This is text version of remarks I made at Beth El Memorial Park at our annual Memorial Service –
The Torah reading for Yom Kippur day comes from the 16th chapter of the Book of Leviticus, and offers a description of the ancient ritual of the scapegoat that was enacted by the High Priest on Yom Kippur at the Temple in Jerusalem. The text is filled with detailed information about the ritual – what clothes the High Priest wore, precisely how the scapegoat was chosen, how the sacrifices were to be performed, how the blood from the animals was to be sprinkled on the altar. It is more textbook than text, more instruction manual than narrative.
But there is one detail in the reading that is deeply personal. It comes in the very first verse of the chapter, which reads as follows: וידבר ה׳ אל משה אחרי מות שני בני אהרון – and it was after the death of Aaron’s two sons when God spoke to Moses. There is no connection between Aaron’s terrible loss and his unspoken grief and the Yom Kippur ritual. Aaron’s loss is private, his struggle with grief is an internal struggle. But the ritual of the scapegoat is public, performed before the assembled people, and on their behalf. So I’ve often wondered why the Torah text includes that detail about the death of Aaron’s sons.
I do know that there is a temptation to carry our losses with us wherever we go. The tradition tries to discourage us from doing that. Each stage of grief is finite, marked by the counting of a set number of days. The shiva ends and the mourner is pushed out of the shiva house, asked to walk through the doorway and back out into the world. The sheloshim – the thirty day period – is counted and concluded. There is a limit placed on the recitation of the kaddish prayer, which should be recited no longer than 11 months. But the journey from loss back to life, from a broken heart to one that has become whole again, is a difficult journey. People tell me that the last day of their kaddish is highly emotional, knowing it is the last time they will stand. It is hard to let go of grief, it is hard to reenter the world after a loss. It is tempting to stay in the place and to hold on to the sadness, because in doing so, in a way, we also hold on to the people we’ve lost.
And it is in part the everyday, the simple living of life, that draws us back into the world after loss. Going back to work, meeting a friend for lunch, coming to shul, going shopping, picking up the clothes at the dry cleaners, sweeping the floor and doing the laundry, spending time with the people that we love, watching a football game, reading a book. The fabric of life. Its substance, its day to day. The sun sets and rises, the world still turns, I have a role to play, and slowly but surely I reenter that world. I carry the losses with me always, I feel the grief everyday, but in the vast world around me, in my simple busyness, in my work and my friends, in all the tasks I must take care of, it is a smaller thing, my grief, more bearable, less intensely painful.
That may be the example that Aaron the High Priest sets for us on Yom Kippur day. Still suffering from the loss of his sons, he was needed, there was work to be done, others were looking to him for help and guidance and wisdom. He might have preferred to sit alone, to ponder what had happened, to spend long hours thinking about his sons. But he was pulled away from his loss, back into the world around him with all of its tumult and responsibility. And so it often is for us as the days and weeks and months go by. As Shiva and Shelosim end, as our kaddish period comes to a close, as we immerse in the day to day and return to the world.
But there are moments when the tradition calls us back to our losses and to the profound sadness that is always just underneath the surface. When the tradition, after pushing us out of the shiva house, after ending our kaddish, reminds us of how deep the wounds are, how fresh the feelings, how profound the loss, whether we are here today honoring someone who is gone for weeks or months or years. Yizkor is one of those moments. This Memorial service is as well. When we set aside the everyday tasks, when we leave the world that is all around us with its hustle and bustle, and we visit the cemetery, and say the ancient words, and remember, once again opening our hearts fully both to the losses we’ve had, and also to the lives that we cherished and remember today.
May those memories comfort us in this season of memory, and throughout the new year that is beginning.