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.

 

 

 

 

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Shiva Minyan

Dusk from window on board an Airbus A330.

 

I spent the early evening with a grieving family. They had come together to mourn the loss of a man in his fifties, dead of cancer. He was a gifted musician and human being, and everyone who knew him misses him terribly.

 

These days, many Reform families opt out of shiva or shorten it to one or two days. They give many reasons. I suspect that for many of them, the idea of a whole week of official mourning is a frightening prospect at a time when they are already disoriented and upset, and I can understand that. It’s a shame, though, because shiva can be wonderfully healing.

 

This family has chosen to embrace the process of mourning. They’ve opted for a real week of shiva: for seven days his widow is staying home, surrounded by family and friends. I am  temporarily serving at their synagogue, and I will lead the evening prayers for this shiva most nights.

 

The first night after the funeral the entire group was in shock. They were in that deep place of mourning where there is no consolation, only grief. I steered them through the service, hearing voices in the group check in and out as they were able. The tentative voices and soft crying made clear that they had just suffered an unthinkable loss. When we reached the point in the service where I offer the option of sharing stories or sitting in silence, they opted for silence. We sat quietly for a good five minutes. Afterwards, someone mentioned that it was good to be quiet together; they were all exhausted.

 

Four days later the mood had shifted. They were beginning to absorb the loss. Their voices were quiet but more relaxed. The dog greeted me, snuffling, and a few people chuckled at his obvious pleasure at the “messages” from my dogs. I sat in my usual place, they in their usual places. What had been strange the first night was already a routine.

 

I began the service with “Hinei ma tov,” a song about how good it is to be together. We used some of the alternate prayers in Mishkan Tefilah for a House of Mourning. Over the days since the first night they’d been looking through the book a bit and several had requests for readings that they liked. There were song requests, too, and we sang “Oseh Shalom” twice because someone remembered a favorite melody. I let the service take the shape they needed, then we finished traditionally, with Psalm 23El Male Rachamim, and Kaddish.

 

I said my goodbyes and slipped out. As I left, family and friends gathered in the kitchen, getting plates of food. Life is returning to this house, slowly but surely.