Tag Archives: loss

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

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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Filed under Beth El Congregation, community, dogs, grief, Jewish life, liminal moments, loss, ritual, Uncategorized

We Remember

this a text of comments made this morning (9/20) at my congregation’s annual Memorial Service –

It is a long standing practice to visit the graves of loved ones during the holiday season.  In part this speaks to the memories we have of shared sacred time.  On Rosh Hashanah the family dinners and lunches, on Yom Kippur the break fasts, the time sitting together in shul, the conversations and dynamics and interactions that marked our family gatherings.  It is only natural at this time of year to think of the people we shared that time with.  But also the reflective mood of the holiday season, the impulse to look inward and think about our own lives and characters, reminds us that so much of who and what we are is formed through our relationships with others.  Parents who raised us, imparting their values and giving whatever they could give so our lives could be better.  Spouses we shared decades with, raised children with, made a home and a life with.  Children who brought joy to our hearts.  Siblings with whom we shared common bonds that connected us.  Friends who helped us, cared for us, guided us, supported us, laughed and cried with us.  In our season of memory, we remember them all, and we come today to acknowledge again the pain of their loss, but also the continuing joy of their lives.

One of my favorite metaphors for understanding loss is the image of a ship that leaves from the port.  Those of us on this shore watch the ship gently sail out to sea, its sails billowing in the wind.  It takes a turn or two, but ultimately heads for the horizon, that point in the far distance where water and sky meet as one.  She grows tinier and tinier, and then the moment comes when she reaches that distant blending, and suddenly she is gone, no longer visible to our eyes.  “She is gone,” we say, as we stand together on this shore, looking out into the distance.

But tradition teaches us that there is another shore, the farthest shore, beyond our vision, beyond our horizon.  And on that shore, at the very instant that the great ship disappears from our view, she can be seen by those who are already there.  On their horizon she appears first as a tiny dot, moving in the waves, slowly but surely coming ever closer.  At the very moment when we say ‘she is gone’ those on that distant shore exclaim ‘here she comes.  Let us welcome her in peace.’  And those who travel on the ship know they will be welcomed home.  As the shore comes into their view they see its white beaches, and beyond that a far green country under a swift sunrise.

And there are moments when we are blessed with a clearer vision of that other shore, when we can look out to the horizon and see just a bit further, when the shore we stand on and the shore they’ve gone to come just a bit closer to one another.  At those moments we feel a stronger presence, and in that presence a keener sense of absence.

And today is one of those moments.  The holidays, the coming of fall, the turning of the leaves, the deep sense of moving time, the presence of our loved ones here in this hallowed space.  We remember today, and in doing so we honor their lives in the beginning of a new year –

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Shelter from the Storm

Yes, the powerful song from Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks album, one of the greatest rock and roll records ever made, and maybe the greatest. The album was released in 1975, the year the last American forces pulled out of Vietnam, and the song echoes the way the American psyche experienced that war. Here the first stanza: ‘Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood/ when blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud/ I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form/ come in, she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm.’ Perhaps the woman is America, the lady holding the torch beckoning her sons home, while the creature void of form is a symbol of the veterans who came back, changed forever. Who knows? But there is something haunting about the song, as it builds from stanza to stanza, part the mourning of a lost love, or lost innocence, or both, part the search for the presence of God and goodness in life’s dark places.
The truth is there are many different storms we encounter in the course of our lives. Illness or a broken relationship. Old age. Failure. Lost dreams. Despair. Grief and loss. It can happen in an instant. The blues skies suddenly turn dark. Threatening clouds appear. The leaves on the trees turn upwards to the sky, as if to say ‘wait but a moment, then we’ll let you have your way.’ Sometimes the moment will pass. A thunderous, intense, driving, rain will clear to a cool summer eve and the gentle glimmer of early stars. But other times the winds are too strong, the rain blinding. We can lose our way, groping about for help, wondering how we ever arrived at this place, and how we ever might get out of it.
Shelter can come from many places. But as Dylan’s song implies, more than anything else we need other people to share our burdens with. To be in pain is awful. To be in pain and lonely is unbearable. What I would suggest is that we never know when we might be giving someone the shelter they need. There are obvious examples – the sick person in the hospital supported by the love and care of family and friends. But there are less obvious moments as well, not to be underestimated. A simple phone call to check on an old friend. Quiet acts of kindness extended to strangers. The list could go on and on. Is it trite? Perhaps. But often what is trite is true as well.
There is a fairly famous person whose name I can no longer remember (maybe not so famous after all!). He kept a journal, a day by day recording of the events of his life. In one entry, remarking on a day spent with his son, he wrote ‘went fishing with my son for hours. Wasted day.’ It so happened that the boy also was keeping a journal (learned from his old man, I suppose). On that very same day he also recorded an entry, writing the following: ‘went fishing with my father – one of the best days of my life!’
This also from Dylan’s song: ‘Not a word was spoke between us, there was little risk involved/ everything up to that point had been left unresolved/ try imagining a place where its always safe and warm/ come in she said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm.’ We are all looking for that place. What we sometimes forget is that we can all help others find it. Imagine that.

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Again, Goodbye

a text version of comments from yesterday’s Yizkor introduction –

Each year when I sit down to seder with my family I feel that my bubbie and zayde and there at the table with me. Not physically – at this point they’ve been gone for many years. My zayde died in 1976, and my bubbie just after we came to Baltimore, in 1999. But there is a powerful sense of their presence, the product of so many shared seders over the years, of particular memories from those nights in Baltimore, my father’s extended family all gathered around, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents and grandparents. My bubbie was relatively quiet at those seders of my youth, involved with the cooking and cleaning, making her famous mundle bread, always eaten right after the fruit and chocolate covered nuts and just before the afikoman, and truth be told sometimes even after. She was a strong willed woman, never one to mince words, who in her own very particular and unmistakable way challenged the generations of her family – her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren – with the importance of living a meaningful Jewish life.
My zaydie was a very different person. Soft spoken and gentle of spirit, he was a kind hearted soul from the old country. I remember him always in a white button down shirt, slightly rumpled, with pressed trousers, and often a straw hat perched on his head, thick glasses slightly obscuring his eyes. He was not the fighter my bubbie was, more accepting of modern life, and yet proud of his Judaism and the family he watched grow around him over the years. I have a distinct memory to this day of the very first time I chanted the four questions. My father is the youngest of four brothers, I was the youngest of the children ready to tackle the task. I had practiced in Hebrew school, and when the time came I was called to the head of the table where my bubbie and zayde sat together. My zayde had the haggadah open in front of him, and with one hand he pointed to the text on the page, while with the other he put his arm around my shoulders as I began the Mah Nishtana.
These are the family memories the seder table evokes. Where a grandparent sat, what a cousin always said, how an uncle said the kiddish every year, the chocolate cake recipe of an aunt that no one can make in quite exactly the same way. Of course it isn’t just Passover that brings these memories to our minds. There are Rosh Hashanah dinners, and Yom Kippur break-fasts, recollections of playing with the fringes of someone’s tallit, of sitting in particular seats each year, of how someone sang a part of the service with gusto. The sense in the tradition is that the holidays are moments of sanctified time, but over the years part of their sacred quality comes from the time that has been spent on those days with the people most important to us in our lives, with whom we have most intimately shared the journey of our own years. On the other days of the year they are in our minds, always a part of our day to day lives. But during the holidays we feel as if we are sharing time with them again, as if in some way this world and the world to come touch, and we can reach from one to the other.
I suspect that is why we are asked to say yizkor precisely at the moments when the holidays are coming to an end. Here it is, the very last day of Pesah – thank goodness! – and we gather for yizkor. But it is the same for every yizkor service. On Yom Kippur, the day that concludes the 10 days of repentance. On Shemini Atzeret, that last day of the Sukkoth festival cycle. Not the first day, but the second and last day of Shavuot. Cynics might say this was done because these would be days of light shul attendance, and so the yizkor service was put in on these days to bring Jews to the synagogue. As Rabbi Loeb used to say, the dead bring out the living. But the custom of reciting yizkor prayers is now almost a thousand years old, and back in those days my guess is most folks went to services. So there must be another reason why the end of each holiday period was chosen for yizkor.
And I believe that reason is so that we can say goodbye, once again. When the holidays end we go back to our regular lives, to the secular world with its concerns and worries, its distractions and the sense it contains of time passing so quickly. We lose the sense of timelessness that the holidays give us, of connection to things past, great events that shaped our people, but also the parents and grandparents, the brothers and sisters, the sons and daughters, the aunts, uncles, and friends who have shaped our lives, and helped to form our characters. May they rest in peace. And may we honor their memories by the way we live our own lives.

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