Category Archives: grief

Structured Memories

I’ve often wondered why the tradition is so invested in our remembering the losses of our lives.  Think of it for a moment.  Yartzeits are marked, and people come to services on those days to recite the kaddish.  The unveiling ritual, often scheduled a full year after someone has died, brings a family back to the cemetery right about the time their grief may have been diminishing.  And four times a year, on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, Passover (the 8th day), and Shavuot (the 2nd day), the liturgical calendar asks us to come to services to recite Yizkor prayers.

But why the frequency and emphasis?  Would we not, organically, on our own, day to day (let alone on such scheduled occasions), think of those we’ve lost?  Don’t they come into our minds even without any special prayers or scheduled moments?  Aren’t our losses with us every day?  And if so, why all of these kaddishes?  These yartzeits and Yizkors?

Perhaps one answer is that we need to be reminded that time is passing by.  I have countless times over the years had the following conversation with a congregant who has come to shul to observe a yartzeit:  ‘How long is your loved one gone?’  ‘Rabbi, I can’t believe it, but it is 5 years!’  Or 10, or 20, or 40.  Yes, how the time goes by, and there is something important about marking its passage, about reflecting on the fact that we have bravely journeyed onward after our losses, that the sun has continued to rise and set, the moon to wax and wane, the years to pass.

There is also something to be said for connecting grief and loss and remembering to a sacred community.  In that community we understand our experience is shared.  We rise for Yizkor each remembering our own losses, but we rise together, surrounded by friends, supported by our fellow worshippers, comforted by a common liturgy and history.  And in that moment we also honor the memories of those we’ve lost through the lens of the Tradition, so commonly an important part of their lives and the legacy they’ve left behind for us.

And also we need to carve out intentional moments in the course of our lives dedicated to remembering, reflecting, understanding, thinking, and wondering.  Moments when we can feel grief, or gratitude, or often both.  Moments when we can reaffirm, in a formal way, how important memory is in our lives, how deeply we feel life’s losses, and how connected we remain to the people with whom we’ve shared the journey of our lives.  Even when the journey of their life has ended.

May their memories always be for a blessing!

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The Pugilists

Ah God.  The ‘tester.’  At least that is one of the sides of You we meet in the Torah.  Testing  Abraham, and testing the people as well.  Why the test, what exactly the test is, what it is supposed to measure, these things are not clear.  But that there is a test, or tests, that is something the text tells us explicitly.  “And it was after these things that God tested Abraham.”  “For God has come only to test you…”  “In order to test you by hardships…” “…that I may thus test them, to see whether they will follow my instruction or not.”  Perhaps we don’t even need the explicit textual references, because we are all tested, at one time or another, in our own experiences, our own lives, our own doubts and fears.

I feel sometimes like we are two old and weary wrestlers, You and I.  Theological pugilists.  Warily circling the ring, eyeing one another suspiciously, waiting for one or the other to blink, to turn away, maybe even to leave the ring entirely.  Bruised and battered. It is a kind of contest of wills and also perhaps a continual test of patience.  Still here, I see.  Ready for another round?  But those words are spoken (or thought?) with a tired resignation.  Yes still here, but not necessarily sure why.

There is a heartbreaking story in the Talmud of four rabbis who entered a testing-ground of faith.  The text uses a forest as the metaphor for the place of trial, but what exactly the test is is not clear.  Some say the rabbis gave up on God after living through the terrors of the Roman persecutions.  Others explain the forest as a symbol of forbidden knowledge, of what can happen when we let the mind wander to a place where it cannot find its way back.  Whatever the forest represents, it is clear it is a place of theological danger and existential psychological struggle.  Three of the rabbis are destroyed during their journey.  But one rabbi – the famous Akiva – emerges whole.

How to be Akiva?  That is, perhaps, the question.  How to find one’s way through the dark groves and overgrown thickets, the thickly woven branches and fading leaves to once again emerge into the light?  No easy task, and one certainly worthy of despair.  And yet what You dangle before us.  The rising sun in the morning, the full moon and clear stars at night.  The promise of a new day.  The love of family and friends.  The sudden hope that springs unbidden and unexpected into our hearts.  The moments of joy that touch our souls.

Is it time for another round?  Give me a moment or two, and I will be there.

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The Kaddish

The young man stood with his grandmother as she recited the words of the Mourner’s Kaddish.  It was her husband’s yartzeit, the anniversary of the date of his death.  Tradition had called her back to the synagogue, had asked her to sit through a service in which God’s name was praised, to bend and bow, to speak the old and often arcane words of prayer.  And now, after her husband’s name was read, tradition called on her to rise and say the ancient words which marked this day and her loss.

He had been gone many years.  The grandson, now in his twenties, barely remembered his grandfather.  He knew his name, of course.  Had heard stories, oft told by family members.  “Do you remember the time when…?  Ah, that was Joe, that was Joe.”  He knew what kind of work his grandfather had done, how much he meant to his family, even what the substance of his personality was.  But he could not remember his voice, or the feel of his rough hands, or the wrinkles in the corners of his eyes when he smiled and laughed.  Still the grandson stood, feeling a sense of familial responsibility in his heart, and also a deep respect and love for his grandmother.  Not to be underestimated, the latter.  So the young man also said the words – Yitgadal, v’yitkadash..

And what odd words they are!  The prayer for grief and loss and heart rending sadness is simply a litany of praise for God.  Death is never mentioned.  Grief is never acknowledged.  Sadness and loss and anger are so strangely ignored in these ‘kaddish-words.’  But of course the prayer is now more than the words.  The words and letters have flown off the pages of ancient prayer books, and then somehow returned to their very place, letters in the same order, words on their proper lines, and yet the meaning, the feeling of them, has changed.  They are not what they are, but rather what they have come to be through long years of grief.

There is something intensely sacred about that moment.  Not in any God related way, not in anything otherworldly or supernatural.  But intensely humanly sacred.  A quiet chapel and a late hour.  A small group of Jews gathering from some sense of responsibility, creating by their presence the minyan.  Darkness softly falling outside.  A flickering candle.  Twinkling stars glimpsed through a window in the distant sky.  And a young man standing with his grandmother, intoning ancient words, linked by history, tradition, family, and faith.  And love.

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Voices of the Past

This a text version of my introductory remarks to Yizkor on Shemini Atzeret 5777 –

Just a few weeks ago I was looking through some old files hoping for High Holy Day sermon inspiration when I cam across a text I at first did not recognize.  It was 16 pages long, in a larger font, and when I began to read through it I realized what it was – a text of the last Yizkor sermon Rabbi Mark Loeb ever gave.  Some of you may remember the occasion – it was on YK afternoon, 9 years ago, and it was the first time we had combined our afternoon yizkor services.  We had advertised that Rabbi Loeb would be giving that afternoon’s sermon, hoping to draw a large crowd, and we were not disappointed.  The Berman Rubin Sanctuary was packed, standing room only, with more than 1500 people who had come not only to recite their yizkor prayers on our tradition’s most sacred day, but also to hear their beloved Rabbi give perhaps his last major sermon.

As you may expect, Rabbi Loeb did not disappoint.  I remember the powerful emotion in the room that afternoon, but to be honest I did not remember much of what Rabbi Loeb said, which simply proves my experience that most sermons are not remembered.  I knew he had approached the talk as a ‘last lecture’ – an idea that comes from the world of academia, where a retiring professor will give a final talk in which he hopes to summarize his life’s work.  And he had listed out a number of specific points about Judaism and Jewish life that he felt were the keys to finding meaning in our tradition.  And I also remember he had concluded the sermon with a classic Hasidic tale, the point of which is to be true to yourself.

I have a feeling the text of his sermon fell into my hands that very day, בעצם היום הזה the tradition would say, when he left it on the pulpit he had so powerfully graced for more than 30 years.  He was not one for saving sermons, and when he did take them he casually tossed them into the trash can in his office after services.  But that day I saw the text lying there, took it, and slipped it into my own files, thinking that one day it would be insightful, a historical artifact for the congregation, a testament to Rabbi Loeb’s thinking and teaching.

Since I have rediscovered it, I have read through the text a number of times during this holiday season.  It is almost as if Rabbi Loeb’s booming voice is coming back across the void, his be-robed figure swaying slightly as he leaned into the words of his message, his organized mind and elegant tongue laying out his sense of what it means to be Jew.  What was most striking to me about his remarks as I read and reread them was how often he spoke of love.  His love of Baltimore, his adopted home town, and most importantly his love of Beth El, our community and our congregants.  And of course his deep love of the tradition he had served and wrestled with for all those long years.

When things settle down after the holidays I will have the entire text of Rabbi Loeb’s sermon published on our FB page.  But today, as we come together near the conclusion of our holiday season, as we gather to recite our yizkor prayers, 9 years after Rabbi Loeb spoke those words from this pulpit, and just a few days after we marked his 7th yartzeit, there is one section of his text I would like to share with you.  This is the 7th of the 12 messages of Judaism that he spoke about that day, and I am quoting directly:

“I love Judaism because it has taught the world the idea of a covenantal love relationship between God and humankind, the ideal expression of a love that at times may falter but will never end.  Such a paradigm of love is meant to inform our view of the sanctity of human relationships, reminding us that it is our religious duty to try never to give up on one another, whether it be our children, our brothers, our sisters, our husbands, our wives, our parents or our friends.  We must never treat each other as objects, but, as Martin Buber taught, as sacred others.  Things are replaceable but people, even those we find difficult to abide at a given moment, are not.”

And it seems to me those few words capture the idea of what yizkor is all about.  First that we have not given up, that through the pain of loss, through grief, through guilt and sadness, and whatever other emotions we struggle with today, we have not given up.  And secondly, that the people we stand to say yizkor for today can never be replaced.  Their presence continues to be a part of our lives, their values and morals guideposts to our characters, to how we live and who we are.  It is a brave thing to stand to say yizkor – to once again stare into the face of loss, knowing that our grief will feel fresh and raw, but determined to fulfill our obligations and to do our very best to move forward, carrying our losses while at the very same time living our lives with a renewed sense of gratitude and faith.

Towards the end of Rabbi Loeb’s remarks on that day he said this, and again I quote directly:  “I would never have had the opportunities and experiences that have enriched my life so much if it hadn’t been for you… and as my service to Beth El comes to a close this spring, (I know) that a part of you will always live in me.  I hope the converse is true.”

As we rise together to say our yizkor prayers we acknowledge how very true that statement is, for our friends, our family members, for all those we call to mind today – may their memories always be for a blessing –

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Community, Healing, and Hope

This a text version of yesterday’s introduction to Yizkor (Shavuot 5776) –

Judaism has long understood that one essential component of coping with loss is community.  From the very moment that a family loses a loved one community is there.  Friends begin to gather at the home, to offer comfort, guidance, and help.  The funeral is a communal moment structured to honor and remember the life of the person who has died.  Shiva is a paradigmatic communal exercise – at least 10 people are required for each service held in the shiva home, the days of shiva are filled with visits by friends and family members, the mourners are guided from one conversation to the next, from one moment to the next, always surrounded by people who care about them.

And then there is the period of saying the kaddish, for some 30 days, for others who have lost a parent a full eleven months.  The minyan is again required because the kaddish is only fully valid when said in the presence of community.  The services, morning and night, bring the mourner out of the home, into the synagogue, into the service with its sense of communal life and connection.  I have watched many times as mourners have connected with our minyan, making new friends, finding a sense of purpose and resolve, finding in the community a reason to get out of bed and begin a new day.  People are waiting here for you, they call when you don’t come, they care, they understand where you are and how you feel, because they’ve been there and they’ve felt those things, and they somehow made it through.  And they will tell you that the community helped them do it.

We saw this in Orlando yesterday, that terrible, unimaginable, unthinkable tragedy that we will long wrestle with as a nation.  Immediately community came together.  People set aside political divides and racial differences and religious perspectives, and came together as one, came together as community to support and console the families of the victims and also one another.  There was a powerful sense of fundamental humanity – it didn’t matter if people were black or white, gay or straight, young or old, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, conservative or liberal.  There is a powerful picture on the front page of the Sun this morning, a black clergyman embracing a white man and a white woman, the three of them weeping together.

In community there is hope.  In community there is healing.  In community there is a sharing of difficult burdens, a sense that one does not have to walk alone on a path of sadness and loss, and perhaps sometimes even despair.  Not that there is a magic formula, not that there is a secret ritual that will wipe the grief away.  But there are people who will share the journey with you, and you are not alone.

The people in Orlando are not alone.  They are surrounded by the thoughts and prayers of an entire nation, 300 million strong, a nation that believes in equality, in peace and freedom, and in the common human dignity that unites us all.  In the months ahead they will come to see how this powerful sense of communal caring and sharing helped to ease the burden of their grief.  They will gradually rediscover how beautiful it is when the wind blows gently through the leaves of a tree on a warm summer day.  They will one day realize that they have begun to laugh again, to sometimes feel joy, to emerge from the darkness and the shadows to go back out into the world with purpose and courage and hope.  This is the journey from loss to life, from sadness to meaning, from darkness to light, and it is a life long journey.

In Judaism part of that journey is Yizkor.  A stopping point along the way that brings you back to community, to tradition, to the shul, to the minyan, that reminds you of the pain of loss but also, as time goes by, of the sacred power of life.  As we rise together for this last Yizkor service of the year, as we prepare to say our personal Yizkor prayers, we also pray for hope and healing and peace, in our own hearts, in our lives, in our communities, and in the world.

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Rolling Clouds

The great clouds rolled back reluctantly, west to east, slowly giving way to blue skies and a gently setting sun.  It was the first glimmer of sunshine we had seen in some time.  Days for sure.  Maybe even weeks?  Some vast storm front had blanketed the northeast, stretching from Maryland to Maine.  Rain every day.  Grey skies.  Starless nights and an ever dimming daylight.  At first it was daunting, tiring, people kvetched and fretted, it dampened our spirits, wearied out souls.  But then it went on for so long it almost became  the new normal.

I watched the clouds as they moved.  It seemed to me they cast dark glances back towards the light that defiantly rose, illuminating almost as if for the first time newly grown flowers, blossoming trees, thick grass, all the promise of spring.  The clouds would be back no doubt, but for those few hours they were banished.  My dog craned his head slightly higher, pointing his snout into the wind, sensing the change, picking up the scents that told him of growth, warm days, fertile soil, the summer to come.  We paused together and a soft wind rustled the tree tops, leaves magically springing to life, sharp and verdant greens highlighted against the sky’s deep blue.

There is a favorite scene of mine from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  The Lady Eowyn has been grievously injured in battle.  In due time she recovers from her physical injuries, but she also suffers from a broken heart.  And this, as we all know, is more difficult to mend.  The gentle and courageous Faramir, a warrior who is also filled with deep wisdom, visits her daily.  Together they stand on the ramparts of the great city of Gondor, looking to the east.  Then there is a moment where Eowyn understands that she feels love again, that she can again become whole:  “Then the heart of Eowyn changed, or else at last she understood it.  And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.”

Perhaps it is not change so much as understanding that enables our hearts to open up again, to be healed.

A last vignette.  Morning minyan.  I am sitting in my regular spot, at the back.  Two widows who have just recently lost their beloved husbands sit together, searching for hope and healing in the context of ancient words and rituals.  They silently share their burden.  Then I see one of the women lean closer to the other, whisper a few words.  They smile, one to the other, in that private moment.  There is just a bit more light in the sanctuary.  And, I hope, in their wounded hearts.

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Moving Forward While Looking Back

this the text version of a sermon from the 7th day of Passover –

We are in a period of our calendar that we call the ‘sefirat ha’omer’ – the counting of the omer.  The counting comes from the an ancient agricultural ritual described in the Torah, in Leviticus 23, where the very first sheaf of grain that was harvested was brought to the priest on the day after Passover, marking the beginning of the harvest season.  The Torah commands that we count seven times seven days to link this first sheaf to the fuller barley crop that would grow throughout the spring.

Over time the 49 days of the counting came to be understood as a period of sadness and mourning.  This is the reason why the tradition asks us to not hold weddings during the sefira – it is not considered appropriate during a time of sadness for the Jewish people to hold festive celebrations.  I’ve learned over the years that people are aware of this tradition, so that each year I get phone calls from families trying to plan weddings and worrying that their chosen date will fall during the omer period.  The truth is there is a wide variety in terms of how that tradition is observed.  At one time there was a split in the Sephardic and Ashkanazic communities, so that Ashkenazic Jews would have weddings at the beginning of the period, from Passover to Rosh Hodesh Iyar, but then stop for the rest of the time, while Sephardic Jews would do the opposite – have no weddings from Pesah until the 33rd day of the counting, known as ‘lag b’omer’, but then permit weddings during the rest of the counting.

The strange thing about this association of the omer counting and sadness its that we are not really sure where it comes from.  Maimonides, in his great code of Jewish law the Mishnah Torah, does not even mention it.  The only hint of it we have from early sources is a strange passage in the Talmud, which tells us that thousands of Torah students were killed by a plague between Passover and Shavuot during the time of Rabbi Akiva.  Even so the Talmud does not suggest that the period be observed as one of mourning moving forward, and it does not attempt to create any type of day that commemorates the student’s deaths.  And it wasn’t until hundreds of years later – probably 800 or so the common era – that Jewish sources begin to shape the omer counting into a time of communal sadness.  Why did the tradition make that decision, and make it so difficult for us to plan our spring weddings?

One answer to that question may be found in an examination of Jewish history.  We know we don’t have to look too hard to find tragedy in our past, but the period of the omer counting seems to be particularly full of it.  It was during this time in the year 135 that the Jewish revolt led by the messianic figure Bar Kochba was brutally put down by the Romans.  Ultimately killed thousands upon thousands of Jews, destroyed Jewish cities, and by the way changed the name of the land from Judea to Syria-Palestine.  The famous story of the 10 martyrs, recited during the Eila Ezkara on Yom Kippur comes from this time, so we have a sense that the physical destruction of the Jewish people was only part of the Roman agenda – they also wanted to destroy the sprit of the Jewish people.  Torah study was banned upon pain of death, Jews were not allowed to assemble publicly, to gather in synagogues, to hold worship services or classes.  It was without question one of the darkest and most dangerous times in Jewish history.  When you think about it that way it begins to make sense that the tradition wants us to mark the period as one of tragedy and sadness, in the same way that we mark the Holocaust with a specific day of commemoration in modern times.

But the strange thing about it to me is this:  during the entire period of the counting there is not a single word said about any of these historical memories of sadness.  It is on Yom Kippur the we read the story of the 10 martyrs.  It is on Tisha B’Av in the summer when we recall the destruction of Jerusalem.  It is not like the tradition is shy in terms of including these memories in our liturgy, or choosing scriptural readings that in some way reflect the historical memory.  So why didn’t the tradition do anything to reflect the historical memory of sadness that we say this period is about?

To try to answer that question for a moment I’ll turn to one of my favorite novels, Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations.  You may remember the story – it is a coming of age tale about a young man named – Pip – who learns in the course of the novel about his origins, and also about what is truly most important about life.  Perhaps the most memorable character in the novel is an old dowager named – Ms Havisham.  She was left on the altar as a young woman, and since that day she has dedicated herself to  mourning that moment in her life.  Years later she still wears the wedding dress she had on that day.  She keeps the clocks throughout her home set to the exact time when the wedding was supposed to begin and didn’t.  Even the wedding cake that was prepared for the celebration sits on her dining room table, decaying slowly into dust.  Ms. Havisham is the paradigmatic example of a person who cannot leave her grief behind, whose entire life is defined by one great loss.  She lives only in the past, and is unable to move forward into the future.

Judaism has always rejected this idea.  In Jewish life grief is taken seriously, it is confronted head on, it is experienced deeply.  But it is also limited by the tradition.  There is a powerful moment at the end of shiva when the mourners are asked to leave the shiva house, to physically walk out of the door and to close it behind them.  This is a symbolic moment – I will not spend the rest of my life in a shiva house, I will not let mourning define my life – I will not only live in the past, I will not only look backwards.  In fact, the tradition demands of me that I look forward, into the future.  Not that I leave the past behind – I will always carry it.  But the Jewish way is to look forward, to affirm life, to survive, and to search for hope.  Even in the darkest times.

And I wonder if that is why the sages decided not to included any specific prayers or readings that remind us of why the omer counting is supposed to be a period of sadness.  In a sense we carry the past with us – we remember it, acknowledge it, it even affects our behavior – we don’t have the weddings.  But at the same time by leaving the past in the past we are better able to walk forward into the future with hope and faith, better prepared, perhaps, to receive the Torah at the end of the road that the counting also represents.

May we all find the strength and courage we need to bear our burdens from the past, but at the same time to walk forward into a new spring with hopeful hearts for what a new day – and a new season – can bring –

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