In March of 2020, a few days before Purim, my dear son Jacob passed away. He was twenty-four years old. The tragedy of child loss is a unique kind of loss and is probably the most devastating event a parent can experience. I was asked if Judaism can be helpful in coping with losing a child. My answer to this question is – absolutely.
Before I explain further, I would like to go a bit into my religious background (or lack of one), so you have a better understanding of how my Judaism is a source of emotional comfort and strength.
Table of Contents
Growing Up Jewish (sort of)
Although my family was non-observant, I always knew I was Jewish. Our family went to the yearly Passover seder at my uncle’s home. My grandfather and uncle recited the entire service in Ladino (a combination of Hebrew and Spanish), and I had no idea what was going on.
My mother would take me to high holiday services. We lit the Chanukah menorah. That was it for observance. My parents wanted me to get some sort of Jewish education, so they enrolled me in a weekly Sunday school at the local synagogue. For me, it was just more school, and I disliked going.
If an elderly family member would pass away, my mother would talk about G-d, Moshiach, and the resurrection of the dead. So I had basic beliefs in these concepts, but not much else. Due to my ignorance about Judaism, life’s events seemed liked random occurrences, and the concept of death seemed so final and depressing.
When I was in my twenties, I started attending a class given by a Chabad Rabbi. Why I wanted to go to a Torah class, I really don’t know. At that time, I knew very few Jewish people, and I think maybe it just felt good being around other Jews. It was then that I started to ask myself a lot of questions – about G-d, about me, about why I’m here. I wanted to learn more about Judaism. Slowly, over time, I became an observant Jew.
Fast forward to the present…
My Judaism As Comfort Begins Here
The Journey of the Soul
Judaism teaches that the soul is a part of G-d and is thus immortal. In a nutshell, the journey of the soul is that G-d creates it, then places it in a body to accomplish a mission in this physical world.
When the job is done, the person’s soul goes back up to Heaven. The soul now continues life in the spiritual realm from whence it began. Since the soul lives forever, there isn’t really such a thing as death. There’s life here with a body, and life in the spiritual realm without a body. Life is life, just in a different ‘location’.
Teachings of Our Jewish Sages
Faith vs Belief
One of the things I’ve learned during my Jewish spiritual odyssey is that there’s a big difference between emunah (faith) and bitachon (belief or trust). My emunah says ‘I know there’s a G-d.’ Now, I need to carry over this emunah to bitachon. Bitachon says that whatever happens, G-d always does what’s best for me.
Even if things appear to be not good, I firmly believe that it’s for my benefit. Bitachon is one of the hardest concepts to live with. A person can have one hundred percent emunah and zero percent bitachon.
Our Sages describe the concept of bitachon in two different ways. Rabbi Akiva said ‘All that the Merciful One does, He does for good.’ In other words, G-d may bring about an unpleasant occurrence that leads to an end result which will be visibly good.
However, Nachum Ish Gamzu would say ‘This is also for good.’ This means that the unpleasant occurrence, in and of itself, is good. The saying of Nachum Ish Gamzu represents a higher level of bitachon than that of Rabbi Akiva, and it’s this second level that we strive for and is the hardest for most people. I’m still working on my bitachon on both levels.
I now understand that rather than life being a series of random events, G-d orchestrates everything that happens to me and it’s for the good. Before I learned about Judaism, these ideas were totally unknown to me. For a reason known only to G-d, He took my Jacob back at the right time.
My son completed his mission, whatever it was, and is now resuming the life he had before. He’s now serving G-d in a different way than he did here. He’s happy. It’s this belief that keeps me going.
Jewish Ritual Mourning Observances
Even though we know that everything is for the good, G-d knows we’re human and expects us to be sad when a loved one passes away. That is why the Torah prescribes numerous mourning observances. These observances are an outlet for the mourner to express grief and slowly return to a normal life.
When Jacob passed away, so many people from our Jewish community came to give our family comfort and support. We had only moved into our new home a few months before, and now, the whole neighborhood was grieving with us.
There were so many people at the funeral, most of whom I had never met. The whole community came out to bury this young man they didn’t even know. It was comforting that so many people cared and were there for us.
A very good friend of mine sometimes asks me ‘I don’t know how how you walk around at all. How do you get through this?’ I think to myself, ‘What choice do I have?’ Although the sadness is less intense now than several months ago, grief is still very much a part of my life.
I think about my son constantly. Sometimes I’m fine. Sometimes I cry. I am thankful that can turn to my Rabbis for the Jewish perspective on death and grieving. One of my dearest friends lost her son two years ago. She was born into a religious family and has a wonderfully strong bitachon. I am thankful she’s always there for me to provide words of comfort and strength. I am so thankful that my Judaism comforts me as I go up and down on this emotional roller coaster.
As King David says in his book of Psalms:
“Had your Torah not been my preoccupation, I would have perished in my affliction.”
© 2021 Rhonda Roth
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