Tag Archives: remembering the dead

Remembering Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield, zt”l, of blessed memory, Crying a River of Tears

My sweet and wonderful teacher, Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield. Copyright 2010 The Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield Legacy Trust
My sweet and wonderful teacher, Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield. Copyright 2010 The Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield Legacy Trust

The Source of Beauty

(Story told by Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield as he remembered it from his teacher Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi zt”l, of blessed memory, retold by Nicole with permission from Rabbi Aryeh)

Once there was a man. He was one of those loose people that hang around street corners gabbing all day. One day, he was walking in the forest and there was a glen with a pond in it. The princess was just coming out from bathing in the pond. He saw her and she was very beautiful. He fell in love with her and so he hung around the palace waiting for her to come out again. Next time she went for a ride he stopped the wagon and said: “Hey, I love you. When will we be able to be together?” The princess took one look at him and said: “In the cemetery.”

He was a simple man, so he went to the cemetery to wait for her. “It’s not so easy for a princess to get away whenever she wants,” he figured to himself. “I guess whenever the coming is good she’ll be here.” He was waiting there one day, two days, getting along by a little begging, just hanging out in the cemetery. After a while he goes around looking at the gravestones and sees; this man lived to be very old, this lady died young, this one had a family, this one didn’t have a family, this one died in an accident. He started to ponder what things are all about. Every once in a while he would sit down and visualize what the princess looked like, so he wouldn’t forget why he was there.

Days go by. They bring people to the cemetery to bury them and he always watches, hangs around and eats. Nothing else is happening at the cemetery, so he watches the people who come to visit the graves. He sees people crying and hears people saying things like, “She was so pretty when she was young,” or “He was such a handsome man,” and all the other things people would say.

Weeks go by. One day he starts asking himself the question, “What is it that I have fallen in love with in the princess? If it is her physical beauty, that is very nice, but it keeps changing.” He realized that the beauty of outer forms is only one phase of beauty. There was nothing else to do in the cemetery but hang around and think and think. He was thinking about what beauty is all about, and he realized that beauty comes in so many ways that somewhere there must be the source of beauty. What could the source of beauty be? So, he kept on thinking.

Months go by. He realizes that the source of beauty must be The Holy One. Then he starts to think how beautiful The Holy One must be. All the visions of beauty he had ever seen passed before his mind’s eye. He realized how many forms beauty has. Then he started to ponder: “Maybe there is beauty without form.”

People saw this guy hanging around the cemetery sitting and thinking, so they started bringing him food so he wouldn’t have to go begging in the city. Word got out that there was a holy man sitting in the cemetery. He was still waiting for the princess but the people didn’t know that. They thought that if he’s sitting in the cemetery he must be a holy man. What else would he be doing there? People start to come and talk to him saying, “You know, I’ve got such and such troubles. What do you advise?” He would give his opinion or say, “I’ll think about it, come back some other day.” He started giving people blessings and the blessings worked.

Meanwhile the princess had gotten married, but she didn’t have any children. She tried doctors and this and that and nothing worked. One day someone said, “Listen, that holy man in the cemetery is doing great things.” She goes to the cemetery and asks the holy man for his blessing to have children.

One look at her and he recognizes the princess. “I want to thank you,” he says. “It was your beauty and your guidance that sent me to the cemetery in the first place, and since I’ve been here I’ve gotten to know many great things. If there is any merit in anything I’ve done I want that merit to be transformed into a child for you.” That’s how he blessed her.

A little while later, people saw he was sitting in very deep meditation, so they didn’t want to bother him. A few days went by and he didn’t come out of his meditation and all the food they brought was still there. The food started rotting and the flies started eating it, and soon the people saw that the flies were eating the man’s eyes too. He had died while he was contemplating the source of beauty without form.

The Raishit Chochma said that you can see from this story that one can learn from loving a woman or a man to come to the love of The Divine.

“Raising an Awareness of Awe”

“….Given that ‘the beginning of wisdom is the fear of heaven’ (Psalms: 111:10), and fear of heaven results from humility, we might expect the paradigm to begin with humility and end with wisdom. Yet Maharal is adamant that we consider a different paradigm, in which humility, and the dveykut attendant upon it, constitute the ultimate goal. Interpreting ‘Raishit Chochma Yirat Hashem’, he equates raishit with that which is primary,[1] so that fear of heaven is above wisdom both spiritually and ontologically. On the mishnah in Avot discussing the mutual interdependence of these values, Maharal further delineates the supremacy of Yirat Shamayim over Chochmah” ~ Yael Wieselberg from his paper: The Place of Yirat Shamayim in Moral Development: The Pedagogical Approach of the Maharal of Prague By Yael Wieselberg

[1] Netiv Yirat Hashem’, Chapter 1, pages 54-55.

This story was originally published in the Temple Beth El newsletter in April of 2000. It was submitted by me after asking Rabbi Aryeh, of blessed memory, if my version worked for him and was close enough to his telling.

More than One, Fifty years since my sister Paula’s Death, I remember….

Me, at the age, my sister Paula, died next to her grave in Boulder Colorado
Me, around the same age as my sister Paula when she died. I am sitting next to her grave (called the Lollipop grave) in Boulder, Colorado. This gravestone was commissioned by my parents, because while holding Paula they saw her interest in one of  DeWain Valentine’s watercolors, a heart shaped abstraction hanging in his studio. “Paula pointed to it with great animation and when we recalled that, after her death, we decided to commission DeWain to make it into a sculpture to mark her grave.”


Today, May 16, 2014 marks 50 years since my sister Paula died. I was inside my mother’s womb three and a half months from being born on that day. In this picture I am somewhere between two and three. My sister died three months short of her second birthday. Her death has marked my life as well as the lives of all our family. Death is a certainty for all of us, but no one wants a child to die or expects it.

I am truly a child of death, born into the grieving arms of my amazing and brave parents, who had to find love and presence to give me while being devastated about the loss of their firstborn beautiful child.

Every year at this time I light a Yahrzeit candle for her and remember her physical presence on this earth. This Jewish practice is so important to me and gives me a comfort that is beyond words. I feel connected to my sister across time and space and I remember her and honor her and recognize that her short time on this earth was real and deserves honoring.

Yahrzeit Candle and memory altar for Paula on anniversary of her death.
Yahrzeit Candle and memory altar for Paula on anniversary of her death.

My parents have gone through various different ways of mourning her over the last fifty years. There is no way to navigate the territory of the death of a child right or wrong. It is all wrong.

Everything about a child dying feels wrong and those who have to cross that territory know this in a way that others who have not cannot really speak to. I have not lost a child to death and I pray I never do, but that is not within my control. Death is a certainty, there is no way out of it.

The mainstream culture runs kicking and screaming from this reality, racing as fast as they can from the idea that we all have a date stamp on us, one that we don’t know and cannot see.

If you are a practicing Buddhist, you spend a very long time imagining and looking at your own death in all kinds of different scenarios. If you are a Tribally aligned person, from anywhere around the globe, you recognize that the spirits of those who have died are here on this earth either to help or teach or hinder us based on many different factors. If you are an African Dagara Shaman like Malidoma Patrice Somé , you have a frame-work of belief that holds you, as the progeny of an ancestor, responsible for their wrong actions and the beneficiary of their good actions. If you are Hindu, you are engaged in a circle and chain of lives lived across space and time over and over in various forms. If you are Mexican you will make a feast and an altar of memories and offerings for your dead once a year and recognize and remember them together. Here, we just foolishly hope death will go away and try to avoid the topic. I’m summarizing very deep and profound beliefs here and could write many long essays on each of these, and perhaps I will, or as we say in my tradition, “go and study.” If something here stimulates you to learn more or go deeper, maybe even into the burial root ground of your soul.

I have studied and do study death more than most folks in our society. I am a co-founder of our community’s burial society called a Hevra Kadisha. I prepare folks for burial according to Jewish tradition. I have been called by death from within the womb-safe belly of my mother. I met my sister in that liminal space between, before my birth and after her death.

She was my angel in all the dark nights of my childhood, a sweet presence that helped me find hope, or pointed out the right direction.

I visited her grave as a child and have always held a place for her in my heart.

Memoriam Collage by Helen Redman 1995
Memoriam Collage by Helen Redman 1995

When I was a teenager I would visit the graveyard with my friend Gretchen Reinhardt and we would attempt to rescue or put back together gravestones that had been vandalized.

I was never afraid in that graveyard. All those dead were my friends. It was a quiet, calm place where I didn’t have to feel all the pain of those around me. No one was teasing me or hurting me and I never felt like an alien in the cemetery. I was at home there, I still am. Death and I have always been in relationship.

Which is why everyday of my life feels like an amazing gift that I need to live fully and well. I am not running away from the knowledge that I will die, that all those I love and cherish will die. I am acutely aware of this and I know it in my cells and in my blood. My umbilical cord blood was saturated with the pain of my sister’s passing, my very core has been colored by her passing. This is not a sad story though, while at the same time being the saddest story.

I am more than okay now as I round the corner towards fifty and I pass this spot on the calendar and I touch her once again in the cycle of remembering. I know that there is more to death than an end. I know this in my body, heart and mind, in my Lev (Hebrew for Heart/Mind)  and in my soul and it is not just a comfort to me, it is a lifeline and a guiding force in my life.

I know this post will make my mother cry, but she and I have a long and deep understanding about honesty and truth-telling and being real with each other. We both have made and will make mistakes, but we are linked so very deeply in our connection to dealing with death honestly and with whatever we have to bring to the table around it. Others in my family do not often want to talk about Paula, but perhaps they will read this or maybe they won’t. My father used to take me to her grave as a child, this was not something I did with my mother. As an adult when I am in Boulder I visit her grave and place a stone on it.

Jewish folks bring stones to a grave, stones to mark that our memory for those who have left this earth is as long and durable and tangible as that of a stone or a rock. A rock has been around for millenniums and this symbolic act is our way of saying, “YOU are present for us still today.” It reminds us to do good and enact justice for those who are living. It reminds us to not throw stones, but to remember that everyone is precious and will be mourned by someone, so we shouldn’t go around killing folks EVER!

A rock says, I silently mark this territory and bear witness for you, even when you are in the ground yourself, I will still be here as a reminder of your presence on this planet, at this place.

Visiting my sister's grave October 2014, leaving stones and saying prayers and remembering.
Visiting my sister’s grave October 2014, leaving stones and saying prayers and remembering.

I have a mother who is an artist and who has been marking my presence and journey on this earth since before I was born into it. She has marked me with paint and pastel, with pencil and with cloth. Reminding me and anyone brave enough to visit this place of pain, death and life that we are always MORE THAN ONE.

We are all connected one to the other, now and forever and always and always.

I love you mommy and I love you Papa. I grieve for your loss, even still and especially, today fifty years later.

Thank you for loving me so deeply and magnificently!

Here I am, inside my mommy, right before I was born, more than one always!

More than One by Helen Redman, 1964
More than One, by Helen Redman, 1964