I received a call a few months ago. It was very late at night. A woman, I’ll call her Sylvia, called me and said “Seymour died! Seymour died…And she wailed and cried in the phone!
This may not sound like an unusual phone call for a rabbi to receive. It is part of the work rabbis do. But, what I knew at that moment was that Seymour had died about a year ago.
Now you might think that Sylvia had developed a form of dementia and thus the untimely call. That was not it. And I intuitively knew what the issue was. And the issue was not only hers.
Let me explain. Seymour had died from a lingering illness the previous year. And when Seymour passed, it was, as we say, expected. The family chose to sit Shiva, as it were for just one night. “We have been mourning for a while” they told me.
And Sylvia did a remarkable job at the funeral. Everyone commented. She looked great…had time to get her hair done in the morning before the funeral and even had shopped for the right black dress and shoes. I think she truly had the Jackie Kennedy model of mourning in her mind. She was a sophisticated and dignified presence. And after that day, before long, she was out and about. Everyone commented on her graceful presence. I did not see her shed a tear. All the family also held it together in a noteworthy way.
Before he died, Seymour was under Hospice care. And there too, everything was done to make death as pleasant as possible. Nice music playing, a comfortable death, an easy passing…that’s what they said. Too many people believe that hospice is meant to keep people happy as they are preparing to die.
And I wonder…why? At that time we are dying. Isn’t that a time to feel and express deeply the sadness of the end of life, the impending loss, the separation from the one we love?
And the funeral? The funeral was at a new burial site in the area. The first time I went there it reminded me of a Four Seasons Hotel. It’s a beautiful building. Everyone is laid to rest in this mausoleum inside; perfect climate control, muzack playing in the background, and there’s kitschy Jewish art, the stuff you see in the windows on Ben Yehudah Street…makes you feel some Jewish connection. The casket is actually wrapped in plastic…very clean, tidy, and sanitary…no dirt to be shoveled, and no discomfort at all. And the service begins with an announcement from one of the dignified professionals, the funeral professionals insist on welcoming people…they don’t want the rabbi to speak first…At this service, they welcomed people to the “celebration of Seymour’s life.” Really? I thought…there is a time to laugh and a time to cry…a time to celebrate and a time for mourn.
After the funeral friends and family gathered for…a party; the celebration continued. “Rabbi, we don’t want a long service…perhaps you could say a few words and lead us in the Kaddish prayer.”
Sometime later I saw Sylvia at the mall. She was very happy. She found someone. “Life goes on…”And so it does.
Well, almost a year later I received that call from Sylvia. Seymour died! She was hysterical. She had woken up in her bed, she was alone…Her husband of 58 years, her life’s partner was no longer with her. And she was struck by that harsh reality.
Sylvia and her family are victims of our culture, this contemporary western culture. It is a culture that denies aging, and the dimensions of life that are inevitably painful. We want it all to look good and to feel good. We want to be forever young. We have little tolerance for discomfort and sadness, and any form of depression is quickly medicated…through the drugs of our own choice or the doctors who readily prescribe.
So when Sylvia called me months later and screamed Seymour died! I immediately sensed what happened. We can avoid the work of grief, the pain of losing and loss, the madness that comes with the expectation of self-control for so long…but ultimately we lose, because the authentic human response is deep sadness. Death may be beautiful if it comes after a long fulfilling life and the dying is surrounded by loving people. But that doesn’t detract, from the finality of death. And although we may experience a soulful and spiritual connection that continues, the physical presence of our loved ones is gone.
We can be comforted by a vast and unknown spiritual existence. But our lives are lived here, in the here and now, in a physical universe…And it is here that our conversations take place, it is here that we touch each other, it is here we hug, here that we share time and space, we walk together, and drive together and share meals together…here we sleep together. And when our loved ones are gone, their physical presence is also.
The current state of the death trade creates an urgency for us. It is urgent that we understand that dying asks something from us, that the broader culture is trying to delete. I have come to see that grieving is not a reflex. In fact, most people would rather move on.
But I think that we might have to recapture from our tradition a different notion. And that is, that we need to be pushed towards…heartbreak.
Most grief counselling teaches people “to get on with it”…We have to allow people “to be in it.”
A broken heart is the most likely place to find meaning and love. There is no heart as loving as a broken heart.
I heard a story from a teacher of death about a psychologist who was counselling a child with anxiety about dying. Many, if not most kids have that anxiety at some time. The counsellor told the child not to worry his mother will never leave him. Shortly thereafter the mother received a terrible diagnosis; a death notice.
The psychologist asked the teacher: What do I do? And the teacher said…Go to the child and kneel before him and ask the child for forgiveness. The reality is that children need to go through death anxiety. That’s what it means to be alive and value life. And society needs to speak and teach about death, and broken hearts. And we must know and learn the skills to confront this reality.
One of the things that I have learned from being with people who are dying is that they know it, and they are not looking for someone to give them hope. They are looking for someone to hear their sadness and fear, to talk about death’s reality, to review their lives and to comfort them that they will not experience ongoing suffering. Their spirits have a place. Their lives will be over, but their love will remain.
So life is finite. But there is meaning that is eternal.
And those are the two reasons that we are here now, on Yom Kippur at Yizkor. We give voice to the sadness, we understand that our loved ones who are no longer with us, we can cry here. But we can also feel their presence in a different way.
And we can share with everyone who is part of our community. That the lives of our loved who are gone, leave a deep whole in our lives.
But, now, at the same time, we can recognize that although life is finite, the values we live for and express are eternal.
Our B’nai Torah family were with the family of Paul Weiner a little more than a week ago. It was a great sadness for his family and yes, all of us who knew and loved him, as, we joined together at his levayah, his funeral.
But in that sadness of death and loss there was something to be noticed regarding his life and the life of Eleanor. And that was a family that exhibited the best of family loyalty and the values of a Jewish family being together as one, mourning together and standing with a commitment to continue the works of their parents and grandparents and pass on the values that came from generations past to generations yet to come.
Although our lives are finite, our values eternal. The values are expressed when we say the Kaddish prayer…for a week, a month, an entire year…annually, on yahrzeits and yizkor: Yitgadal Vayitkadash Shmei Rabbah…Great and holy is our God.
And our recitation of the prayer reflects our connection to a culture and its ritual and its belief and its values.
And we recite the Yiizkor prayer and we commit ourselves in the words of this prayer to acts of kindness and charity. This is what lives on beyond the grave; family celebration on holy days and the rituals of Shabbat…and the recollection and lived values of what was really important in their lives!
Being rooted in a tradition gives us the way to bury and to mourn and to grieve and to allow our hearts to open up expressing that grief. We won’t be here forever, while we are, we need to care for each other.
When we are rooted here we see that death needs a response from tradition but also a communal response. Because our pain needs to be expressed and needs to be shared…in love. That’s the beauty of Shiva and the beauty of Yizkor. Just look around.
We are not only obligated to sit Shiva when we lose a loved one, but we are obligated to go to a Shiva house when we know a mourner. And there, you listen to the mourner. That very act has meaning. And you open the space for the one in pain to speak about their pain and…what their loved one’s life was about. What did they live for? What values remain after they are gone?
And for Shiva, and for shloshim, 30 days, we curtail our lives. Things aren’t normal. We will hopefully return to normal; now we pay attention to our grief, our broken hearts, our loss…
This day is meant to remind us of the things that are most important. It’s been said that this day is a rehearsal for death.
It is part of the beauty of this Jewish life of ours. We can’t run from discomfort, but we can embrace it and bring warmth to it and change it in time.
Now, as we recall the memories of those we love…We feel the pain…and find comfort and inspiration for our own lives. They taught us so much, they gave us love…and that never dies…and they brought us here, where we can fully experience the depths of emotion and feeling and connection that a hallowed life, a well lived life, brings…
We’ll turn now to the Yizkor Service: Page 290
It’ll be proceeded by the beautiful tefilah L’Ani…