Passover Yizkor – Honesty in Facing Sadness, Meaning in Confronting Grief

Memory is for blessing

What word comes to mind when you think about what we are going through? I imagine lots of words came up – stressful, upsetting, unprecedented, enormous, hidden blessings….and there is one more word I would like you to think about – and that is grief.

In Sunday’s New York Times, author R.O. Kwon wrote that many of us are experiencing grief – and as I read it, I found myself agreeing.  Here is how Kwon describes becoming aware of it: “I couldn’t understand, at first, why I was having such trouble writing…What’s more, news aside, I could barely read….I was exhausted, but I slept badly, intermittently. I cried. Long-held desires and goals felt hazy, at times irrelevant…. But then it occurred to me…I was grieving. I was grieving in early March, I’m still grieving now, and chances are, you are, too.” He captures a piece of our current experience.

David Kessler, one of the world’s foremost experts on grief who co-wrote a book with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss writes that we’re feeling a number of different griefs – the world has changed, there is a loss of normalcy, fear of economic toll, loss of connection, devastating death tolls, a loss of safety.  This is hitting us and we’re collectively grieving.

We are not used to this kind of collective grief.  Kwon quotes psychotherapist Megan Devine, who points out most in American are unfamiliar with talking about pain and sadness. “As a culture, we don’t talk about grief, we don’t make space for sadness.  Now everyone is carrying grief…..but we don’t know how to name it, let alone voice it.”  Inability to lift up what is real has enormous consequences.  It stays inside of us and comes out in so many ways – depression, sadness, anger. We feel isolated and lonely and don’t understand it.

It is an area of life where Judaism has so much wisdom. Judaism teaches us to name our pain. When there is a loss, we grieve for a week.  During shiva people come visit and the law is that they don’t speak – they listen so that we can name our own pain. Then after shiva we continue to grieve through the month – shloshim.  It is less intense, but no less real.  We continue to stand as mourners and recite Kaddish for a year.  During Passover, we told the story of crying out to God during slavery.  We ate the bread of affliction and ate the bitter herbs – tasting and internalizing our experience.  Naming our pain was the beginning of our redemption.  When we name something – we feel it and it begins to move through us.  David Kessler explains: “Emotions need motion.  It’s important we acknowledge what we go through…If we allow the feelings to happen, we begin to release them and reflect on how we might cope.  Megan Devine puts it another way: “Grief can’t be fixed, but it can be acknowledged.” Acknowledgement is powerful medicine – maybe the only medicine.

The Yizkor prayers we say today, remembering our loved ones, give voice to grief that transcends time.  When we lose a loved one, the loss is always there.  Yizkor lets us name it and feel it.  It creates a structure where our grief gets to be lifted up. Yizkor often brings tears – and they are holy tears – for they allow that which is in our hearts to lift up.

A piece of Jewish wisdom is that grief is not only named, but it is shared. Yizkor occurs in community – even if it is just a virtual community.  Knowing that others grieve and that our experience is shared, normalizes grief.  It gives a place for others to hold onto it with us.  As we grieve together, wiping away tears, present for the tears of those around us, we share sadness together and begin to find comfort.

And Jewish wisdom goes further.  The prayers in Yizkor ask that we help transform pain into meaning through caring for others.  In the Memorial Prayer for Yizkor we say: “Hin’eni Nodev Tzedaka b’ad haz’karat nishmato – I pledge tzedakah in memory of his/her essence.  Our ancestors knew that as we turn to support others as a way of honoring memory, we find true comfort.  Modern science is lifting up ancient Jewish wisdom in teaching showing kindness to others is one of the most healing things a person can do.

There are so many ways to show kindness even in our current circumstances.  It can be a donation to an organization on the front lines, sending food to medical or other essential workers, or simple acts of kindness – a call to check on a friend, helping a neighbor, lending an ear, sending a note, delivering a meal. Part of our resilience is our ability to find meaning and purpose in something beyond ourselves – so we pledge tzedakah as part of your Yizkor prayers and it gives us a small sense of control. Where will you give?  Who will you help?

Yizkor’s brilliance is that it keeps our loved ones alive, even after they have died.  Last Shabbat I taught that Judaism helps us deal with being alone without being lonely, by teaching that we are never lonely when we feel the people from the past.  We carry them with us, and they whisper into our ears and speak to our hearts at moments like this.  What would your loved ones who you will say Yizkor for in a moment say to you right now?  Really take a moment and let them speak to you.  I shared on Shabbat how my Uncle Zev walks with me and whispers to me.  As I listen to him I can hear him tell me to hold onto compassion – to know that anger or impatience I may witness are reflections of the fear and grief many are experiencing. He would softly tell me to judge gently.  He would tell me to remember that this is a temporary state and that we have gotten through difficult moments in the past.  And while I know that – hearing it from him feels different. Yizkor pulls the past into the present as the boundaries of time fall away.

As we weave these pieces of Yizkor’s wisdom together – giving voice, transforming pain through caring, listening to our late loved ones, we honor their memories by the good we do in their names. We pay forward their love for us by doing kindness to honor their memory. When someone dies, we use the acronym z’l, which stands for zichrono l’bracha – may his or her memory be for blessing.  Memory is for blessing when it teaches us how to live life, inspires us to do goodness and leaves the world a better place.

Yizkor reminds us that grief is real and should be felt and expressed.  We understand that this year in ways we have not in the past.  Yizkor reminds us that we transform our grief into meaning as we care and do deeds of chesed – love.  May this be an ennobling and enduring lesson from these difficult times.  May this Yizkor service inspire us to feel, connect, support and love.