Posted tagged ‘Yizkor’

The Middah of Zechirah: A Yizkor Sermon

November 3, 2016

Throughout these High Holy Days, we have been exploring the spiritually powerful world of Mussar as we have examined just a few of the Middot – the God desired attitudes or character traits – which have the ability to heal our souls and permit more divine light to shine into our lives, and through us, into the lives of others.

During these brief moments of Yizkor – memorial – when our thoughts and hearts turn to the loved ones we have lost over the years, I would like to introduce yet one last Middah, the Middah of Zechirah – Remembrance.  For after all, that is what this particular service is all about.

As I stated in earlier sermons, and just this morning, Mussar views our attitudes as existing along a continuum, from one extreme to the other, with the Middot seeking to help us find the ideal spot along that continuum at which we can establish for ourselves the most effective and uplifting set point for our personal attitudes.  When it comes to the Middah of Zechirah – Remembrance – that set point is to be found somewhere between the extreme of a purging from our memory of any thoughts of those who are no longer with us, and the extreme of a total and debilitating obsession with our memories of those who have departed this life; between the extreme of moving on with our lives as if those people never existed and the extreme of being so lost in our sense of loss that we find ourselves incapable of moving forward in our lives.  As is the case with all such continuums, as explained by Mussar, both extremes are destructive to our character, yet elements of both extremes are necessary for our spiritual survival.  The Middah of Zechirah seeks to help us discover the sweet spot along that continuum which combines that best of both perspectives in such a way that our memories of loved ones are neither lost to us nor seeking to drown us in an oceans of sorrow; in such a way that we can hold the memories of those we loved, and continue to love, near and dear to our hearts as they come to serve to brighten our lives rather than darken our days.

In our search for this Middah, we need to confront what might be for many a rather uncomfortable fact; that we fear extinction.  The nightmare we never speak about with others is the one in which we not only no longer exist in this world, but it is as if we never existed at all.  All the evidence of our having been here is erased.  If someone were to mention our names, the common response would be, “Who?  Never heard of him.  Never heard of her.”  That our life would have been the realization of Shakespeare’s words:  “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more:  it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”[1]

If that is what awaits us at the end of our days, then what is the purpose of the struggle?  Why do we grasp so tightly onto life?  Why do we invest so much energy into it?  Physical energy.  Emotional energy.  Why do we care?  Care about ideals.  Care about others.  Care about ourselves.  If it all comes down to nothingness, non-existence, why not just give up the ghost and end it now?

We all want our lives to mean more than nothing.  We all want to leave our mark before we are gone.  We all want to make some sort of difference; leave some sort of legacy.  We all want to be remembered.  Zechirah.  And just as we want to be remembered, those who came before us wanted to be remembered as well.

But how can we expect to be remembered unless we remember?  Why should we, in good conscience, expect those who follow after us to do more for us then we, ourselves, did for those who came before us?  We can’t, and we shouldn’t.

There are those who claim, “Memory is a very personal thing.  I keep it in my head and in my heart and that is all I need to do.”  But remembrance is more than mere memories locked away in our brains, hidden from the world at large; hidden even from those closest to us.  Remembrance isn’t something that is exclusively passive.  It needs to be active as well.  We need to act upon our memories as well as harbor them.  We need to bring them into our lives and not just keep them locked away in our hearts.

One way that we can engage in such active remembrance is, of course, through ritual.  That is precisely what we are doing right now by attending this service.  But this is only one such ritual, and it is a once-a-year commitment, and we can do it for all our loved ones together at once – mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, and God forbid, children.  We all know that there are other rituals as well which we can be observing, such as lighting Yarhzeit candles and saying Kaddish on the Shabbat nearest the Yahrzeit, attending such services as festival Yizkor services and Kever Avot.  Visiting the graves of our loved ones and saying a prayer.  Giving tzedakah in their memory on their special days, such as birthdays.  Now there are those who believe that by our observing each of these rituals, we enable the souls of our loved ones who have returned to God to experience feelings of joy and love not unlike how they felt when physically alive, we celebrated with them their special times, such as birthdays and anniversaries.  It would be kind of like sending them a spiritual greeting card.  Maybe that is so.  We cannot know for sure.  However, what we can know, and what we can experience, is whether or not it impacts their heavenly existence, it can impact our earthly existence.  Taking the time and the energy to observe such rituals in their memory can touch our lives in much the same positive and loving way that we experienced in celebrating their days with them when they were with us.  There is a tangible spiritual uplift we can feel when we take the time to light a Yahrzeit candle for them, say Kaddish for them, go to visit their graves.  Such deeds bring out our memories and draw us closer to them.  They have the power to heighten the feeling of their continuing presence in our lives.

While those special days with their special observances are very important, when it comes to our actively engaging in Zechirah, there are other opportunities as well – daily opportunities.  At the hands of those who are gone, we received manifold gifts; gifts that far exceed any material inheritance they may have passed on to us.  These are the gifts of the spirit.  These are the gifts which may not have added to our estate but they have added greatly to our character.  The wonder of these gifts is that we can keep them the rest of our lives yet freely share them with others and they would not diminish one iota.  Indeed, with every act of sharing, they grow.  And they grow all the more wondrously if, when we share them with others, we also share something about the people who gave us those gifts in the first place; introducing to those whose lives we bless, to those who blessed our lives.  Introducing them as if they are standing right alongside of us; a chain of tradition, if you will, of blessings.  You may have heard of “paying it forward”.  Well, we can pay it forward and backward at the same time.  In so doing, we can keep both the legacy and the memory of our departed loved ones alive and vital in this world.

Not every one of us is destined to have our names inscribed in the history books and remembered for time immemorial but that does not mean that we are destined to fade into nothingness.  Each and every one of us leaves a legacy; a legacy of our choosing.  And each and every one of us carries upon our shoulders the responsibility to transmit to others the legacies that have been left to us by those we loved.  We are the keepers of each other’s legacies.  In so doing, we are the ones who determine whether or not the fate of others is destined for extinction in this world or for an unbroken chain of memory and gift giving stretching far into the unforeseeable future.  The power of Zechirah – Remembrance – is in our hands and may we always make the most of it.

[1] Shakespeare, William, “Macbeth”, act 5, scene 5.

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.

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

Traveling the Road to Sinai

April 1, 2013

Our Pesach Seder, or S’darim, are behind us.  In just a few days, Pesach itself will be concluded as we gather for Yizkor.  Now, as our tradition tells us, we are in the period of the counting of the Omer.

But what is counting the Omer?  In the book of LEVITICUS, our people were instructed that on the second day of Pesach they were to bring to the Temple a sheaf of barley as an offering.  The Hebrew word for “sheaf” is “Omer.”  In that same passage it states that starting on the second day of Pesach, it is a mitz­vah to daily count the Omer; counting the 50 days from Pesach to Shavuot.  Since Shavuot is the festival of the receiving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai – and as our tradition expanded upon that, the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai – the counting of the Omer is literally marking the days between the time we were liberated from our slavery in Egypt to the time God gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai.  In counting the Omer, we are in our own way participating in the journey across the wilderness from Egypt to Sinai; from slavery to Torah.

From the first Pesach and Shavuot to this very day, by counting the Omer, we Jews make that very same jour­ney.  While Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Joshua, and all of their followers physically traveled the 50 day journey from Egypt to Sinai, we, on the other hand, spiritually travel it.

But how does one spiritually travel from Egypt to Sinai?  To answer that question, we have to ask ourselves, “What does Egypt spiritually represent?” and “What does Sinai spiritually represent?”  For in finding the spiritual meanings of Egypt and Sinai, we discover the true path of the spiritual journey which each of us, as modern Jews, must take.

What is the meaning of Egypt?  We hear it stated over and over throughout our Pesach Seder.  Egypt is slavery, and therefore the journey from Egypt is nothing less than freedom.

What is the meaning of Sinai?  For Jews throughout the ages, Sinai has always stood for Torah.  So what is Torah?  Torah is our guide book to becoming a good Jew and a decent human being.  It tells us what we need to do in order to achieve those goals.  In other words, it lays out for us our responsibilities as Jews.

For us, the counting of the Omer should not only remind us of that journey our ancestors took some 3,500 years ago, from Egypt to Sinai, but also the journey that each of us as modern Jews need to take; the journey from freedom to responsibility.  For freedom is a wonderful thing, a blessing, and we American Jews enjoy a great deal of it, but freedom without responsibility is nothing other than license, and that is not a good thing.  It most certainly is not a blessing.

As Americans we are well aware of the fact that freedom has a price; that sometimes it even requires a sacrifice.  We know that freedom does not mean “I’ll do whatever I damn well please and the heck with you!”  While freedom is a gift, it is not the gift of absolute selfishness.  It is the gift of living in a community of people equally free, and doing whatever is necessary to protect the freedom of others as well as our own, and to protect the integrity of the community and all that it stands for.  In order to do so, we have to exercise our freedom to choose to do the right thing and not just the selfish thing.  We have to choose to be at one with others rather than only looking out for ourselves, at times placing above ourselves the values and principles that keep freedom alive and vibrant.  Hillel put it so well 2,000 years ago when he said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But if I am only for myself, then what am I?”  With freedom comes responsibility.

For us as Jews, our Omer counting journey places its focus on some very particular freedoms and some very particular responsibilities; the freedoms and responsibilities of what it means to be a Jew today.

There is something sadly telling in the fact that most modern Jews celebrate Pesach – celebrate freedom – but far fewer celebrate Shavuot – celebrate responsibility – and even fewer still count the Omer – give serious consideration to what it means to make the journey from Jewish freedom to Jewish responsibility.  Yes, we know that we are free to be Jews, but too many of us interpret that as merely meaning that we don’t have to convert to another faith to be considered equals in the land we live.  Too many of us think that being free to be Jews means being free to choose to do nothing Jewishly with our lives, and if not nothing, then to choose to keep our Jewish activities at a bare minimum – attend a Pesach Seder of sorts which often is significantly abridged; perhaps go to a High Holy Day service or two; light some candles and give gifts on Hanukkah; or even take on the expense of joining a synagogue but rarely attend or participate; while never publicly denying being a Jew, at the same time never really publicly proclaiming it either.

But does the freedom to be a Jew really include the freedom from living Jewishly?  Many years ago, when I was a rabbinic student intern in a wonderful congregation in Scarsdale, New York, one of my responsibilities was to teach the Confirmation class.  Our Confirmation program centered upon a series of guest speakers, each addressing a topic of significance.  In one section of the course, over three weeks we explored the differences between Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism.  While all three speakers were excellent, the one that really stands out in my memory is the Orthodox rabbi.  Why?  Because of an exercise he conducted with my students.  He simply asked them, “What does it mean to be a Reform Jew?”  One student replied, “Being a Reform Jew means that you don’t have to keep kashrut.”  Another student said, “Being a Reform Jew means you don’t have to wear a yarmulka at services.”  Yet another student said, “Being a Reform Jew means that you don’t have to fast on Yom Kippur.”  Still another student said, “Being a Reform Jew means that you don’t have to go to services on Saturday, or even on Friday if you don’t want to.”  And so the students went on, that is until he stopped them.  Then this Orthodox rabbi turned to them and said, “Don’t tell me about what you don’t do as Reform Jews.  Tell me about what you do.”  The students were stumped.  For them, being a Reform Jew was all about not having to do this and not having to do that.  It was all about their freedom and little or nothing about their responsibilities.  That Orthodox rabbi challenged those students to tell him, “As a Reform Jew, I choose to do this or I choose to do that” and they were hard pressed to respond.  For them, Reform Judaism meant a lot of free­dom but little, if any, responsibility.

Those Confirmation students are far from alone when it comes to Jews today, nor are their responses just restricted to Reform Jews.  Just count the empty seats in any synagogue on Shabbat.  Just count the empty chairs in any Jewish adult education class.  Just compare the number of those who attend syna­gogue and Jewish community events to those who belong to the synagogue and to the community.  Just examine how most Jewish institutions languish for need of volunteers and especially for leaders.  Even Tikkun Olam activities which, at least in our synagogue, are the most popular, pale in support when compared to our population.  Today so many Jews are just too busy to be Jewish.

This is precisely why the counting of the Omer journey is so vitally important for our people.  We need to come to grips with the fact that being Jewish does not end with our freedom to be Jewish.  Our journey is not just a Pesach journey.  It is not just about our liberation from Egypt.  It is also a Shavuot journey.  It is a journey toward Torah; toward the taking on of Jewish responsibilities.  It is about imbuing our Jewish freedom with Jewish life and Jewish meaning.  It is about bringing our Judaism to life in our lives and in the lives of our families and our community.  We need to journey from Pesach to Shavuot.  We need to journey from Egypt to Sinai.  We need to journey from Jewish freedom to Jewish responsibility.  The 50 days of the Omer stretch before us, offering us the opportunity to explore, to ponder, and ultimately to decide how each of us, making the decisions that work best for us, can travel that path from Jewish freedom to Jewish responsibility; from being free to live as Jews to living meaningful Jewish lives.

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.

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.

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.