Posted tagged ‘Grief’

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

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.