September 23, 2015 | Holding On & Letting Go (Yom Kippur Yizkor 5776)
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A little boy and his mother were crossing a river.
mother: Please hold my hand.
boy: No mom, you hold my hand.
mother: What’s the difference?
boy: If I hold your hand and something happens to me, chances are that I may let your hand go. But if you hold my hand, I know for sure that you will never let my hand go.
For many of us, the tension of loving others requires us to fiercely hold on to them, and at other times, loving means letting go. This is true for parents and children, but is certainly also true for spouses, partners, and friends. This is true in life and also true long after our loved ones have left us. In life, holding on may mean holding on to protect those we care about, while letting go might mean sending our kids off on their first date, or saying goodbye to our kids as they go to college for the first time.
In my family, we sent our eight-year-old son Lev to sleepaway camp in Canada for much of this past summer. This was a first for him, and we were anxious about how he would manage on his own. Would he remember to brush his teeth or comb his hair without being prompted? He only knew one other camper—would he be lonely? How would he fall asleep at night without Rachel or me singing his lullaby to him? After all, we have been singing the lullaby we wrote for him every night since his first week of life.
I must admit, saying goodbye to him before camp was one of the hardest moments of letting go I have ever experienced.
As you may have guessed, personal hygiene was loosely observed, he made fast friends, and yes, he listened to the lullaby we recorded for him every night, on his iPod, just before he fell asleep.
During the days leading up to Lev’s departure for camp, I was visiting with a member of our community who was also a father of two sons, and sadly, he was on the verge of dying. He was in his early seventies and was succumbing to a virulent cancer. This gentleman was simultaneously holding on to all that was good in his life—his family, the health care empire he had built, time with his friends—but also letting go: He was well aware of his imminent passing and reflected openly on what he hoped his funeral would look like.
During our conversation, he reflected on coming to terms with his passing and he shared with me his extraordinary love for his two grown sons. He walked me through all the moments in their lives when he held on and let go. He reminded me that it takes a village to raise children, and it takes a village to mourn loss and let go of people that need to be free. I know my visit was to be there to support his transition from this world to the next, but somehow I walked away feeling like I may have benefitted from our time together at least as much as he did.
Yizkor is the first, and the largest, ongoing support group known to Jewish civilization. It is our chance to acknowledge the joy and the pain connected to our loved ones who have passed on. For some of us, our connections to the deceased are heartwarming in a white-picket-fence world of love. For many others, this service stirs up an emotional tempest of conflicting feelings. Some of us hold on desperately to heartwarming memories of those we miss; others find themselves mourning a loved one who was hurtful or a relationship that was strained. Perhaps a parent who was incapable of loving, or a loved one who took their own life. Maybe we live life’s tender moments holding on until that ultimate moment of saying goodbye.
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, recently and unexpectedly lost her husband. In an essay read by millions of people, she reflected on his loss. She writes:
“I have lived thirty years in these thirty days. I am thirty years sadder. I feel like I am thirty years wiser. I have gained a more profound understanding of what it is to be a mother, both through the depth of the agony I feel when my children scream and cry and from the connection my mother has to my pain. She has tried to fill the empty space in my bed, holding me each night until I cry myself to sleep.”
I believe that her mother was physically holding on to her so that Sheryl could emotionally let go. Sheryl teaches us that “when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning.”
I am so grateful to read these words. Her words resonate deeply with so many of us.
Today is about finding meaning in our lives. Today is about our inner resilience and creating our own emotional destiny that pulls us out of the “void.” Today is about mourning those we miss dearly while finding the strength to put one foot in front of the next. Today is about coming home after a full day, resting our heads on our pillows, and peacefully letting ourselves drift off to sleep.
Billy Joel wrote the following lullaby for his daughter. Perhaps they too wrestled with holding on and letting go. Joel writes, “Inside this ancient heart, you’ll always be a part of me… Someday we’ll all be gone but lullabies go on and on.”