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Friday, April 16, 2021

Pesach Yizkor: We Are Meaning Makers

We pull meaning and purpose from even the hardest of circumstances.

I don’t remember feeling so much simultaneous appreciation and scorn for something other than what I feel towards Zoom right now. Without Zoom, there is no digital minyan, no congregation seder during COVID, no virtual family reunions or school or just about anything over the last 13 months. And, like many of you, I am just done with screens and reducing prayer and communal gatherings and work meetings to what looks like the opening credits of the Brady Bunch. Thank God for Zoom. Truly. And may God spare us from Zoom. We should add that line to the Avinu Malkeynu.

These dual and opposing feelings towards Zoom were on full display in our community over the last few weeks. We are back in the orange zone, and infections are, for now, low and vaccination rates high. We can begin to gather regularly, again, outdoors on Ziering Field, like many of us are doing for Shabbat, holidays and b’nei mitzvah. Beyond that, we started this past week gathering for daily minyan indoors in our sanctuary. Limited to 15. Still masked and distanced, of course. But… what a moment! What a return! What a not-so-small triumph! All good news, right?

Not right. Within our wonderful and very committed daily minyan community — who share personal updates and ideas when we gather and on a special daily minyan WhatsApp group — there was some uproar. If you are gathering a minyan in person, does that mean I can no longer lead a part of the service on Zoom? If you are gathering a minyan in person, and everyone disperses after services are over, will anyone be listening as I share memories of my mother on her yahrtzeit? If you are gathering a minyan in person, re-forming as a community, and I am not yet comfortable being in person…or I don’t live in LA…am I about to lose my sense of community, again?

Versions of these concerns were articulated with heart and vulnerability by several minyan regulars, including those who have somehow found us in the last year, even though they don’t live in LA, and for whom our virtual minyan has been a lifejacket, an anchor, a source of tremendous nourishment.

All of us rued the move from actual to virtual. How could prayer possibly be meaningful in that setting? But now some of us are lamenting the move from virtual back to actual, as if that, too, is another loss to suffer. How do we make sense of that phenomenon, of people mourning the surrender of something that was always meant to be a second-best stop-gap?

I am reminded of conversations I have had with people in the aftermath of a loved one’s death, particularly someone the person was intimately and at times overwhelmingly responsible for as the person aged or suffered from a debilitating illness. I remember a specific conversation with a member of my shul in New York. She was an active pediatrician in her late 70s and early 80s. Her husband, also a pediatrician, suffered a brutal decline into Alzheimer’s, robbing them of the golden years they had anticipated together.

Her life was circumscribed and both logistically and emotionally draining. She got more help as her husband declined, but she was still the primary caregiver and was psychologically tied to his infirmity. They had shared a truly profound and legendary love before he got ill. The intensity of the love thus matched the intensity of her sorrow as he deteriorated. She admitted to me, more than once, with guilt I wish I could have relieved from her, that she was ready for him to go. There was nothing left of him, and her life was profoundly hard. She ached for a release.

Then, he died. We buried him. She mourned through shiva. Soon after, we talked. She said two things to me, one obvious, one less so. The obvious one was that she was sad, and she missed him. The less obvious one was that she missed the caretaking, the onerous task of keeping him well and clean and safe. She missed being needed. She missed the burden. She finally had what she had been aching for — a redemption from endless and heartbreaking care for her debilitated husband. And she wished, on some level, to have it back. Not just to have him well and healthy. But to have that era of her intense care of him back.

I think of those mourning the end of Zoom, and I think of my congregant mourning her husband and the burden of caring for him, and I think of something extraordinary in the human condition: We are meaning-makers. We pull meaning and purpose from even the hardest of circumstances. We vent and we cry about the challenges upon us. But amidst the crucible of those challenges, our souls are active. We are producing memories and meaning. We are living, even when it seems so hard to live.

We pull meaning and purpose from even the hardest of circumstances.

Our ancestors were the same, rhapsodizing in the desert about how good they had it in Egypt. In Bemidbar Ch 11, v. 5, the Israelites are dissatisfied with the manna from heaven. You know, the stuff that came down, every day, in a miracle, and which according to the midrash tasted like anything you wanted it to?! Even Willy Wonka couldn’t do better than that. But it was not enough for the Israelites.

זָכַ֙רְנוּ֙ אֶת־הַדָּגָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־נאֹכַ֥ל בְּמִצְרַ֖יםִ חִסָּ֑ם אֵ֣ת הַרִּשֻּׁאִ֗ים ואְֵת֙ הָֽאֲבַטִּחִ֔ים ואְֶת־הֶחָצִ֥יר
ואְֶת־הַבְּצָלִ֖ים ואְֶת־הַשּוּמִֽים׃

We remember the tasty fish we used to eat in Egypt. For free! And the cucumbers, the juicy watermelon. The leeks, the onions. And even the garlic.

A cynical read on the scene suggests the Israelites are insufferable and lack gratitude. (Has much changed?) A more psychologically astute read might be that even though they were ensconced and trapped in Egypt, enslaved to a tyrant, longing for freedom… they were living. And making life meaningful. Even tasty.

Are there more poignant midrashim than the ones that imagine Israelite men and women making themselves beautiful to woo one another while slaves in Egypt? Forcing themselves to find love and meaning amidst despair and thus ensuring the next generation?

In book after book and movie after movie about the horrors of the experience of slavery in America, few sub-themes move me more than how slaves found a way to build families, even as their masters tore them apart. How they kissed and made love amidst filth and endless suffering. And how they sang and created a culture of storytelling whose conceptual descendants animate our modern American culture to this day. Would any freed slave actually want to go back to slavery? I would think not. But while there, they were suffering. And living. And making meaning.

Any instinct or tendency in excess is problematic and dangerous. An overly sympathetic association with one’s own incarceration can lead to Stockholm Syndrome or to giving up on the hope of liberation and thus to the death of the spirit. But an insufficiency of extracting meaning out of difficulties leaves days, weeks, months and years of our lives devoid of meaning. We can both wish for an era to end and realize how much we have grown and gained.

Pulling meaning out of just about anything is a human instinct. It is a Jewish art form as well. And we tend to do it particularly well around loss and grief and mourning. I want to give you an exquisite example of this in the form of a recent situation a dear colleague was in:

A few weeks ago, he officiated a funeral where it was just him at the grave because of COVID-19. The funeral director stood at a distance, and the cemetery workers were even farther away. In my friend’s words, “I was the only person there who knew the man who died.” Can you imagine the scene? And what it must have felt like for him? As he recounts, “I recited all of the appropriate prayers, and then I offered my eulogy. Everyone deserves to have words said at their funerals.” Imagine standing at the grave. No one else present. Just the unhearing body of a man who lived, being told words about him now that he died.

My friend shared, “I spoke to the man who died and told him that I was sorry that I was the only person there at this holy moment. I shared the words that his family members wanted me to share at the grave, and I reflected on some of his qualities. I concluded the eulogy by telling this man that I hoped he did not feel alone. I was there. People who loved him were with him in spirit. Our shul and the Jewish people were standing by as well. And I offered the prayer that God’s presence would bring his soul gently under the wings of the Shechinah and that he would feel loved, held and safe. I told him that I hoped he could rest in peace.”

I am astounded and moved by my friend’s actions and words. He told the deceased he was not alone, and he wasn’t. My friend ensured that would be the case. This, to me, is an exemplary model of extracting meaning from the most hopeless of situations. I know two things: that my friend hopes never to do such a funeral again. And that he might never feel as holy at any future funeral.

My dear friends, Yizkor makes the same request of us and offers us the same opportunity: to convert wallowing into wonder, to allow reverie to be restorative, to draw meaning out of mourning. The Holocaust survivor and renowned psychoanalyst, Viktor Frankl, wrote that man can endure any hardship as long as he can find meaning in the experience. We know that depression is both a true medical malady and often the natural result of living a life without purpose, independent of one’s circumstances. Those objectively blessed can be bereft if they derive no meaning from their pleasures. And those objectively cursed can have their souls soar if they impute meaning to their moments, even and especially their hardest ones.

So let your memories, during this Yizkor, rouse you and hold you. May your tears be awakened by the pain of your loss, itself a measure of your love. And may you also cry, with some sense of tender pride, at the very meaning you have drawn not only from the lives of those you mourn but also from the process of losing them, mourning them and learning to live without them. We recall the past. And we march forward. And we continue to live. And to love.


Rabbi Adam Kligfeld is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am. 

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