On this Yizkor, on every Yizkor, and whenever you need to throughout the year, honor the emotions that are real by giving voice to them and allowing appropriate deeds and actions to emerge.
I shared a story this summer from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks that struck a chord with many people. He described his difficult experience dealing with his father’s death. He writes: “It took me two years to recover from the death of my father. To this day, almost twenty years later, I am not sure why. He did not die suddenly or young. He was well into his eighties. In his last years he had to undergo five operations, each of which sapped his strength a little more. Besides which, as a rabbi, I had to officiate at funerals and comfort the bereaved. I knew what grief looked like.”
Yet his intense grief lingered. He writes: “I felt an existential black hole, an emptiness at the core of being. It deadened my sensations, leaving me unable to sleep or focus, as if life was happening at a great distance and as if I were a spectator watching a film out of focus with the sound turned off. The mood eventually passed but while it lasted I made some of the worst mistakes of my life.”
Rabbi Sacks’ message resonated with many of you because we know that emotions don’t follow a calendar. Emotions vary from person to person; circumstance to circumstance. In fact, the Jewish mourning laws are about external behavior, not internal emotion. It is when we weave in our emotions to the set prayers that Yizkor realizes its true power.
Emotions are different for each of us. Different circumstances and temperaments create a spectrum of emotions in the room today. We make room for whatever emotion emerges; and let expression of our emotions create healing and comfort.
This afternoon I want to look at three different stories, each with different emotions so that we can think about our own stories, and the emotions they elicit.
The first story is of Binyamin Lau – who had deep love and admiration for his father. Binyamin is a talented and respected teacher in Israel. His father, Naphtali Lau Lavie, was a diplomat who served as the consul general of Israel in New York City. Two Chief Rabbis of Israel are from the Lau family.
Binyamin said kaddish every day, 3 times a day. As he completed the eleven months of saying Kaddish for father, Binyamin felt the need to mark this moment in life. He wrote a prayer whose introduction I want to share with you, which captures meaningful emotion:
“The journey has ended. Eleven months ago I set out on a journey, a journey of Kaddish in memory of my father and my teacher, Naftali Lau Lavie, of blessed memory. Saying Kaddish daily is a wondrous and an arduous journey. It is a journey that changes the daily routine of anyone who undertakes it. Everything revolved around one axis: Kaddish. I had an intense desire to take my father’s hand and help him ascend step-by-step to his place in the heavens, far from the world of the body and deep in the world of the spirit. I wanted to repay him, if only in some small way, for each and every moment of life – both his and mine—that he gave me, for his days and his nights, and for the Sukkah of peace that he spread over me. I did not want to let him go just like that. I did not want to take leave of him at the grave. I wanted to glorify and sanctify for him with the Creator and with all created things.”
This introduction to his prayer captures the emotion of connection, loss, love, impact and hope. The ritual of writing and reciting a prayer allowed him to hold onto his father’s spirit and keep the connection alive. His emotions are encapsulated in one line of the prayer he subsequently recited: “Grant my father his place in a world that is all good, among all the created beings who shine favorably upon You in Your world.” His deepest emotion is that his father be with God.
What is your deepest hope, emotion and desire as you prepare to stand for Kaddish as it comes to your loved one? The emotions that accompanied Benjamin Lau’s thoughts about his father capture the love and admiration that is in so many people’s hearts at this moment. We long for them, and hope they will be with God and at peace.
Benjamin Lau’s experience of reciting Kaddish is full of loving emotion. But not everyone has that same experience. The second story is about a hurtful parent, and for some of you, Yizkor is so dissonant, because it feels like you have to honor someone who did not honor you. Yours are not happy or fond memories, but sad and painful ones. Yizkor allows those painful emotions to be acknowledged as well. When Yizkor prayers reflect true emotions, often they no longer rule over you in the same way.
There is an extraordinary prayer in the Machzor full of emotion by Robert Saks – A Yizkor Meditation in Memory of a Parent Who Was Hurtful:
Dear God, You know my heart. Indeed, You know me better than I know myself, so I turn to You before I rise for Kaddish. My emotions swirl as I say this prayer. The parent I remember was not kind to me. His/her death left me with a legacy of unhealed wounds, of anger and of dismay that a parent could hurt a child as I was hurt.
I do not want to pretend to love, or to grief that I do not feel, but I do want to do what is right as a Jew and as a child.
Help me, O God, to subdue my bitter emotions that do me no good, and to find that place in myself where happier memories may lie hidden, and where grief for all that could have been, all that should have been, may be calmed by forgiveness, or at least soothed by the passage of time.
I pray that You who raise up slaves to freedom, will liberate me from the oppression of my hurt and anger, and that You will lead me from this desert to Your holy place.”
On one level, it was difficult to read this prayer. But our prayers must be honest; and sometimes that honesty is painful to express. Yizkor is a time for truth – for truth helps you begin to heal. And as you heard in the prayer, it can open up other memories and thoughts once acknowledged.
And while some of you need this prayer, others need a different prayer – a prayer for when a loved one died long ago. Maybe you were so young that your memories have faded or barely exist. A glimmer or vignette, and other people’s stories exist – but from an era long past. Your grief is different than the person with a recent loss or deep love that had years to blossom. Hope Edelman writes in Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss: “There is an emptiness inside of me – a void that will never be filled. No one in your life will ever love you as your mother does.” And I would add father, brother, child, dear friend to the list. The love is pure, unconditional and strong. You are left with the wish you could have known them better, spent more time together. You grieve a history not written and a past that never was.
The person who lost a loved one years ago, looks around and sees others with their loved ones, and is painfully aware what they don’t have. Hope Edelman writes: “I miss her when I can’t remember what works best on insect bites, and when nobody else cares how rude the receptionist at the doctor’s office was to me. Whether she actually would have flown in to act as baby nurse or mailed me cotton balls and calamine lotion if she were alive isn’t really the issue. It’s the fact that I can’t ask her for these things, that makes me miss her all over again.”
To those of you sitting with the emotions connected to a loved one who died too young or many years ago – let your Yizkor prayers reflect your honest experience. Think about what you remember and what you wish you could remember. Give voice to the emotions this has created in your life. As you do you may find other thoughts and images emerge. A whisper or a moment reappear.
At Yizkor we honor the emotions that are real. Let Rabbi Sacks’ wisdom that emotions don’t follow a calendar guide you. Not only do they not follow a calendar year, but they vary for each person and each circumstance. I shared three different stories, but truly there are hundreds – for every story and person is unique. On this Yizkor, on every Yizkor, and whenever you need to throughout the year, honor the emotions that are real by giving voice to them and allowing appropriate deeds and actions to emerge.