Questions, not Answers

Samuel Asher Sommer, z"l

Samuel Asher Sommer, z”l

Judaism is in many ways a religion of questions, not answers.

We have two Creation stories that contradict, neither of which is likely to be literally “true” as most 21st century people understand that word. The message seems to be “wrestle with it” or simply, “ask questions.”

In another story in our scripture, one of our patriarchs wrestles with a figure who is not identified: God? An angel? Himself? Our sages disagree. We are left to wrestle with it, and to ask questions.

At the worst of times, we do not offer or accept easy answers. Today we buried one of our own, an eight year old boy, the son of parents who are beloved leaders in our community. No one connected with Sammy Sommer “deserved” to suffer, or was “improved” by his or their suffering. There is no reason, no answer for such suffering. We are left to wrestle with it. We are left with questions.

As Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr wrote, Sam is not “in a better place,” he did not “pass,” and today’s funeral did not “celebrate” anything. He died, and we mourn. We do not have any answers, only questions and memory. No one whose life was touched by “Superman Sam” will ever forget him.

In the end, what we have is the stories: memories of Sam, just as we have memories of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, memories of all the fathers and sons and mothers and daughters who have gone before us. Torah is not history, it is memory. It offers not answers, but stories.

And we, the living, will remember.

We, the living, will also wrestle with the questions, as we embrace the mourners in our midst. We accept the sorrow and we do not minimize it. As we stand with the mourners, we will ask ourselves, what could be different, in the future?  What can we do? In the face of this terrible grief, what must we do?

And those, finally, are the questions we can answer.


Friends and colleagues of Rabbis Michael and Phyllis Sommer are working to raise funds for pediatric cancer research as a memorial to Sammy, and as an answer to the question, “what shall we do?” To contribute or to participate in 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave, follow this link.






On giving, aging and hair



Throughout my life, beginning as a young child, I have been involved in numerous social justice causes.  I have tramped through snow delivering political pamphlets on behalf of candidates.  I have walked miles and hopped on my bike to ride to raise money for causes.  I have attended rallies, benefits and new conferences in support of various issues.  I have dialogued and protested.  I have written letters and made phone calls.  I have baked cookies, cooked meals and donated money and given away car loads of clothing, furniture, books and toys.  I have done it all wishing I could do even more to make the pain of the world and individual suffering cease.  In the end of course I have always known, that the pain that I ease the most through all of my activism is my own.  Giving always helps the giver more than the recipient.  That is why are rabbis taught us we should give thanks for being allowed to help those in need.  Giving to people in need helps me keep my perspective on my own problems, both perceived and real.  I freely admit that I obsessively read tales of people struggling to get by some days simply to remind myself that however bad I feel about my own lot in life, it could always be worse. But mostly I read them because I am inspired and impressed by the courage and strength people show in adversity and I hope to learn how to always have the same inner core of faith and courage that they have.

I do however, most days, give to others because I am so grateful for what I do have.  I am able to wake up each day with a roof over my head, able to put both feet on the ground and use all my limbs and have a mostly functioning brain.  I have people I love and who love me in my life and I have seen and done so many incredible things in my life.  I know how good my life has been and I am grateful for it.  But of course while I am basically content with my lot in life, I am still ambitious enough to want to have more, to do more, and to give more.  People who have become ill or disabled often express that as much as they are pained and hurt by their illness it is their need to receive care rather than give help that hurts more.  I know this is true.  I hate having to be needy.  Perhaps my need to give is my insurance policy against needing.  If I am the giver, than I will never have to be the recipient……I am certain Freud and others can go deeper…but let’s not.

In 2014 I will turn 55.  It is a good age and considering the alternative to getting older…I will age delightedly!  I am celebrating my 55th birthday by doing several things.  I am going to compete in at least two mini triathlons.  I am competing to get my body in shape to have the strength, endurance and grace to finish the events and to be able to get up the next day able to walk with comfort.  I am working on organizing my life so that I can really find what I need when I need it and not be overwhelmed by mountains of paper covering my office, my home and my car (this will be more difficult than the triathlons).  I will also be doing one more thing…probably even more shocking to some than anything else I have ever done…I am shaving my head.

When I turned 50, I let my hair go to its natural color, grey.  I decided I had spent 15 years of my life as a slave to covering up my natural color and had enough.  At 50 I decided I wasn’t fooling anyone about my age in any case and I might as well embrace who I really was.  The past five years have been both liberating and enlightening.  But now, as I turn 55 it seems that hair is again going to be a focal point of my continued aging.  I am going totally bald, at least for a while.  On March 31, 2014, I will join with 35 other rabbis in a program called “Shave for the Brave”.  36 rabbis are gathering to support our colleague whose son has leukemia and sadly is no longer responding to treatment.  I have not met either my colleague or her son, but I have obsessively followed her story as she journeyed with her son through the world of cancer.  You can read her blog at  The “Shave for the Brave” will raise money for the St BALDrick’s foundation, a volunteer organization that supports pediatric cancer research.  shave for brave badgeMy sacrifice of my hair is nothing by comparison to what the children and families infected with cancer and other chronic illness deal with on a day to day basis.  You can read more about my participation here.

In the morning prayer service we thank God for giving us the breath of life and for giving us bodies that have veins and arteries the keep us alive.  I thank God for my body, for my brain and for the ability to be a giver and a doer.

Baruch atah Adonai Rofeh Kol basar u’mafli laasot.  Blessed are you, God, who heals all flesh, working wondrously.


What Not to Say at Shiva (and What to Do and Say Instead)

By Rabbi Julie Wolkoff. D.Min., CT

At some point during shiva, I turned to my friend Steffi and made an off-hand comment – something like “mutter, mutter, mutter, class on what not to say at shiva.” Which is how I found myself giving a presentation a few days ago at LimmudBoston. To be perfectly fair, there were very few comments at shiva that landed on the “I can’t believe s/he said that” list. It was more the discomfort of those who didn’t know what to say, friends who later shared with me some of the comments that their families had gotten in the past during shiva, and some comments I got in the weeks after Bob’s death.

You can look on-line for things to say or not to say to people who are grieving. Most of the lists are very good. It’s important to remember that it’s not your job to “fix” things; nothing you say will “fix” things for mourners. The best words to say are those that recognize the person’s loss and recognize the person’s feelings. For example:

  • “I’m so sorry.”  “I am sorry for your loss.”  “I was so sorry to hear that X died.”
  • “I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know I care about you” or “. . . that I am here for you.”
  • “I can’t imagine how you are feeling (or – “I don’t know how you are feeling,”) but I am here for you.”
  • “I love you.”
  • “I will always remember the time when . . .” (share a memory or story)
  • Silence and a hug (or clasping their hands in yours.)

 When someone has died after a long illness, the family’s immediate memories are of the illness and the person’s decline. It can be hard in that moment to remember the person before the illness. One of the best things you can do in that case is to share a story about the person. If you didn’t know the person and you’re there because you know the family, look and see if there are old photographs and ask a question about them. One of my favorite questions for the spouses of my hospice patients is: “How did you meet?” I hear wonderful stories and the spouse has the chance to remember and share cherished memories. This type of question allows children and grandchildren to hear stories they may have never heard. It also gives friends and family who were present in the early days of a relationship a chance to share their perspective on how the relationship developed.

When a death is sudden, it is common for people to ask: “what happened?” Some people want and need to talk about it; they need to tell the story to understand what happened and make meaning of it. Others in the family may not be able to endure telling or hearing the story. It’s also possible that the mourner has just told their story before you arrived or has told it enough times today. “Would you like to talk about what happened?” is a better way to phrase the question. It gives the mourners the power to say “yes” or “no” – a great gift at a time when they may feel completely powerless.

In the what not to say category are:

  • “At least he didn’t suffer . . .” (How do you know?)
  • “She lived a long life.” (Not nearly long enough. Or maybe too long.)
  • “You’re so strong.” (Mourners may be in shock, they may be ‘sleepwalking’ through their grief. This is akin to “Don’t cry.” It denies the need to cry, scream, moan, and confront grief.)
  • “I know just how you feel.” (No. You don’t.)
  • “You’ll meet someone else.” “You can have another child.” (Really?)
  • “Time heals all wounds.” or “Time brings healing.” (The best thing I ever learned about grief was from Carla Sofka, Professor of Social Work at Siena College: “We grieve, five or ten minutes a time, for the rest of our lives.”)

 What can you do to help someone before, during or after shiva? Here are some of my categories of helpful actions.

  • Toilet paper & garbage bags – If you are helping organize shiva, check and see if there are enough basic supplies. This also includes paper plates, cups, and silverware. As much as we may want to be environmentally friendly, it is difficult to compost or recycle as hordes of people are coming in and out of the house. You can also be sensitive to where the garbage goes. My town does not have garbage pick-up. I was very grateful when my neighbor asked if I needed her to take my garbage to the dump and when my son-in-law arrived to specifically do a dump run. For people who live in places where they are limited to how much garbage they can put out each week, a really helpful action is to take a garbage bag home with you.
  • Offer specific help:
    • Clean out the fridge
    • Stay at the shiva home during the funeral / burial
    • Arrange for food for shiva / bring dinner to the family on the day(s) before the funeral
    • If you are comfortable doing so, let the family know you can lead the shiva minyan.

Be sensitive and understanding if your offers are refused. I had two people offer to mow my lawn before shiva. Even the most irrational person (and I was not always rational in my grief) would have recognized that my lawn was badly in need of mowing. However Bob always said that, left to his own devices, he would let the lawn go wild and in that moment I thought the lawn looked just like I felt. I thanked each of them and said “no.”

  • Food – If you are bringing food to a shiva minyan, be sensitive to the many dietary issues that may be involved. Does the family keep kosher? Are they vegetarian? Gluten free? It is good to bring things that won’t spoil if they are not put out right away. Shiva is not the best time for preservative free food; now is the time for the coffee cake with the two-month shelf life. Bring or send cut up fruit rather than a fruit basket. Few people know how to cut and serve a pineapple, and no one wants to take the one apple or banana. If you’re out of town, there are companies that ship food or you can contact a local specialty shop (for example, a cheese shop) and arrange to send something. While at the shiva house, ask if you can make up a plate for the mourners. They may forget to eat, but will do so if a plate is in front of them.

After shiva, help the family donate the leftover food. When I was a congregational rabbi, we had a relationship with a day shelter / soup kitchen a few blocks away from us. They were always thrilled with fresh fruit, sandwiches, casseroles, and anything that could add to the lunches and snacks they supplied every day. A food pantry might accept unopened food (like those coffee cakes.) If you can’t find a shelter or soup kitchen or it’s a holiday or weekend and they’re not open, call the local fire station. The fire station in my town was more than happy to take the leftover food from shiva when my friend Steffi called them.

Other things you can do at or after shiva:

  • Talk about the person who died. Mourners don’t want their loved one to be forgotten. It doesn’t hurt us to hear the name and it’s fine if we cry as you talk to us or tell a story.
  • Send a condolence card / letter. (Using the deceased’s name is best; if you don’t know the name then “your husband,” “your mother,” is better than getting the name wrong!)
  • If you have photographs & can get copies made – bring them and give them to the family. You can also email them or share them through a site like “Dropbox.”
  • Make a tzedakah contribution in memory of the person who died.
  • Open your calendar to some arbitrary day in the next 2 – 3 months and make a note to call the family.

It’s not easy to make a shiva call. It reminds us of our own mortality or our own losses or our fear of loss. We worry about saying or doing the “right thing.” But there are many “right things” we can do; the lists above are just a start. A simple “I’m so sorry” can be words enough. Our presence – sitting silently, giving a hug, making a phone call a few weeks or months later – says to the mourner that we are here, supporting them in their grief and offering comfort. Shiva visits also help to build and maintain the community that will one day be there for us as we face our own losses.


Rabbi Julie Wolkoff, D.Min., CT, is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts and a past co-president of the WRN. Find her blogging at:



The Value Of Quality

by Rabbi Wendy Spears


I love a bargain! Whether it’s for goods or services, I enjoy feeling I’m getting a good value for what I pay.

The main issue for me is quality. I admit that I shop at Target and CostCo. I use coupons. I’m mainly looking for nationally known brands for a lower cost, since I’ve had the experience that most name-brands are of higher quality than store-brands. However, CostCo’s store brand – Kirkland – is often as good in quality as the name-brand. When I asked a customer service representative about this, I was told that as a large retailer, CostCo often has the ability to work with the name-brand manufacturers to offer the same product under the Kirkland label.

While I don’t want to over-pay for goods and services, I’m willing to pay more for quality. In our often discounted marketplace, it’s easy to think that everything should be on sale for less all the time. We are fooled into thinking that high quality can always be available for a discount.

It is more difficult to assess quality when the product for which I pay is a service. It’s often very challenging to determine the credentials and experience of a service provider. The website Angie’s List was created for just this situation. Consumers rate providers on the services they’ve received. I also count on recommendations from family and friends when I’m looking for a plumber, air conditioning technician, or house painter. These are professionals for whom the average person can determine if they’ve received good service; i.e., the paint job looks smooth, the drain is unclogged, the air conditioning feels cold. Professionals like these also need a license from a government agency, so I ask to see proof of their license.

This process becomes more opaque when the professional offers a service that is more difficult to assess. Is the oncologist a good doctor if some of the patients die of cancer? How do you determine the value of dental care? When do you really know if your financial advisor is investing your retirement funds wisely? Most of us have heard of the Bernie Madoff financial scandal; he knew enough about the real deal to deceive his clients and steal their assets.

We all hope to avoid the disaster of a Bernie Madoff. I believe that most people are good people who aren’t out to cheat me. I want to be prudent in searching for a professional I can trust. In these situations, I need to investigate further and more in depth. I look at the quality and reputation of the institution where the professional was educated and, ideally, if the professional was near the top of the graduating class and/or received awards. I also want to know if the service provider is a member in good standing of a recognized professional association which can provide redress of any grievances. Then I rely on a referral from other professionals in the same field. While this process isn’t as easy as perusing Angie’s List, it is important if I want a quality experience with the professional who is providing the service.

This is exactly the same situation in choosing a rabbi or cantor, whether that professional is leading a synagogue or providing spiritual counseling in preparation for or in the aftermath of a wedding, funeral, or other learning situation in the community. A rabbi is more than an electrifying sermonizer or teacher of Jewish texts. A cantor is more than a beautiful voice singing Jewish songs and prayers. It’s about the whole package. There is a difference between teaching about the religion or singing a song and representing Judaism.

Genuine rabbis and cantors offer valuable quality in education and experience while being examples of living Judaism rather than merely selling a ceremony or class. Reform rabbis and cantors attend the nationally accredited Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion for 5 years of graduate study beyond their undergraduate educations. This involves rigorous training in Jewish literature and music, history, philosophy, human relations, and pastoral care with careful mentoring by professors and colleagues in the field. Rabbis are members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis while cantors are members of the American Conference of Cantors, both professional organizations that vet their members to ascertain that they are properly trained and educated as well as providing a forum for ethical behavior and redress of grievances.

There are people out in the community who are impersonating rabbis and cantors, using the titles without any authentic education, credentials, or ethical professionalism. Perhaps they have ‘good prices,’ but their value is questionable. They do not provide the same quality as the real deal; they are not the name-brand, but rather a pale facsimile. Just because someone has a wedding website doesn’t mean they are authentic rabbis or cantors. Quality and authenticity are valuable to me. I pray it is valuable to the Jews and spiritual seekers that I encounter in my life and work.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at