Rabbis personal tragedy inspires book of hope

There's a book in this, the agent tells the San Diego rabbi, Wayne Dosick.

"I said, `I don't even have a pencil. What do you mean a book?'" Dosick recalled during an interview more than two years after the 1996 Harmony Grove fires consumed his hillside home.

With several books by Dosick on Renewal Judaism already in print, the agent pressed him to write another explaining the Judaism of tragedy and how an act of God could strike a spiritual man.

"She said, `I want you to do it now because I want you to write out of pain and not perspective. I know you will write a very spiritual book.'"

Dosick acquiesced. The author, who was in the Bay Area last month,returns next week to promote his new book "When Life Hurts: A Book of Hope." He will lead a workshop Wednesday at the San Francisco Learning Annex and will speak the following day at Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro. That talk is sponsored by the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay's Center for Jewish Living and Learning.

The Renewal rabbi, writes of his grieving and its place in Jewish tradition, as well as how couples can stay together during tragedy. He prescribes traditional Jewish mourning through the lens of recent psychological insights.

Whether the tragedy is a house fire, a death or the diagnosis of a serious disease, Dosick says the five psychological stages of grief are necessary before an individual can reconcile himself or herself with the tragic event. Those five stages are disbelief, the bargaining or "if only" stage, anger, depression and reconciliation.

The Conservative Boston rabbi Harold Kushner first broached the topic of modern Jewish mourning with his bestseller "When Bad Things Happen to Good People."

Kushner contends that God is all good but not all-powerful and thus cannot prevent human tragedy. But Dosick maintains that all tragedies are in fact foreseen by God.

"What happens to us is part of God's eternal blueprint for the world. Each of us came into this earth with a soul contract to help move the Ultimate Plan along."

Alluding to the biblical story of Joseph, who was deceived by his brothers, sold into slavery and incarcerated before saving the Israelites from famine, Dosick says our tragedies help to steer our life paths.

"That which we perceive is evil and suffering is simply part of our soul contract, our Joseph story being played out."

The author says there is room for Jewish mourning rituals to evolve. For example, even though Jewish tradition does not require formal mourning when a child dies before it reaches 1 month of age, a parent still grieves.

"I don't want a Judaism that says `Pshaw, go home and start over.' That's a terrible thing."

That's the wonderful thing about Renewal Judaism, Dosick explains. "We say, `What can we take, what symbols and rituals can we use so that the laws of our ancestors don't [negatively] affect us?'"

At the same time, Dosick rejoices in Jewish traditions that for thousands of years have honored the nature of human grieving as sacred.

Dosick prescribes four steps to successful grieving — by which he means grieving that reaches its final stage of reconciliation:

The mourner should open his heart and eyes to God, who may come in the form of caring friends and family, or a rowboat in a flood.

After his house fire, Dosick said, "We literally didn't have a shirt, but we were wrapped in human comfort and love. Our friends caught our tears, brought us clothes and gifts. They were doing God's work on earth."

Second, he stresses that half of all prayer is listening.

Thirdly, put God between yourself and the traumatic event. Many martyrs and saints, he said, died with serenity because they remembered this principle. Holocaust victims marched to the gas chambers with the same conviction, singing "I believe."

And finally, Dosick urges mourners to stay on their soul mission, or stay connected with God.

"We just have to open our hearts and souls. When we're with God, then clearly God is open to us."

"When Life Hurts: A Book of Hope" by Wayne Dosick (184 pages, HarperSanFrancisco, $19).

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.