September 9, 2009
Continuing the Conversation With Those We Have Lost
The phrase “time heals all wounds” is misleading. We hold our breath, and as the years pass we hope that the pain of loss will end. Often we are disappointed. However, it is possible to use time as a healer. In so doing the progression of the seasons can bring comfort.
This understanding is embedded in the Jewish mourning ritual, which acknowledges the changing and ongoing needs of those who mourn. Recognizing that aspects of mourning can last a lifetime — as we grow, change and reevaluate past relationships — Yizkor provides us with a tool for continuing the conversation with those who are gone.
The Yizkor prayer, recited on four specific Holy Days — Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, Pesach and Shavuot — asks God to remember the soul of the deceased as we also remember them. The themes of the individual four days correspond to different tasks of mourning. Yizkor keeps the relationships alive and vital as we gradually surrender the physical presence of those we have lost and embrace them as spiritual companions. Most Yizkor services come during times of celebration, when the absence of people who have died makes us vulnerable to feelings of grief, even for long-ago deaths. Through Yizkor we make them present.
Yizkor provides seasonal containers earmarked for specific feelings. This helps to focus and intensify emotions. Hopefully this concentration of emotions gives us confidence to fully explore those feelings, knowing that each day of Yizkor is time-limited. The day will pass and we will move back to our lives. So we vent tears or angers safely, knowing that celebration and affirmation are also part of the cycle.
Yom Kippur, when we settle accounts with other people and with God, provides a framework for some of mourning’s most difficult tasks: absolving guilt, resolving resentments and working through lingering issues with the deceased. On Yom Kippur, we recognize and confess wrongdoings, genuinely express our regret for our misdeeds and commit to not repeat our transgressions. Many have regrets when someone dies. The High Holy Days’ focus on teshuvah (repentance) helps us reflect on regrets and resentments as well as evaluate how they may have changed since the death. It highlights our unfinished issues with those who are gone. This includes those resulting from the faults of the deceased, for Yom Kippur is also a day to forgive those we mourn. Also called Yom Hakippurim (Day of Atonements), this plural form signifies Yom Kippur as a day when we also atone for the sins of those who have died. This can free us from long-standing, unresolved issues and rid us of the guilt or resentment that take hold of the psyche, as people flagellate themselves or are locked in anger at those long gone. The wisdom of the Yizkor cycle also can protect us from obsessive guilt or rage. Seasons change. So does the theme associated with remembrance.
Shemini Atzeret means “eighth day of assembly.” Atzeret implies “containment” or “stop,” which can suggest that we must not linger on guilt or anger. Shemini Atzeret takes place between two days of joy: the last day of Sukkot, the fall harvest festival, and Simchat Torah, when the Torah reading cycle ends and begins again.
Shemini Atzeret ushers in the winter season. The liturgy changes, and we begin to pray for rain. We pray for rain, yet tend to remain in the vulnerable, open-roofed sukkah (booth), holding on to the festive spirit of Sukkot and resisting the move to the dreariness of winter. The rains must come. The seasons must change. Sukkot’s communal joy and abundance surrenders to the more inward-turning, contemplative and bleak winter. Reciting the Yizkor prayer on this day recalls the cold and brittle part of mourning. This time of the broken heart is necessary to healing, just as the time that the earth lies fallow, absorbing moisture is necessary to bring the buds of spring. The rain connects us to our tears.
That we pray for rain, while remaining in the sukkah, embodies a truth about mourning: we don’t want to let go. Despite our knowledge that without rain the cycle cannot continue and the world cannot be in proper order, we resist the tears that might transform our pain and the change of seasons. But the flow can move us through the cycle of our emotional seasons into another time of harvest. All we have to do is make it through one day of tears to dance with the Torah the next day — Simchat Torah.
There are genuine tragedies and injustices one cannot change or rationalize away when taking the measure of a life and a loss. Shemini Atzeret frames that painful truth and gives us time to feel the sadness. Remembering that there will be other seasons again helps us to yield to the feelings, asking, through this Yizkor, for the strength to let our tears fall like rain, releasing us to what will come next. We take heart in knowing that in the depths of winter, we begin to yearn for spring.
Pesach (Passover) commemorates the Exodus from Egypt at the season when we are released from the grip of winter and its tears. Both of these aspects of the holiday are powerful metaphors for mourning, as we move toward the freedom to live lives unencumbered by the pain of grief and begin to remember the deceased — not through the suffering we remember, but as a blessing in his or her fullness. Passover’s Yizkor can focus us on the mourner’s special insight into slavery as we struggle to accept our newly defined lives. The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, means “narrow” or “tight places.” Our efforts are to find the passage from the tight places that remain in the mourning process, restricting peace of mind and enjoyment of life.
The ties that keep mourners from finding freedom are varied and can be rooted in both positive and negative emotions. Mourners may be tied to a love so intense and fulfilling that they cannot let it go. They may feel guilt over unresolved issues in the relationship or may be enslaved by unrelenting rage. Mourners may be bound to do the work of the person who has died, living the agenda of the deceased and not their own. They may have the sense that they are living in someone else’s house or someone else’s land. Pesach’s Yizkor is an opportunity to address our bondage to the deceased. It acknowledges the difficulty of forming a new way of life. It also celebrates spring and the promise that new life is coming.
The fourth day of Yizkor comes on Shavuot, the harvest festival at the beginning of summer. Nature’s richness is in evidence and we are moved to celebrate and give thanks. Shavuot also commemorates the giving of the Torah, marking the moment when every Jewish soul that has ever existed is said to have stood at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive this gift. Before Sinai, we were a band of people with a history. After Sinai, we had a role in history — a destiny. We possessed a path of ethical living and accepted the responsibility of being God’s partner on earth, charged with healing the world.
In the time of the Temple, people brought sacrifices from their harvest on Shavuot to express thanksgiving for the Torah’s teachings and to affirm the covenant. Shavuot’s Yizkor is an occasion for a positive statement about our relationship with the deceased. What were the gifts received? What actions should we take, in memory of the deceased, to affirm what we learned from them and to give thanks for those lessons?
Accepting Your Life — Its Seasons and Their Lessons
The cycle of seasons, as marked by the four recitations of the Yizkor prayer, provides tools for continued healing. It helps us understand that relationships have a continuing potential to grow and change that transcends death. Emotional growth often requires that we return to some issues over and over again. But with each new pass of the seasons, we come at a familiar truth from a different perspective and gain new insights. We learn to measure our growth by our deepening familiarity and comfort with the truth of our emotional lives. In the process, the grip of these truths becomes less incapacitating.
The wisdom embedded in the Jewish calendar guides us in focusing on the lingering issues of mourning and enables us, in every season, to continue to learn from those we have lost. Viewing Yizkor in this way encourages us to give full expression to our feelings on the marked days of memorial. Those days provide bounded containers for our emotions, protecting us, so that we are free not to mourn on other days. We can safely express our feelings in full intensity with each recitation of Yizkor, exploring, for example, guilt and rage that might be felt, in the frame of Yom Kippur, because we know that Shavuot, with its opportunity to celebrate and give thanks will also come. As we learn to use time as a healer, we discover that as each season passes, we gain strength, wisdom and peace as we continue our conversation with those we have lost.
Adapted from “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 & 2001).