October 4, 2014
Lullaby of the Heart (Yom Kippur Yizkor 5775)
Click here to listen to or download audio only (MP3)
My paternal grandmother, whom we called Baba Gita, was a uniquely tough woman. She was trained as physical therapist in Soviet Lithuania where she and my grandfather raised my father Sam and Aunt Fania. She witnessed the atrocities of the Holocaust, and endless anti-Semitism in Lithuania, and then moved to Israel where she lived through several wars and intifadas and buried my grandfather. She spent her golden years in Canada living in her own apartment, and though she spoke six languages fluently, she never really learned English.
Somehow, that never stopped Gita from living independently. She cooked and cleaned for herself, she was financially stable, wore three-inch heels around the house, and dyed her own hair brown. She was never shy to share her opinion and was a direct communicator who saw the world in black and white. She either agreed with you or you were completely wrong. She was the kind of lady that shot from the hip and she often shared her philosophies on what your life should look like, most often without any solicitation on your part.
Though my grandma lived well into her nineties, she battled a blockage in her heart and an irregular heartbeat that required a pacemaker. There were days where I found her blocked heart to be more than just a physical manifestation… sometimes it was an emotional blockage as well. After what she witnessed in her life… I understood. Or at least tried to.
During our meditation, I was able to visit with her: I was sitting at her kitchen table in Toronto. She was serving me apples and whole-wheat toast and talking to me in Hebrew and Russian about how I ought to learn opera—a legitimate art form. She punctuated the discussion by sharing sound bites of her favorite arias.
My mind then took me to my last visit with her. My wife Rachel, son Lev, and I visited her in the hospital. I remember seeing Gita on her hospital bed. She smiled broadly as we walked in, there was a distinct clarity in her eyes. Rachel was seven months pregnant with our second child. There was little small talk; we all knew that this would be our last visit together. For Lev, seeing his great-grandmother lying in bed meant that she was going to sleep, so he suggested that we sing Baba Gita his lullaby, which we wrote for Lev when he was born. The three of us sang it to together. The look of pride on her face widened when she heard Lev finish the lullaby with the words of the Sh’ma. In what felt like an ancient biblical blessing, she told us how proud she was of us and she delivered a beautiful benediction on our lives. We all embraced and said our goodbyes. Baba Gita’s parting words to us were, “The baby will be a boy, and he will be a neshama t’hora—a purely special soul. She was right on both accounts.
I will forever hold on to the image of my grandmother’s loving expression. I am convinced that during the time we were with her, her soul had begun its journey to the next world. It felt as though we were tucking her in to her final resting place.
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. All are real, all are honored in this space.
I am always amazed by people who change inherited parenting patterns. Hopefully, most of us have healthy loving memories, but for all of you who have lived through painful upbringings, and have been able to consciously break the cycle to raise your families in loving homes, you have changed your family’s legacy forever. You remind us that even in the darkest of times, we can find rays of light.
On Yom Kippur, we reenact our own deaths. We fast and pray, we recite the prayers one says before dying, and we abstain from any intimate pleasures. Our collective memories are particularly powerful for this Yizkor service, on this Day of Atonement. In my view, this day teaches us that the best way to remember the deceased is to live our lives to the fullest.
So how are we at living it up? It is a curious thing… some of us walk on the sunny side of life while others have to work hard to put one foot in front of the other. For some, it is uncomfortable to express our unbridled joy. For some, lamenting is easier than celebrating.
Have you noticed that synagogues are overflowing with attendance for a heavy memorial service, while Simchat Torah, arguably our most celebratory holiday, is sparsely attended? How many of us will attend a Holocaust memorial service but feel little desire to march in the Israel Day parade? How many of us feel a sense of obligation to attend a baby naming or bris while we move mountains to attend a funeral? How many of us feel little guilt about missing a friend’s birthday party but make it a priority to visit them in the hospital? Are we lousy at having fun? Are our hearts more open to loss than to celebration?
Earlier, we all chanted the Sh’ma and V’ahavta. These Torah texts have become central beliefs within our faith. Deuteronomy 6:6 reads, “And these words which I command you shall be upon your heart.” Why would these words be on your heart rather than in your heart? The Kotzker Rabbi taught: “Sometimes these words lie upon your heart like a stone. And when the heart opens, in a special moment, they will enter it.”
For some of us, remembering our family members and friends feels like a heavy weight on our heart. For others, their memories live in the very center of our heart. It feeds our body with the constant reminder that life is good. Life is really good, and we are eternally blessed to learn from those who have come before us.
Having attended hundreds of funerals, I have often walked away wondering what life would be like if eulogies were delivered to the living. Do people in their lives on this earth hear all the loving tributes that are offered at their funerals? Recently, the world and media mourned the loss of Robin Williams. Had we given him the kind of love in his life that he had on CNN after he passed, could he have been rescued from his demons?
Hebrew is a clear and definitive language. Usually one word has one meaning. When it comes to the word for “cemetery” though, Hebrew offers three alternatives: the most literal name is beit k’varot, translated as a “house of graves.” For others, the cemetery is the beit olam, an “eternal resting place.” But for many, the cemetery is a beit chaim, a “house of life.” The Hebrew language acknowledges that death belongs to life. That even in memorial, we celebrate the life of a person to the fullest.
I loved my time with my grandmother. I loved how perfectly flawed she was. I loved that in her final days, in her black-and-white perception of the world, she knew that she was ready to go even though none of us were quite ready to let her go. During those final days, she moved to the very center of my heart and she too became a neshama tehora, a pure and lovely soul.
Shortly after her funeral, my son Lev had many questions about the finality of life. Having learned about his great grandmother’s death, he wanted to know when he could be with her again. He wanted to know when Rachel and I would die. Would we leave him alone?
We explained that his great-grandmother was resting peacefully and would live forever in the center of his heart. This had special meaning for him given that the translation of his name means “heart.” He accepted our answers, and in an age-appropriate way, he shifted the conversation to be about going sledding the next day. We were appreciative of his ability to focus on a joyful activity after a day of sadness.
Having experienced a similar moment in parenting, Billy Joel wrote the following lullaby to reassure his daughter that she would never be alone in the world. 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. They never die.”