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September 23, 2015

From Sorrow to Joy (Yom Kippur Yizkor 5776)

Julia R. Cadrain

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As I look out at this congregation, I know that there are some of us coming to this moment of reflection and memory, this Yizkor service, from a dark place of mourning.

Some of us have suffered devastating and unexpected loss this year. I hope that our community has been there for you during that time, but I also imagine that in the depth of your grief, there were moments when there was nothing we could say to help hold you up.

Others of us have endured losses that were more expected, but painful and stinging nonetheless.

Still others are recalling losses of dear ones from one or two or twenty years ago. Maybe those memories are complicated and bitter, or maybe they are simple and shining.

Whatever the nature of our losses, they shake us. And when we are dazed or upended by a loss, we yearn for comfort and for clarity. We mine our community, our religion, our ritual for something real, concrete, and even sensible that will help us face the senselessness. We often want to know why: why my beloved? why my friend?… why my child? We’re angry at the unfairness of having our dear ones wrenched from us before we were ready (and can we ever really be ready, even when we know it’s imminent?). We want to believe that these lives had meaning—meaning that is vivid and enduring and not negated by their absence. And sometimes our searching leaves us empty-handed. We find time and again that comfort is elusive—that peace can’t really be found.

In moments like these, all we may want is to be candid about our pain and cry out from our narrow places. At those times, it can feel so comforting to hear reflected back to us our own struggles, in their messiness and honesty. There is one biblical character, Ecclesiastes, who does just this. Ecclesiastes wrestles with this same anguish, and these same questions about the point of it all. As we read his story, we see him confront the stark reality of morality, as he cries out, “Alas, the wise man dies, just like the fool! And so I loathed life. For I was distressed by all that goes on under the sun, because everything is fleeting and pursuit of wind.” 

Those words are devastating to wrap our minds around: “Everything is fleeting and pursuit of wind.”  We can’t catch the wind or hold onto it.  We can’t grip the people we love and refuse to let them go. When we are in the chasm of our hurt, Ecclesiastes speaks to us right where we are.

But he doesn’t leave us there. If we stick with him on his journey, we see him move from bitterness to acceptance, as he starts to come to terms with the ephemeral nature of existence. And even more than accepting it, he embraces the powerful link between transience and joy. He actually offers an affirmation of life, telling us, “Go, eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy; for your action was long ago approved by God.”

Sorry to bring up eating and drinking on Yom Kippur. But this is the thing. If we can step out of our grief for a moment, we can see the truth and provocative beauty of this message. We learn that every experience in life will ultimately give way to another contrasting experience—for every moment of weeping, there will be a moment of rejoicing. For every fast, there will be another meal. The most famous words Ecclesiastes gave us encapsulates this: “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”

We may be aching as we remember the people we’ve lost. And that’s essential. It means that we were authentically connected to those loved ones while they were here. We may have behaved imperfectly; we may have regrets. But the very fact of our grieving means that their lives meant something to us. And someday, when we are ready, that grief may turn to reflection and appreciation for all the gifts they left us.

It’s true that we can’t hold onto anyone forever, and sometimes we have less time than we expect. We can’t change difficult events. But Ecclesiastes teaches us what we can do: be alert in every moment; celebrate the impact our departed ones had on our lives. Even in the midst of our tears, we can pause in gratitude for the powerful memories we’ll now carry with us. Those memories are indelible and untouchable. They will feed us and keep us warm over the months and years ahead.

When you are in the tunnel of your mourning, I hope you hear Ecclesiastes’ questioning and hopeless voice, and know that you have company. Our tradition sees you, and our community stands beside you.

To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.

A time to be born, a time to die

A time for tear down and a time to build up

A time for wailing and a time for dancing

A time for keeping and a time for losing

To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.