This is my first yizkor. I graduated from rabbinical school 34 years ago, and have led yizkor services multiple times every year since then. Yet, and, this is my first yizkor. It has always been a point of personal pride to smugly excuse myself, at least symbolically, from the yizkor service. As if I was somehow personally responsible for the wonderful blessing of living until almost 60 years old without experiencing a loss in my immediate family. I would stride outdoors and rejoice at spending a few moments with all of us “young people,” who didn’t know from the Angel of Death visiting our home. Not this year. And never again.
My beloved husband of almost 30 years died on May 19th. He died. I’m drawn to the harshness of that word. It captures the harshness of the reality. He died. He’s gone. He didn’t pass away. He’s gone, and we broken people remain. David and I saw each other for the first time on Kol Nidre in 1983. The first time we spoke was on Yom Kippur morning, the next day. Each year it was a special joy to remember those moments and to count the years- how many years since we first met? David died, and I will never stop counting- the years with him, the years without him. This is the first year without him. In her book on the High Holidays, Marcia Falk wrote that, “. . . all things are born small and grow large- except grief, which is born large and grows smaller.” A member of our community wrote to me to suggest that perhaps Marcia Falk forgot to mention that the heart grows larger in the process too.
Linda Pastan’s poem “The Five Stages of Grief” so resonates for me. She begins-
The night I lost you someone pointed me towards the Five Stages of Grief Go that way, they said, it’s easy, like learning to climb stairs after the amputation. And so I climbed. Denial was first. I sat down at breakfast carefully setting the table for two. I passed you the toast— you sat there. I passed you the paper—you hid behind it.
It was always David’s job, among his many, many, many, many jobs, to collect the newspaper each morning and to sort it into sections, retaining the sports section for himself. Towards the end of his life, it was a tender kindness for me to bring him the sports section, first in the hospital and then at home. The day after he died, just seeing the sports section was enough to make me dissolve. There was no one to hand the sports section to. I felt so bereft. Slowly healing DOES come. Seeing the sports section no longer reduces me to tears. One small triumph.
I still want to call him throughout the day. I cried on the flight home from Washington, DC, returning from “The Journey for Justice.” Having experienced the intensity of those few days, all I wanted to do was discuss each and every detail with David. David wanted to hear about all of the moments every single day, and we were always in touch every few hours. I open the contacts on my phone, I open the favorites, and he’s still my top, number 1 favorite. I sure wish I could have emailed him a draft of this sermon- we would have reviewed together and I know his insights and suggestions would have made it better.
Pastan’s poem concludes-
And all the time Hope flashed on and off in defective neon. Hope was a signpost pointing straight in the air. Hope was my uncle’s middle name, he died of it. After a year I am still climbing, though my feet slip on your stone face. The treeline has long since disappeared; green is a color I have forgotten. But now I see what I am climbing towards: Acceptance written in capital letters, a special headline: Acceptance its name is in lights. I struggle on, waving and shouting. . .
Acceptance. I finally reach it. But something is wrong. Grief is a circular staircase. I have lost you.
The death of hope is the hardest thing. Grief is, indeed, a circular staircase, and yizkor is the moment when the staircase comes full circle. Teri Berman shared with me some of her beautiful poetry when David died. In “The Metaphor for Loss,” she captures the painful reality that when we lose our beloved, we lose the self we were in that relationship.
“And so you mourn,” she writes.
For the one who is gone,
and for yourself who is also gone,
and you cry,
and you’re afraid,
and your vision is clouded
Your north star,
Thank you Teri, for speaking the truth.
So how to move forward into a new reality, where our loved ones live only in our hearts, in our dreams, in our memories? Marilynne Robinson, in her profound novel, Gilead (p. 137), writes of the courage to go on, to confront the angel of death with life. “That’s her courage, her pride,” Robinson reminds us, “and I know you will be respectful of it, and remember at the same time that a very, very great gentleness is called for, a great kindness. Because no one ever has that sort of courage who hasn’t needed it.” I am so touched by the author’s words. We don’t innately have courage. We find it when we need it. There is a special courage that comes from having suffered a great suffering. If we have courage, it is because we had no choice but to find a way to persevere. “Chizki v’imtzi,” people said to me, echoing the words of Joshua to the Israelites as they were about to do battle for the Promised Land. “Be strong and courageous.” Good advice as we struggle to enter this new reality of living with loss.
A well-wisher said to me that I must want to get back to normal. I replied that there is no getting back to normal, there is only moving forward into a new normal. Moving forward slowly, cautiously, consciously, and with courage. I love what Marilynne Robinson wrote, that when we see people with this kind of courage, we must tread very, very lightly, understanding the depth of the pain that leads to the height of strength and courage. And, yes, a great gentleness is called for, a great kindness. If you see someone who looks sad, know that there may be a very good reason for that sadness and be incredibly gentle.
Would we choose to live without pain if it meant that we had to forego joy? An ancient Greek myth provides an answer.
A woman wandered into the waters of the River Styx and asked to be taken across into that dark land. Charon reminded her that the dead were offered the option of drinking from the River Lethe, whose waters removed all memory of previous existence.
She wanted to know, “Will I forget how I have suffered?” Charon replied, “Yes, but you will forget how you have rejoiced.” Then she asked, “Will I forget my failures?” Patiently, Charon responded, “Yes, and your victories as well.” Finally, she wanted to know, “Will I forget how I have been hated?” “Yes,” said Charon, “but also you will forget how you have been loved.” After a few moments of reflection, the woman decided to leave the waters of Lethe untasted. We would probably all make the same choice, to retain our memories of pain and loss, rather than surrendering the precious and loving memories we re-visit at this sacred hour
Death is awkward and uncomfortable. We want to be loving and supportive when our friends experience loss. But how? What to say? What to do? For days after David’s death, I heard the same 5 words, over and over and over again- “I’ll take care of it.” And they did. You did! Jewish tradition brilliantly provides structure when it is most needed, when your world has collapsed and it feels like there’s no hope. It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a village to help people grieve. Our community, thank God, DOES take care of it!
When we go to someone’s home for shiva we are not required to greet the mourners. We are urged to maintain silence, to simply be with our friends, and to take our cues from them. That’s hard. We struggle to find healing words. Let me share with you a few of the words that touched my heart the most:
He and all of you are blessed to have such a close and strong family.- Thank you for recognizing the uniqueness of our family.
I hope that with the passage of time you will be able to remember the joy of David’s life rather than the sadness of his death.- Thank you for reminding me that David’s life is about much, much more than his final years of suffering.
One woman wrote- When my husband died 33 years ago I received all kinds of caring and sympathetic words to help heal the sorrow and void that was there. It was actually the following six words on a simple sympathy card that helped me the most. Sorrow is not forever- love is.- Thank you for reminding me that love does not die.
I wish you the support of friends in your grief, and the knowledge that he will be with you in many ways, yet to be discovered.- Thank you for helping me to be open to David’s ongoing presence in my life.
Yom Kippur is the day that we rehearse our own death. We wear a shroud. We refrain from food and drink and intimacy- those things that make life most worth living. In his amazing book, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew writes that, “Who will live and who will die? None of us know what will happen this year. Most of us will live, but some of us will die, and it might be me and it might be you. But whether we live or die, we will only have one soul to do it with, one precious soul to inhabit for our brief moment. . . “
We take a few moments now to commune with the souls of those who are gone. To speak to them and share the words that are on our heart. To listen to their voice. To remember their smile and to sense their loving presence, here, with us, at this service of remembering.
 Falk, Marcia, The Days Between, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2014, p. 135
 Lew, Alan, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, NY: Little Brown and Company, 2003, pp. 235-236