Archive for the ‘mourners’ category

Holding On and Letting Go: Yizkor Sermon

November 6, 2014

When I was in seminary, rabbinic students were required to take only one course in what was then called “Human Relations.” Its purpose was to teach us that being a rabbi was not just about scholarly matters such as acquiring a command of Hebrew and becoming knowledgeable in Jewish laws and customs but it also was about developing our human interaction skills so that we could be better serve our congregants in both their times of need and also in the daily round of manifold synagogue activities; serve them with sensitivity, compassion, and understanding. Of course, folding all of that into only one course is a tall order, impossible to fill. Thankfully, today the rabbinic students at the Hebrew Union College receive far more training in this important field.
As I recall that course, it seemed that our professor invested a majority of our time discussing issues surrounding death and funerals such as the mechanics of writing a eulogy and the dynamics of the conversations that take place in the limousine during the ride from the funeral to the cemetery, which may not make much sense to us here in the Quad Cities but does have some relevance in a community like New York City, where such a drive can take a considerable amount of time.
After ordination, it did not take my classmates or me long to discover that there was very little relationship between the content of that course and the reality of the interpersonal dynamics – the Human Relations – which are to be found in synagogue life. Indeed, considering how much time we spent exploring the role of the rabbi within the grief and mourning process, it was remarkable how out of touch with reality our curriculum had been.
So I, like most of of my contemporaries, found that whatever skills in matters of grief and mourning I would require, I would have to acquire on the job, so to speak. Over the years, I would learn from a growing body of experiences attained by standing beside so many grieving families as I attempted to offer whatever comfort and consolation I could. Yet still it require my own personal experiences of loss to take me to the next level; to understand, not just with my mind and my heart, but with every essence of my being, what it truly meant to lose someone you love.
Having assisted and supported so many mourners as they have accompanied their loved ones to the grave, I have had the opportunity to make many observations about how people deal with their grief. Of course, no two people are exactly alike in anything, and that includes how we deal with grief. Still patterns emerge, some of them good and what I consider to be healthy, and some not so much so.
One of the most difficult challenges I have seen mourners struggling with – and by mourners here, I do not just mean those who have suffered a recent loss but also those of us who have suffered loss whether it be recently or in the distant past – is the challenge of finding a healthy balance between holding on and letting go; holding on to our love and attachment to the one who is now gone and letting go of that person, not entirely but yet enough to enable ourselves to move on with our lives.
In my experiences, I have encountered those who cling so dearly to their loss that years go by and their grief is as fresh and as painful for them as it was on the day of their loved one’s passing. As strong as is their love, the memory of the one they love remains mostly a source of tears and pain for them. Often they bemoan, “How can I go on? Life will just never be the same!” Such people never allow the memory of their loved one to evolve into the warming presence that can bring them smiles and maybe even some laughter as well as tears. It remains more like a knife cutting into them rather than a loving companion, invisibly accompanying them with wisdom and insight as they continue their life journey.
How could we not admire such a profound love? What a testament it is to the person now gone. How could anyone in good conscience counsel, “You need to love that person less”? Yet these people hold on so tightly to their beloved dead; so tightly that their grief winds up strangling them. Somewhere along the line, they seem to have forgotten that this is probably the last thing the departed ever would have wished upon them; that they live the remainder of their life enveloped in grief and misery because of their loss.
Such people are so determined to hold on to what they can of their loved ones that they cannot begin to conceive that it is also perfectly permissible to let go of them as well. Not to forget them – God forbid, not to forget them – but to let go of the intensity of their grief and to permit those feelings to evolve into something more livable.
There is a story about a man so stricken with grief at the passing of his wife that on her headstone he has inscribed the message, “The light has gone out of my life!” Time passes and as fate would have it, he meets another woman and they fall in love. He wants to remarry but is wracked with guilt over the thought of betraying his first wife, especially considering the inscription on her headstone. So he goes to his rabbi for counsel. He tells the rabbi of his feelings and of the inscription. The rabbi thinks for a moment and then suggests, “Why don’t you have an additional inscription added to the stone right below the first?” Puzzled, the man inquires, “An additional inscription? What should it say?” The rabbi responded, “It should say, ‘But I struck another match.’”
So it should be with those among us who hold on so tightly to the pain of our loss and struggle with the very thought of letting go, even if just a little. We, too, need to “strike another match.” We need to discover ways of letting go – not forgetting – but letting go enough so that we can bring some semblance of joy back into our lives. For this is not just what we need but it is what our loved ones would wholeheartedly want for us.
Just as there are those among us to who hold on too tightly to their loss and have trouble letting go, there also are those who are too quick to let go – too eager to let go – as if they are afraid to hold on to anything, perhaps because they fear that holding on will prove to be just too painful for them. I know that type of fear. Up until the day my mother died, there was nothing I feared more on this earth than the passing of my parents. There was a time when I and two friends were caught in a crossfire between the Israeli army and Hezbollah terrorists, and that did not frighten me nearly as much as the thought of losing my parents. I could not begin to imagine what the world would be like without those special people who had always been there for me throughout my life. Having felt the fear, I can understand how for some that fear becomes so overwhelming that the only way they feel they can deal with it is by refusing to confront their loss, making every effort to put it behind them as quickly as possible and get on with their life.
As a rabbi, too many have been the times when I have witnessed this type of reaction on the part of mourners. I cannot tell you how deeply saddened I am when someone from the congregation passes away and their children, living out of town, come to me with a request like, “Rabbi, our flight lands at 9:00 in the morning. Would it be possible for us to hold the service at 10:00 so that we can catch a 1:30 flight back home? I can’t afford the time away from the office and the children need to get back to school.” While there is a part of me which wants to scream at them, “Isn’t the memory of your mother / your father worth your spending at least one night in the Quad Cities? Can’t you leave a little time in your life for mourning?” still I want to believe that they truly are not so heartless, so uncaring as people that they view their parent’s passing as nothing more as a gross inconvenience in their lives. I want to believe that they love their parents and that their parent’s passing hurts them deeply; so deeply that they convince themselves that the only way they can deal with it is by not dealing with it; by getting the funeral over and done with as quickly as possible and returning to their normal routines, making believe nothing has changed. All they want to do is let go and move on, or so they think.
But in reality, when we lose a loved one, much has changed in our lives, whether or not we wish to admit it. Because of it, we cannot just let go and move on. We cannot attempt to bury our pain, along with our loved one, for our pain will not go away. We can strive to jam it into the background, but it will keep popping out – painfully popping out – whether we like it or not.
When our body is injured, we understand the need to create space in our lives for physical recovery. The same is true for our souls. The loss of a loved one is an injury – a deep wound – to our souls and our souls need time to recover. They need time to adjust to their changed condition, especially when you consider that the injury to soul inflicted by the death of one so dear will never completely heal. We will carry a part of it with us for the rest of our lives. Making believe that no wound exists is foolishness, for it does exist and we cannot simply wish it away. We must learn how to live with it. We must learn how to transform it from intense pain to a duller pain that carries with it its own gifts; the gifts of warm memories of all that was good and loving in the relationship we once shared. There is much we need to hold on to, for holding on in such a way can enhance our lives rather than detract from them. Such holding on keeps the deceased alive on this earth, through our memories and our sharing of those memories.
So it is the balance of holding on and letting go which we should be seeking in our lives. For if such a balance we can discover, we can both render proper and fitting honor to the memories of those we loved, and we can live our lives more fully and meaningfully, as those memories help to guide us as we seek to make the most of our lives. It is to the task of finding that balance that this service of Yizkor is dedicated, for it calls upon us to both remember – for the word “Yizkor” means “Remember” – and to move forward with our lives, carrying those memories with us in positive and constructive ways.

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Penetrating the Inpenetrable Veil

September 19, 2013

While other faiths have their own concepts of the afterlife ‑ some of them quite elaborate ‑ Judaism has always held that all we can say about the afterlife ‑ that is with any conviction ‑ is that there is an afterlife and that the soul is eternal.  For the soul comes from God and at the time of death returns to God.  To say anything else is to engage in pure speculation, for there is an impenetrable veil which separates the Olam HaZeh ‑ This World ‑ from the Olam HaBa ‑ The World to Come.  Even as we make this minimalist affirmation, we do so with the understanding that what we are saying is a matter of faith, not knowledge, for no one has ever penetrated that impenetrable veil and returned to our realm of existence, the Olam HaZeh, to bring us an accurate description of the other side.

It might interest you to know that we Jews not only do not have a detailed vision of the afterlife, we even did not always believe in the existence of an afterlife or in the immortality of the soul.  In fact, 2,000 years ago, these doctrines fueled fierce debates between the Sadducees and the Pharisees.  While the Sadducees held that there is no afterlife; that our existence ended with death, for nowhere is an afterlife mentioned in the Torah, the Pharisees held that since the soul comes from God, it, like God, must be eternal.  Besides, how else could we explain God’s justice in light of the suffering of the righteous in this life if there was no afterlife in which their books would balance out?  The fact the Judaism today professes beliefs in the afterlife and in the immortality of the soul is as much a byproduct of the victory of the Pharisees over the Sadducees in their struggle to determine who would shape the future of the Jewish people, as it is a committed doctrine of our faith.

Personally, I am glad that the Pharisees won that battle.  I would hate to believe that death is the end; that nothing of us remains in this universe once our bodies cease to function; that our lives are nothing more than a flash of light in the dark realm of oblivion.

Yet it is not only my fear of eventual non‑existence which fuels my beliefs in the immortality of the soul and in the afterlife.  It also is, in its own odd way, my sense of logic.  For when I consider the human condition, I find myself confronting two undeniable, yet contradictory, facts.  The first is that all human beings are essentially the same.  We may differ in size, shape, gender, skin color, blood type, etc., but at the end of the day, biologically we are all fundamentally identical.  Indeed, as medical science continues to refine the art of organ transplantation, we see that we are so alike that our body parts are becoming increasingly interchangeable.

Yet with this in mind, the second fact seems nothing less than miraculous; that every single human being is a unique individual. No two of us are exactly alike, even if physically we are identical twins.  Still, we each possess our own unique personality and disposition.  That uniqueness is truly the essence of who we are; far more than any aspect of our physical appearance.  It is not as much visible to the eyes as it is to the heart.  So what is the source of our uniqueness?  How can it be found in the body if all bodies are essentially the same while all people are fundamentally unique?

According to our tradition, our uniqueness comes from God.  In the Talmud, God is compared to a human minter of coins.  When a human mints coins, the minter stamps each coin with one mold and every coin comes out exactly alike.  However when God mints human beings, God stamps each of us with the mold of Adam, yet not one person is like another.  We are each of us unique[1].  If that uniqueness comes from God, then the essence of our character does not reside in our body but rather in our soul.  If it comes from God, then like God, it must be indestructible.  Though our body can cease to function, our soul cannot.  With the death of the body, the soul must return to God, and reside with God eternally.  And with it, all that makes us unique; our personality, our character.  The people who we are continue to exist – our consciousness continues to exist – eternally behind the impenetrable veil – in the Olam HaBa, the World to Come.

But is that impenetrable veil separating the Olam HaZeh from the Olam HaBa – our realm of physical existence from our loved ones’ realm of pure spiritual existence – truly, completely, impenetrable?  Perhaps not. Not that it can be torn and we can traverse freely between the two realms,  But perhaps, just perhaps, it can be pierced; from either side, pierced.

We are all mourners.  There have been times, and this Yizkor service might be one of them, when we have passionately yearned for those we have loved but lost.  We ache for their presence and the ache is palpable.  It comes from deep within us.  It does not come from our body; not from our stomach, not from our lungs, not from our heart, not from our head.  Rather our ache is born of our soul, for our soul is the true seat of all our feelings.  In its own way, our yearning is our soul reaching out and grabbing at that impenetrable veil, seeking somehow to break through.

As we yearn for those we loved and lost, is it so hard for us to perceive of their yearning for us as well?  Perhaps, just perhaps, these disembodied souls, which remain the very essence of everything that they were, ache for us as we ache for them.  Perhaps, just perhaps, just as our souls reach out in search of a way to break through that veil, their souls are reaching out in much the same way.  We grab the veil from our side as they grab it from theirs.  While even together we cannot rend it asunder, perhaps, just per­haps, we can stretch it enough for the smallest of pin holes to appear, allowing our souls, even if for just a brief moment, to touch once again.

Perhaps that is what is happening when we find ourselves wanting so much to be in their company once more, to hear their voices and to feel their touch, and then somehow or other we sense that they are with us.  We hear them speaking to us, not out loud, but their voices seeming to come from within.  We feel their comfort.  We sense their love.  And somehow, if just for the moment, we feel less alone.  We are filled with the sense that they are still there for us as they always were there for us.

Let us not be afraid to ache on their behalf.  Let us not run and hide from what we fear will be the pain of memory.  Rather, let us embrace that pain and allow to take us to whatever place it chooses.  For there is a very good chance that it is taking us to the impenetrable veil so as to prick that veil with a tiny but sufficient hole for us to meet and touch once more those who we believe to be beyond our reach.  For we must never forget that our pain is but a function of our love, and that love can be the strongest force in the universe.  So when you combine our love for them with their love for us, can even the impenetrable veil resist such power?


[1]BABYLONIAN TALMUD, Tractate Sanhedrin 38a

Who Stands for Kaddish?

June 14, 2013

Recently, on the Reform rabbinic list server. there has been a discussion  about the common Reform Jewish custom of having the entire congregation stand for the Kaddish Yatom (the Mourners’ Kaddish).  While I found the give-&-take interesting, up until now I had decided that this was one conversation which I would follow but not partake in.  However that changed after one of my friends posted a very touching account of  his own personal experience at the time of his father’s passing.  In it he testified to how much more meaningful it was for him at the time of his loss to stand alone, or with a cadre of fellow mourners when saying Kaddish, and how when he found himself in the more typical Reform setting where everyone stands for Kaddish, how the transformation of this prayer into a communal event diminished his Kaddish experience.

His story inspired me to share a personal story of my own – though my experiences have led me to approach this question from a very different perspective.  His feelings are his feelings, and as I respect him greatly so do I respect his feeling.  But we are all molded by our experiences and mine have sent me down a different path than his.  So here is my story and what I have taken away from it.

Growing up, my family belonged to a classical Reform congregation in the Bronx.  My parents were a microcosm of the make up of that congregation.  My father was raised as an Orthodox Jew and for years refused to practice any Judaism, so deep was is distaste for Orthodox Judaism.  On  the other hand, my mother was raised as a classical Reform Jew by parents who had a very limited involvement in their congregation, yet as an adult she felt the need to deepen her Jewish connection.  For several years, while my sister (who was 6 years my senior) went to religious school, my family belonged to an Orthodox congregation, at the insistence of my mother. She felt it important that my sister have a Jewish education and the Orthodox congregation was the closest one to our home.  We never attended services – not even the High Holy Days – and until the day of my sister’s Bat Mitzvah (a group service on a Sunday afternoon, with no Torah reading), my father never set foot in that synagogue.  As soon as my sister had her Bat Mitzvah, my parents quit that congregation.  However, about a year later, they were approached by neighbors who belonged to a Reform congregation.  With my mother insisting that I, too, receive a Jewish education (I was in 1st grade at the time), my parents gave it a try and both of them immediately fell in love with Reform Judaism, both becoming active members of the congregation.

I grew up with only one living grandparent; my grandmother on my mother’s side.  A few years after my family joined the Reform congregation, my grandmother passed away.  At that time (this was the late ’50’s) it was still the practice within Reform Judaism that only the mourners rise for the Kaddish.  For eleven months, every Friday night, my mother would stand and say Kaddish for her mother, often standing alone, attempting to read along with the rabbi.  I say “attempting” because as a child, my mother never learned to read Hebrew.  She struggled mightily with the transliteration of the Kaddish as found in the old Union Prayer Book.  Even as a child, I clearly recognized how painful it was for her to stand alone in the congregation and fumble over this prayer.  It had to be extremely embarrassing, but she bore it every Friday evening, a true act of dedication to the memory of her mother.

Throughout our movement, my mother was not alone in this predicament.  In those days, and even more so when my mother was a child, Hebrew study was not a priority for Reform Jews.  It was after my mother’s experience that our congregation instituted the practice of everyone rising for the Kaddish.  They said it was in memory of all the Jewish martyrs of ages past but in fact it was in support of those mourners of the day who could not fluently read the Hebrew and deserved not to be so publicly embarrassed.  Feeling the pain of my mother, I always deeply appreciated that act of kindness.

Then came the days of my own mourning, with the passing of my mother, then my father, and then my sister.  One Shabbat morning, when I was attending a Bat Mitzvah at our local pseudo-Conservative congregation, I experienced for the first time what it was like to stand for the Kaddish as a mourner without the non-mourners of the congregation standing alongside of me.  Like my friend and colleague, I keenly felt the healing power of the moment in ways that I never felt in my own congregation.  I immediately appreciated what had been lost with the institution of our communal Kaddish.  Yet the memory of my mother’s Kaddish ordeal remained a painful memory.  What to do?

Shortly after that experience, in my own congregation, I instituted the practice of introducing the Kaddish in such a way that the mourners had an opportunity to spend at least some time standing alone in memory of their loved ones before they were joined by the rest of the congregation in standing and reciting the Kaddish.  Three years ago, I added a beautiful addition to that practice.  Now I not only have them stand when their loved one’s name is recited in the Yahrzeit list, but I also give them the opportunity, if they choose to take it, of sharing some personal reflection on the life of the loved on they are recalling that Shabbat.  Not only is it powerfully cathartic for those mourners who choose to take advantage of that opportunity, but it personalizes and enhances the Kaddish experience for all those congregants who will stand and pray without a Yahrzeit of their own to observe.  I have found that it truly does capture the best of both worlds.

A Hole in the Heart: A Yizkor Sermon

September 29, 2012

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.

Bringing the Yahrzeit List to Life

February 29, 2012

For those who are not aware of it, we Jews honor the memories of our loving departed by observing the anniversary of their passing by reciting a special memorial prayer in the context of our worship.  We call that anniversary by its Yiddish name, “yahrzeit.”  The prayer we offer in memory of our our loved ones is called the “Mourners” Kaddish.”

Last year, the President of my congregation came to me with a suggestion about how to make our services more personal at the point in the service when we recite the Mourner’s Kaddish.  I believe she had witnessed this at another congregation and found it meaningful.  Her suggestion was that before we read the Mourners’ Kaddish, we offer those who have a yahrzeit to observe the opportunity to share some brief reflections on the person or persons they are remembering.  So we gave it a try and I have to tell you, I found it to be quite a powerful and moving change in the routine of our worship.

As long as I can remember – as a child and as an adult – while attending Jewish worship services, the recitation of the Yahrzeit List before the reading of the Kaddish was this dry cataloging of names of people, most of whom I did not know.  Of course these names were meaningful to those who came to remember them and to those who actually knew them, and that indeed was important.  Needless to say, the older I got and the more time I spent in the community, the more names there were on the Yahrzeit List were those of people I actually knew; people of whom I had personal memories; people for whom the act of saying Kaddish was more meaningful for me.  Yet still, on any given Shabbat, many of the names, if not most of the name were for me, and I suspect for most of the rest of the worshipers, names of people unknown to us, and therefore impersonal.  And on those Shabbatot where all of the names where unknown, the Yahrzeit list and the Kaddish were little more than signals that the service was drawing to a close and that the Oneg would soon begin.

However, this all changed dramatically as soon as we began to invite mourners to share their memories of loved ones with us.  First of all, understand that not every mourner wishes to do so.  It is not their obligation.  It is their option.  There are many people who are uncomfortable speaking in public, and there are others who find the public sharing of such memories to be too personally painful.  But those who wish to share are invited to do so, and several do.  We ask that these remarks be brief and some are less brief than others, but none so far have been overly long.

But far more important than whether or not their remarks are short or long is what they have to say.  For it is in what these people say that we discover the power of the moment.  These mourners share both memories and feelings.  In so doing they transform these names into loving, caring human beings.  They share their virtues.  They share their faults.  They bring a tear.  They bring a smile.  In the end, everyone in the sanctuary finds themselves, to some degree or another, mourning individuals who they may never have known face-to-face.  We feel in our hearts the loss that our mourners feel.  We feel our own sense of loss in that we have been introduced to an individual who we probably would have enjoyed knowing, but never had the opportunity to get to know.

In this way, in our services, the Mourners’ Kaddish has become far more than a marker, indicating that the service is nearing its conclusion.  Its fundamental purpose – that of keeping alive the warm and loving memories of those now gone – has been reawakened in our hearts and in our lives.  We all become mourners.  We all come to realize that every single individual – living or dead – is far more than just a name; that every single individual brings into this world their own special brand of beauty.  When they pass away, and at least some of that beauty is lost, we are all diminished by their passing, even if we never knew them in life.

This has become a very meaningful congregational tradition for it has taken our worship services to a higher spiritual realm.

Snow What?

January 27, 2012

Friday, January 20th was not a wonderful weather day here in the Quad Cities.  Indeed, it was actually quite miserable, with cold and snow falling all day into the early evening.  It most understandably was one of those days when, having arrived at home after a long day at work, for most people, going out again was probably one of the farthest things from their minds.  Here at Temple Emanuel, during the course of the day we wrestled with whether or not to cancel services.  However, since by mid afternoon, we only had about 2 inches of snow on the ground, we decided to hold them.  After all, Shabbat is Shabbat, and 2 inches does not a blizzard make.

One of the calls which we received during the day, asking whether or not we would be cancelling services was from the associate pastor of a local Presbyterian church whose Confirmation class had been scheduled to attend our worship that evening; a church which has been sending its Confirmation class to our synagogue for a “Jewish worship experience” for so many years I cannot begin to count them.  When I told her that services would be held as scheduled, she sounded quite pleased rather than disappointed.

That service was planned as a special one for our congregation.  Not only were we hosting these visitors and longtime friends of our congregation, but we also were hearing from those of our congregation who had the privilege and pleasure of attending the recent joint biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism and the Women of Reform Judaism, as they shared with us their insights and reflections on that gathering.  On top of that, we were observing the first Yahrzeit of beloved modern Jewish music composer, Debbie Friedman, by including in the music of the service many of her settings for our prayers.

No sooner had the Cantor and I pulled into the parking lot than the students from the Presbyterian church started arriving in car-after-car-after-car.  While some of our congregants arrived later, when the service began, the Presbyterians were in a significant majority.  Though the numbers gap shortened as the evening progressed and a few more of our people arrived, I strongly suspect that had it not been for the special reports and music, we would have remained far outnumbered.  At the beginning of the service, I made a quip about how it seemed as though the Presbyterians were made of far hardier stock than the Jews, but we all know that it is more than that.

Our congregation serves as host to many different church groups in the course of any given year.  One thing that most of these groups hold in common is that they are in awe of what they experience here.  They are captivated by the very sound of the Hebrew prayers.  They find our melodies enchanting.  The text of our services really touches them.  They are both fascinated and moved by our Yahrzeit boards, our obser­vance of Yahrzeits, and especially when mourners share some reflections on the people they are remembering that Shabbat.  And when the ark is open, and they see the Torah scrolls they are wide-eyed in mystical wonder, and especially so when they are fortunate enough to attend on a Shabbat eve when we actually take the scrolls out of the ark, carry them around the sanctuary, and read from them.  For so many of these church members, attending our services constitutes a spiritual, or even mys­tical, experience.

This is truly one of the great ironies of American Jewish life; that Christians have a far greater appreciation of Jewish worship than do Jews.  They find so much more meaning in our worship than do our own people.  Nor is this odd imbalance limited to the worship experience.  I find it so whenever I speak or teach about Judaism to a non-Jewish audience.  The non-Jews flock to study Judaism while the Jews seem to flee from the opportunities to do so.  In speaking with the folks at our own Federation, they, too, acknowledge that while their public programs have met with great success, it is not so much the Jews who attend them but rather the non-Jews.  Indeed, for as long as I have been in our community, that has been the greatest complaint that I have heard about the massive crowds who year in and year out attend our Interfaith Yom HaShoah observances; “Where are the Jews?”

I have to tell you that our community is not alone in this Jewish malaise.  According to a study done by the Pew Forum, which is an organization devoted to studying all aspects of religious life in America, we Amer­ican Jews have a pretty pathetic showing when it comes to the appreciation of our religious oppor­tunities.  So, for example, while the national average for those who attend worship services weekly or more than weekly is 39%, out of 14 different faith groups, with Jehovah’s Witnesses ranking 1st at 82%, American Jews are tied with “Other Faiths” for 12th and 13th place – just above the “Unaffiliated,” with 16%.  According to that same survey, when it comes to how important people feel religion is in their lives, with the national average for those who feel that it is very or somewhat important being 84%, and with Historical Black Churches ranking number 1 with 98%, we Jews rank number 12, with 71%, just above “Other Faiths” and the “Unaffiliated.”

One cannot help but feel sad in the face of these statistics, and in the face of the reality that not only our synagogue but almost all American syna­gogues face on an ongoing basis.  Why is it that so many of those who are not Jewish have such a great appreciation for the rich and wonderful heritage which is our own, while we Jews look at it and yawn?  Perhaps it is the fault of the synagogues.  Perhaps it is the fault of the rabbis and the cantors.  Perhaps it is the fault of our religious schools.  Perhaps it is the fault of our obsessive desire to “fit it” with the rest of our society and not to be viewed as “different” or “alien” by our non-Jewish neighbors; to be with them, wherever they are, whenever they are there, doing whatever they are doing, and not to let our Judaism get in the way of that.  But more likely, it is all of these reasons, and even more.

There are those who say that competitiveness is a Jewish trait.  Maybe it is.  But if it is, then we as Jews cannot be satisfied being near the bottom of the list when it comes to religion; just one or two steps above those who openly profess that they do not care at all about religion.  So what are we going to do about it?  Whatever it is, we have to start doing it together.

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.