What Happens When A Jewish Person Dies?


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I have survived a few really nasty things in my life.  I sometimes wonder who I would have been if I had not gone through them.  No need to wonder, though, because it’s not an option.


Robert Downey Jr. once said that, after he’d been in prison, he became a conservative.  He said, “You can’t go from a $2,000-a-night suite at La Mirage to a penitentiary and really understand it and come out a liberal.”  Whether you agree with him or not, the fact remains that prison was a crisis for him, and he changed.


I can never go back to the way I was before.  Even if I could forget the past, I still lived a certain way, made certain choices, and I am the inheritor of those choices.  There’s no escaping the fact that I am different forever because of things that happen to me. 


Yes, you can recover from a crisis.  But like a broken glass, you can’t go back to the pure state.  So what does it mean to “recover?”


We are not in control of the crises that strike us.  If we were, we wouldn’t allow them to happen.  We are, however, in control of everything that comes after.


Judaism has a strange, some might say even harsh way of dealing with the death of a loved one.  The survivor is required to bury them within 24 hours, then have people over to their house each night for up to a week.  Following this week, the survivor has other responsibilities to the dead that last the rest of his or her life.


You might think this is unfair to someone who wants privacy after a death, who wants to deal with it in their own way.  But Judaism prefers to take the choice out of it rather than risk someone not dealing with the death at all.  “You’re going to deal,” it says, “and you’ll deal with it this way.”


I’ve come to see the value in that rather heavy-handed approach.  If we let misfortune wash over us the way a strong wave does, we will be buffeted about, going anywhere that wave takes us, and we can be disoriented, injured, or drowned by it.  On the other hand, if we are active and attentive at the moment of impact, we may be able to handle the force of the trajectory.


The important point is that we are going to be changed by tragedy no matter what.  The only real question is, are we going to have a say in how we are changed?  By dealing with misfortune, crisis, tragedy, we choose at least to some extent what kind of a person we are going to be from now on.


Don’t you think that dealing rather than being dealt could make a huge difference in who you turn out to be going forward?  Do you suspect it might modify the whole experience of tragedy and misfortune in a way that actually gives you an opportunity?  Would you rather have that opportunity or not?


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