- Rabbi Nanus
September 25, 2023
Rabbi Susan Nanus
Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Los Angeles
Two years after my mother died, I went to a psychic. I was desperately seeking a way to connect to her, to feel her presence even though she was gone.
My mother had dropped dead of a heart attack when she was 61 years old without any warning. My whole family was devastated and in such deep grief that we could barely function. Though time had passed, the big aching space in our hearts still pained us every day. Whenever my father used to come and visit me from Chicago, I would hear him sobbing every morning in the guest room.
I don’t really believe in psychics, but I was so sad and missing my mother so much, I decided, why not? What do I have to lose? Thirty years later, I don’t remember the psychic’s name or what she looked like or even where I went to see her.
What I do remember is that she took my hand and said, “I see your mother and she is standing right behind you. She is here now in this room and she is saying that she loves you.” And I remember thinking, “Oh wow, if only that were true. If only she really were here with me.”
I didn’t believe that the psychic saw anything even though it made me feel good for the moment. But what I have come to understand that in a certain way, my mother was standing behind me. And next to me, and in front of me. And that even though she is gone physically, her love still remains and continues to guide me and comfort me.
Our Kabbalists and Hasidic masters teach that the body doesn’t have a soul, but the soul has a body. And when the body dies, the soul, the Neshama, ascends to a higher spiritual realm that we call Olam Habah, the World to Come.
The connection between the living and the departed is not severed by death. Instead, the souls of our loved ones remain connected to us, offering guidance, inspiration, and comfort in times of need.
We may not admit it, but sometimes many of us really do feel their presence. We have these moments when an undefinable familiar, loving energy surrounds us and envelops us. And though our rational mind tells us that this is our imagination or wishful thinking, our divine spark, our soul hints at something much more powerful: That our Neshama is connecting to theirs.
I can’t tell you how many people have confided in me that at a moment of joy or a moment of sorrow, they suddenly feel the unmistakable presence of their loved one.
“I’m telling you, Rabbi, my father was in the room.”
“Rabbi, I could feel my mother – I know she was there.”
Sometimes it happens spontaneously and sometimes we can actually call them into our presence.
I recently officiated at a wedding where the groom’s father had passed away five years before. The groom had been very close to his father and wanted to somehow incorporate his Dad into this joyful and important moment of his life. So, he and his bride decided to set aside the first chair in the front row next to the aisle as his father’s chair – as they explained to me, they wanted him to have a seat at their wedding.
They decorated the chair with ribbons, placed his photo on it and made sure that no one else sat there. And during the ceremony, I saw the groom glance over at that empty chair with tears in his eyes. Only it wasn’t empty for him. He was feeling his father’s presence and his blessing.
I always feel my mother’s presence when I light Shabbat candles. And not just her, but both my grandmothers and my Bubbe, my great-grandmother who didn’t die until I was nineteen. As I touch the match to the candles and gently wave my hands three times, I am not only inviting the Shabbat into my home, but also the women who came before me and loved me so much. At that moment, we are all lighting the candles together, just like we used to when I was a child. And after the candle blessing, just like they did, I whisper a special prayer for all my loved ones, asking God to watch over them and protect them. Asking God, and also asking those four extraordinary women whose souls I see in the flickering holy Shabbat lights.
We feel them and many of us also talk to them. How can we not? They had such a huge impact and influence on our lives. When my mother turned 60, my sister and I decided to surprise her with a birthday trip to London. She loved Jane Austen and Agatha Christie and everything English and had never traveled out of the United States. She was thrilled and we had a wonderful ten days seeing the sights, going to the theater, and having high tea in an elegant café. Little did we know that she would be gone a year later.
I have this beautiful framed photo of three of us standing in front of the Tower of London and she looks so happy. I talk to that photo all the time. She died before I adopted my daughter, Lili and how many times did I tell her I wished she were here to give me advice on how to raise my daughter? Or could be at Lili’s Bat Mitzvah or Lili’s graduation? And then I would put my fingers to my lips and touch her face in the photo and tell her how much I loved her.
Sometimes our loved ones talk to us. At moments of crisis or stress, we hear their voices, their advice, their warning, or their comfort. I have shared with a lot of you that my father was a big-time gambler and that he spent money like water.
During our recent heat wave, the air conditioner in my car stopped working – actually it started blowing hot air which is not great when it’s 99 degrees, so I took it in to be repaired. It turned out that the warranty had just expired and the repair was going to take five days and be really, really expensive.
Needless to say, I was so upset. I was really aggravated. And then suddenly out of the blue, I heard my father say to me what he would always in times like this. “Hey, it’s only money. It’s only money.” The subtext being, nobody died, nobody’s in the hospital. So, what’s the big deal? You win some. You lose some.
And I actually started laughing. I shook my head and said out loud, “You’re right, Dad. It’s only money.” And I felt a lot better.
Recently this new psychological theory came out about grief. It’s called the Theory of Continued Bonds. The main idea is that when dealing with grief and loss, closure is no longer the goal. Rather, we can continue our connection with those we have lost through a multitude of ways, so that our bonds do not end, but instead transform into a new, different, but equally valid relationship.
Well, I’m glad psychologists finally caught up with Judaism and the teachings we’ve had for thousands of years. Who wants closure? We don’t believe in closure. Why would be want to close the door on the most important people in our lives? That’s why we have Yizkor four times a year and Yahrzeit once a year. To remember and connect and honor them. That is why we say Kaddish, to reach out to them and bless them, and according to our mystics, elevate their souls.
That is why we name our children after them. To carry on their memory, but also to bring them back to life every time we say their names. My daughter’s name in Hebrew is Rut Rachel Ariel bat Sara Leah. Rut, for my mother, Ruth. Rachel for my grandmother, Rose, who I was so close to. Ariel for my father Leonard whose name was Aryeh Leib. Bat – daughter of - Sara Leah, me – Susan Leigh.
Rut Rachel Ariel bat Sarah Leah – three generations in one name. A piece of poetry, an incantation, a summoning of those beloved souls at the most important times in my daughter’s life.
In all our children’s lives. At their bris or baby naming, at their Bar or Bat Mitzvah, at their weddings and if God Forbid, we need to say a Misheberach for them. We say those beautiful Jewish names and those Neshamas in the next world are right there with us.
On the holidays, we make their kugel and plum cake and matza ball soup, using their recipes. We taste their food and are flooded with so many happy memories and suddenly they are right there at the table with us.
We tell their jokes, use their expressions, wear their tallit or use it as part of our wedding chuppah. And they are right there with us.
We keep precious objects that belonged to them – a kiddush cup, a menorah, jewelry their books – for 25 years I kept a pink lace dress of my mother’s in my closet. I never wore it, but whenever I was feeling overwhelmed or sad or lonely, I would open the closet door and see it hanging there, still faintly smelling of Tabu, her favorite perfume. Sometimes I would gently touch the lace and remember all the times she wore that dress. And I would get strength. And comfort.
Yizkor means remember. We remember them and bless them and cry for them and miss them – and we can also invite them. We can welcome them into our lives with our hearts and souls and all our senses.
Yizkor means remember. Perhaps they are also remembering us from a holy transcendent place that is beyond our comprehension.
The Kabbalah teaches that at the moment of passing, every positive thought, word, or deed that occurred during the person's life is concentrated into a pristine spiritual light. This light is revealed to the world and in the Heavenly spheres, where it continues to shine and have an effect on those above and below.
May the light of our loved ones shine upon us and brighten our lives with love and goodness and kindness and compassion. May their memories be a blessing to us. And may we follow their example, and be a blessing to them. Amen.