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.
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.
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.