and danger of both remembering and forgetting?
• Every Person Is A Dam – Amichai
• And Who Will Remember – Amichai
• Standing Between The Living And The Dead
When Mourning Goes Too Far
Ancient Jewish traditions recognize that mourning can move beyond usefulness; grieving can become a burden rather than a sad benefit. Learning the ancient stories that capture such moments might help us to live loss back into the world.
• Limits of Community Mourning
• The Pain – Rayah Harnick
• Time – Rayah Harnick
Raising A Grave Marker: Unveiling What Lies Ahead As Well As Behind
The essential act of unveiling is coming face to face with a grave marker that changes the terrain, in a cemetery or some other burial or memorial site. Now, there is a marker, a longitude and latitude for a specific kind of remembering. We recognize our attempt to capture “character” in the few “characters.” How can we create monuments and inaugurate them such that, “carved in stone,” does not confirm a harsh reality that is finished, but rather a hopeful sense that moves towards the future?
• Monumental Presence
• Windows And Gravestones – Amichai
Imagining the End Of Moses
Ancient and modern stewards of Jewish imagination project their own thoughts about mortality, grieving, and loss against the Bible’s screen of Moses’ death. Their details fill in the Torah’s story, transforming the spare biblical narrative into a fully human story. What are the lessons that Moses, Israel, and even God learn about living with mortality? How do the ancient lessons serve us? How does Moses’ story become our own?
• Imagining the End of Moses
God invited Adam to name all living things, thus making the bestowal of a name into an act of creation. When we name a child, we renew the creative partnership that moves the world forward. In various naming languages, such as English, Hebrew, and Yiddish, we join the images conjured by a name to the imagination of that name living into a to a new future in which an old name and a new life will both shape and be shaped by one another. If we bestow a beloved, remembered name, we remember towards the future as that name remains in the world renewing our dear—and endless—cycle.
• God’s Names – Rivka Miriam
• Everyone Has A Name – Zelda