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Yizkor: The Healing Power of Community Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Josh Lobel

Yizkor—Saturday, September 14, 2013

There is a tale of a woman whose husband tragically passed away. Despondent, she visited her rabbi and said, “I can no longer bear the burden of my grief. The pain is too much for me. What prayers, what rituals, what cure do you have to banish the sadness from my heart?” The rabbi thought and thought, and finally, he spoke, “Bring me a challah from a home that has never known suffering. We will use it to drive the sorrow out of your life.”

The woman set out immediately to search for this magical challah that would rid her of her sadness. She came to a beautiful mansion and thought to herself, “Surely, the people who live in such a place have never known troubles. This must be where the precious challah can be found.” Steeling her nerves, she knocked on the door and, when it opened, she saw a well-dressed couple who appeared not to have a care in the world. She introduced herself and said, “I am looking for a home that has never known suffering. Is this such a place?” The demeanor of the couple suddenly changed. Their faces fell, as they answered, “We are sorry. You have come to the wrong house, for we have known the worst kind of tragedy possible. Our daughter died when she was very young, and our hearts are still torn from her loss.” Shocked, the woman started to leave, but then thought, “Who is better able to help these people than I, who has had misfortune of my own?”

She asked for permission to enter their home to talk, and they gladly welcomed her. They put out refreshments, some wine, fruits, cheeses, and, a freshly baked, golden challah. And as they sat and ate together, sharing of the challah, they also shared their feelings. They spoke of their sadness and their struggles, but also the many fond memories they had of their loved ones and the joys they shared together. They spent hours together, talking and reminiscing, until it was time to say goodbye. As the woman was leaving, the couple invited her back whenever she desired to talk. And as she walked home, she resolved to seek out those, who, like herself, were bent with sorrow, so they could share each other’s burdens. And ultimately, she became so involved in ministering to other people’s grief, she forgot about her search for a magical challah, never realizing that her quest had already, in fact, begun to drive the sorrow out of her life.

While there is no magic cure-all that will rid us of our sadness and bereavement, the presence of family and friends provides a healing balm to our suffering souls. This is why four times a year we come together to commemorate Yizkor, with today’s memorial service being the most prominent observance. Surrounded by family, friends, and our temple community, we express our grief and recall those who brought so much to our lives. As we reflect on who we are and who we could be, we think of those who helped mold us into the people we are today. We close our eyes and feel their arms around us, as we recall the comfort of their embrace. We imagine their hands sweetly caressing us when we are in need of consolation. We remember the way they made us laugh, their smile that could brighten up a room and brought light to our hearts. We recall their joys at our successes, how proud they were of our accomplishments. But most of all, we treasure the values and memories of our loved ones that helped transform us into the people we are today.

Every individual carries with them unique memories. No one’s story is exactly the same. We might think that no one can understand the depth of our sorrow, what it means to lose a loved one who meant so much to us. But one look around this sanctuary tells a different story. For no one passes through this world unscathed by sadness. Many in this room have recently suffered a loss. And others, whose losses are more remote, still feel the loneliness brought about by their loved one’s passing. Both sharp pain and a dull ache hurt us.

In our mourning and sorrow, we discover our shared bond. Grief is universal. The pain we feel also twists at the heart of our neighbor. This is why even though mourning may feel like something private, something personal, our tradition teaches us that we do not grieve by ourselves. We come together as a community, united by the bonds of faith and fellowship to express our innermost longings to God. Yizkor, our time of remembrance, reminds us that no one grieves alone.

But it is not only the observance of Yizkor that underscores Judaism’s understanding of the need for community in a time of mourning. Think for a moment about the kaddish. Traditionally, we are not permitted to recite the mourner’s prayer without a minyan, a group of ten Jews needed for certain prayers and ritual observances. There are a variety of theological explanations to why we need a minyan to say kaddish, but the underlying reason is that no one should be left alone with their grief. When you have lost a parent, a spouse, a sibling, or, God forbid, a child, you cannot and must not face it alone. This is why one of the most important mitzvot, a sacred obligation that helps guide our path, is comforting the mourner. Grief, a time of great personal distress, requires a public response.

Another example of Judaism’s emphasis on community during mourning is the observance of shiva. Shiva, the seven day period of mourning after a funeral, is a time when those who are bereaved reflect on the life of their loved one. During this week, members of the community come to visit and express their condolences. Traditionally people bring food so the grieving family doesn’t have to cook, but they also bring something more important. A listening ear and a caring heart. When we enter a shiva house, we offer the mourner a chance to share stories and fond remembrances of their loved ones. It is a moment of tikkun, of repair, an opportunity to mend to their broken heart.

Shiva is an invaluable experience, a mourning ritual without parallel. To illustrate this, I would like to share with you the story of my first shiva minyan, not as a rabbi, but as a mourner.

Three years ago, on Tisha B’Av, my grandmother passed away. She had been ill for a long time, but still, her death came as a shock to me, for she was my first grandparent to die. As a rabbi, I had my share of experiences with death and mourning, consoling grieving families, officiating at funerals and shiva minyans. But this was my first time on the other side of grief. Now, I was the mourner. After years of explaining how shiva helps us deal with our sorrow and bereavement, I was in the position to see for myself the healing power of community.

Admittedly, the first couple of days were a bit awkward. Visitors would trickle in, say a few words to my grandfather or my father, and make a little small talk. Towards the evening we would get together to recite the customary prayers, which was nice, but it wasn’t until Shabbat that I truly understood the meaning of shiva. I remember sitting down with my family and friends as we celebrated Shabbat together. We spoke about my grandmother and what she meant to us. We swapped funny family stories, many of which we all knew by heart, but it didn’t matter. No one can resist a good family story, so much a part of our collective consciousness. Even my usually reserved grandfather got into the act, smiling in fond remembrance of his wife of seven decades. It was the first time since the funeral that many people at that table laughed. Each of us felt a little different, a little lighter, a little more at peace. United by laughter and love, it was at that moment our grief began to fade. Though still missing her, our hearts began to heal.

So it is with all of us. Whether it is Yizkor, shiva, or reciting the mourner’s kaddish, community gives us strength. Community bolsters us, reminds us that we are not alone, in times of joy or in times of sorrow. Knowing there are others with shared life experiences, who have traveled down the same road, is a blessing, and has the ability to help ease our pain and quell our sorrow. Through the very act of coming together, we take a meaningful and important step towards healing.

I am sure many of you have seen California’s magnificent sequoias. Did you know that these trees, some of which are as tall as a skyscraper, have roots practically at surface level? A solitary sequoia’s roots are so shallow that it can hardly withstand a strong breeze. So how do they grow so tall? They spring up in groves, and their roots intertwine. In other words, they lock into each other and hold each other up - they give each other the strength necessary to withstand the angriest winds.

Alone, we will all know pain. But when we gather together, when we stand in support of each other, we can bear any burden. May this holy time of remembrance remind us that when we are in need of strength, when we are in need of comfort, we may find it in open and loving arms of family and friends. This Yizkor, let us remember that we are not alone. We remember together.

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