Archive for the ‘Keriah’ category

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.

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When Death Becomes Personal

September 19, 2010

Continuing my series of High Holy Day sermons, here is the sermon on delivered the Yizkor service.

We who have gathered here for this Yizkor – this Memorial – Service are a special community. We share a bond which those outside of our community cannot even begin to imagine. It is the bond of deep, personal loss. We share the bond of suffering the wounds inflicted upon us when those whom we held extremely dear were torn from us. Others, for whom the arrow of death has not struck nearly as close to home, may talk of sadness and loss at the passing of friends and relatives, but they cannot begin to fathom what we have experienced; what true loss means; what it feels like when the Malach HaMavet, the Angel of Death calls upon a dear one.

I have been a rabbi for a little over 35 years, and in that time, I have officiated at a large number of funerals. However, when I reflect upon the early days of my rabbinate, and I think about the funeral services I performed then, I recognize that back in those days, though I tried my best to empathize with the mourners and offer them comfort, my attempts were shallow, feeble, at best. It was not that I did not care, for I did, but rather it was that I could not even begin to comprehend their profound sense of loss. I was unable to do so because in order to fully comprehend such loss – to fully appreciated the pain of such loss – one has to personally experience such loss. Since then, I certainly have experienced it first hand. All of us in this room have experienced it first hand. We know how we felt in our time of anguish, and having felt that way, we are far more capable of fully opening up our hearts to others in their time of grief. Indeed, we are a community of people who keenly feel our own pain, and in so doing, are better able to keenly feel the pain of others.

That is what brings us into this sanctuary this afternoon. It is our pain. It is our pain which drives us to set aside this hour and dedicate it to the loving memories of those whose loss we feel so keenly. We dedicate it to our fathers, our mothers, our sisters, our brothers, our husbands, our wives, our sons, our daughters who, for whatever reasons, have fully trod the path of this life, and traveled beyond – beyond our sight, beyond our hearing, beyond our touch – to the next life; to what we as Jews firmly believe is life eternal; life in the ever present company of God.

As we may recall, the funeral services for our loved ones began with an act of tearing. We called it by its Hebrew name, K’riah. We pinned on a ribbon, we offered some words of prayer, and then that ribbon we tore. At the time we were told that the tearing of the ribbon is symbolic of the fact that due to our loss, the very fabric of our lives has been torn. We heard the words. We took them in. But it has only been with the passage of time that we have come to more fully understand the power of their truth. Yes, the fabric of our lives has been torn, and just as with torn fabric, while it can be repaired or re-woven, it can never truly be fully mended. There will always be a scar.

To those among us who recently suffered loss, I am sure that the others among us, whose loss is more distant in time, will join me is sharing with you that while the stabbing pain we feel when we are forced to say goodbye will, in time, diminish, and in many ways be transformed into warm and loving memories. Still it will never completely go away. For the rest of our lives we will continue to feel its sting; a twinge which can come upon us sometimes at the oddest of moments; moments which, for one reason or another, evoke both memory and pain.

But that should not be cause for despair. Alas, sometimes there is great beauty to be found in pain. For this particular pain, which will follow us for the rest of our lives, serves as a reminder of just how much we have lost and of how blessed we were in our having enjoyed the privilege of sharing at least some part of our lives with these very special people. For this particular pain, which will follow us for the rest of our lives, oddly enough, is yet another expression of our deep love of the ones we mourn today.

Yes, love and pain go hand-in-hand. We would not hurt if we did not love. That we hurt is a testament to our love. It is a testament to the very meaning and purpose of the lives of the ones we mourn. That we miss them, and will always miss them, means that they made a very real difference, at least to us. In life, they touched us, and in death they continue to do so. Where once there was joy, there may now be sorrow. But who would question the benefits of sorrow over forgetfulness? Who would claim that they would prefer to forget rather than to grieve? Grief is a testament to love. Forgetfulness, a disclaimer.

And so we gather on this holiest of days to remember. Yizkor means “remember.” We need to remember. We need to publicly proclaim our need to remember. It is true our tradition teaches us that those who pass out of this world continue to live eternally in the next. Theirs now is a spiritual existence, at one with God. And that is all well and good. It is good indeed that they will continue to live on with God. Yet that is in heaven. That is in the realm of the spirit while we continue to exist in the realm of the physical. They are there. We are here. While they will continue to exist there, only we can determine whether or not they continue to exist here. For it is we, through our memories, our love, and, yes, our pain, who keep them alive in this realm. As long as they continue to move us; to evoke from us feelings, whether they be of love, of joy, or of loneliness; as long as we carry within us both the pleasure of their company and the anguish of their absence, they will continue to live in the here and now, as well as in heaven.

We are a special community, a community of mourners, bound to each other by the pain of loss but also by the warmth of memory. So we come together for this service, to offer our prayers to God; prayers of thanksgiving for the gifts of traveling through life with our loved ones, and prayers of petition, seeking God’s hand in our search for a healing of our wounds. May all our prayers be answered this day.