A Hole in the Heart: A Yizkor Sermon
Many years ago, my friend, Dr. Amir Arbisser, and I used to get up at the break of dawn 4 to 5 mornings a week in order to go walking in our neighborhood. In fact, we used to go walking so early that if my wife awoke in the middle of the night, for reasons many people awake in the middle of the night, she would go back to sleep not in our bed but in the bed in our guest bedroom just so I would not disturb her in the morning as I awoke and prepared for those walks.
However, there was one Friday morning when things did not go precisely as planned. When I awoke, I felt a bid odd. As I was getting dressed, my left side went numb. I knew I was in trouble so I went into the guest bedroom to get help from my wife. However, after I entered and turned on the lights and received the expected reprimand from her, matters took a turn for the worse. For when I started to tell her about my problem, much to my surprise I found that I couldn’t. I had the words perfectly formed in my mind but my mouth just would not utter them. I tried once. My wife asked, “What’s wrong?” I tried twice. My wife said, “Tell me. What’s the problem?” After the third failed attempt, I stood there and found that I only was physically capable of saying one word, and that word is one that is inappropriate to utter in a sanctuary. And even that word I spoke with slurred speech.
Well, my wife got the message and she immediately phoned Amir, who rushed over and drove me to the hospital; my wife needing to remain at home with our two children, Shira & Josh, who at the time were too young to be left home alone; our third child, Helene, not even having been born yet. As Amir will attest, in the car ride to the hospital I made several attempts to expand my vocabulary but all I could produce was that one word, over and over again.
While Amir and I were driving to the hospital, my wife had called Larry Satin, of blessed memory, who at that time was the President of my congregation. He rushed to the hospital so fast that he practically beat us there. As Larry was ushered into my cubicle in the emergency room, my numbness was starting to fade and my vocabulary was just starting to expand.
I spent the weekend in the hospital as the doctors conducted all sorts of tests and I progressively regained my abilities. In the end, I was told that I had suffered from a transient ischemic attack, which is just doctor talk for a temporary stroke. In explaining the cause of this attack, the doctor showed me my echo cardiogram. He told me that it appears that I have a hole in my heart, between my right and left ventricles. From this he deduced that a small blood clot shot through the hole from my right ventricle to my left one, and then traveled to my brain, and there remained until it dissolved. Being told that you have a hole in your heart can be rather frightening, but the doctor calmed me by explaining that all babies are born with holes in their hearts but that over time those holes close. However, in about 10% of the population, the hole never completely closes. Yet not to worry. All I need do is take one adult aspirin every morning for the rest of my life and that should eliminate any danger of a future attack. And so I have done for all these years.
When one considers the physical hole I have in my heart, and that I share such a hole with 10% of the population, and that while it cannot be corrected, it is easily relieved by a daily dose of a common over-the-counter medication, having such a hole is really no big deal. However, that type of hole is only one type of hole in the heart. There are other types of holes in the heart as well.
Unfortunately the most common hole in the heart is one that eventually strikes every person on the planet and for which there is no simple over-the-counter remedy. The hole that I speak of is the hole that is left in our hearts whenever someone near and dear to us passes away; whenever death steals from us someone we love.
We who gather on Yom Kippur to offer the Yizkor prayers all have been inflicted with such holes. Some of us have endured one of them. Some of us have endured several of them. We know from experience that much like the physical hole in my heart, they never completely heal. With the passage of time, they may shrink, as measured by the intensity of the grief we experience on their account, but they never really go away. They always are there to sting us from time to time, sometimes sharply and sometimes slightly. But sting us they do.
We can never know when something we encounter in the course of our daily living will trigger a memory – a precious memory – but even with the pleasure of memory, there is also the stab of loss. “I wish Mom could have seen this. I wish Dad could have been here for that. So-&-so would have really enjoyed this. I can just imagine what so-&-so would have said about that. This song reminds me of her. This place reminds me of him.”
All mourners know from whence I speak for we all have shared such experiences. We all have felt the anguish of losing a loved one and we all have struggled with the challenge of managing our pain and getting on with our lives. After each of my parents and my sister died, I did not smile for a year. But eventually I did find the capacity to smile again. I am sure that each mourner can share similar observations about their own grief experiences.
Recently I sent a condolence email to a colleague I have known throughout my rabbinic career. When I was a rabbinical student interning in a synagogue in Scarsdale, New York, he was the associate rabbi. He lost his mother, a woman who had lived a full and rich life of 96 years; a Jewish mother who not only had the pleasure of seeing her son become a rabbi, but her granddaughter as well. He responded to my email, thanking me for my words of comfort and then said, “I don’t have much to complain about but still I’m sad at my mother’s passing.” For you see it matters not how long we had our loved ones with us, or even the manner in which they died. Even under the best of circumstances surrounding their passing, they leave us with a hole in our hearts. We live our lives knowing that the time will come when we have to let them go, but still when that time arrives, even under the best of circumstances, in the end they are yanked from us, taking a piece of our hearts with them.
And we are left to heal, some of us knowing and others of us not realizing that we will never fully heal.
O how we wish we could effectively address these holes in our hearts as easily as I address my physical hole. How we wish we could take some spiritual-emotional over-the-counter remedy which will make everything all right. But no such remedy exists.
Perhaps the absence of such a remedy is actuality a good thing rather than a bad one. For perhaps the soul is not that much different from the body. While there are many pains which our bodies can experience that we can relieve through dosages of one drug or another, still every once in a while we can find ourselves sitting in a doctor’s office, with our doctor telling us that for the pain we are experiencing there is no cure. Medication can only bring us partial relief. The rest is a matter of learning how best to live with our pain. And so we learn how to carry on with life, listening to our pain; learning from our pain. As a result we learn how to maximize the quality of our lives through letting our pain teach us what we can do and what we can’t do. Our pain helps define us, or perhaps redefine, us.
The spiritual-emotional pain we feel born of our loss is really not that different. Because it is a pain we will always carry with us to some degree or another, and like our incurable physical pain, we have to learn how to listen to it. We have to learn how to learn from it.
What can be learned from such pain? First of all, we can learn that love really does transcend death. Our love for those we have lost never leaves us and we sense it most keenly when we feel the pain of our loss; when it hurts us that they are physically gone from our lives.
When we feel such pain, instead of striving to shy away from it, let us strive to delve into it. “What is it that ties this moment to that relationship as expressed by the pain I am feeling now? What was it about that person’s character and personality which causes me to miss them now so much that it hurts?” For it must be something good, otherwise we would not be missing them at all. As we embrace that connection – that tie in – we also should be embracing the realization that the very cause for our pain of the moment is precisely one of the aspects of our relationship which was so very precious. In its own way, our pain is the very measure of how valued that person was in our lives and remains valued in our lives.
From our pain we need to learn gratitude. Gratitude for all those things about our loved one that we now miss so much that it hurts. As we find ourselves refocusing from our pain to our gratitude, our pain itself will lessen and our joy will increase. We will find ourselves remembering how happy we were when in the company of these dear ones.
As we find ourselves transforming our pain to gratitude, we also will find ourselves beginning to learn a very important Yom Kippur lesson; the lesson of change; the lesson of personal growth. For as we explore what it was about our loved ones which has given us cause to be so grateful for having had them in our lives, we should also be realizing that these are some of the same attributes which we should wish to emulate and incorporate into our lives so that others, whose lives we touch, will find themselves likewise grateful for having us as part of their lives.
In their own very special way, these holes in our hearts, born of the loss of those we love, are very different that the physical hole in my heart. For when it comes to the physical hole in my heart, its effect needs to be counteracted, and I do so with a simple drug. Yet when it comes to these spiritual-emotional holes in our heart left by loved ones now gone, their effects should not be counteracted, but rather channeled. For out of these holes pours love and gratitude, and if we so will it, a road map to a better, happier, more loving future for ourselves and for all those others we know and love and with whom we continue to share our lives.
May God help up to learn from our pain and thereby grow into better human beings.
Tags: Amir Arbisser, Dealing With the Death of a Loved One, Gratitude for Loved Ones Now Gone, Grief, Jewish Holidays, Larry Satin, Love Transcending Death, Memory, mourners, Pain and Love, Pain as a Measure of Loss, Remembering, Sadness, Temple Emanuel of Davenport, Wounds That Never Fully Heal, Yizkor, Yom KippurYou can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.