September 30, 2017
Al Kol Eileh: Processing Loss on Our Terms (Yom Kippur 5778)
Al hadvash v’al ha’oketz, al ha’mar v’hamatok… al kol eileh sh’mor na li Eli hatov
God, keep all of these safe — the honey and the bee sting, the bitter and the sweet.
Naomi Shemer’s song Al Kol Eileh grabs our hearts right from its first notes. While her melody is resonant and accessible, the song actually conveys a nuanced message that speaks to us in this moment of memory. Instead of only recalling the appealing parts of life, Shemer describes the full range of experiences — the sweetness and the sting, the tension and the release, the ache and the balm. She assures us that life is complicated and dynamic, brimming with highs and lows. Our tradition teaches that we often encounter these peaks and valleys all at once, and even seems to insist that this inherent contradiction is necessary in marking the passage of time.
This idea of contrasting emotions coexisting is reflected in some of our most profound life cycle rituals. At Central, as you know, we recite a prayer of gratitude — the Shechechiyanu — immediately after the Mishebeirach prayer for healing. In the joyful final moments of a wedding ceremony, we shatter a glass to acknowledge the brokenness still present in our world. And when we utter the words of mourners Kaddish at a graveside, we actually recite words of praise: Yitgadal v’yitkadash … exalted and hallowed be God’s name.
The Talmud even asks that our own personal words of memory contain this same complex mix of emotions. The Hebrew word for eulogy is hesped, which means “praise.” But the Talmud teaches that the words of a eulogy should break our hearts, and make us cry. It also charges us to tell the truth, saying, “we should recall the good qualities within the departed, and maybe add a bit to them, but not exaggerate. And if they did not have any good qualities, do not mention them. If they were wise and righteous, then recall them as wise and righteous.”
Our tradition gives us permission to name the truth of our own experiences around death. It acknowledges that there is no one way to remember a life, because the way we process a loss depends on us. If our relationship with the person who passed away was strained, or abusive, or we were estranged, we may not feel like grieving. Or if we are grieving, that grief could contain a longing for what could have been, or regret over words either unspoken or spoken too harshly.
Perhaps if our relationship was particularly painful, or if there was a prolonged illness, death may even come as a relief. In these situations, we might be exhausted from watching the suffering of someone we love, from caring for them, or from being in a constant state of anxious vigilance, wondering if this goodbye will be the last. It’s not that we don’t mourn the passing and miss the person, it’s more that the mourning is accompanied by a feeling of release.
Or perhaps our loss elicits grief alone. Maybe the death was sudden, and we didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. Someone was taken from us before his or her time, and it feels senseless and unfair. Even when someone lived a full life, we might still find ourselves utterly unprepared for the loss. They are wrenched from our presence, and we are not ready to say goodbye. We might feel overcome with emotion, or we might feel numb. We might be unable to stop crying, or find that we cannot shed a tear. Whatever response we have to death, our tradition sees us and makes space for us.
Our process of saying goodbye and mourning can evolve, too. Perhaps this is why we are called upon to attend yizkor services year after year. Because after someone dies, our memories remain dynamic and our relationships may continue to transform over time. If you are here remembering someone who passed many years ago, your experience of the loss may feel different now than it did then. And if you are living in the wake of a more recent death, your emotions might be shaped by the freshness of that loss. Our tradition gives us permission to process loss on our own terms.
So when we smash that glass under the chuppah, and when we cry and laugh, praise and wail through a eulogy, we take part in our tradition of honoring every authentic response. Wherever you are on this yizkor afternoon, may you feel the grace to process your loss in whatever way resonates with most you right now. Because we are together on this painful, holy path of having people and then losing them. And all of it— the honey and the bee sting, the regret and the relief, the laughter and the sobbing, the brokenness and the peace — all of it is sacred.