Archive for the ‘Pain and Love’ category

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.

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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.