by Rabbi James Prosnit
Cantor Blum mentioned to me the other day that this was her 40th year leading High Holy Day services. She, of course, started her cantorial journey at a very young age. When she said that, I realized as well, that it was my 40th year standing on a bimah wearing a white robe. If you’re doing the math – just know that I started my rabbinic student life at an age somewhat older than the Cantors.
I, like all rabbinic students at the time, had returned from my first year in Israel and I had an internship as a student rabbi at The Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on West 68th Street in Manhattan. It was there that I led my first Rosh Hashanah service, reading some of the liturgy and reading Torah.
A few days later when I was back at Hebrew Union College our Rabbinic School, I received a note – “Freida wants to see you.” Now Freida Ingbar was the registrar at HUC and was basically in charge of the place. She ran everything. And as a new student you didn’t want to cross her. She also happened to be a member of Stephen Wise. When I went in to her office she said to me “what were you thinking?” I looked at her blank! I really had no idea? “I’m not sure what you’re talking about I said somewhat sheepishly?” “Your robe,” she replied. “Where did you get it.” “Rabbi Klein,” the senior rabbi “loaned it to me, he had an extra.” “Well it had doctoral stripes on it and to the best of my knowledge you’re no doctor. Get your own –by Yom Kippur.” Forty years later I still remember that encounter – and am pleased to report that over the ensuing years, Freida became a fan of mine and now I wear the stripes legitimately.
Forty is a long time – we find it in so many biblical stories to remind us of just that — 40 days on the ark, on Mt. Sinai, in the desert — to name a few.
In some consideration it spans two generations.
When I think back to that service both Wendy and I had two parents sitting in the congregation. We had no children to contend with. I also had one grandmother – Esther. She had no clue why I would want to be rabbi. Her only encounter with them was at funerals, so to her being a rabbi was the equivalent of being an undertaker.
Fast forward – and I do mean fast forward, forty years — we have three sons and three grandsons and we are now the eldest, sitting at the head of the table. Grandma Esther is gone, our parents are gone, Freida Ingber is gone. I miss them all – but I recognize it is the power and significance of my memories that make them each very much present when I find the time to pause and reflect.
I realize that for many of you, especially when grief is fresh and pervasive that that time is all the time. But for others of us with days of mourning more remote – we appreciate this hour of this day to pause, to honor, to reflect.
In Judaism there is something profound about the way we mourn and comfort those who are in mourning. There is an inherent wisdom in the path our tradition provides, from funeral and burial to shiva, sheloshm, yarzeits and these moments of yizkor.
That path is what brings us together on this sacred day at this late hour. It is a bit of a paradox that the central message throughout the day bids us, examine our deeds, take charge of our lives, even as at this Memorial Service we come to terms with the ultimate reality that our lives are not forever. But by accepting the teaching that to none of us it is given to complete the work, even Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land, we may find it easier to reconcile ourselves to the reality of loss when it comes. By accepting that we have to continue what others have left unfinished and others will continue what we leave undone and that we are only a fragment in God’s universe we can see our lives in proper proportion. In so doing we may find it possible to see grief and loss in a larger context. What is not possible for us individually might well be possible collectively. As we received the precious gift from someone and get to hang on to it for a little while, we know eventually we too must relinquish our hold.
Now I know this is not an easy thing to do and simple philosophy is not what we need when our pain is real and our dead lie before us. For me 40 years in, this service has gotten a lot tougher. No longer are the people on the list of those who died in the previous year anonymous to me. No longer were they aged or infirmed when we first met. I knew many young and vital – in some cases they were good friends who I relied on for multiple layers of support.
But it is my view that as we grow over the years we learn to replace pain with hope, anger with patience so that we can eventually find some reassurance that will help us see loss and death in the broader context of life.
Last night I quoted from Option B the very poignant and important book by Sheryl Sandberg the Facebook Executive whose husband, David died suddenly at 47. Some of you talked about it earlier today with Ira Wise and Tara Kerner.
In her journal entry 221/2 weeks 156 days after his death she visits his grave on his birthday and she writes: Quoted from p.76
These moments of Yizkor are designed to move us forward not to take us back. They reveal the resilience so many have shown and the pride that your loved ones would have had in knowing you have chosen life. This hour is to let the blessing of memory enrich the lives you are now living.
When we come to terms with that we may even be able to hear the voices of those we love more clearly. This memorial service is for us the living. It offers us the chance to move beyond grief’s intensity, beyond anger to acceptance of life’s finiteness and it provides for us the infinite possibilities of memory.