Listening to ancient voices of grief

This may sound like a rather religious or even doctrinal question, yet it is a question that I want to ask for totally journalistic purposes. Here it is: What do you think that modern women and men know about grief, suffering and the presence of evil in our world that was not known by, let's say, the ancient Greeks, Romans, Hebrews, etc.? In other words, when issues of theodicy arise in the news -- whether through tornadoes, tsunamis or the twisted minds of local or global terrorists of all kinds -- are we not dealing with issues that are, in and of themselves, ancient as well as modern?

Thus, journalists should not be surprised (Thank you, Peter Jennings, for stating this candidly) to find that the people touched by these tragedies almost always discuss them in religious and eternal terms. This is a journalistic reality.

I bring this up, of course, because the mainstream press is back on the theodicy beat again this week because of the numbingly brutal murder of 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky in Brooklyn.

In ancient Jewish traditions, the rites of burial and grief take place very quickly and the big issues are confronted head on in the traditional prayers that link individuals back into the circles of family and community through the generations. Once again, these are ancient issues and they are treated as such. This is a reminder to the grieving that they are not alone -- in the present day or in the context of the ages.

The New York Times stepped carefully into this spiritual arena this week with a story on the Jewish traditions related to "sitting shiva" in the days after the loss of a loved one. As you would expect, the story is quite direct in its description of what takes place. In terms of color and details, this story writes itself:

The Jewish custom of shiva, the seven days of intense mourning, often has its spirited aspects.

Despite the prevailing sorrow, visitors might gather around platters of food in a bereaved family’s home and celebrate a long life, or remember foibles with affectionate laughter.

But not after the death of a child, particularly one who died in such chilling fashion as Leiby Kletzky, the 8-year-old Brooklyn boy who was kidnapped and killed this week. Throughout the morning and afternoon on Friday, a stream of visitors entered the Kletzky family’s brick apartment building on 15th Avenue in Borough Park. Almost all were somber, as if on a mission they did not relish.

Shoeless and sitting on a low chair, Leiby’s father, Nachman, received the visitors alone in a narrow dining room while his wife, Itta, and their four daughters clustered in a bedroom off the kitchen. Around the apartment, there were so many gifts of fruit and cakes that the family had been forced to send some back. But these were no consolation, visitors said.

“They’re trying to cope,” said Jonathan Schwartz, 42, a close friend. “They keep on saying that God gave them the privilege to raise this child for nine years.”

The questions looming in the background are huge, especially in the case of the brutal murder of a child. However, these questions are not new. I would assume that Jews and Arabs living in the danger zones of the Middle East through the ages have become tragically familiar with the questions asked after the bloody deaths of children.

There is much to praise in this report. The writing is clear and it does not seem that the Times team invaded the family's privacy in any unnecessary way. And what about the intersection of these sober rites with other traditions during the week?

With the beginning of Sabbath approaching -- a night and day when even shiva is interrupted -- Mr. Schwartz and other visitors grasped at the thought that the usually joyous observance would provide a respite. “It’s the day of peace,” Mr. Schwartz said. “It will affect us for the better.”

Still, it was hard to escape reminders of Leiby’s ordeal. Outside the building, neighbors had posted a sign that said: “Please be sensitive to the family. DO NOT share rumors, stories and information you have heard — at all!!” Leiby was suffocated and his body was dismembered, but people close to the Kletzkys say they have tried to spare the family the details.

With so many solid details included, I almost hate to discuss what is missing. However, I must.

After all, what is missing is the content of the Orthodox Jewish traditions themselves -- the content of prayers handed down from generation to generation, the very words of the prayers that offer comfort, yet starkly face the realities of life and death.

If reporters are looking for solid, newsworthy quotes that address the big questions, all they have to do is listen to the psalms. There are times when journalists must quote scripture and liturgical prayers, if they actually want to deal with reality of the mysteries that they are covering. It's scary to quote the Bible and other ancient prayers. But it gets easier, once reporters actually begin listening to the voices around them.

So this story is about sitting shiva. What words go with these rites? The place to start is right here, especially Psalm 49.

Please read carefully, because you will be listening to millions and millions of voices through the ages. These believers faced the same questions being asked in Brooklyn today. They are part of the story. Amen.

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