Thursday, March 24, 2011

Loss Trivial and Tragic and Silence of the heart

The trivial in tragic times
I have been very blessed to be able to think about trivial losses. I cannot begin to imagine the recent devastating losses in Japan, New Zealand, Libya and Queensland and the holy land. Nor can I grasp the loss of Indigenous Australians who would hide their children when the Authorities came looking for them[1], echoing stories of Jewish children in Russia that were kidnapped for 25 years of enforced assimilation. But in my limited way I will try to shed some light on this, but may tread more lightly than the harsh times call for.

Loss of privilege - in the town of Berry
I am on a flight to London. Travel is a gift of good fortune as much as technology. The privilege of travel that I often take for granted was taken from me yesterday. I expected to be home between 7 and 8 pm, travelling on reasonable roads between 60-110 km per hour. There is heavy rainfall, my friend Sheik Haisam behind the wheel, slows down slightly. Then the traffic stops. We wait, wait some more and some more. Nothing is moving. There are police ahead. The road is blocked, covered in water. No idea when it will reopen. Could be hours, the Sheik, a priest named Buzz and I might need to spend the night in the tiny town of Berry NSW (Population: 1934). The road behind us has also been blocked. The reality sinks in, there is no detour, no way to fix this.  

Relief in powerlessness and acceptance
A strange equanimity enveloped me. A bit like when we were kids and the bus broke down on camp, we were stuck in middle of nowhere and it was fun. So we got out of the car, wandered around the town in the light rain, pondered the ominous sign of the dingy on the roof of the local pub (Bar for Americans) and cracked corny jokes. It's what my father would have done, the jokes that is, not the corny bit.

My equanimity about spending the night with two friends in Berry is no great achievement[2]. A remarkable story about King David has him fasting and in absolute distress about his sick child, until he learns that the boy has died, when he arises and goes off to bathe and change. When he is questioned about this, he says “'While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept; for I said: Who knows whether the Lord will not be gracious to me, that the child may live? But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? Can I bring him back again[3]”. It seems that in addition to loss, there is the additional distress of trying to prevent catastrophe, which is often as frustrating as it is futile.

Finding the silver lining in the downside of blessing
I found the following story illuminating,
The Master's[4] son had passed away. His disciples came to comfort him.
Disciple 1: Adam lost his son, yet he was comforted.
Master: Do I need to add Adam's tragedy to mine?...
R. Jose entered and sat before him.
R. Jose: My master, would you like me to say one thing?
Master: Say.
R. Jose: Aaron lost his two great sons, Nadav and Abihu[5] both of whom died in the same day, yet he accepted consolation.
Master: Do I need to add Aaron's tragedy to mine....
Finally one disciple told the master a parable.
A king entrusted a treasure to his servant, as long as he had the treasure he suffered because he was worried that something might happen to it. When the king retrieved the item he felt relieved . Upon hearing this, the master was comforted[6]. 
The responsibility the master had for raising this child to be a good person and servant of God had been completed and he was relieved of it.

Silence and Stillness of the spirit
The howling in pain sits alongside the stoic silence. In the case of Aaron the brother of Moses, we learn that his two sons were killed by God for an offence that is not entirely clear[7].  The Torah tells us “Vayidom Aaron”. This is translated by some “Aaron was silent”[8]. An alternative view argues that the choice of word, “Vayidom” rather than the common “Shtikah” is significant. Shtika is  about  not talking, crying or sighing. Words with the root “Dom”, indicate a silence of the heart, and an inner calmness of the spirit[9].  Jews pray everyday that “toward those who curse me, may my heart be still (or silent)[10]. Aaron justified the judgement upon himself[11], in a way that Jewish law still mandates today. The response to news of bereavement is “Blessed be the true judge”.

On the other end of the spectrum we have an interpretation that Aaron's “heart was broken out of the pain of his sons[12].

Meaningful suffering
This discussion cannot ignore Victor Frankel's concept that 'if one has a why, one can withstand any how[13]', in that if one can find meaning in his suffering s/he can bear it. This dynamic is also at work in Aaron's ordeal, when Moses states “this is what God has spoken, with my holy ones will I be sanctified and on the faces of all the nation will I be respected[14]”. This helps Aaron deal with his loss.

A parable is given to explain the sanctification of God through the death of Aaron's sons.
A king hears that one of the people of the palace sat in his thrown room and put the kings crown on his head. He thinks that if it becomes known that this happened and he got away with it, no one will respect the king. So he has the offender beheaded and this way everyone takes the king seriously[15].

I find the parable jarring, especially when I think about recent events in Libya, yet in1300 BC this kind of reasoning would have helped Aaron find meaning and be still or silent in the face of a terrible loss.

Responding to the suffering of others
Silence is also useful for those seeking to support the bereaved according to Jewish teachings. Dutch Rabbi Vorst, in his outstanding honest and valuable book “Why” talks of his own struggle to deal with the loss of his child. He expresses intense frustration with well intentioned people who visited him and tried to distract him with small talk. He did not want to be distracted, he wanted to be present with his loss[16]. Jewish law guides “comforters” to be silent and follow the cues of the bereaved. I think this is beautifully illustrated in the description of R. Jose's behaviour in the story above, where he sits first, then asks permission.

In spite of all of the above, one of the teachings I find most useful is the statements that “it is not in our hands to grasp (the reasons for) the tranquillity of the wicked nor the ordeals of the righteous,[17]”. The mystery of loss can at times be responded to with acceptance which can be less distressing than trying to control the uncontrollable. Finding meaning or thinking differently about loss has also helped some people. We dare not judge people in how they deal with distress. Each person will respond differently and if we are in a position to try to support them, taking cues from the sufferer is useful, as is silence. I conclude with a prayer, that it be the will of the almighty that real suffering and loss come to an end and that more people be in a position to think about problems like whether or not they will have to spend a few hours in the lovely town of Berry NSW. 

[1]    Heard from Lex Dadd, a Darug man at Maroubra, NSW Australia on 22/03/2011
[2]    Although it did involved cancelling my commitments for the next day and some risk that I would not be on the plane  to London.
[3]  Samuel II, 12:22-23
[4]    Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai
[5]    Leviticus 10:2
[6]    Talmud, Avod D'Rabbi Nathan
[7]    The Torah says they brought a fire or offering that God had not commanded them. Interpretations vary about what this actually means, they include the suggestion that they were drunk during the service among others.
[8]    Rashi, Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel
[9]    Shem Olam, cited in Kasher, M. (1978), Torah Shlaima, Vol 28. p.10, note 24
[10]  The Amida prayer, “Vlimkalily, Nafshi Tidom”
[11]  Menorat Hamaor, part 3, p146 cited in Kasher, ibid, also in Shem Olam. Kasher also includes a version of Unkelus' translation that renders the verse as “Aaron praised”.
[12]  Toldot Adam also cited in Kasher, note 25
[13]  Frankel, V., Man's Search for Meaning
[14]  Leviticus 10:4
[15]  Midrash Hagadol cited in cited in Kasher, M. (1978), Torah Shlaima, Vol 28. p.8
[16]  Vorst, Rabbi Y,(1991) Why? Reflections on the Loss of a Loved One
[17] Pirkey Avot, (Ethics of the fathers)  4:11


  1. An excellent article. it gives one a lot to think about. I loved it.

  2. Hey Zamlam. Good article and very stimulating. You may know the story:
    A holy man was engaged in his morning meditation under a tree whose roots stretched out over the riverbank.
    During his meditation he noticed that the river was rising, and a scorpion caught in the roots was about to drown.
    He crawled out on the roots and reached down to free the scorpion, but every time he did so, the scorpion struck back at him.

    An observer came along and said to the holy man, 'Don't you know that's a scorpion,
    and it's in the nature of a scorpion to want to sting?' To which the holy man replied,
    'That may well be, but it is my nature to save,
    and must I change my nature because the scorpion does not change his?'

    Perhaps a response to suffering can also be to choose to live in the mystery of the Divine with nature that is given us to save.
    Thanks again,

  3. Thank you Fuzz. I did not know the story, is is beautiful. A good way to think about it all, what is asked of us rather than what we want for ourselves.