We Are the Ones God Sends by Rabbi Stephen Karol

We gather together at our Yizkor (memorial) services for a common purpose – to honor the memories of loved ones through the ritual of communal remembering. When we do, we fit into three categories of mourners: those who have experienced a death in the last few months, those who have experienced a death in the last year, and those who have experienced a death or more than one death over a period of years. If we were to be constituted as a support group rather than a group of people praying, we would take the opportunity to sit and tell our stories, to talk about the people for whom we mourn, to reflect on the feelings we have had as a result of their deaths, and to share the insights that we have gained in the process. All of that would be the key to making each one of us believe that “I am not alone,” “my experience is not unique,” “there are other people who know what I am talking about,” and “I am among those who think that my reactions to death are normal.”
When we pray in a synagogue, our verbalizing is through the language of our tradition and through the structure of our service. It is based on the assumption that there is a God in Whom we believe and Who, in turn, listens to us when we pray and answers those prayers in one way or another. Every Yizkor service is an opportunity for you to affirm that you are connected, that you are not alone, that your experience is not unique, that others know what you’re talking about when you mention a loved one who has died, and that those others think that you are as normal as they are. You also have the chance to connect with others after the service, if you choose to stay. I believe, with all my mind and heart and soul, that we can be of help to one another in dealing with death in general and the death of loved ones in particular. My beliefs are summarized in this reading, written by Ann Weems, called: “I See Your Pain”:

I see your pain

And want to banish it

With the wave of a star,

But have no star.

I see your tears

And want to dry them

With the hem of an angel’s gown,

But have no angel.

I see your heart fallen to the ground

And want to return it

Wrapped in cloths woven of rainbow,

But have no rainbow.

God is the One

Who has the stars, and angels, and rainbows,

And I am the one

God sends to sit beside you

Until the stars come out

And the angels dry your tears

And your heart is back in place,

Rainbow blessed.”

Weems, Searching for Shalom, 23.1

The pain that you experience because of a death can be emotional or physical, solitary or shared, sudden or prolonged. It can leave its mark in a way that can seemingly never be healed, or it can be lessened by a belief that we can be healed by life itself. The pain that you experience because of a death is forever etched into your memories and your souls because of the love you felt for the person who has died. And every time you think of that person, and feel a pang of remorse, or a tinge of regret, or a moment of remembering, you may feel that you’re giving in to the pain and that it will never leave you. In those times, you may feel like you want to banish the pain with the wave of a star.
We are the ones God sends to sit beside you until the stars come out again. All of us who have experienced the pain of death know that such pain cannot be totally banished – by ourselves, by our friends, by a star, not even by God. It is not the wave of a star, the sense of something magic, or the reliance on something miraculous that helps us deal with pain.
It is the presence of others who are there when we need them, who help us when we haven’t even asked, and who are silent when we just want to vent. And, I don’t believe that they are sent by God to take the place of God. I believe that, when each of them acts to sit beside another person until the stars come out, they are acting in a Godly way.
The tears that you cry because of a death may be private or public, periodic or persistent, many or few. Crying can be regarded as a sign of weakness and the inability to cope, or as a sign of healthy emotions and the ability to face reality. The tears that you cry because of a death are because of the love you felt and still feel for the person who died, a love which our funeral ceremony praises as being stronger and more powerful than death.
And, any time you cry when you think of that person, and you recall what you said on a certain occasion or didn’t say, what you did or didn’t do, you may feel that the crying is permanent, and that the tears will never end. In those times, you may want to dry those tears with the hem of an angel’s gown.
We are the ones God sends to sit beside you until the angels dry your tears. Actually, I believe that it is we who are the angels. All of us who have experienced the pain of a death know that tears are inevitable, and most of us realize that they are natural. They are not necessarily a sign of weakness and the inability to cope. In fact, they can serve a cleansing function for our bodies and our souls. It is not the angel of a Biblical story or a movie who will come to console you. It is a true angel, a true malach, a messenger in human form. It is a relative or a friend, a child or an adult, a clergyperson or a health professional, who will literally sit beside you or across from you, who will reach out to you on the phone or with a note, or who will engage you in a lengthy conversation rather than just asking how you are and not listening to the answer. I don’t believe that God sends winged angels from on high to dry our tears. I believe that, when each of us acts to dry someone else’s tears, then it is we who are angels, behaving as God would want us to behave.
The tear in your heart that you experience because of a death can be immediate or delayed, constant or sporadic, expected or surprising. It is recognized in our ritual with the tearing of a shiva ribbon, which we explain as meaning that material things are insignificant to us in comparison to death, but also as meaning that the physical damage done to that small piece of cloth is like the emotional damage done to us. To me, the idea that your heart may fall to the ground or feel torn because of the death of someone you loved indicates a sense of giving up hope and giving in to the grief. Some damage, you may think, can never be repaired. Some things, you may believe, may fall and never be picked up.
We are the ones God sends to sit beside you until your heart is back in place. It may not be in the same place as before, and it may not be in the same shape as before. It is not put back in place by a miracle or an angel, because you merely sit there waiting for it to
appen, or because someone else is merely sitting next to you waiting for it to happen. It is put back in place because God has put within each of us the power to draw on faith and courage, determination and perseverance, resilience and optimism. It is put back in place when we take advantage of the sense of partnership that is available to us – involving ourselves, others, and God – to wrap that naked and vulnerable heart in the clothing of hope, to pick up the heart that has seen only the color of black, and to remember that the world in which we live is a rainbow.
God is the One who has stars and angels and rainbows. But we are the ones God sends to sit beside you until the stars come out, and the angels dry your tears, and your heart is back in place. When that happens, we are, indeed, “rainbow blessed.” We, who feel cursed by death and because of death, can feel blessed because of what God has implanted within us, because of what others can bring us, and because of what we can do. Look for the ones God has sent to sit beside you, be among the ones God has sent to sit beside others, and you will discover the blessing of seeing the world in its true colors.

Rabbi Stephen Karol
Rabbi Stephen Karol

Rabbi Stephen A. Karol is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook, New York. He was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati in 1977, and has served at Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, New York, Congregation Sha’aray Shalom in Hingham, Massachusetts, and Temple Isaiah. He teaches at Temple Isaiah and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Stony Brook University, and is a frequent speaker at synagogues, churches, Jewish Community Centers, and various organizations on 15 different topics. Rabbi Karol lives in Port Jefferson Station, New York with his wife Donna.

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Upcoming Gamliel Institute Courses

The next course scheduled for the Gamliel Institute is Course 3 – Chevrah Kadisha Education, Organization, and Leadership (EOL). It focuses on leadership, communal education, and organizational skills for creating and maintaining a Chevrah Kadisha. It will run September 3rd through December 17th 2019. Registration is $500. with a volume and clergy discount available.


Gamliel Continuing Education provides advanced programs in three 90 minute to 2 hour sessions on consecutive Wednesdays in the Spring and Fall each year. The next series will be September 4th, 11, and 18th, 2019, taught by Rabbi En Leader. The topic will be Taharah Liturgy. Tuition is $72.00.


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If you are interested in submitting a blog entry, please be in touch with us at j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or 304-989-4014. We welcome articles from 750 to 3000 words that relate to Jewish matters around living Jewishly, the end of life, dying, death, chevrah kadisha, Taharah, Shmirah, comforting the ill and mourners, and other related issues.


We hope that you find this blog to be uplifting and inspiring. We would welcome your thoughts and reactions.

About Expired and Inspired

Expired and Inspired is Kavod V’Nichum’s blog on all matters relating to life end, death, funerals, and comfort. 

The topic of death and dying has long been a taboo subject. Because death comes to all of us, and touches almost all of us in our life, we feel that it needs to be open for conversation and learning – not necessarily in a morbid fashion: there are aspects of this part of life that are beautiful and touching. Our view is that the death of a loved one is sad, but the sacred, holy work in which we engage in this arena can be spiritual, loving, transformative, and life-affirming. Talking about it should not be ‘taboo’ or avoided. There is even room, at times, for humor, as well as awe, love, and honor, as we explore this universal part of life.

Expired and Inspired is intended to educate, reveal, and share stories in an interesting and compelling way about the people involved, and the Jewish process, rituals, and activities that include Bikkur Cholim (comforting the ill and the dying) and the work of Caring Committees, and all aspects concerning the Jewish approach to the end of life, death & dying, the work of the Chevrah Kadisha (the Holy Society involved with preparation of the deceased for burial), care for the deceased, and comfort for mourners and those bereaved.


Our range of topics is very broad. As a part of what we include we consider Shmirah (watching or guarding) the body (and soul) of the deceased, burial preparations at ‘home’ or done ‘personally’ by family or community members vs. those provided by professionals, suitable locations for funerals and memorial services, the specifics of Jewish funerals and memorial services, all aspects of Jewish rituals, customs, and ceremonies, Jewish forms of mourning, comforting and supporting mourners, Jewish issues around cremation and other forms of non-burial, ‘difficult’ or complicated situations, ‘green’ funerals and cemeteries, concerns with care for and ownership/maintenance/regulation of cemeteries and Jewish burial locations, the fees and costs associated with funerals, and other related matters, with an emphasis on first person stories. Our goal is to draw attention, inform, raise interest, educate, and encourage others to learn more about the work that we do, to consider calling on the organizations that do this work in their community at their time of need, and perhaps to consider becoming involved in this work in their own community.


We are not limited other than by what our authors choose to cover.


Kavod v’Nichum (Hebrew for “honor and comfort”) uses education and advocacy to empower Jews of all backgrounds to reclaim the mitzvot (“commandments” or “good deeds”) of honoring the dead. The organization ensures that local groups and congregations can support mourners through traditional Jewish activities and rituals in ways that are accessible and relevant to today’s Jewish community. Kavod v’Nichum helps the Jewish community engage with traditional practices while giving individuals the information they need to adapt those traditions in their own meaningful ways.

Kavod v’Nichum encourages and assists the organization of bereavement committees and Chevrah Kadisha groups in synagogues and communities so that they can perform Jewish funeral, burial, and mourning mitzvot; protect and shield bereaved families from exploitation; and provide information, education and technical assistance. Kavod v’Nichum is the premier North American organization providing assistance, training, and resources about Jewish dying, death, funeral, and bereavement practices for Chevrah Kadisha groups and bereavement committees in synagogues and communities throughout the U.S. and Canada. Kavod v’Nichum also works to expand and adapt its manuals and resources to serve the needs of a diverse Jewish community, taking into consideration emerging concerns such as interfaith, same-gender and other non-traditional families, transgender persons, and those interested in “green” burials.

Kavod v’Nichum was recognized and named as one of the 50 most innovative and cutting edge Jewish Organizations for 2013-2014 in the Slingshot guide (http://www.slingshotfund.org/overview/). Organizations included in the Guide are identified as driving the future of Jewish life and engagement by motivating new audiences to participate in their work and responding to the needs of individuals and communities – both within and beyond the Jewish community – as never before. The Slingshot Guide has become a go-to resource for volunteers, activists and donors looking for new opportunities and projects that, through their innovative nature, ensure that the Jewish community remains relevant and thriving. Organizations included in the Guide are evaluated on their innovative approach, the impact they have in their work, the leadership they have in their sector and their effectiveness at achieving results. “The groundbreaking organizations that we highlight in the Slingshot Guide are game-changers in the realms of community engagement, social justice impact, and religious and spiritual life. The Slingshot Guide is not just a book listing organizations doing interesting things; it’s a resource relied upon by doers and donors alike. It’s the framework for a community that through the collaboration that results from inclusion in the Guide, becomes something significantly more effective than what each of the individual organizations can achieve on their own” according to Will Schneider, Executive Director of Slingshot.

Kavod v’Nichum’s website (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/about-kavod-vnichum) offers the most comprehensive resource available for Jewish end-of-life matters. The organization provides technical assistance and educational materials, and organizes Chevrah Kadisha (“holy society”) groups at the local level to perform Jewish funerals and mourning activities. Kavod v’Nichum also hosts the North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference, the only annual gathering of its kind (http://jewish-funerals.org/north-american-chevra-kadisha-and-jewish-cemetery-conferences).


The Gamliel Institute (http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute) is the foremost center for study, learning, advocacy, and leadership training concerning Jewish end of life practices. The Institute is a project of Kavod v’Nichum (Honor and Comfort). The Gamliel Institute offers distance learning classes using the latest and best technology for rabbis, cantors, medical and health professionals, lay leaders, and other interested persons from across North America. These courses prepare individuals to assist grieving families and to train volunteers within their communities to perform Jewish end-of-life rituals and support members of their community.

It is the only institution (of which we are aware) that offers rigorous instruction at a graduate level in courses on the topics of the History, Origins, and Evolution of the Chevrah Kadisha; Taharah & Shmirah; Education, Organizing & Training a Chevrah Kadisha; Nechama (Comforting); & Ritual Practice. The Covenant Foundation has recognized the value of the work that the Gamliel Institute does by awarding a multi-year grant to fund the development of the fifth (and final) course in the curriculum on the subject of Ritual Practice (to be taught starting in Spring 2015). The Gamliel Institute offers a variety of ‘Taste of Gamliel’ sessions, class sessions focusing on specific topics, such as Complicated Taharot, Infection Control, Non-Traditional Mourners, and Taharah Liturgy.


The Gamliel Institute was founded in 2010, and began offering courses to the first cohort of students in October of that year. There have now been multiple cohorts, and at this point there are six courses that comprise the instruction cycle of the Gamliel Institute.

  1. The History, Origins, and Evolution of the Chevrah Kadisha
  2. Taharah & Shmirah
  3. Education, Organizing, and Training
  4. Nechama
  5. Ritual Practice
  6. International Perspectives

Each course is twelve sessions (except the sixth, which is six sessions and a travel period of over 2.5 weeks), and requires extensive reading, preparation, chevrutah study, writing, and hands-on work. Several of the courses also require development of a project in an area selected by and of deep interest to the student, usually something that will actually be implemented and used in their community, and possibly replicated elsewhere.


We have invited those who are involved in this sacred work to submit items for this blog. Among those who have joined us are some the officers, staff, and members of Kavod v’Nichum, Administrators, Instructors, and students in the Gamliel Institute, and others who wish to participate. We welcome original submissions by the author, but reserve the right to accept or reject, publish as is, edit, or modify the submission. The author retains the copyright to the work in regard to any other publishing of that material so long as they include a notice that the work originally appeared in the Kavod vNichum blog Expired and Inspired, but Kavod v’Nichum has full rights to reproduce and use with attribution any item that it publishes as part of this blog, for the purposes of instruction, inclusion and display on our website, or as part of training materials, newsletters, or other publications we produce and distribute.