Yom Kippur Sermon: Grief

September 26, 2023
By Rabbi Ita Paskind
Category: Sermons

I remember more than anything that night the sound of our neighbor drowning in his own tears.  It was November 4, 1995–it was Shabbat afternoon in New Jersey, where I lived; but it was late Saturday night in Israel, and the news of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin’s unthinkable assassination was spreading across the world.  Our neighbor hurried over–half running, half stumbling–to tell us the news, sure, but mostly, to seek some sort of comfort in his grief.

Our neighbor didn’t know Rabin, but the news of his sudden death had plunged him into a state of chaos and paralysis.

You may remember where you were–what you felt–on that night.  Same with the assassination of President Kennedy, or that of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr; or the murders at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh; or the explosion of the Challenger.  Or at the final breath of a loved one.  Or the phone call that a dear friend has died.  These are devastating moments in our lives.  Whether a death was expected or sudden, whether the deceased was someone very close to us or sometimes even if we never met them, each of us has experienced the tumult of grief.

Today is a big day for encountering grief.  Yes, some of us are in active mourning for loved ones; all of us are here to remember.

I invite us to settle in with the grief we bring to this service today.  We’re here in it together.  I want to explore the relationships that lead us to grieve, to think about how our Jewish traditions hold us in our grief, and to consider if there are any  silver linings to be found in this experience. Let’s start by looking at some text.

Perhaps the most stark grief in the Torah appears in the book of Leviticus, just a few chapters before this morning’s reading, when Aaron the high priest and his wife, Elisheva, witness the sudden death of their two sons, Nadav and Avihu, as they were offering incense in the tabernacle. The Torah records Aharon’s response:  vayidom Aharon, “Aaron was silent”[1].  And the rabbis in the midrash imagine Elisheva breaking down in tears.  The grief of these parents manifested in different ways, but we understand so clearly the intensity of their feelings.  Losing someone so close to us can affect us in every way imaginable.

We can, of course, be deeply affected when a person dies who isn’t related to us.  The Talmud[2] tells the famous story of two men who began as strangers and ended up best friends, study partners.  When Resh Lakish fell ill and died, Rabbi Yochanan was beside himself.  Nobody could comfort him, and his students could find no suitable study partner to replace Resh Lakish.  The Talmud says:  Rabbi Yochanan went out, tore his clothes, and he cried, “Where are you, Bar Lakisha? Where are you, Bar Lakisha?” He shouted until his mind left him, and he, too, died.  This story may be exaggerated, but it speaks to the experience of losing a best friend, someone whose life is inextricably bound to our own.

One last example–the death of Moshe.  In our people’s story, Moshe’s death isn’t about his family’s loss; it is a national tragedy.  The entire nation “bewailed Moses in the steppes of Moav for thirty days.”[3]  As their leader, they looked to him for protection, guidance, sustenance, and inspiration their entire lives.  Almost his entire life!  Their grief was about what Moshe stood for–freedom, a new life in the Promised Land, learning to trust in God–and the feeling that it would all be lost.  Like my neighbor’s grief at Rabin’s death, or our own when other leaders or cultural figures die–if they stood for a value we hold dear, a moral or ethic we too are invested in, then a part of us dies, too.

I know that each of us, sadly, could easily provide similar examples from our own grief experiences.  Each of us has grieved, and in that grief, we have felt so utterly empty, so completely lost.  The writer Joan Didion, in her classic book The Year of Magical Thinking, describes the shock of grief as “obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind, culminating in a confrontation with an experience of meaninglessness.”  It’s no wonder that Aaron is reported to have become paralyzed at the death of his sons.  It’s no wonder that we are unable to function, to think or speak clearly, to “return to our regular lives” after the death of people important to us.

While there are libraries full of psychological and emotional analysis of grief, there’s not much in the way of philosophy.  A new book by philosopher Michael Cholbi, entitled Grief: A Philosophical Guide, analyzes the common features of grief, while acknowledging the enormous variety of kinds of losses human beings experience.

We’ve touched on a few big kinds of relationships–parents grieving children, the death of a close friend, the loss of a great leader.  We can also experience grief at the death of a fellow synagogue member, or someone who was part of our book club, gym, local political organization, or any other social grouping.  Cholbi notes that we can experience grief even after an extremely short acquaintance, such as falling in love at first sight… and then losing our new significant other.  Parents who experience a miscarriage or stillbirth suffer a particularly painful and lonely kind of grief, not having had the chance to meet or get to raise their beloved child.

And grief need not be limited to the death of an individual.  We know this all too well in the last 3.5 years, as people the world over have experienced real feelings of grief at the overwhelming numbers of deaths from covid.  I’ve heard others express feelings of grief at the breaking down of systems that we once thought eternally stable, such as our democracy, and at the chilling forecast for our very earth.  Grief is everywhere, and it can pile up.

In his book, Cholbi probes the question:  why are we sometimes so affected by the death of someone we never even met, such as a political leader, artist, or musician?  Why did we feel so devastated when Rabin died?  When the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. died?  When Irma Schachter died?  When Joe Schachter died?  When Linda Lerman died?  When Judy Gottesman, and Florence Josem, and Alan Dubrow, and Joanne Kozak, and Peter Berman, all of blessed memory, died?  Cholbi says this[4]: “We grieve the deaths of those with whom we have an identity-constituting relationship, a relationship that is central to our understanding of ourselves and of what is most important to our lives.”

Rabin stood for peace, and we were invested both in peace and in his leadership.  Dr. King stood for racial equality, and we believed in the truth of his message, of his determination.  With their deaths, we lost their leadership, and the parts of ourselves that were certain we would achieve something together suddenly broke apart.

And in those two months last  spring, so many of us gathered–over and over again–to bury members of our congregation.  We met here in the sanctuary, at the funeral home, and at the cemetery, our tears falling for people who loved our Beth El as we do, who labored with us to build it up, who prayed alongside us, who carpooled with us to Hebrew School, who chaired committees on which we served, and who cared passionately about the welfare of the Jewish people.  Eight losses in our congregational family makes us ever more aware of our own mortality, of the fact of our aging shul.  With their deaths in rapid succession, we find ourselves grieving.

Thank God, and thank you, ancient rabbis, for shiva.  One of the best things about Jewish practice is the loving support we have as we grieve.  That’s what mourning is–the rituals that guide us through our grief.  During the most intense grieving, we are not left alone.  People who care about us lovingly march into our home, day after day, and stand with us as we get used to saying those words–yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’meh rabah.  They sit patiently as we figure out how to talk about a loved one in the past tense.  And even after shiva concludes, our community is ever-present–at morning minyan, every Shabbat–as we say that kaddish.

I recently heard a short vignette that really captures the power of our traditions.  A Jewish guy and his friend who isn’t Jewish were talking about the loss of their parents.  The non-Jewish friend said he needed years of therapy to process his grief.  And the Jewish friend shared:  “I would have needed therapy, except that I did my processing in small chunks at minyan, every day for a year.”

And that brings us to today, to the moments just before we recite Eleh Ezkerah, our remembrance of communal grief, and our personal prayers of Yizkor.

We ask:  Can anything positive, productive come from this devastating experience?  It can, and I hope it does for each of us.

I suggest two brachot, two blessings, that flow out of our grief:

First.  When we work through our grief, we come to identify the passions and values we shared with the person who died.  This can become a tool, Cholbi says, to help us “figure out who we are to be now that someone who has mattered to us is no longer living.”[5]  I can easily call to mind foundations, scholarships, awards, and fundraisers that were created in memory of a beloved person who died.  These help to keep their memory alive and give us a productive way to remember them, to help others in their name.  But even setting aside such grand projects, I think it’s true that many of us experience a shift in who we are, what we care about, after losing someone who was part of our identity.  Perhaps they loved reading, and we find ourselves at the library more often.  Perhaps they loved golf, and we feel compelled to learn to play.  Maybe they were an avid Torah reader, and we’re suddenly feeling motivated to learn a new skill.  Changing our own identity to absorb or envelop some of theirs… that can be a real bracha, a real blessing.

And second.  Although the person we grieve is no longer physically in the world, with the blessing of time and a little distance, we are often able to fashion a relationship with their memory.  You know what I’m talking about.  We sometimes find ourselves having a little conversation with the memory of our parent or grandparent, our partner, our sibling, our child, our friend.  It’s beautiful, and it is uniquely human.  In our religious tradition, we nurture these relationships through observing yahrzeits and reciting Yizkor prayers.  On these occasions, we open up their memory and invite it to sit with us–here in the sanctuary, there in our homes, as part of morning minyan or a Shabbat service–as we allow ourselves to feel some, or maybe more than some, of that grief.  That’s what this time is for, and that, too, is a blessing.

Grief isn’t  linear.  It ebbs and flows, sometimes popping up when we least expect it.  But it never fully disappears.  And I think that’s not a bad thing.  As a lifelong companion, grief is an ever present reminder that someone died who mattered to us.  And although they no longer walk this earth, we do.  And they live on in us.

We turn now to remembering national and communal losses in the martyrology, and then to losses much closer to home.  May we always feel the support of those who sit with us in this space–here on East Avenue as well as those at home–and remember that even in our deepest sadness, we are not alone.

[1] Lev. 10:3
[2] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia 84a
[3] Deuteronomy 34:8
[4] https://psyche.co/ideas/there-is-consolation-in-a-philosophical-approach-to-grief
[5] https://psyche.co/ideas/there-is-consolation-in-a-philosophical-approach-to-grief