Acting Amidst Joy and Sadness

This past Shabbat, a congregant came to say Kaddish for her mother.  Her mother died 5 years ago, and after services the congregant said to […]

This past Shabbat, a congregant came to say Kaddish for her mother.  Her mother died 5 years ago, and after services the congregant said to me, “Loss doesn’t get easier.  It gets different – maybe a little less intense – but it doesn’t get easier.”

Her comment captures a piece of the Jewish wisdom about Yizkor. Yizkor recognizes that for most loss doesn’t get easier.  While it changes over the years – there is no “closure.”  After loss you are forever changed.  In a society that often talks about “moving on” and getting over” – to have a faith that understands this truth is so comforting – for it provides us moments to stand together as we remember, reflect, continue to grieve, and to re-encounter the values and lessons that our loved one left with us.  The deeper meaning of this process is that as we acknowledge our sadness, while holding onto legacy – we can emerge as different people: different perspectives, different wisdom and priorities.  Yizkor synthesizes together contrasting realities – meaning, memory, joy, sadness, wisdom, loss.

This synthesis of contrasting truths is also present during our celebration of Pesach. We sing joyful songs of Hallel – grateful for our freedom; while also dropping wine from our cups as Egyptian lives were lost as we went free. The sweet charoset – reminding us of the sweetness of freedom and the bricks our ancestors had to build, is dipped in the bitter maror – as bitterness and sweetness mingle together – as they do in life.

This year I have been focusing on the karpas.  We dip the karpas – a symbol of vitality, fertility, joy, renewal, hope and springtime into the salt water – tears that our ancestors shed or maybe the sweat that dripped from our ancestors body as they toiled under the terrifying mistreatment of the slave masters.  Karpas teaches that we hold onto both our belief in renewal and our sadness.  It is not that one follows the other – they intermingle and you have to hold onto every piece of the experience.  As you read the different Yizkor prayers today, let the sour taste of the salt water reflect the pain of loss and the fact the every loss is complicated and sad. It is true that it doesn’t get easier.  And at the same time, also taste the sweet – ingest the potential for renewal as you live the lessons they imparted to you. We remind ourselves to remember the taste of hope – for hope changes us.

There is a beautiful story in Rachel Naomi Remen’s book My Grandfather’s Blessing. She writes:

          Often, when he came to visit, my grandfather would bring me a present….

Once he bought me a little paper cup…. “If you promise to put some water in the cup every day, something may happen,” he told me.

At the time, I was four years old and my nursery was on the sixth floor of an apartment building in Manhattan. This whole thing made no sense to me at all. I looked at him dubiously. He nodded with encouragement. “Every day, Neshume-le,” he told me.

And so I promised. At first, curious to see what would happen, I did not mind doing this. But as the days went by and nothing changed, it got harder and harder to remember to put water in the cup.

After a week, I asked my grandfather if it was time to stop yet. Shaking his head no, he said, “Every day, Neshume-le.” The second week was even harder, and I became resentful of my promise to put water in the cup.

When my grandfather came again, I tried to give it back to him but he refused to take it, saying simply, “Every day, Neshume-le.” By the third week, I began to forget to put water in the cup. Often I would remember only after I had been put to bed and would have to get out of bed and water it in the dark. But I did not miss a single day. And one morning, there were two little green leaves that had not been there the night before.

I was completely astonished. Day by day they got bigger. I could not wait to tell my grandfather, certain that he would be as surprises as I was. But of course he was not. Carefully he explained to me that life is everywhere, hidden in the most ordinary and unlikely places. I was delighted. “And all it needs is water, Grandpa?” I asked him. Gently he touched me on the top of my head. “No, Neshume-le.” He said. “All it needs is your faithfulness.”

Think about her grandfather’s response: “Life is everywhere – hidden in the most ordinary and unlikely places.”  That is karpas – amidst the pain and suffering, there is renewal, joy and rebirth.  Rachel Naomi Remen looked at it from a different angle.  She writes: “This was perhaps my first lesson in the power of service, but I did not understand it in this way then. My grandfather would not have used these words. He would have said that we need to remember to bless the life around us and the life within us. He would have said when we remember we can bless life, we can repair the world.”

When we bless the life around us, we can repair the world.  Even when life is sad and painful, the possibility of renewal and new life can emerge from our actions. While Yizkor is about acknowledging tears and sadness, it is also about how those memories and lessons give us the seeds for new beginnings.  I keep coming back to the line we will say in a few minutes that we vow to give tzedakah in memory of our loved one. Yizkor and Pesach reminds us to let memory create emotion and then move us to action.   A key to the Passover story is that our painful history and joyful freedom reminds us of the necessity to act:

– The midwives defy Pharoah’s laws to save lives of the Jewish boys.

– Pharoah’s daughter rescues Moses from the water.

– Miriam looks after him and jumps when the opportunity came to have Moses’ mother be his nursemaid.

– Moses responds to injustice he witnessed, finding courage to confront Pharoah.

– The Israelites courageously put blood on their doorposts and leave utterly unprepared.

– Standing at the sea, God says, “Stop praying and move forward.”

– The Torah tells us to use our memory of being slaves to act to protect the stranger, the widow the orphan.

Ours is the legacy of action stemming from memories that synthesize of loss and joy, pain and renewal – and ultimately lead us to acts of repair.

Lux Narayan reminds us of the empowering legacy of remembering how loved ones helped fellow human.  Narayan is the CEO of a social media intelligence company called Unmetric – that helps digital marketers, social media analysts and content creators harness social signals to track and analyze competitive content and campaigns to create better campaigns for themselves.  In a TED Talk entitled, “What I Learned by Reading 2,000 Obituaries” he shares the he begins his day by reading the obituaries – and he finds them uplifting – full of inspiration and stories from people’s lives.  He began to wonder what lessons emerge if we study obituaries?

He applied the analysis his company does to the obituaries.  He began by looking for key descriptors and found out the age that different professions seemed to have breakthroughs. Then he entered the first paragraph into a data analysis program to find out key descriptors – differentiated between famous and not famous people – looking for the points of convergence.  Two pieces of convergence jumped out as he compared these two groups. One is the name John – both famous and not famous people are named John.  The second is that both mentioned the word help. What unties us as people remember us is the people we helped.

Yizkor gives us permission to experience the breadth of emotions that accompany loss. Picture the karpas this 8th day of Passover and hold onto: sadness that does not go away, renewal that comes with the sadness, wisdom that guides us as we remember. And most important, let those memories reminds us of our capacity to help fellow human.  Please stand for Yizkor, p. 330.