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Counsel | David Wolpehorizontal rule

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Rabbi David Wolpe is a teacher, an author, and, as senior rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, a spiritual leader. Since becoming a rabbi, Wolpe has been a scholar-in-residence and speaker at over 300 synagogues, churches, universities and other institutes. The author of five books, Wolpe's credits include Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times (Riverhead Books, 1999), which was informed by his personal experience of his wife's diagnosis with cancer.

Advice for those who are close to individuals dying or grieving a loss.

I have three words for them.

Presence, in other words be there around the other people who are suffering.

Silence, don't feel that you have to say something because some of the most foolish things that I've ever heard have come from people who are attempting to comfort those who are in trouble because they feel they have to say something.

And availability. That is, be ready to talk and to listen without forcing it.

And those three things together create a community of grief and every grief seeks community.

The worst thing you can do to somebody who's really grieving is to say, 'I know exactly how you feel.' Because I know how I would feel but I don't know how someone else feels. But I can say I care about you and I'm ready to listen. It's a much more humble thing to say and also a more inviting thing to say.

More than that I'm not sure any of us can offer each other but that's an awful lot.

 

Excerpt from Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times
Rabbi David Wolpe (Riverhead Books, 1999)

Is this world all there is?
My elderly friend and student says he does not believe in another world. He tells me people think he is studying religion because he is afraid of what will happen after death. "It's nonsense," he insists. "A fairytale for the frightened." I find it equally hard to believe that all we are simply vanishes. I don't think we go to a physical place. After all, the essence, the soul, is not physical. As the Israeli scholar Adin Steinsaltz once remarked, "To ask where the soul goes is a nonsense question. The soul is not physical. Where does a dream go once it has been dreamt? Where does love go when it disappears?"

We cannot conceive of what life might be like if it is not material like this life. In this life we are tied to the tangible, except our deepest experiences tend to be things that are not really physical like love, like memory. We cannot imagine what happens after death, but the poverty of our imagination does not prove that the world is not more creative then we know.

It is lovely to think that the loss of this world is a ticket price to the inheritance of the next. Maybe we step through this world as if through a corridor. A beautiful comment by Bronson Alcott, friend of Emerson and father of Louisa May Alcott, ties together the themes of failing memory and the world to come. As he grew older, Emerson started to lose his memory. He tried to get around it - once forgetting the term "umbrella" he called it "the thing strangers take away" - but it troubled him. He was consoled by Alcott, who made reference to the Platonic legend that human beings know all about this world, but lose that knowledge the moment we are born. Likewise, he said that as we get older, we start to lose knowledge of this world in the form of a failing memory to prepare us for the next one. Each time we cannot remember something about this world, it is not failing but letting go.

The most powerful and comprehensive attempt to ease the loss attendant upon death is the belief that we will live on. Believing in another world make the losses of this world less enduring and more bearable. But, of course we cannot be certain if there is another world. We are not granted a glimpse.

The idea that we continue takes may forms, from the existence of another world to the lightest, least concrete, which is that we live on in memory. The English poet James Elroy Flecker, who hoped to live on through the artistry of his lines addressed to a poet, who will read them 1,000 years later, wrote: "O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,/ Student of our sweet English tongue,/Read out my words at night alone:/ I was a poet, I was young."

The comfort of memory may be all we have. If so, then living well, creating art or children, is the only assurance of permanence, because then we will leave a legacy.

Leaving a legacy is a heroic ideal, one which we find in classical poetry and the Greek world from which it grew. In The Illiad the martial legacy of Achilles endures not the warrior himself. Achilles dies, but to die heroically and leave a memory shining to posterity is surely better than to eke out a few more miserable years as a coward. The same notion lives in the famous funeral oration of Pericles, in epic poems, in the encomiums lavished on heroism in Plutarch's Lives. As written in the medieval epic Beowulf: "We must all expect an end to life in this world; let him who can win fame before death, because that is a dead man's best memorial."

The idea persists today. At funerals, we are told that "this person will live on in memory of his good deeds, and in the hearts of those who loved him." This sentiment helps with the loss, but it does not take it away. Still, the person is gone. Still, the family is bereft. Still, there is a hole in the world.

The soft, insistent voice of something more whispers in our ear. Can this be all?

 

Rabbi David Wolpe's Recommended Reading
Gillman, Neil. "The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought."
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2000.
A Jewish scholar explains the historical and contemporary Jewish views on the afterlife.

Kung, Hans. Translator: Quinn, Edward. "Eternal Life?: Life After Death As a Medical, Philosophical, and Theological Problem."
Crossroad Publishing Company, 1991.
A profound exploration of the major theological questions about an afterlife from one of the world's leading Christian theologians.

Remen , Rachel Naomi. "Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal."
Riverhead Books, 1997.
A doctor and oncology counselor tenderly probes the links between the human body and psyche.

Spitz , Rabbi Elie Kaplan and Weiss, Brian L. "Does the Soul Survive: A Jewish Journey to Belief in Afterlife, Past Lives, and Living with Purpose."
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2000.
A Rabbi retraces his journey from skepticism to belief in past lives.

Wolpe, David. "Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times."
Berkeley Publishing Group, Paperback, August 2000.


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