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engaging those who experience loss

Updated: Apr 26, 2018

Author: Daniel Mackintosh

Drash on Parashat Shemini

Shabbat shalom everyone, my name is Daniel Mackintosh. It is wonderful to be with you on this Shabbat after Pesach. So, what is the 1 thing that all Londoners have been talking about today? Yes, the weather – we finally had some sunshine, which feels like a marker saying: ‘Spring is here!’ I grew up in a Cape Town, a place that does not really have seasons. But I have learnt to love Spring.

Every week I walk up and down our local park, inspecting the leaves on different trees, waiting for migrant birds to return, for the ducklings to make their way out into the pond. Spring is a reminder that the natural world is always in flux, that things which look dead can be brought back to life. And that death itself is just life in a different form.

Here at the Willesden Minyan/Shir Hayim community, we are still learning how to thoughtfully and appropriately engage people who have lost loved ones.

And in that respect, there is some learning we can draw from this week’s parasha, Shemini. Can I ask everyone to turn to Leviticus 10:1. We are about to read this terrible scene when the sons of Aharon, Moses’s brother, become over-zealous in their sacrifices to God.

Can I have a reader to read 10:1 – 10:3?

“10:1: And Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before the Lord foreign fire, which He had not commanded them.

10:2: And the fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.

10:3 Then Moses said to Aaron, "This is what the Lord spoke, [when He said], 'I will be sanctified through those near to Me, and before all the people I will be glorified.' " And Aaron was silent.”

Now, the traditional interpretation of ‘Va’yadom Aharon’ is ‘Aharon was silent’. Rashi (1040-1105), says that Aaron’s silence as a sign of his great faith: Aaron does not utter so much as a word of protest or complaint. Thereafter, Aaron was rewarded for his silence, because just afterwards, in verse 8, God addresses Aaron exclusively, without Moses playing any role. Today, we may diagnose Aaron with shock – that his silence was his numbness at something so awful that has just befallen his sons.

But, Rabbi Shai Held from Yeshivat Hadar, suggests another interpretation of the word d-m-m. The word can also mean ‘to mourn or moan’. So, while Aaron is mourning/moaning, what does Moses do? He attempts to theologise, suggesting that there is a reason for Nadav and Avihu’s death, and outlining a reward for Aaron. Not exactly the most helpful response while someone who has just seen their children struck down by God.

So, if Moses got it wrong, what are good ways to approach and engage people who have been dealing with terrible loss?

Cheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, who lost her husband in 2015, realised that many people do not have the language or experience to respond. Here are her suggestions:

First: When someone is in anguish, our instinct is to encourage them to think positive. “Time heals all wounds!” “Everything happens for a reason.” But after interviewing people who lost a spouse or child, psychologists found that the most unhelpful “help” came from those who urged them to cheer up and recover. Pressuring people to be happy is a sure-fire way to make them sad; feeling bad about feeling bad just makes us feel worse.

For bereaved parents and spouses, the most helpful help came from people who created the space for them to express their feelings - Some things cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.

Second: We’ve tried to empathize by mentioning something similar we’ve encountered. Your brother is sick from chemo? I totally know how you feel — my cat was throwing up recently. Sociologists call this conversational narcissism: that moment when we shift the conversation to put ourselves in the spotlight. Odds are you don’t actually know how they feel. Even if you do, you should focus on their experience, not yours.

“When you’re faced with tragedy,” writer Tim Lawrence notes, “the most powerful thing you can do is acknowledge. Literally say the words: I acknowledge your pain. I’m here with you.”

Third: We’ve tried to help by offering advice. That turns out to be the other most unhelpful form of help. Go to the gym — sure, I’ll sweat off the grief! Come to the holiday party — yep, drinking eggnog will help me win custody of my kids.

We have some unsolicited advice: Don’t give unsolicited advice. Consider just admitting, “I wish I knew the right thing to say. I’m so sorry you’re going through this — but you will not go through it alone.”

And fourth: We’ve tried to show support by saying, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” We meant it, but it put the burden on others to know what they needed and feel comfortable asking. “Instead of offering ‘anything,' ” author Bruce Feiler recommends, “just do something.” Invite them over for a holiday dinner. Make a playlist of songs that aren’t about joy or snow. When you’re at a loss for words, the best thing you can do is spring into action. Actions don’t just speak louder than words — they’re felt more deeply, too.

John O’Donohue, the celtic poet and mystic, has said that we do not bless one another enough. Blessings create hope and possibility and give us something to aspire to.

So, here is my blessing for this community:

May we learn how to care for one another, in times of life and death. May caring for each other be a verb we all practice and may this community make us into kinder, more

thoughtful people.

Shabbat shalom

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