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October 11, 2019

Yizkor: Continuing the Conversation

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When someone we love dies, we are often told that our grief will change over time.  Not that it will get lighter, necessarily, but that we will grow more accustomed to its weight, and more able to move forward even as we carry it.  Perhaps this expectation grows out of a kind of blind faith that the initial gut-punch of loss cannot possibly last forever, because if it did, how would anyone continue to bear it? 

Our tradition’s approach to mourning echoes the expected arc of grief’s evolution.  For shiva—the first seven days—it signals that in the initial throes of grief, the world can expect nothing of us but to mourn.  We are not expected to work or leave the house, or even make conversation. For those seven days, mourning is our full-time job.  And then, during shloshim, the first 30 days, our tradition allows us to reenter the world but absolves us of the obligation to celebrate.  And finally, it recognizes the special nature of the first year after we lose someone, as we make our way through each season, each birthday and holiday, without them for the first time.  Only after we have unveiled their headstone do we mark the end of that first, fragile and tentative year.

We are told, and may even believe, that our grief will change, and become more bearable, over time.  But what we may not realize, in those early days and months of mourning, when the immediacy of our loved one is still so fresh in our minds and hearts, is how our relationships with those we have lost will continue to change and grow over the years, even though they are gone.

Lucy Kalinithi, whose husband Paul wrote the book “When Breath Becomes Air”  about his experience with illness and dying, wrote this in the book’s epilogue: “Paul is gone, and I miss him acutely nearly every moment, but I somehow feel I am still taking part in the life we created together. ‘Bereavement is not the truncation of married love,’ C.S. Lewis wrote, ‘But one of its regular phases - like the honeymoon. What we want is to live our marriage well and faithfully through that phase too.’ Though I can no longer comfort Paul, the other vows I made on our wedding day - to love Paul, to honor and keep him - stretch well beyond death. Caring for our daughter, nurturing relationships with family, publishing this book, pursuing meaningful work, visiting Paul’s grave, grieving and honoring him, persisting…my love goes on - lives on - in a way I’d never expected.”1

Our continued relationships with those we love can take many forms.  We may continue to pursue the pastimes that we enjoyed with them—hiking, or the theater or the Sunday crossword—which naturally brings us back into conversation with them, as we imagine what they would have said, or reflect on what they taught us.  We may pass on their wisdom to the next generation, or tell their jokes at a family gathering, or maintain their legacy by giving to causes that were dear to them.

And many of us find that our relationships with those we love not only continue, but change, as time goes on.  The growing wisdom and experience that come with living, working, parenting, or grandparenting can change the way we relate to our loved ones who preceded us in those roles.  Perhaps we look back with a little more grace or compassion on our own parents when we are in the throes of parenting adolescents.  Perhaps we can appreciate more fully the joy they took in our children when we have grandchildren of our own.  Perhaps, after living a life full of mistakes and missteps, we can find it easier to give them the benefit of the doubt, and to presume that however short they fell of our aspirations, they might have been doing the best they could.  Or maybe our growing strength and resolve will mean that we stop struggling to forgive what cannot be forgiven, and to carry on nonetheless.

The beauty and wisdom of Yizkor is that it allows us to connect the memory of our loved one to the particular moment we are living in right now.  We say Yizkor, of course, at Yom Kippur, but also on each of the three festivals of Passover, in the early Spring, Shavuot, in early summer, and finally on Shemini Atzeret at the end Sukkot in the fall.  These were pilgrimage festivals, when the Jewish people would come together as a community to make offerings of that season’s harvest.  The Torah instructs us that we are not to show up for these occasions empty handed, but each bearing our own gift, according to what God has granted us.2  And just as our ancestors offered barley on Passover and wheat on Shavuot, our offerings on Yizkor differ, too, depending on the season.  On Sukkot, we may carry with us the memory of the summer, or news of a child beginning school for the first time.  In the Spring, we may carry the gratitude of having survived another winter, or the delight of seeing our grandchild find the afikomen in the same hiding spot our parents once used.  And on Yom Kippur, spurred by hours of accounting, perhaps we can offer up a sense of who we really are in this moment, broken and holy, seeking the comfort and encouragement that our loved ones would have offered us, and the assurance that we are loved just as we are. 

The students of the Kotzker Rebber asked him why Shavuot is called “the time the Torah was given,” rather than “the time we received the Torah”? The Rebbe answered that “indeed the giving of the Torah took place on one day, but the receiving of the Torah takes place across time, in fact, at all times.” Commenting on this story, Rabbi Joshua Caruso says, “Maybe our loved ones who have died are like the Torah…we keep receiving their wisdom long after they were given to us.”3

The purpose of Yizkor is not only to allow ourselves to feel the absence of our loved one in this particular moment, but also to allow our relationship with them to continue to live and evolve; to consider how we continue to receive and embody their wisdom.  To consider what they would have thought about the direction our life has taken—perhaps a direction they never would have imagined.  To imagine what they might say if they were here to witness this season.  To continue our conversation with them.

In a moment, we will hear the words of our memorial prayer, and have time for silent reflection.  In that silence, I invite you to bring with you the offering of your life in this season.  To ask the question that you’d love to ask, or offer the apology you can now see you need to offer, perhaps only with the wisdom that the past 5 or 10 or 20 years has given you.  To catch them up on a turn your life has taken since you last said kaddish for them.

What would you want them to know about you in this moment?  If it doesn’t come to you, that’s ok.  Yizkor comes around so often because we need it to, as we continue to move through this life, to grow and to change, surrounded by the evolving legacy of those we have lost.

1When Breath Becomes Air, p. 204
2 Deuteronomy 16:16-17
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