Yom Kippur Yizkor 5777
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Yom Kippur Yizkor 5777

Good afternoon, good Yom Tov.

 

After all these years together I have learned that this time between me as your rabbi and you as a congregation, this time, Yizkor on Yom Kippur, is the most important moment that we have together. I know that our individual interactions are really meaningful, for me and you. But in terms of our being together as a community, nothing is more important than this time.

 

Because now, at this moment, our hearts are open to memory and thoughts of those whom we loved and are no longer here. This time makes us think about the most important questions of life and death. We are bound together by the reality of grief and death. We share it in common.

 

At this time we know it is ok for us to cry. I have cried before you, bearing my soul and the weight of personal loss.

I love the fact that we have a time for memory and mourning which is done in the open, communally. Part of the essence and the beauty of Judaism is that it’s a religion based on our connections to each other. We celebrate together and we mourn together.

 

And although each one of us is unique, each one of us carries our own experiences and stories, and each one of us carries our own unique pain, our common human experience is shared.

 

You have been supportive to me over the 22 years we have shared, and I hope that I have also given you needed support. I know at times I came up short, at times I have failed, and I am sorry for that.

 

As I thought about this particular Yizkor, I knew it would be coming at the time of my own mother’s death. And that’s what I would speak to you about.

 

But I couldn’t. Because there are other deaths that I am profoundly moved by, shaken by. I have been overwhelmed in the last year by the sudden deaths of young people from families in our congregation and families without a congregation or a rabbi.

 

And although my own personal experience carries its own pain, it is not the tragedy that friends have experienced. My mother lived a long and full life, she died a peaceful death, one that gave us comfort. And, I know that I will take time in the future to reflect upon my mother and share thoughts about her life and death…not now.

 

I want to have a conversation about death which is not understandable, deaths which are barely possible to survive – knowing full well that no one can know the depth of that pain, but I want to give voice to that. I know it would be presumptuous to explain or rationalize. I sense that if we can’t give voice to this here in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, then there is no place.

 

I’m not one of those rabbis or religious thinkers that would say, God has a plan and we simply don’t know it. That I think is heretical, and cruel…

 

That is not within the realm of the God I conceive of. I, in fact, would reject a God who acts purposively in a way that tortures human beings…

 

At this moment we can all say that something in life has broken our hearts. And it may be that. A broken heart always remains such. We live with it, but it remains broken.  Even the concept of healing becomes disturbing because, in fact, it may be the brokenness that allows us to remain living. Otherwise we would go crazy.

 

I have come to learn that grief is an expression of love for the departed, an ongoing grief that is the expression of continuing love for those who have passed. It is the reality of our sadness that continues to not only give meaning to the lives we have lost, but to life itself. If we were fully healed, there would be no reason to do Yizkor again. Like you, I will always miss the people I have loved and lost.

 

And so, we are here to remember and give voice to our grief. Sure the expression of sadness the crying and weeping diminishes, but the love remains…

 

When someone dies at an old age or after a long illness, we can say that the death can serve as a blessing, and we all say that. We say that because a person no longer suffers or lingers, and for those who suffer the death of a loved one, death can be a blessing when it’s pain sends us to comfort others, makes us more aware of and compassionate for the pain of others. That is part of the grief work we do – we honor memory through charitable works or good deeds, and that helps.

 

But is it helpful for a parent who loses a child? It’s often referred to as the unmentionable, it is so unfair, out of the natural order, and the sting lasts forever.

 

So where do we turn? Our tradition provides a few stories about the death of a child. Let me share some background.

 

There are two commandments in the Torah whose observance promises long life. One is to honor your parents. The other is a rather obscure commandment. This is the commandment that if you see a mother bird and a fledgling in a nest and you want to take the young bird, you must shoo away the mother from the nest.

We’re not exactly sure why the commandment was given. Some say simply to grow a sensitivity to all life and the feelings, even of a bird. How beautiful is that?

 

Well many years after the Torah we find a narrative in the Talmud about a rabbi, Elisha Ben Abuha. He was considered to be one of the most promising rabbis in his generation, a future religious leader.

 

Alisha Ben Abuha was walking down the road and he saw a father and his young son. The boy was climbing up a ladder into a tree to shoo away the mother bird from its nest, in fulfillment of the mitzvah.

 

The ladder broke. The boy fell. The boy died. It was a horrific tragedy.

 

And made it all the more horrific by the Torah’s promise of long life. We seem to carry, no matter what we see or what we experience, a notion that if we do what’s right, we will be protected. It’s simply not the case.

 

The rabbinic text then has Alisha Ben Abuha say, “There is no judge and there is no justice!” A reference to God. Elisha ben Abuha becomes an apostate, never appearing again by name in the Talmud.

 

When we witness or suffer from the death of a child, that is also our inclination. How can there be a judge, there is no justice in the world. And if we feel it with the death of a child, how much more can we give voice to this when we know about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children in this world, or a million and a half children during the Shoah? Or any one young man amongst us…

 

If a rabbi in the period of the Talmud suggested that there is no God, no judge, no justice, you would think that he would have been deleted from the tradition, but it’s not the case.

 

I think there is a reason that our tradition preserved the text about Alisha Ben Abuha, and I don’t think it’s because he was an apostate. Rather, I think it’s because he gave voice to a lived reality – that is that the world is filled with injustice, that random events take lives, unspeakable tragedies and accidents happen, misfortune is around us and yes, there is evil that can’t always be prevented.

 

Sadly, we learn that the blue print of life was never perfect. It contains the unpredictable and has terrible misfortune. Some of us are very lucky, many are not. Sometimes the very best, the most kind-hearted, the most sensitive pass before their time. And we look for meaning, but maybe there is none – not in the traditional understanding.

 

We find some comfort over time, with family and loved ones. In my first experience with the death of a child in my congregation, the family, after a year, opened the child’s bed and welcomed foster children and eventually adopted a child. It worked for them as a place to allow their grief to rest. But of course, their broken hearts remained.

 

All of us do experience broken hearts…

 

And a broken heart may be something that reflects the greatest expression to being human. When hearts our broken, they are open. They realize life’s frailty more than we could ever imagine. They express the vulnerability and the pain that we all know. I’ve seen and experienced how one broken heart can be open to another. The broken heart may be the fullest heart, the heart with the most understanding and compassion, and the most to give.

 

In my family, when I was a child, my first cousin died. I was too young to fully experience the grief. But I grew up with an aunt who lived out her years with a broken heart. And she was the most compassionate adult, she was always the first to listen to stories of pain.

 

The broken heart knows that there is death, and it can’t be simply understood or ever forgotten. And the broken heart may be the heart that is most susceptible to a deeper spirit, a connection with that which is beyond, but not which controls the events of the world. And so, the broken-hearted aims to accept the world as it is, without expectation or even much understanding.

 

So how do we find comfort and meaning?

 

To be honest, I’m not sure about the meaning, but the comfort can only be found in connection through love…

The love of family, the love of friends and community, and deeper connections to others who have passed on.

 

That I’ve seen here. That I have experienced, because broken hearts are open to love and to be loved. Like you here today – you feel the love of those not here, and you love them.

 

For me, that’s one of those places where the Holy is felt and experienced.

 

There is an old Leonard Cohen song called “Anthem.” The lyrics go like this:

 

Ring the bells that still can ring,

Forget your perfect offering.

There’s a crack in everything,

That’s how the light gets in.

 

I think that’s a good thought for this day and these considerations. There is a crack in everything. There is sorrow and loss and imperfection, but…that’s the life we have.

And that’s where we can find some light – through the crack, light can come in and light can go out…

 

It’s hard to say this, but we realize life is painful and can be filled with so much tragedy…

 

But we can admit to our brokenness and be open to the brokenness around us…and together, bring light. The brokenness may be like a seed that germinates and something begins to grow from it – no one knows what.

 

I’d love to say that we can overcome the brokenness after death…I can’t, but I can say we can use it – to understand and strengthen those around us…

 

That is where religious connection begins – with life and death and the great mystery in each…and where my understanding of God is found.

 

Let us turn to Yizkor.