Yom Kippur 5782/2021 - Yizkor - Rabbi Joel Simonds

  • 5782/2021
  • Rabbi Simonds
  • Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur 2021
Yizkor Sermon
Carrying our Loved Ones With Us Into the Future
University Campus of Wilshire Boulevard Temple

 

More than a decade ago, I traveled with my wife, Ariella’s, family to Lithuania to visit the shtetl from where her family came.  We hired a tour guide, a member of the modern Lithuanian Jewish community, to help us find the graves of distant loved ones.  People whom we never knew but whose legacies were carried forward in the names of the living, passed down through generations.

Arriving in the town of Skopishok, still there, still tiny, was like being transported into the past.  Little homes with gated vegetable gardens, a town square, and, just on the edge of town, a mossed-over cemetery. It was a warm summer day, but standing thigh-deep in the overgrown weeds that obscured the graves, I felt every season.  The long-gone shetl life blurred against the picture of five modern Jews: one from Lithuania, four born in the United States but raised with the stories—and names—of family members who had made the journey from that town to America’s shores.  Those immigrants carried with them very little of material value but were laden with endlessly rich family traditions, stories, and values that colored the lives they would build in the New World.

In truth, the lives we live today are not entirely our own.  We share them with the legacies of those who came before us.  Whether generations removed or a recent, still-painful loss, we carry the blessing—and the burden—of living for those who are no longer with us.  Those who enriched our past and, in doing so, shaped our future.

Since last Yom Kippur, far too many of us have lost someone we love.  And the restrictions of the pandemic have magnified our grief by forcing us to mourn at a distance, without the physical comfort that friends and family can bring as they pack into a living room to pray and tell stories of the person we loved and lost.  Even for those of us who are still coming to terms with an earlier loss, the isolation and stresses brought about by the pandemic can hamper our efforts at healing.

One thing we know about loss, though, is that it is not a static experience.  In the immediate aftermath of losing someone, the grief we experience can be utterly overwhelming.  It can bury us beneath a heavy layer of darkness and create a profound sense of isolation.  But over time, the memories that can bring such profound sadness in the early days of a loss often transform into sources of laughter or inspiration.  Recalling a loved one’s peculiar habits or oddball sense of humor brings a smile to our lips.  Her stories of hardships overcome or sacrifices made motivate us to achieve.  His good-heartedness, commitment to community, or unwavering sense of justice becomes a measuring stick by which we assess our own actions and decisions.  When they pass, our loved ones’ legacies become ours to guard, to honor, and to emulate.

There are, of course, certain moments in which we feel the sting of a loss especially.  The annual Yizkor service, slated as it is at the end of a powerful and exhausting day of prayerful reflection, is one such occasion.  But also at a simcha, a joyful family event like a bat mitzvah, graduation, a marriage, or the birth of a child—an event we know they would want to celebrate, one we so desperately wish they could have witnessed.  Yet their absence, while painful, also has a way of heightening the significance of the moment, urging us to drink it in and savor it.  And so we dance, we sing, we laugh, we clap, we hug, and we celebrate—and we do so in their honor because, even though we miss them urgently, we also know we are carrying on in their name.

Many of you will be familiar with the famous passage from Ecclesiastes: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”  The Israeli Poet, Yehudah Amichai, had a different take.  In his poem, “A Man In His Life,” he wrote:

A man doesn’t have time in his life

to have time for everything.

He doesn’t have seasons enough to have

a season for every purpose.  Ecclesiastes

Was wrong about that.

 

A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,

to laugh and cry with the same eyes,

with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,

to make love in war and war in love.

And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,

 

A man doesn’t have time.

When he loses he seeks, when he finds

he forgets, when he forgets he loves, when he loves

he begins to forget.

 

And so it is with living.  We mourn and we dance.  We say Kaddish in the morning and celebrate the next evening.  We carry memories of loved ones that can be at once heartbreaking and inspiring.

And this, my friends, is the essence of Yizkor, this thing called memory.  It is not meant to be locked away, only to be taken out at special moments.  It is packed within us, side-by-side with our daily thoughts.  We bump into it at random moments, jogging loose memories of the past, both painful and beautiful, that also remind us of to make the most of the present. Memory lives side-by-side our daily to-do list.  It is waiting in the chair next to us at our appointments.  It is behind us, lurking over our shoulder in line at the store.  When we see the brand of coffee that our loved one used to buy, when we hear that particular song on the radio, when a forgotten photo appears unexpectedly on our phone.  Memory walks with us in the present and guides us into the future.

When we allow memory to intertwine itself into our present, our every day, we keep the beauty and legacy of our loved ones alive.  We link their soul with our soul. We make their memory a blessing through the mundane and the holy ways in which we live our lives.

Still, standing here on this bimah this afternoon, I am struck that there is something particularly unsettling about this moment.  Offering a Yizkor sermon to an empty sanctuary is strange and poignant—it underscores the pain that loss brings.  A void.  The empty place in our heart that cracks open when we lose a loved one.  

Yizkor is not meant to be observed virtually.  We do so this year in service of the holy task of staying safe and saving lives.  But we long for the day when we can once again comfort each other with our presence.  When we can hear the soft crying of a congregant behind us and offer a tissue and a squeeze of the hand in support.  God, how we wish we could embrace each other now.  

For me, the strangeness of this afternoon is not only about the emptiness of the sanctuary.  It is also about a profound absence on the bimah.    

God, how I miss Allan and Morley.  Rabbis Freehling and Feinstein guided this community for generations.  They buried our loved ones.  They offered us comfort in our moments of pain.  They stood up here in their regal white robes, year after year, and prayed with us for peace and strength, even in the face of sorrow.

Standing on this bimah with them, I often felt like a child among giants. In memory, I can feel Rabbi Freehling’s hand on my back before the Avinu Malkeinu.  I can hear Rabbi Feinstein’s voice in all that we do.  They were my teachers.  My friends.  How I miss their presence. 

This Yizkor sermon slot, this opportunity to offer words of comfort and remembrance, always belonged to Rabbi Feinstein.  Often, his words would make us cry.  Some years, he would make himself cry.  And every year, after the sermon, he would sit down, we would bump fists, he would notice a tear in my eye, and I would assure him it was just some Purell on my hands that had irritated my eye—a believable story for this germaphobe, but never true.  Morley knew it.  And we would smile.  

I miss that warm, sometimes mischievous, smile.  I miss his guidance, his teachings, his steadfast support for each and every member of our community.  But even as I mourn, I know Morley and Allen’s spirit walks with me—with all of us—in the present, and is enthusiastically prodding us into our collective and individual futures.  The very best way we can honor their legacy and the memories of all of our loved ones who are no longer with us, is to live out their values (and the lessons they taught by their examples) in our own lives.

Their loss is a heavy weight on our hearts.  But it is also a light that propels us forward and encourages us to do the most with the life we are given.  To find joy.  To pursue peace.  To work hard.  And to give back.

Like the ribbon that we tear when a loved one dies, the fabric of our lives will never be completely whole again after a profound loss.  But it can be rich.  It can be beautiful.

Indeed, the capacity to hold loss and brokenness side-by-side with joy in our hearts is at the center of an ancient midrash about the broken tablets of the ten commandments:  After Moses destroyed the first set in anger, and went back up the mountain to receive the second set anew, tradition asks, what did we do with the shattered pieces?  Did we bury them in the desert?  Discard them so we could forget the sin we committed in building the golden calf?  No.  We swept them up and brought them with us.  They lived side-by-side with the new set in the holy ark as we journeyed that long road through the desert to the Holy Land of Promise.  One set broken, one set whole.  One set reminding of us of our shattered past, one set reminding us of a hopeful future.    

And this is how we move forward after the loss of a dear one.  Each of us a holy ark.  We hold within us wholeness and brokenness, laughter and sorrow, pain and promise.  The desperate yearning to share just one more hug with our beloved, nestled up against the promise of a future inspired by their legacy.    

This is Yizkor!  This is what it is to remember.  We never forget those loved ones who left an imprint on our soul.  Whether they left us long ago or in recent days, we will never forget the sound of their voice, the way emotions played on their face, or the embrace of their arms.  We do not leave these moments to fade away in the dust of the past.  Instead, we carry them into the light of tomorrow.  We conjure up these memories when we need comfort or strength.  And we conjure them now, during this holy service of Yizkor, to remind us that a future without memory is a future without a soul.

One day, one day soon, we will gather in person once more.  We will cry a little with each other, embrace each other, and share stories of the ones we have lost.  Until that day, and for many years into the future, we will be comforted by the memories of those loved ones, whose lives, though over, continue to inspire our own.

Zichronam livracha.  May their memories be for a blessing, and may our lives honor their memories as we walk through gates of yet another year!