I have talked on these High Holidays about holding on and letting go. I have spoken of the mistakes we make, about how we hold on to our mistakes and will not change. We must let go of our mistakes, break free of our limitations, refuse to be stuck in our narrow perceptions. We must hold on to our precious Jewish traditions and not let them go. We must hold on to our children, paradoxically, by letting them go. Holding on and letting go.
Now let’s think about this phrase in terms of our grief. I am talking now, before Yizkor, about letting go of our grief so that our loved one’s souls can become a part of us. As long as you grieve, your loved ones’ souls are out there, and you are here, grieving for them. But if you let go of your grief, your loved one can become part of your soul, and you will receive the greatest comfort of all. This is what I want to tell you right now. Let me come around to this conclusion by thinking about the last year.
During this year of war, I have been thinking about all of the wars throughout history, about all of the killing and all of the suffering. And so as I approach this hour of Yizkor, of remembering those who have passed on, I think about all of the grief and mourning for the victims of war. Walt Whitman’s famous poem “When Lilacs Last at the Dooryard Bloom’d”, written as an elegy for the slain President Abraham Lincoln, is one of the most beautiful American works of art dedicated to the theme of mourning and death. In thinking about Yizkor for this year of war, I went back to this poem because of some lines I remembered from it about war:
And I saw askant the armies,
I saw as in noiseless dreams hundreds of battle-flags,
Borne through the smoke of the battles and pierced with missiles I saw them,
And carried hither and yon through the smoke and torn and bloody,
I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris and debris of all the dead soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not,
The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d,
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d,
And the armies that remain’d suffer’d.
Do you understand what he’s saying, not just about soldiers and wars but also about this whole business of life and death? Those who are dead do not suffer. Whether you believe there is life after death or not, the dead are not suffering in any way. But their loved ones suffer terribly. Don’t worry about the people who are gone. One way or another, they’re ok. Realize when you mourn that you mourn for yourself. If you remain sad for them, you misunderstand the situation, and you’re not doing anyone any good.
In the poem, mourners dressed in black and holding offerings of flowers, turn out in the streets to see Lincoln’s casket pass by. The Civil War has been raging, and many of these people have lost their own loved ones. The death of someone we care about, whether it is an Abraham Lincoln or our parent or spouse or child or sibling or friend, is one sadness in the midst of a much greater sadness: that we live in a world where people die.
Like many of us, who are unsure of just how to mourn properly, Whitman struggles with the whole idea of symbolic mourning, of doing rituals as an expression of mourning. At times he seems to give his offering of the lilac blossom to all the dead; at other moments he sees this offering as futile and the lilac as merely a broken twig. He wonders how best to do honor to the dead, asking how he would decorate a tomb. He suggests that he would fill it not with elaborate floral arrangements but with portraits of everyday life and everyday people. Regular, daily life is the true response to death. We have to learn how to go on.
I talked to a daughter who had lost her father, a person vital in her life. She did not see how she could possibly go on. To her, he was what Lincoln was to Whitman in the poem. If you have had such a loss, if you have lost someone who was important in your life that was larger than life, listen to these words and see if you do not relate:
O powerful western fallen star!
O shades of night — O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear’d — O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless — O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.
Isn’t that how it feels? This bright star in our lives is now covered over by darkness. And we are helpless, and we are powerless, and our souls are enveloped in a black cloud. Listen to a few more lines from the poem:
And I knew death, its thought, and the sacred knowledge of death.
Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side of me,
And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me,
And I in the middle as with companions, and as holding the hands of companions …
What an astounding scene! He walks in the forest with those two comrades. Whitman pictures two different figures of death, one the thought of death and the other the knowledge of death, and by holding their hands, he sees them not as enemies but as friends. And maybe, contrary to the way we always think, that is precisely how we should re-orient ourselves. We should not fear death, and we must walk through life recognizing the truth of death. In a time of war, Whitman was trying to come to terms with the meaning of death. He was immersed in a world filled with death; he felt the overwhelming waves of death. And he struggled to make sense of it all.
I must say that I relate personally to that struggling.
There are times I feel waves of death.
I officiate, unfortunately, at a lot of funerals.
I remember a funeral when I was the only one there. The man had died at the Jewish Home and on a snowy day in the winter at the Hebrew Free Burial society, I mourned for him. And though there was no one there, I spoke about his life, based on what I had been able to find out about him. And something of him came into me.
And I remember a funeral at which the family did not want me to give a eulogy at all because they hated the deceased so much. They didn’t have one good word to say. They knew next to nothing about her. The only child did not know where his mother was born, or anything about her childhood, or what she had done before she married his father, or how she felt when his father died. He did say that she was a nasty, mean lady who did not care about anyone or anything. I gave a positive eulogy anyway. They told me that they would forgive me, that I meant well and just didn’t know her.
But I wanted to know her. I wanted to know why she had been that way. No one could tell me. If she were mean, why? If she were nasty, why was she nasty? If she was emotionally limited, why was she limited? There was more to this story. And so I didn’t do my job that day, because I could not begin to tally her soul. And no one else was even interested in trying. She did not become a part of me.
Some of my friends will see me during a week when I am immersed in the grief of others, and they will say that I look tired, or older, or burned out. I think it’s very kind but completely unnecessary that they worry about me. Within a few days, I’ll be fine. The elevator of my life that goes down to the basement but also goes up to the rooftop will cure me very quickly. What they see in my eyes is the grief of others, and their grief will not be over in a few days.
But what my friends don’t know is my frustration after just about every funeral; that I have not done right by the deceased. After every eulogy, I think about how insufficient my words were. Sure, I tried to get the biography right, the relationships right, the stories right. But I always think about the eulogy I didn’t know how to give, because I’m thinking about what Whitman calls striving to tally a soul. That’s the eulogy I’ll never give: To truly tally a soul, to sing the song of that person’s bleeding throat, to bring broken lilacs in bushels, that’s what I want to do and that’s why I always feel inadequate.
And then I wonder: Maybe a rabbi can’t be expected to get the true tally of the person’s soul. And maybe that can’t happen so quickly after the death, anyway. Maybe the tally is something that comes from a long process by which one soul becomes part of another.
Those of us in grief have our memories.
But we must also try to have something more.
Their souls are with G-d. But they are also with us.
And since death does not end the relationship, since sometimes we use our grief to keep thinking about our feelings toward the person, since often we grow in those feelings after the person is gone, something is still up to us.
We have what Whitman calls our “retrievements out of the night,” what we retrieve from the darkness. But we need more.
We will spend part of the rest of our lives thinking about their lives. But we need to do more.
Whitman talks about “the tallying chant, the echo arous’d in my soul.”
In the process of our tallying chants, our souls can become enriched by their souls.
I mean that if we can truly tally another person’s soul, that soul becomes part of us in a way that cannot be tallied or measured or counted.
And then not only do they live on inside us, but we live on as more than ourselves. Our souls absorb their souls.
We always ask: Where is the person’s soul?
We usually answer: The soul goes back to G-d.
This is true enough.
But a soul is not a piece of matter that is either here or there. The soul does indeed go back to G-d from Whom it came. But that soul, having lived a life, is part of this world, having impacted this world, and does not just go away.
Every year, I say goodbye to some good friends. And in participating in the burial service, I understand that what I loved in that person’s life — their humor or their strength or their kindness, may have been tied to the body that we bury, but was not of the same stuff as the body.
We are more than self, more than body and mind, more than emotions. There is yet another part, a part that connects each one of us with Eternity. It is the source of our longing for a sense of purpose, for a reason to be. In Jewish tradition, this is called the soul, the neshama. The soul is part of you, but more than you.
Each soul is a fragment of the divine light. It is a spark, a part containing something of the whole.
Know that you have a soul, but know too that you must work on your soul. We are Yisrael, those who struggle, who wrestle with God. Growing a soul is a struggle. A sense of purpose, a connection with the infinite, must be wrestled out of the world. Nourishing your soul is the deepest purpose of our tradition; the meaning of all the rituals, all the mitzvot.
After a person passes away, we cannot hold the soul like a bird in a cage, but we can remain connected to it; the person can be with us in more than just our memories. Souls cannot be put in cages or photo albums or collages.
They can, however, be kept in other souls. They can be nourished and nurtured and cultivated, like a beautiful lilac bush. A soul of the deceased does not have to be a solitary thrush, singing with a bleeding throat.
It can be sanctified inside us, just as we sanctify G-d’s Name.
It can be magnified inside us, by intersecting with our souls.
Do you understand what I’m trying to say to you about this whole complex of life and death? I have talked about the myth of the flat earth, and explained that nobody really thought that one would fall off the edge of the earth if one went too far away from land. If you think that when you die you will fall off the edge of the earth into nothingness, you have bought an idea that does not correspond to the Jewish belief that the world is round and that life and death are round.
But I’m going further than simply affirming our beliefs. I’m trying to explore how those who mourn are part of this wonderful process. I’m trying to move us to a higher concept than a simplistic notion about where our loved ones are. Their souls are with G-d but, to the extent that we are open, they are with us. We begin by simply tallying, by chanting, by expressing who they were. But that’s just the beginning. Over time, if we come to truly knowing them in a way that perhaps we never did when they were alive, their souls can become part of our souls.
I have focused on Whitman’s poem because I have been thinking about the soldiers who have died for our country in the last year.
Their deaths should not just be considered politically.
Some things are too sacred for politics.
We dishonor them if we do not at least remember them.
“But,” you may say, “How can we remember them? We do not know them. We do not even know their names. Our only tally is the count of how many soldiers have died.”
And yet, I insist that we must take their souls into ours, as we keep the souls of our loved ones inside us, for they died in the belief that they were a part of the ongoing attempt to create a world worthy of G-d’s vision.
On this Yizkor, let go of your grief. Stop counting the years they had or didn’t have, for that count is not the tally of their souls. As long as you grieve, you build a wall between your soul and theirs. You have to stop thinking about you as opposed to him or her, or that you are alive and they’re not.
Bind your loved one to you, bring your loved one into you, within the bond of life.
Yizkor is not just about remembering other people who have died.
It’s about remembering who we are, for we are their life.