Before I talk about our grief for our loved ones for our Yizkor service, I have a quick story that summarizes everything I’ve been trying to say on these High Holidays.
I’m sitting with a couple that is having problems. The man shouts, in frustration, “I love you more!”
And the woman says quietly, “I love you better.”
Let me translate in my own words.
The woman was saying, with real insight and, I think, incredible brilliance, ‘If you mean that you use and need more words, that you display and need more affection, that you are more intense about everything, then you’re right, you love me more than I love you.
But I understand us better; I understand what it’s going to take for us to make it. Because I understand that we’re in this love together, and we’re in this life together. And you’re right if you think that I don’t present to you what you present to me. I’m made differently. But I will always be here. And after you’ve calmed down, and we’ve gotten through this crisis, I’ll still be here.”
For me, she was quietly waving the flag in the midst of all of the bombs bursting in air, showing the flag was still there in the midst of all the noise of their argument. Those of us who love America don’t need to love America more, we need to love it better, and build a center where there now only seems to be a far right that has forgotten about the law and the Constitution and a far left that is tyrannical in its self-righteousness.
And we don’t need to love the Jewish people more, we need to love it better, and love those whose views are different from ours. And we need to love Israel better, recognizing that it has its own dangers and crises to contend with and that it lives in a very rough neighborhood and that it is not made like we are.
It’s a big world, the ocean is big and our boat is small and we need to be together so we can survive the storms and the waves.
So that brilliant woman said it all. We need to love better.
Now I want to talk about how we need to love ourselves better by thinking with more perspective about our loved ones who have passed away.
So let me tell you a science fiction story that most of you will recognize.
While visiting the Earth at night, a group of alien botanists is discovered by an approaching human task force. They fly away in haste. One of them is left behind; this little alien finds himself all alone on a very strange planet. Fortunately, the alien soon finds a friend and emotional companion in 10 year-old Elliot, a lonely boy whose parents have separated; his father is absent and his mother is overwhelmed and overly busy. The extra-terrestrial, who Elliot names E.T., wants to go home, and after learning to communicate with his new friend, starts building an improvised device to send a message home for his people to come and pick him up. Elliot realizes that ET will die if he can’t return to his people, but he doesn’t want him to go. He says: “We could grow up together. I wouldn’t let anyone hurt you.” But Elliot can’t stop what is happening to ET, and before long, ET gets seriously sick, and stops breathing. Because of their special connection, the young boy suffers, too. But in this modern version of Peter Pan where Tinkerbell seems to be dying, ET comes back to life because his friends are coming back for him. The spaceship returns to pick him up.
So now we’re at the last scene. We’re at a clearing in the forest. ET is about to walk into the spaceship.
It’s heart wrenching. They have to say goodbye.
ET had given Elliot back what he had lost when his father left.
And now ET was leaving, too.
ET says: “Come.”
Elliot says: “Stay.”
But he knows ET cannot stay. Elliot knows ET has got to go home. And he knows that he can’t go with him.
ET says, in real pain: “Ouch.”
And Elliot says, in real pain: “Ouch.”
ET takes his long reptilian finger that lights up and touches Elliot’s forehead and says: “I’ll be right here.”
And ET walks into the spaceship and it flies away.
As most of you know, I just reviewed the plot and the last scene of the movie ET, released in 1982.
That’s the end of the movie. And there’s no ET 2 or 3, no sequel or prequel.
I went on YouTube and watched the last scene again to make sure I had it all right. And below the screen, people wrote their opinions about the end of the movie.
One wrote: “If you didn't cry at the end of E.T., you need to check your pulse, because you're clearly neither human, nor alive.”
Someone else wrote: “It didn't make me cry. It made me smile.”
But the comment I responded to best was this ungrammatical statement: “I cried both happiness and sadness. I was happy that E.T. found his spaceship and was able to get home but at the same time, I was crying because it seems like E.T. was the closest friend Elliott got and was leaving and was never going to see each other again.”
When doctors showed this movie to children with asthma, and measured their physiological responses to this last scene, they saw a destabilization in nervous system functioning, an emotional upheaval. The researchers attributed these findings to mixed and conflicted emotions.
This sweet and sentimental scene is powerful and unsettling. I think about it all the time.
Over the years, I’ve talked to hundreds, probably thousands of people now, whose loved ones have died.
And there are always mixed and conflicting thoughts and feelings.
Grief is both intellectual and emotional. The intellectual part, in most cases, is the part that most people find easier. We can rationally get to a point where we can think, at least in most cases these days, that life was no longer life for our loved one, that he or she could not go on, that it was enough pain, too much pain, and enough suffering, too much suffering, and so the passing was for the best. Of course, I don’t need to say that there are other times when our loved ones, and we, were robbed of the life they should have had. In those cases, no amount of reason and intellectualizing can help. We can only come to terms that it happened and try to go on.
But these days, most of our loved ones pass away after a long, full life and we know this is the human situation, that we are mortal, and that our loved ones had a pretty good run.
So in most cases, the intellectual part is ok, but we still have to deal with the emotional part, and that’s the part that we can’t control with our minds.
It’s the part when tears well up in our eyes and we don’t even remember feeling sad.
It’s the part when we get irritated and even angry with the people who are with us because they have the gall and the nerve to be alive when the other ones are dead.
It’s when we wake up from a dream of our loved ones and we try desperately to fall back asleep and get back into the dream just so we can keep seeing them. And then when we can’t get the dream back, we just lie there depressed, because they’re not here.
We don’t know how to deal with this part because we can’t control what is really inside us. We can’t manage the deep feelings that are the true us.
Nobody dies in ET. The spark of the story was not about death. The concept was based on an imaginary friend Steven Spielberg created after his parents' divorce. This is what we do: We try to fill the empty spaces.
On Rosh Hashanah, we read about the birth of the first Jewish baby, Isaac, and about what happens to him as a boy.
But his life did not stop there, and he grew into a fine young man. He grieved when his beloved mother Sarah died. Shortly after that, his father Abraham sends his servant to the old country of Mesopotamia to find a suitable bride for a son, so that he can have a life within the love of a family again. And Rebekah comes hundreds of miles by camel. And when she sees Isaac, the Torah says that she fell off the camel, which was the first time in history that anyone ever fell in love. The Torah says: “Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.”
Now you could ask: “How does the love of a spouse fill in for the love of a mother?” I think the answer is instructive. Obviously, the love of a parent is different from the love of a spouse. But the only healing and the only comfort that we will ever find when loved ones pass on is being loved and feeling love.
And I look out at the people in this room, and I see so many who have found love that has sustained them when they have grieved, who have found companionship to fight the loneliness, and no one should ever question or judge how others do this.
There’s a book that I’ve learned from called Ambiguous Loss by Dr. Pauline Boss, a famous family therapist. She uses the phrase “ambiguous loss” to describe the two sides of loss, the parts that we can resolve and the parts that we can’t. She mentions that scene in ET and describes how different cultures are better than ours in helping people in their grief. The Ojibway and the Canadian Cree tell lots of stories to children about children whose parents have died. In these stories, the absence of a parent is not as devastating as it might be because the grandparents and aunts and uncles adopt the children when the parents are gone. Maybe from the very beginning, we have to be more open and flexible about family roles and who the family is and how we “family”. As difficult as this is, maybe we have to be trained to be emotionally stronger so that we are not so completely unprepared for the things that will inevitably happen.
And when those things happen, we have to focus not so much on who is gone but on who is still very much with us.
I’m thinking about people who were raised by grandparents or uncles and aunts. I’m thinking about twin boys whose mother died when they were two years old and their father went running for the hills, never to be seen again. When they were seven years old, they were brought to the Jewish Home for Children. With my cinematic imagination, I pictured the two boys as Oliver Twist, asking for another crust of bread. But they said, “Not at all! We had a great childhood! Our grandfather would pick us up on Sundays and we would spend the day with our grandparents and uncles and aunts. We were raised with ninety other kids around, and we had a lot of friends who we have till this day.”
Things used to be tougher. We forget how far medical science has brought us. We forget that it was just a couple of generations ago when death in childbirth and from illness at a young age was common. I was talking to a woman the other day who was one of seven children, but only four survived childhood.
People kept going because they had no choice.
Today, thank G-d, we don’t know from any of this. But in a way, we’re just not ready for any sadness or sickness of any kind. And so when something terrible happens, we don’t know which end is up.
We live in a dream world where nothing bad can happen.
I know people, sitting here today, who live without necessary kinds of insurance, as if nothing can ever hit them.
We have to remember that there are different kinds of love.
We will never have another mother or father, but there are people who can give us some of the things they gave us.
That’s what the Torah is saying when it tells us that Isaac’s love for Rebekah brought him comfort after the death of his mother Sarah.
In case you missed it, notice that the name Elliot begins with an E and ends with a T: E.T. This is not a coincidence. Just like the letters E and T are part of the name Elliot, ET would always be part of who Elliot was and would become.
That’s what we have to do; keep them with us, all the time.
In this way, we will love ourselves better, and go on with our lives the best we can.
When my father passed away, I blanched when people would say, as nicely as they meant it, “Sorry for your loss.” And I remember speaking to you on the Yom Kippur after he died that I had not “lost” him.
But I was partly right and partly wrong. The part that I was wrong about was that he is no longer here, here in front of me, here on the phone, here listening to my stories and telling me how I should interpret them, guiding me, advising me, kvelling from my kids and grandchildren, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Of course I’ve lost that.
But I was partly right, and I stick by it. I have worked very hard to make sure that he is always with me. I wear a tallis that I had given him when he had a second Bar Mitzvah ceremony at 83 years old, 70 + 13. He never wore it, but I do. In front of me on my lectern is his Rabbi’s manual, that I use all the time, with his notes and changes.
So I say again: Sure there are losses, but we don’t have to lose our loved ones. Like ET said, they can be right here.
In December, some of my family went to Maryland to see my mother. We took her to the new Mary Poppins movie. So here I am with literally four generations of my family from my 89-year old mother to my five-year-old granddaughter Leah and I’m a bundle of different emotions anyway, and then Mary Poppins sings these words:
Do you ever lie
Awake at night?
Just between the dark
And the morning light
Searching for the things
You used to know
Looking for the place
Where the lost things go?
Do you ever dream
Wondering where to find
What you truly miss
Well maybe all those things
That you love so
Are waiting in the place
Where the lost things go
Memories you've shared
Gone for good you feared
They're all around you still
Though they've disappeared
Nothing's really left
Or lost without a trace
Nothing's gone forever
Only out of place
Time to close your eyes
So sleep can come around
For when you dream you'll find
All that's lost is found
Maybe on the moon
Or maybe somewhere new
Maybe all you're missing
Lives inside of you
Isn’t this what ET said to Elliot? I’ll be right here. In a way, I’ll be in outer space. But in another way, I’ll be in all your inner spaces.
Yizkor means “Remembering.” We never stop remembering. But at these services, we stand here together, comforted by each other, knowing that we’re in this life together, and that we have to learn not how to love more, but to love better.