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Ambiguous Loss – Yizkor Shmini Atzeres

In 2011, a book, titled, Legacy Letters was published. It was a collection of messages written by family members of those who died ten years earlier, by the terrorist attacks on 9/11. I’d like to read to you one letter, written by Joe DiFazio, written to his father, a stockbroker, who was on the 105th floor of the North Tower on that fateful day. Joe was 13 on September 11, the day his father died.

“Dad,
I guess it makes the most sense to start at the end. The last time I saw you, you had a triple stack of powdered donuts piled on top of a belly that looked used to that sort of thing. Confectioner’s sugar dusted your lips, and every time the Giants’ defense missed a tackle, you pounded a chubby fist into the couch and left a phantom smudge. You were barely five-ten, bald and out of shape.

I looked at you and saw the strongest man in the world.
“All right, time for bed,” you said. It was only the third quarter, and I turned my head to argue, but you knew what was coming. “I don’t want to hear it,” you told me. “It’s your first week of high school and you’re gonna start it off strong.”
I stalked off, headed for the stairs leading to my room. No hug, no kiss goodnight. I grumbled under my breath. It’s not fair. This [stinks].
“I love you, champ,” you told the back of my head. You knew I was upset, and you weren’t really expecting an answer. You didn’t get one.
I never heard your voice again.”

There is a term that’s used when we don’t have proper closure with a loved one. Situations like those who lost their otherwise young and healthy parents or spouses on 9/11, who never said goodbye, who for some, did not even say goodnight. Psychologists call it ambiguous loss – a loss that occurs without a significant likelihood of reaching closure or clear understanding.

It’s not limited to dramatic scenarios like Joe DiFazio and his father. It happens all the time. For example, with Alzheimer patients – Your loved one is here, you’re holding his hand, but his mind is somewhere else. When do you say goodbye to someone who will likely be with you for years to come, and at the same time never be with you at all? How do you say goodbye to someone who may forget your goodbye the very next day or the very next minute?

Ambiguous loss is applicable to any and every person who experienced loss and does not follow the classic five steps of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Psychologists have concluded over the years that many do not and cannot follow these simplified or oversimplified steps. Some people are “stuck” at one of these steps, unwilling or unable to move forward. Some people are left grieving forever.

A congregant [who recently lost a loved one] asked me after the second day of Rosh Hashana, after I spoke about Jews loving dead Jews, the following: If I am so opposed to the emphasis of “death” in Judaism, then why don’t I cancel Yizkor? After all, it reminds us of death. In truth, reciting Yizkor is a relatively new custom. Sefardic Jews don’t do Yizkor. We say it on Yom Tov, it’s supposed to be a happy day? Let’s get rid of this death reminder! That was his suggestion.

But the truth is, Yizkor in particular, and Jewish memorials in general, are the greatest response to ambiguous loss –

What is Yizkor? What are we about to do?

If you read the text of the prayer you’ll see that we first and foremost, reflect on the past. We remind ourselves of our loved ones; who they were, what they stood for, what they taught us. And then, we commit. Classically, we commit to give charity in their memory, but it’s not limited to charity. We commit to being inspired by their legacy and living a better life in their honor.

Yizkor is an exercise in embracing the ambiguity of loss –

  • Yizkor is an acknowledgment that I cannot ever have complete closure, and so we return at prescribed times to reflect and relive our memories.
  • And at the same time, Yizkor reminds me to not get stuck in the past; I use memory and grief to propel me forward.

Instead of fighting ourselves to forget, we allow ourselves to hold on. Instead of fighting ourselves to leave our loved ones behind, we allow ourselves to take them with us as we move forward in life. That’s Judaism’s response to ambiguous loss. It is not meant to depressing or death-centered. It is meant to be uplifting and life-affirming. It allows us to move forward without closing our eyes or hearts to our past.

These last days of Yom Tov, Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah are dedicated to the concept of ambiguous loss. Sukkos is over. We should have concluded the holiday season yesterday. However, G-d instituted a new holiday, an additional day. Why? To hold us back, to make us stop. The word Atzeres comes from the word, Atzor – stop. G-d is asking us to stop before going home, before leaving the holiday season. Why does He ask us to stop?

The Medrashic literature phrases it beautifully: “Kasheh alai pridas’chem/ it is hard for me to say goodbye.” We just spent almost a month full of powerful prayers- do you remember how the room shook at the conclusion of Neilah? We just spent hours in quiet contemplation – do you remember how we stood in silence, dreaming of what life could be? We just ate countless meals filled with joy – Jewish joy! So, G-d asks us to stay just a little but longer. It’s hard to say goodbye. Closure, it would seem, is difficult, even for G-d.

Rav Yitzchak Hutner poses the following question: If it’s so hard to say goodbye, then how does adding one day help? Instead of being hard to say goodbye yesterday, it’s going to be hard to say goodbye today. It’s still hard to say goodbye! Pushing off the inevitable seems pretty small-minded?!

But this is where Simchas Torah comes in. Simchas Torah tells us that when it comes to all relationships, and certainly our relationship with G-d, we do not ever have to really say goodbye. The Torah, which we are celebrating tonight and tomorrow, is the vehicle through which we are able to hold on to some of the magic that we experienced. We cannot experience the magic of the High Holiday season all year long, but the Torah, the medium through which G-d connects Himself to the Jewish People, the Torah through which He speaks to us, that allows us to hold on.  

You know, I sometimes walk into these last days of Yom Tov a little disappointed, maybe even upset, at all the lost opportunities. Did I accomplish enough? Did I take advantage of the special closeness that we have with G-d at this time? Am I proud of how I treated my family, my friends, during this holy time of the year?

But I am reminded of a story, a Chassidic tale, of two young men dancing on Simchas Torah. We’ll call them Yanky and Berel. The rabbi in this story watches as these two young men dance the night away. After the seven hakafos, they’re still dancing. Everyone watches in awe. The rabbi turns to one of his followers and says, “Yanky is going to stop dancing soon, but Berel, he’ll keep on going.”

And sure enough, that’s what happens. Yanky eventually sat down but Berel kept dancing.

“How did you know, rabbi? Can you tell the future? Are you a prophet?”

The rabbi smiled and explained. “I had recently spoken to both Yanky and Berel. Yanky told me that on Simchas Torah he would be celebrating the many books of Torah that he completed. He learned a lot this year, he had a lot to celebrate. And that’s why he danced so much tonight. But Berel, he told me he would be celebrating all that he hoped to accomplish in the year ahead. Yanky’s accomplishments were finite, but Berel – he’s dreaming of the future. The possibilities are endless.”

Shmini Atzeres and Simchas Torah are an exercise in ambiguous loss. It is hard to say goodbye, it is. So we don’t. Or, we don’t fully say goodbye. We make some space, we carve out daily rituals, to hold on to the magic. Today and tomorrow, the days in which we stop to say goodbye, is the time to ask ourselves, in what way will I hold on to this enchanting experience? Through which book? Through which class? Through which podcast?  Through which text?

***

Allow me to conclude by quoting Joe DiFazio once again. Because he got it. He held on, he never let go, but he also used the warm memories of his father to be a better person, to build a better future. And I quote:

“I wish that someday you could have held my kids. I wish I could
stand and watch from the bedroom doorway while you sat beside
them and sang about the young cowboy who lives on the range. I know the words–I’ll do my best.
I’ve spent hours lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, talking to your memory in the dark. I ask for help when I’m confused, for strength when I’m scared, and for comfort when I’m upset. I wonder how it was just at the end–if you were afraid, if there was pain.
You never answer, and that’s okay…
But more than anything, I wish I could hear your voice again,
even just for a minute. I wish I could listen to your stories and to the laugh that lit the room. I wish I could hear you tell me that you’re proud.

I’ll always remember to look out for Mom and my little sisters, to treat women like the angels they are and to show kindness to everyone, especially those who need it most. I’ll always remember that the guy who sees it the longest hits it the best.
Thank you for showing me that laughter can cure all, but that it’s okay to cry.
Thank you for showing me how to be a man.
I love you too, Dad, and I’ll miss you forever.
Your son,
Joe”

All loss is ambiguous, all goodbyes are difficult, but the future – the future is entirely in our hands. Can we take our warmest memories, our high points of inspiration, and create something beautiful for the year ahead? We don’t have to say goodbye. We can and we must hold on.

 

 

 

A Snowy Yom Kippur

My phone is out of memory. Again.

Every few years I buy a new phone with more memory, like, a lot more memory, assuming that this time it will have enough memory to last forever, but it never does. Invariably, I am faced with that annoying pop-up every few minutes reminding me that iPhone storage is full.

You have to understand, I don’t have a lot of apps, I don’t take a lot of pictures. But my children, especially the younger ones, when they see my phone on the counter, they know they could just slide their finger and access their favorite toy in the world – the iPhone camera.

Which by the way, it is insane that my children can so easily access my camera. Apple boasts endlessly about their phone’s security. Double verification, triple verification, quadruple verification, you name it. My iPhone is a Ft. Knox. You can’t access the phone’s calculator without facial recognition. But there is one feature that you can access without any code, without any double-checking, without anything more than a flick of your finger and that is the camera. Why?!

Okay, I’m sorry, I just had to get that off my chest.

When I see this iPhone pop-up, telling me I am out of storage, I know to go to my pictures. And this is what I see –

Four thousand pictures of Miri, that’s my two-year-old, four thousand close-ups of her nose. Then there’s a few hundred pictures of one child posing. Each pose is slightly different than the next… A few nice family photos. And then another hundred unflattering pictures of me as I try to wrestle my phone out of my two-year-old’s sticky hands.

So, I delete. And delete. And delete. Because after all, the pictures are all the same. I keep a few unique pictures, but what’s the point of duplicates?

What’s the point of duplicates?

And it made me wonder – if a photographer was walking around with me all day, all week, all year, snapping pictures, how many pictures would I end up deleting?

Probably a lot.

How many days would look exactly as the day before? Different suit, different tie. But the same old mistakes, the same old good deeds. Delete. Delete. Delete. What’s the point of duplicates?

 

There is a book called, Einstein’s Dreams, written by Alan Lightman. It’s a work of fiction in which the author imagines what was going through Einstein’s mind as he was developing his theory of relativity, his theory of time. The author paints for us a wide array of possibilities of what time could look like. Allow me to read you a few passages from one alternative conception of time:

“Suppose time is a circle, bending back on itself… In the world in which time is a circle, every handshake, every kiss, every birth, every word, will be repeated precisely. So too every moment that two friends stop becoming friends, every time a family is broken because of money, every vicious remark in an argument between spouses, every opportunity denied because of a superior’s jealousy, every promise not kept.

And just as all things will be repeated in the future, all things now happening happened a million times before. Some few people in every town, in their dreams are vaguely aware that all has occurred in the past. These are the people with unhappy lives, and they sense that their misjudgments, and wrong deeds and bad luck have all taken place in the previous loop of time. In the dead of night these cursed citizens wrestle with their bedsheets, unable to rest, stricken with the knowledge that they cannot change a single action, a single gesture.”  

Are we aware of how much our life is on repeat, on how the frame of each day looks exactly like the day before? Do we wrestle with our bedsheets knowing that we’re still stuck in the same ruts, still celebrating the same accomplishments of years ago, still unable to break free of the demons we have fought with forever?

Or do we blissfully snap picture after picture. Same smile. Same frown. Same today. Same tomorrow.

Isaiah, our most eloquent prophet, paints a picture of teshuva, of repentance. “If your sins are like scarlet, whiten them like snow; if they are crimson red, bleach them as wool.” Isaiah utilized two different metaphors to describe the process of change.

The second approach Isaiah references is a process of laundering, “bleach them as wool.” This is the more well-known approach to change. We’ve committed a sin, we have a characteristic flaw, and so we cleanse ourselves. We fast, we beat our chests. “Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu.” As we reflect on our past, we become aware of the crimson red sins on our soul. As we beat our chests, we pour warm water on the cloth. As we beg G-d to forgive us, we scrub the sins away with soap. This is the well-known and well-trodden path of experiencing Yom Kippur – a day at the laundromat cleansing our soul.

But the first approach, “If your sins are like scarlet, whiten them like snow,” this speaks to a very different teshuva experience. What does it mean to whiten our sins like snow?

There is nothing more majestic, more beautiful, more poetic than waking up to a city covered in snow. Before the tractors start plowing, before the people on their way to work start shoveling, before the children start playing. Just white snow. A sheet of purity covers everything. The muddy path is now a white velvet carpet. The bare tree is now a glittering tower. Everything is covered in a fresh coat of white.  

A significant portion of today’s davening does not focus on cleansing ourselves from the past. It asks us to imagine a beautiful future. “V’yeiasu chulam agudah achas, and all will become a unified society.” “Uv’chein tzadikim yiru v’yismachu, and the righteous will see and rejoice.” “V’simloch ata Hashem levadecha, and You, Hashem, will reign alone.” The liturgy begs us to imagine a pristine tomorrow, a reality totally unlike the one we are living. A snowy blanket covering all our shame, whitening all of our misdeeds, erasing all of the many things that hold us back.

And we walk outside onto this virgin snow. And our foot goes, ‘crunch,’ as it breaks through the frost. What a sweet sound. And we look at the imprint of our foot. You could see all the lines, all the contours of our boot. Every step is deliberate. Every line is new. Everything makes an impression.

Imagine living life like that. Imagine living life like every step is the first step on a fresh slate. Where every gesture is the first of its kind.

Allow me to once again read from Einstein’s Dreams, this time from a very different depiction of time:

“The shoppers walk hesitantly from one stall to the next, discovering what each shop sells. Here is tobacco, but where is mustard seed? Here are sugar beets, but where is cod? These are not tourists on their first visit. They are citizens. Not a man can remember that two days back he bought chocolate at a shop named Ferdinand’s, or beef at the Hof delicatessen. Each shop and its specialty must be found anew.

When it is time to return home at the end of the day, each person consults his address book to learn where he lives. Arriving home, each man finds a woman and children waiting at the door, introduces himself, helps with the evening meal, reads stories to his children. Likewise, each woman, returning from her job meets a husband, children, sofas, lamps, wallpaper, china patterns.

Late at night the wife and husband do not linger at the table to discuss that day’s activities or the bank account. Instead, they smile at one another as when they met the first time fifteen years ago. They find their bedroom, stumbling past family pictures they do not recognize… For it is only habit and memory that dulls the physical passion. Without memory, each night is the first night, each morning is the first morning, each kiss and touch are the first.”

Do you remember when you first held your newborn child in your hands?  Would you even dream of taking out your phone and scrolling through Facebook as they cried for your attention?

Do you remember when you first held your spouses’ hand? Would you even dream of criticizing him or her and ruining the magic of the moment?

Do you remember one of your earliest memories, a hug you received from a parent when you were in pain? Would you even dream of laughing at their old-fashioned ways as they embraced you with their huge protective arms?

Imagine a world covered in snow.

Imagine a world where you got to start again.

Imagine a world where everything was fresh.

That’s what we’re doing here today. We do not have to take the same picture every single day of our life. We could live a life full of pictures worth saving. Pictures of new horizons, of growth, of change.

And yes, of course, we do change with time. I am sure we’ve all changed this year. But how much of that change just happens to us, is a reaction to life circumstances, and how much of that change is planned? Proactive?

 

For the next ten hours, the world, your world is covered in snow. It’s a fresh new start. What will that first step on the pristine ground look like? A tender moment with a child? An apology to a spouse? In what way will we be a better sibling? In what way will we be a better neighbor? A better Jew? What will it be? What will it look like? What will you look like? 

 

Yom Kippur is an opportunity for a beautiful new start. But there’s a catch. The magic of Yom Kippur wears away. The snow melts.

So, if I could suggest if we want to take advantage of this G-dly gift of a snowy Yom Kippur, what we need to do before leaving this room tonight, is make a commitment. One small, tiny commitment, a change. Something that involves a stretch, but not too big of a stretch. Something different that we can do every day or every week of this year.

Because G-d willing, we will be back here next year, and we’ll be reviewing the photos that were taken over the course of the year. Will they be the exact same or will they be different? Will we once again repeat and delete? Repeat and delete? Repeat and delete?

Or will this be the year of change?