Category Archives: loss

Moving Forward, Looking Back

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.

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, High Holy Days, loss, memory, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized, Yizkor, Yom Kippur

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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Filed under Beth El Congregation, celebration, grief, Jewish festivals, Jewish life, loss, memory, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized, Yizkor

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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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, clergy, grief, Jewish thought, loss, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Torah, Uncategorized

The Farthest Shore

Published in 1972, The Farthest Shore  is  the third book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s beloved Earthsea trilogy.  It tells the tale of the Archmage Ged’s final quest and his efforts to restore balance, order, and magic to a breaking world. I still remember to this day reading the last pages of this novel on a cold winter night in Upstate New York, and like with any great book feeling a sense of sadness that the story had ended and the characters I was so invested in would begin to retreat into the mists of time and memory.

Ursula Le Guin died this week at the age of 88, leaving behind a legacy as one of the most beloved and respected fantasy and science fiction authors of all time.  In her clear but haunting prose she pushed the boundaries of our minds, challenging us to reimagine ideas like the power of language and gender identity, and to rethink what defines a hero, what constitutes courage, and what it means to seek balance in life and the world.

Le Guin lived a long and full life. She was a feminist and a mother and wife, a learned scholar and an author of children’s books, a lover of myth and fantasy who knew intuitively that the greatest quests are those in which we seek our true selves. She created worlds that were at the same time exotic and eerily familiar and characters that were filled with hope and courage and doubt and fear, characters who often failed, but who continued to fight for what they believed in. She reminded us that truth is often illusive and ambiguous but that we must seek it nonetheless.

The old saying is that you read the newspaper to find out what happened yesterday but you read great fiction to find out what always happens.  I would add that great fiction also reminds us of what should happen, of who we should strive to be and of what role we should hope to play in the world.  We are all, each of us in our own way, on a quest to the farthest shore.  For a time Ursula K. Le Guin was one of our great guides, helping us to find the way through darkness and to perceive the great light that is in the world.

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Filed under loss, mindfulness, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized, winter reading

To the End of the Land

‘To the End of the Land’ is the English language title of David Grossman’s 2008 best selling novel about Israel, family, love, war, hate, fear, loss, and the sacred quality of land.  This book is no beach read.  Weighing in at close to 700 pages, it asks the reader to wrestle with dark and difficult themes and challenging questions, and it does not offer easy answers or happy endings.  Having just finished the book last night, I find its narrative and even more so its characters haunting me this morning.  There is nothing else I have read that so truly captures the modern Israeli experience, namely the challenge of living with hope and love under the constant shadow of the knowledge that life altering tragedy is a moment away.  In Grossman’s Israel, it is not a question of will tragedy strike, it is a question of when.

There is a deep sadness at the heart of the book’s narrative.  It stems from the bitter, unendurable, and yet necessary and seemingly eternal entanglement of the Israelis and Palestinians.  Like Jacob and his angelic antagonist in Genesis 32, the two sides both wrestle and embrace at the same time, pulling one another closer and closer, unable to disengage even when both are damaged in the process.  The difference between a strong hug and a smothering is only a matter of degree.  A fine line indeed.

And in that kind of world, with that kind of pressure, with that much at stake, both personally and nationally, how is it possible to maintain one’s moral equilibrium?  Is it possible for anything to stay pure and true, can anything – a people, a land, a sacred promise – escape corruption?  Even a child?  Perhaps particularly a child?  Or does life, by its very definition, require moral compromise.  And if so, where are the lines?  When does the compromise take you too far, so far that you can’t ever find your way back?

And so, ‘to the end of the land.’  To a place of no return, to a place where the land itself, or perhaps the meaning of the land, is no longer what it once was.  ‘Tiyyul’ in Israel is a powerful idea, to this very day.  It captures the idea that the land should be walked, experienced, slept on, lived in, worked.  And Grossman’s writing beautifully captures that Israeli sensibility with its vivid descriptions of the dusty dirt roads, of the spare and beautiful flowers that bloom in the arid wilderness, of the ancient mountains and biblical landscapes.  The ancient Israelites walked the land, and the modern Israelis are still at it, still absorbing its essence in the most physical way possible.  The land IS sacred, soaked in Jewish history, the place where Israelite kings ruled and Jewish scholars recreated their faith and Jewish soldiers fought for freedom and a Jewish nation was born anew after two thousand years.

At the same time, what the land demands is so high.  The loyalty and sacrifice, the difficulty and determination, the toughness and moral compromise.  The Hebrew title to Grossman’s novel is strikingly different from its English counterpart – אשה בורחת מבשורה – A Woman Flees from News.  The book’s protagonist, Ora, walks into the wilderness of Israel as a way of escaping from what might happen in the real world.  But in the end she must of course return.  The ideal, mythic land of Israel exists only in imagination and religious text.  It can be visited for a time, but the real Israel is where one’s day to day life must be lived.  And the real Israel is like any other place in this world.  It is both breathtakingly beautiful and filled with dust and debris, glorious and delicate, but at the same time dreary and difficult.  It can rip one’s heart away, and make one’s heart sing.  Grossman’s wonderful, poignant, powerful novel is exactly the same way.

 

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Filed under Bible, books, Israel, Jewish thought, loss, memory, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized

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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Yizkor – Past, Present, Future

a text version of my remarks before the Yizkor service on Shemini Atzeret 5778 –

One thing rabbinical work gives you is a powerful sense of the passage of time.  It is not just the holidays, how quickly they seem to come and go, how quickly one HHD season seems to blend into the next.  It is also the life cycle events that you are involved with – the weddings and funerals, the baby namings and brises and b’nai mitzvah.  I have discovered over the last couple of years how powerful that can be, how lucky I am to have served the congregation for a long enough period of time that I am officiating at weddings of young men and women I’ve known since even before their bar or bat mitzvah.  I am now officiating at b’nai mitzvah of children whose parents I married.  Let alone the fact that when I first came to Beth El, I was around the same age as the couples I was marrying, even younger than some of them.  But today, when I work with couples to prepare for their wedding, I am often – surprised – to realize I am close to two decades older than the young man and woman.  Time certainly does go by.

And we tend to experience that passage of time in a linear fashion.  We think of time as moving in one direction, from past to present to future.  But life cycle events blur that distinction.  At weddings and baby naming and b’nai mitzvah past present and future seem to blend together.  I’ll give you an example – a baby naming or bris is largely about the future – we give the baby a name that she or he will bear in the years ahead – we often say, ‘this is the name that the child will be called to the Torah with at their bat mitzvah,’ or ‘this is the name that will be written on their ketubah one day!’  That is all about the future!

But the truth is, a baby naming or bris is also very much about the past.  We might pass the child through the generations of the family, the grandparents and great-grandparents, if the child is so lucky.  We might use a kiddish cup or tallit that belonged to a grandfather or great-grandfather, evoking the family’s history.  And we name after people in the family who have passed away.  So in reality what happens at a baby naming or a bris or a bar or bat mitzvah, or even a wedding, is that there is a strange kind of blending of time, a moment in our present when the past and the future come together.  Even the emotions that people experience at those moments are a blending the past and the future – the tears that you often see when a parent explains a baby’s Hebrew name are coming from the hope that parent feels for his or her child’s future, but at the same time those tears come from the act of remembering the past, of thinking about a grandparent or other loved one who is no longer in this world, and whose name the child will bear in the years ahead.

You may remember that a year ago or so there was a movie playing in theaters called Arrival.  It told the tale of a young linguist, played by the actress Amy Adams, who is called upon to try to communicate with aliens who have landed on earth.  The idea is that every species must communicate in some way, so there must be some kind of recognizable language pattern that a trained linguist can distinguish.  What she ultimately learns in the course of the film is that the Aliens experience time differently than we do.  They experience time more like a life cycle event – as a blending of past, present, and future.  Sometimes they exist in the future, sometimes in the past, and sometimes in the present.

And in the film, as the Amy Adams character begins to understand how the aliens communicate, she also begins to experience time in the same way they do.  This makes the film confusing and wonderful at the same time.  Confusing because it is hard to tell, at any given point in the movie, if she is in a past, present, or future moment.  But wonderful, because it asks a fundamental question – were we to know what the future holds –  the pain that it will hold, even the losses that we will inevitably one day suffer –  would we still move forward with our lives?  Would we still marry, become parents, be devoted children and siblings, work so hard to deepen our most important relationships, knowing that one day they will be taken aways from us?

Yizkor is an answer to that question.  When we rise to say the yizkor prayers we are in part saying that despite the pain we feel when we so vividly remember our losses, we would do it all over again.  Even knowing what we know now –  how hard it is, even after experiencing the pain of loss, the depth of sorrow, the sadness and the grief, we would begin it all over again if we could.  That is one of the things we affirm when we rise for Yizkor.

And of course Yizkor also is a moment when our past, present, and future come together.  The memories we recall today come to us from the depths of time, from years gone by, from experiences shared, from lives that were intertwined.  That is the past.  But we again experience the pain of our losses in this present moment, on this Shimini Atzeret, in this service with this congregation.  And as we do we make a promise for the future – to keep the memories of those we honor today alive in our hearts and in our families in years ahead.  May those memories now, then, and always be for a blessing –

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, High Holy Days, Jewish festivals, liminal moments, loss, memory, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized, Yizkor