Archive for the ‘Autism’ category

Empty Chairs

April 11, 2012

At the Passover Seder, we begin the Four Questions by asking “Why is this night different from all other nights.”  This year, for me, that question was but an echo of another with which I had to contend:  “Why is this Seder different from all other S’darim?”

That difference was that this year, for the two S’darim that I attended, there were some painfully empty chairs, either literally or figuratively that in past years were occupied.  They were the chairs that in the past were occupied by the members of my family but this year stood empty.  With the my wife living in Detroit as a result of being transferred there by her “day job,” and it not being one of the weekends when my congregation has contracted for her to return and serve as our partime cantor for our worship services, she  remained in Detroit, sharing the S’darim with her mother, her brother, her sister, their spouses and their children.  My eldest daughter, Shira, remained in Louisville, where she lives and works, conducting her own Seder with her friends. Since, like the Cantor, our 28 year old son with autism, Josh, visits the Quad Cities every other weekend – weekends when the Cantor is home – he spent Pesach at his group home in Iowa City.  As for our youngest, Helene, the price of comparative airfares dictated that she travel from her school in Minneapolis to Detroit to share Seder with her mother.   Therefore this was the first Pesach of my entire life (not counting the year when I studied in Jerusalem) when I had no family with which to share the holiday.  This was the first Pesach since my wife and I met in which we have not been together for Seder.

My wife and I both knew that this would be difficult for me.  We spoke of it as we parted the week before.  But just how difficult it would be did not really strike home for me until I was reviewing the physical layout of the congregational Seder and looked at the head table, at which point I was confronted by the empty chairs that in the past were filled by my wife and my children.  Others would be assigned those seats but of course it simply would not be the same.  Pesach is such a family time and I found myself overwhelmed and overpowered by a dreadful sense of loneliness; one that I carried with me all the way through the S’darim.  One that I still carry with me, even now that the S’darim are passed.  It is a loneliness not unlike the loneliness I felt on the first night at home after my wife moved to Detroit and Helene went off to college; when at the end of the evening I walked through the house, turning off the lights on my way to my bedroom, passing all those rooms, especially those bedrooms, so recently occupied but now empty.

I share this with you because all too often we take our families too much for granted.  There are even times when, if we are honest about it, we have to admit that we have viewed their companionship as more of a burden than a blessing – as we yearned for some “alone” time; for time just for ourselves.  But let us be careful of what we wish for.  It is nice to grab some private time but it is only nice when we can place it side-by-side with family time.

Over the past several months, there have been those who have jokingly quipped with me, asking, “Isn’t it nice to be leading the bachelor life once again?”  I, on my part, have jokingly responded, “Not so much so, for in my situation I only get to bear the burdens without enjoying the benefits of bachelorhood.”  But joking aside, without the companionship of my family, my life has been incomplete.  In truth, there have been times when it has felt more that incomplete and closer to meaningless.  For it is our loved ones who grant the truest meaning to our lives and without them there remains a vacuum which perhaps is impossible to fill.

As we move beyond Pesach, if there is anything we should carry away from it, let it be the warm memories of our families gathered round our Seder tables and how we should never forget how are important those we love are in our lives. Let us hold them close and hold them dear.  On their account are our lives blessed.

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The Psychology of Sad: A Yizkor Sermon

October 13, 2011

Several years ago, I received an email inviting me to take a personal health survey on a website called “Real Age.”  The purpose of the survey was to compare one’s chronological age with what they call one’s “real age,” which is determined by some formula which factors in both the state of the health of one’s body and the healthy or unhealthy behaviors one engages in.  While I was less than satisfied with the results of the survey, it did inspire me to sign up for their free wellness emails which I now receive about every three days.  Each email contains three short articles about simple things that we can do to improve our health.  They are articles like, “Eat Mexican Tonight and Fight Colon Cancer” and “Clear Brain Plaques With This Nutrient” which happens to be Vitamin D, and “The Food That Helps You Feel Carefree” which happens to be, believe or not, tuna fish.  Though sometimes based upon obscure studies, these are fascinating articles which offer some truly helpful tips, though I suppose there is a limit to how often one can be told to drink green tea and go for a walk.  Every once in a while I forward a whole bunch of these articles to my two daughters so that they too can reap some of their benefits.  I used to send them to the Cantor, but she kept sending them back to me, saying, “Well, are you going to do this or not?”

While most of the Real Age articles are about improving one’s physical health, every once in a while they publish one about improving one’s emotional health.  One such article was entitled, “Sad?  Don’t Forget About It.”  I read it and I immediately thought of this Yizkor service and this very special gathering of mourners.

According to this article, studies show that when we are feeling sad, it is important that we do not brush aside our sad feelings and try to forget them, but rather we need to embrace them and remember the source of our sadness if we wish to truly heal ourselves.  To quote this article, “Knowing what’s making you sad is key to dealing with it, learning from it, and letting go.  If you don’t process what you’re going through, sad thoughts may continue to linger, and sad signals may even get stored in your body.”

If this be true, and I trust that it is, then once again, I am amazed at the profound wisdom of those rabbis long ago who established the Jewish practices and traditions surrounding death and mourning.  They told us, “Do not try to run from your sadness and your pain.  Do not try to hide it and gloss it over.  Rather, you must embrace it, for only through embracing the pain of your sadness can you learn how to deal with it and live with it.”  Ours is not a tradition of wakes and calling funerals “celebrations.”  Quite the contrary.  It is a tradition of Keriah; of tearing our clothing in order to acknowledge that our loss has created a tear in the very fabric of our lives.  It is a tradition of Shivah; of stopping our lives for seven days so that we can focus on the grief of our loss.  It is a tradition of Kever Avot; of visiting the graves of our loved ones before our major holidays.  It is a tradition of Yahrzeits and Yizkor; of setting aside special times dedicated to remembering our loved ones now gone.  How very wise those rabbis were, for long before the days of Sigmund Freud and the birth of psychology, they understood all too well that in remembering there is healing.

The rabbis also understood that human beings need the structure of specially appointed times in order to facility and focus that process of remembering.  Of course we are fully capable of remembering our loved ones on days other than Yahrzeits; at times other than during Yizkor services.  But if left to our own devices, those memories are usually pushed to the back of our minds, for the challenges of day-to-day living tend to demand most if not all of our attention, so our thoughts focus on them.  The memories of our loved ones will float to the surface occasionally, but only briefly, as our minds are overwhelmed with filling more immediate needs.

This, by the way, is the very same reason why we celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, and holidays like Valentine’s Day.  Of course, we love all our dear ones 24/7, but usually we do not have the opportunity to give that love a lot of thought or attention.  However, when we arrive at a birthday or an anniversary, or Valentine’s Day, we have been given the opportunity to focus on our feeling; to place the demands of day-to-day living on hold as we direct our attentions to telling and showing our dear ones how much we love them.

Yahrzeits, Yizkor, Kever Avot, Shivah; they are no different from this.  They, too, are opportunities to place the demands of day-to-day living on hold as we direct our attentions to telling and showing our dear ones who are no longer with us how much we love them still.  And with the telling and the showing most certainly comes the remembering.  And with the remembering comes the healing.

Yet there is something within us which calls upon us to resist this process of remembering and healing.  Perhaps it is because we live in a society which is obsessed with fleeing from pain or discomfort.  Most of us grew up without the benefits of air conditioning, yet we were able to survive and adapt to the hot, muggy days of summer.  But today, who goes outside if they do not have to in the middle of August?  We have invested millions of dollars into the development of drugs to eliminate the very sensation of pain.  In our society, pain is something to be avoided at all costs, rather than confronted.

Yet to avoid the pain of our loss is to deny ourselves the healing of memory.  And memory does heal us.  For the more we remember our loved ones, the less our memories dwell on the pain of our loss and the more we recall the pleasure and the joy and the love they brought into our lives.  The more we remember, the more our memories morph from anguish to gratitude; from the sting of loss to the sweet caress of love.

My mother died the agonizing death of cancer.  As her end drew near, delirium engulfed her.  The last time I heard her voice was over the telephone, the Cantor, Shira, Josh, and I were in Los Angeles.  Josh, who had recently been diagnosed with autism, was undergoing an extensive evaluation at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute.  I made the phone call while waiting to meet with his doctor.  I felt terribly torn for I needed to be with my son on the West Coast, but I also needed to at least stay connected with my mother on the East Coast.  As my sister kept me abreast of my mother’s condition, in the background I could hear my mother, calling out in her delerium, “Is that Henry?  Where is Henry?  Is he coming?  Is he here?”  Those words cut through me like a knife.  They were the last words I ever heard my mother speak.  She died literally hours before I was able to bring my family home to Iowa and rush off to her side in Florida.

The pain of that memory encapsulated for me my pain at the loss of my mother.  Even as I speak of it now, I feel a painful twinge.  But over the passing of the years, I have found that by embracing my memories of my mother rather than avoiding them because of the pain they may evoke, I have been able to heal from the pain of that particular memory, and from the pain of her passing.  For the more I chose to remember, the more the painful memories gave way to the warm and loving memories, not of her passing but of her life.  Now, when I think of my mother, I do not dwell on her cries born of delirium but rather on how she would go out of her way to make each and every member of our family happy; how, whenever she discovered a dish that  I liked to eat, she would serve it to me every single day, week after week, until I could no longer bear to look at it.  And when I would finally say, “Stop!  I can’t stand to eat this any more!” her reply was always the same; “But you used to love it!”  All she ever wanted to do was to make me happy.  And she did that with everyone in our family.  She was the personification of familial love.  As I remember the love, and not the pain, I am healed.

So it is with all of us, or so it can be with all of us.  We are gathered here to remember.  Remembering is so very important.  That is why we call this service Yizkor – “Remember” with an exclamation point, for the Hebrew word is in the command form.  Let us not hesitate to take every single opportunity our lives and our Judaism offer us to remember our loved ones.  Let us not be afraid to fill our minds and our hearts with their memories.  For the more we choose to remember, the more we come to understand that truly only their bodies have gone.  The essence of who they were still lives within us.  They still speak to us.  They still accompany us as we travel the path of life.  All that they were, we carry inside of us, in our memories of them.   And the more we choose to remember, the more we bring them back to life; the more we bring all that was so good and wonderful about them back to life.  The more we remember, the more we ourselves are healed of the pain their passing has inflicted.

We have gathered here in this sanctuary, for this special service, dedicated to the memory of our loved ones.  May our thoughts of them now fill us more with joy than with sadness; more with gratitude than with pain.

The Gift of Elul

August 15, 2010

I write this on the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Elul.  Now to far too many American Jews, that statement is practically meaningless.  And that is a source of great sadness for me.  For the month of Elul offers us Jews a very special gift; the gift of spiritual self examination and preparedness.  Yet too many of us are either unaware of the gift, choose to ignore it, or intentionally cast it aside.

Elul is the month which precedes our High Holy Days – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement.  For we Jews, these holy days are supposed to be dedicated to profound introspection and personal redirection.  They are a time to consider our lives as we have lived them so far – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and to honestly challenge ourselves as to how we can choose to change for the better.  How can we make of ourselves better Jews, better parents, better children, better siblings, better relatives, better friends, better neighbors, better co-workers, better organization members, better citizens in our local communities, our states, our nation, and our world, better human beings in the eyes of our fellow human beings and God.

Such a serious task cannot begin to take place overnight, or even in the course of the ten days spanning Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Putting aside the actualization of those necessary changes, even the task of serious self-examination requires more time than the holy days permit.  And this is where the month of Elul comes in.  For this entire month we should be honestly thinking about ourselves, the people we are and the people we aspire to become.  This is the month of introspection, so that when the Holy Days themselves arrive, we can focus our attention not so much on what changes are needed in our lives but rather how can we best go about successfully making those changes.

A long time ago someone correctly pointed out to me that while we think of ourselves as one, we are really three.  There is the person who we actually are, the person who others perceive us to be, and the person we aspire to be.  As long as those three are separate and apart from each other, we can never truly find happiness or satisfaction in our lives.  It is only when we successfully bring the three into alignment – so that the person we are and the person others perceive us to be, are identical to the person we aspire to be – that we can truly be happy with ourselves and satisfied with our lives.  It is this process which is the heart and soul of the true High Holy Day experience.  But in order to successfully achieve it, we cannot begin this quest on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.  We must begin in the month of Elul, as early as possible.

Yet I am saddened by the fact that so many of my fellow Jews are so far removed from any of this.  They choose to ignore the gift of Elul, and many of them reject the meaning and purpose of the High Holy Days themselves.  So many of these Jews see the High Holy Days as little more than an annual gathering of the clan; as an annual Jewish check-in time.  They go to synagogue, they greet old friends and acquaintances, many of whom they may not have seen in a year, and they leave satisfied that they have fulfilled their Jewish duty for yet another year.  They have done their ethnic thing, for that is what Judaism has become to them; some sort of vague ethnic identity and nothing more.

I have to admit that as a rabbi I am stymied as to how I can help reawaken in such Jews a spiritual awareness, nevertheless a spiritual hunger.  The whole purpose of the Jewish religion, and especially the High Holy Days, is to strengthen our connections with God and with others.  What these people seem to be missing is the fact that the spiritual aspect of our lives is not mere mythology but concrete reality.  Spiritual health is just as essential to our well being as physical health.  One can maintain a well balanced diet, exercise regularly, and run marathons.  But even as their bodies are in excellent physical condition, if these individuals insist upon leaving the life of their souls untended, they will forever remain spiritual invalids.  True, they may not perceive of themselves as invalids, but they are like a person with a born physical or mental disability who, having known nothing else in their life, they have no appreciation for what they are missing.  Spiritually, they are like my son Joshua – a 27 year old man with autism – who has not got the foggiest idea of what it means to live an adult’s life with adult pleasures; who lives in his closed off world of children’s videos and the fulfillment of his basic physical needs.  Like Joshua, who is unaware of what it means to live an adult life, such people are unaware of what it means to live a true spiritual life.  While many of them claim that they believe in God, none of them have ever really let God into their lives.  They have no idea of what it means to live with God as a true companion; as a real presence in their life.  This is because the God they claim to believe in is an abstract rather than a reality.  We do not walk with abstracts.  We do not talk with abstracts.  And abstracts most certainly neither walk nor talk with us.

Now you may consider me a freak or a weirdo but I openly admit that I talk with God, and more importantly, God talks with me.  Indeed, without question, these are the most important and meaningful conversations that I hold in my life.  When God and I do not talk, that is when I am at my loneliest.

When do we talk the most?  During the month of Elul.  This is the greatest gift of Elul.  Conversing with God.  As I consider my life – my strengths and my weaknesses, my successes and my failures – God is my closest adviser, serving as both fan and critic.  It is God more than anyone else who helps me to grasp where I have gone wrong and where I can do better, as well as how I can preserve the best parts of who I am.  Now this is the same God who is available to each and every one of us for consultation.  As God helps me, God can help you.  All you need to do is believe – truly believe – and reach out; open the conversation.  God will talk with those who talk with God.

Once you permit yourself to connect with God in such a way, while you will find that there is still a pleasant ethnic aspect to the High Holy Days, it will be their spiritual aspect which will move you and shape you.  You will sense the hunger for personal change and you will understand that in sincerely seeking such change, you are never alone in the task.  You have a companion and co-worker, counselor and adviser, role model and friend; the truest of all.  The One who will never desert you.