September 30, 2017 | The Memory of Light (Yom Kippur 5778)
It was seven years ago, right as Chanukah was beginning, that I lost my dad. It forever changed the holiday for me. What was once a time of pure joy and celebration immediately took on a deeper, more painful, and complex meaning. Instead of feeling triumphant about the flames of the menorah I found myself taking comfort in them. In addition to those lights, I also kept a large yahrzeit candle lit, letting it burn through the mourning period of the first 7 days, shiva. From there, I followed the timeline for grieving that our tradition provides. After shiva I found myself in the period of shloshim, the first 30 days of mourning. Then those days ended and I found myself in the 12-month period that applies to those who have lost a parent.
These set periods and traditions help us to grieve–they give us something to do when we feel lost. But at some point after losing a loved one, we inevitably arrive at their birthday, starkly without them. For me it was on May 23rd. All of a sudden I found myself not only caught off-guard but also without a set course to follow. How was I to think of this special day now that it too had been forever changed
A birthday is something we celebrate with our loved ones while they are here. From the moment they are born, their entrance into the world is celebrated. We recall the miraculous day each year that passes, and birthday cake with candles seems to be the best way to do it. In fact, every year that comes around brings another candle to the cake. Our loved ones shine more brightly in the world because of the deeds and memories they add in their lifetime.
But when they leave us, their birthdays instantly lose their relevance; they no longer can be used and celebrated the way they were intended. Alone with only their memories and love, we turn immediately to mark a new kind of anniversary–one that is necessarily observed without them. The yahrzeit becomes the day that our dear ones leave this world. We count the years that we have been separated–the years of our loss. But like the birthday, we also mark these years with the kindling of a flame. That flame represents all the things that were present when they were still with us: their love; their legacy; the memories and their teachings. All of these live on long after their bodies are laid to rest.
So how then, might we think about the birthdays of our loved ones who are no longer here? It turns out that our tradition provides us with a beautiful midrash that speaks directly to the difference between the days of birth and death. It starts with a famous line spoken by King Solomon: “The day of a person’s death is greater than the day of his/her birth.” How can that be? We ask ourselves. The midrash answers, “Because on the day of a person’s birth he/she doesn’t know what awaits them in life, but on the day of their death their deeds are made known to everybody.” The midrash continues with beautiful imagery of two ships sailing the great sea. One was leaving port, and the other was entering port. All those aboard the ship that was about to depart were rejoicing; but those aboard the ship that was entering the port were not rejoicing. There was a wise man there, and looking at both of the ships and those aboard, he said: ‘Things are reversed here. Those aboard the ship that is about to depart shouldn’t be rejoicing, because they don’t know what their fate will be, what seas they’ll encounter, and what winds they’ll meet; but those aboard the ship that is entering the port should rejoice, because they know they entered the sea in peace and came out in peace.” The same is true of a person, the midrash continues, “when he or she is born, their days are counted until they die, and when they die, they are heading for eternal life. It is of them that Solomon said: A good name is better than precious oil, and the day of death is better than the day of one’s birth.”
On many memorial grave markers the Hebrew letters Tav, Nun, Tzadi, Bet and Hei are engraved. They stand for: “T’hei nafsho tz’rurah bitzror hachayim”/”May his or her soul be bound up in the bond of life”. The flames that we kindled with our beloved and now without them symbolize the everlasting presence of their souls. We say that they now live on with God; that their journeys have taken them–as our midrash says, “to eternal life.” But even without them now their love can still warm our sorrowing hearts. Their light can still brighten our darkened lives. When we return to the birthdays of our dearly departed, let us feel the warmth and glow of those precious days.
I still have the bottle that my dad’s yahrzteit flame burned in. Even though it has long since extinguished, I can still feel the glow of the flame in it. And on Chanukah, when I light the menorah, I feel those candles also help me to carry the memory of my father. Let it be for all of us. Let the light of our loved ones continue to guide us in their absence. Let their memories and names live on with God. Let their souls be bound up in the bond of everlasting life. Let it be so that we can, like those aboard the ship coming back to port, rejoice in the gift of their light in this world.