by Rabbi James Prosnit
Memorial Service Yom Kippur 2015/5776
You may have read Oliver Sacks’ last essay, published posthumously, in last week’s New Yorker. It was an ode to gefilte fish.
“Our gefilte fish was basically carp, to which pike, whitefish and sometimes perch or mullet would be added,” he wrote of his mother’s recipe. “The fish had to be skinned, boned, and fed into a grinder – we had a massive metal grinder attached to the kitchen table, and my mother would sometimes let me turn the handle. She would then mix the ground fish with raw eggs, matzo meal and pepper and sugar.”
His second to last essay was a powerful ode to Shabbat. “And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, ….I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”
Sacks, the noted neurologist and author of books like Awakenings and the Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat died a few weeks ago at the age of 83. He lived his life as a secular Jew pushed away from his religion in no small part because of what he said was its capacity for bigotry and hatred. In an earlier piece for the Times he recounts how when his mother learned of his homosexuality her words were,“You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born.”
But still his final essays brought forth a loving image of his mother taking off from her duties as a surgeon at a British hospital early on Friday afternoon to devote her time to preparing gefilte fish and other Sabbath dishes.
He writes “But now, in what are (barring a miracle) my last weeks of life – so queasy that I am averse to almost every food, with difficulty swallowing anything except liquids or jelly like solids –I have rediscovered the joys of gefilte fish.” Of course Murray’s on Broadway, Russ and Daughter’s, Zabar’s and Barney Greengrass – he says, although good, don’t quite compare to my mother’s.
We see in his those final writings a yearning to come full circle, to make peace with a tradition with family and with one’s own identity. Oliver Sack returns to some touch stones of sacredness and meaning…and what a blessing that seems to be.
That may not be unique among those who are in a position to recognize that their final days are nearing. I know how some of your loved ones reached out in special ways towards the end – slipping in one last time some oft repeated words of wisdom, almost an ethical will of life lessons to be distributed among the heirs. Others who saw death approach spoke of their family members, past and present – offering tidbits of lore for future generations to hang on to. And some may have shared for the first time a war story or a particular burden that had previously been kept locked inside.
But I also know that others of you did not receive that death bed gift. Some people are unable to talk about their dying and over the years I have come to understand that that is their prerogative. For others death was shockingly sudden with no time to engage in retrospection or expressions of love. And for many these days the, complexities of aging sneaked up, lingered and stole the essence of life a long time before the person died. I especially hope that these moments of Yizkor, of remembrance can help you re-construct the touchstones of sacredness and meaning.\
Earlier this year, some of you may remember that we as a congregation had a one Temple One Book read of Atul Gawande’s best seller Being Mortal. Lots of people read it and lots of people came to discuss it along with several B’nai Israel physicians. It is far from a spiritual book, but in no small way, Gawande makes us think about our lives – and how for many folks the priority may not just be to live longer. His indictment, however, is that our medical system too often is not set up that way. He writes, “The simple view is that medicine exists to fight death and disease, and that is of course, its most basic task. But the enemy has superior forces. Eventually, it wins. And in a war that you cannot win, you don’t want a general who fights to the point of total annihilation. You don’t want Custer. You want Robert E. Lee, someone who knows how to fight for territory that can be won and how to surrender when it can’t be.”
In a sense that is what this day of Yom Kippur and this hour of Yizkor is all about. We have acknowledged throughout the day that we do want to fight for the quality of our lives. We do want ot live fully and righteously and we so want to get back on track when we have missed the mark. But Yizkor also forces us to acknowledge that eventually the enemy has superior forces.
We are mortal – and that’s okay; because it encourages us to make every day count; to do some good while we can, to express love and appreciation to those we encounter and to bequeath some very special memories so that our nearest and dearest can carry us forward till they do die. As we do at this hour for those who came before us and who we remember so clearly at this sacred time of day.
Oliver Sacks writes in one of his final essays — “I feel the future is in good hands. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases.. “I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have been given much and I have given something in return” And he quotes Kierkegaard: “Life must be lived forward but can only be understood backwards.”
May his life—may the lives of those we remember this evening be for a blessing.
Gawande, Atul, Being Mortal Metropolitan Books, New York, p.187