Friday, September 25, 2015

Yizkor: Mourning Inside Out


(adapted from Rabbi Scheinberg's comments on Yom Kippur morning 2015/5776. Please note that this is being posted now without final edits and additions of hyperlinks; hopefully that will happen soon.)  

Each year as I contemplate my remarks for before Yizkor,
among my preparation tasks is to think about the people who have died since last Yom Kippur - people from this community, and people of special significance to the Jewish community and to the world.
In this community I think especially of the loss of our dear friend and member Tuvia Rosenberg, a gentle soul whose life intersected with just about every major movement and significant event in the 20th century,
and we’ll have more to say about Tuvia’s remarkable life later in our service.


And I think of the many many others on our list who are dear relatives and friends of our community - men and women, some who died in the fullness of years, some agonizingly cut down much too young.   Some endured war and persecution early in  their lives; some struggled valiantly with illness for many years.  Many were passionate about their work achievements; many were deeply committed to their families;  many were passionate in their connection to Jewish tradition and the Jewish community.  Most were able to find enduring sources of deep joy in their lives.  The people on our list are different in every way except that they are remembered and deeply missed by our community.  May their memory be for a blessing.

And we’re also connected to the larger Jewish community and the larger world community.  
And I think of some people on our list who were especially known for their heroism and dedication to others -
like Sir Nicholas Winton, the British financier who while in his 20’s came up with the idea for, and then implemented, the Kindertransport - a project to save more than 600 Jewish children from the Holocaust and bring them to England.  He lived past age 100 and was blessed to meet hundreds of the descendants of those whose lives he saved.
Rabbi Harold Schulweis,  one of the most outstanding American pulpit rabbis, and the founder of organizations like the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, to provide for the material needs of non-Jews who risked their lives to save the lives of Jews during the Holocaust.
And Rochelle Shoretz, a  heroic young woman who founded the organization called Sharsheret to give support to Jewish women dealing with breast cancer and ovarian cancer - an organization that has directly helped a number of people from our own community at very difficult moments.

And also on my mind is a particular writer and teacher who died just last month - this is someone that I first heard about when I was in college,
and a woman I was interested in was taking a class in Jewish literature,
and one of the books on the reading list was a book called “The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat,” by Oliver Sacks -
It was one of his books of case studies of his patients, that helped
to build up the field of narrative medicine and helped to get many people excited about the study of neuroscience.
So I read the book in part in an effort to impress this woman
(whose name by the way, is Naomi Kalish),
but I completely did not get a sense of why this book belongs in a Jewish literature class, because it did not appear to have any manifestly Jewish content other than the fact that Oliver Sacks was nominally Jewish.
To this day, I am not really convinced by the explanations I heard for what this book was doing in a class on Jewish literature.  
But Oliver Sacks’ writing from this year made his Jewish story more clear.  
In the last few months, he published pieces that he dictated to his assistants when he was no longer to write himself.
And these essays included some of the memories that he had on his mind in his final weeks --- and those memories were deeply Jewish,
though also deeply conflicted about the role that Judaism played in his life.

Sacks describes his intensively Jewish upbringing in London  -- and how his associations with Jewish practices and holidays -- with traditional Jewish foods, with the world of the synagogue, and especially with Shabbat  --
were generally comfortable and comforting.
This was the case until as an adolescent he let the information slip to his father that he was attracted to men - this prompted a blow-up with his mother, who said very hurtful things to him,  at which time it was as if the lid of the tradition was slammed shut in his face and he did not look back,
and he had very little connection with Judaism throughout his adult life.

But Oliver Sacks had the good fortune to live a long life, and to see a variety of changes in the world.  
Including, as he describes in his essay about Shabbat,  he experienced his orthodox cousin in Jerusalem embracing him and his life partner,
in a demonstration of some level of acceptance of him as a gay man
and of this crucial relationship in his life.

And he reflected on the experience of sitting at his cousin’s Shabbat table  together with his partner, and how it raised questions in his mind:  “The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with a wistfulness, something akin to nostalgia, wondering what if: What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been? What sort of a life might I have lived?”

There are so many items of note about this essay.
The pain of rejection; the power of a kind gesture, from someone who was clearly going far outside his comfort zone;
The way a remarkably accomplished man who added so much to the world
was willing to think honestly about what in his life could have been even better;
And of course the transcendent power of Shabbat, which truly heads the list of the greatest ideas of Judaism.

And I was also struck by how Sacks described the transformation of the Jewish memories of his early life -  that first they were happy and comforting, then during the period of time when he was estranged from Judaism those memories were a source of great pain.  Then, more recently, those memories again became easier to bear and even - at the end of his life - became sweet again.  
And this is a journey our memories sometimes take, where what feels like the same memory is alternately a source of sadness and joy.

Oliver Sacks is not the only one this year who encourages us to contemplate
how the emotional tone of our memories changes over time.
People who know me well know that there is no way I will let these High Holy Days pass without talking about the most remarkable movie I saw this year.

When I heard earlier in the year that two eminent psychologists, Paul Ekman of Stanford and Dacher Keltner of Berkeley, were serving as scientific consultants on a Disney Pixar animated movie for kids, that was all I needed to know. I needed to see this movie, regardless of the fact that I had not seen a movie in the theaters in years and had not seen an animated movie in the theaters since my kids were of a more typical age for such fare.

THe movie is called 'Inside Out,' and I wouldn't be surprised if many of you have seen it, whether you have children or not.   And yes, I would recommend it -- as a beautiful, Yom Kippur-related movie.
As you may know, this movie is ostensibly the story of an eleven-year-old girl who moves across the country and starts a new school.
But most of the action of the movie takes place in the girl’s head, where we are introduced to her five main emotions, who work hard - sometimes together, and sometimes unharmoniously - to work the control panel of her life.
Sometimes it’s joy pushing the buttons; sometimes it’s anger or fear, or sadness or disgust.  And the girl’s behavior emanates from this process, from the struggles of the various emotions within her.

What I liked especially about the movie “Inside Out” was that it seemed to be not merely a movie, but a language - a different way to think about what motivates us - and about who we are - that we don’t necessarily have an ‘i’ inside of ourselves calling the shots, but that ‘i’ is really more like a ‘we,’ because we embody diverse forces within ourselves.  Like the famous line from Walt Whitman: ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)’  And the movie Inside Out imagines what it would be like to meet some of those multitudes.

And this idea that we have diverse forces within ourselves  
seems like such a Jewish idea.  
And not only because of the saying, “Two Jews, three opinions.”
It’s an idea that finds expression in the Jewish tradition that each of us has within ourselves a ‘yetzer ha-tov’ and a ‘yetzer ha-ra’  - an inclination towards good and an inclination towards evil - that struggle with each other.
Or the kabbalistic idea that each of us, and even God, has a rich internal landscape of various opposing forces.   
We contain creative forces and forces that maintain stability;
we contain an inclination towards strict justice, and an inclination towards compassion,
and all these coexist within ourselves.
In addition to being how neuroscientists feel the brain actually functions,
this is how Jewish tradition has long understood the components of the inner life.

And the greatest gift that the movie gives its viewers
is the reminder that our emotions are there to serve US.
Emotions are not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; they just ‘are.’
And when we’re feeling a particular emotion, it makes sense to validate it, and to feel it fully.
And this too is an important Jewish teaching.
Pirkei Avot - ethics of the fathers - instructs:
בי שמעון בן אלעזר אומר: אל תרצה את חברך בשעת כעסו, ואל תנחמנו בשעה שמתו מוטל לפניו;  
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar taught:  don’t try to move your friend away from anger at the moment of his hottest anger.
And don’t try to move your friend away from sadness immediately after a loss in the family.
So much of the Jewish wisdom around death and mourning
is creating space where emotions like sadness and anger can safely be expressed,
rather than sending the message that these emotions are inappropriate.
Both the movie, and Jewish tradition, note that every emotion has its time and its place, and the important thing is to achieve a balance.
- as Ecclesiastes reminds us,  עת לבכות לעת לשחוק there’s a time to cry and a time to laugh; עתספוד ועת רקוד -  There’s a time for mourning and a time for dancing.
And Moses Maimonides reminds us, in a line that could, with just a little bit of editing, been drawn right from the script of Inside Out:
ולא יהא מהולל ושוחק, ולא עצב ואונן, אלא שמח כל ימיו בנחת, בסבר פנים יפות.
One should not be constantly frivolous and joking (what the movie referred to as ‘goofball island’), and one should not be constantly wallowing in sadness and abstinence from the pleasures of the world - but rather one should strive for the middle path. And what does Maimonides call the middle path? - Simcha.  happiness.  Happiness is what happens when your emotions are in proper balance.   (And I find it so interesting that we might have thought that happiness is on one end of an emotional continuum, opposite sadness.  But just as the movie Inside Out demonstrates, joy that is untempered with sadness cannot long endure.  Happiness happiness represents the contented balance of the emotions. )

The crisis in Inside Out is the very real challenge of moving across the country,
going to a new school, living in a new home,and dealing with stressed-out parents.
But as I said, the gift that this movie provides is a language for talking and thinking about emotions.
And the characters and the method could be applied to any life challenge,
to help us to understand some of our inner processes.
Like for example, the process of grieving a loss in the family.
I am not sure that the world is ready for that kind of Disney movie.
But if it did come out , I would certainly go to see it.
And to see what this merry and quirky band of emotions - joy, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust -  does to cope with the monumental challenge of a loss in the family.

Such a movie might include how ‘joy’ tries valiantly to see all the good things and to focus on the positive memories- but how ‘joy’ quickly realizes that this is not the time to sit at the controls; this is the time to hold back and give more of a chance to the other emotions to sit at the controls.
And it might include how ‘anger’ rails against the injustice of the world - and also expresses frustration at the people and the institutions that should be doing more, or should be acting more competently, and at the people who are doing and saying the wrong things in their efforts to be supportive.
And maybe it would show how ‘fear’ is concerned:   if I could suffer this one loss, I could also suffer others.
And how ‘fear’ is continually replaying the events leading up to the death.
Is there something more I could have done?  is there something more I should have said in those final days and hours?
And how it is the emotion of ‘sadness’ that rules the day - focusing on the disappointments, on the magnitude of what has been lost, on the life changes going forward that are now going to happen,
on the missing pieces of life going forward.
And how ideally, the mourner’s activation of ‘sadness’
triggers the community’s activation of their own ‘sadness,’ bringing the community together to support the mourner and gradually to create space for healing.
And then, ideally, how over the process of mourning, even though at times you would never believe it possible, how healing starts to happen.
How gradually, ‘anger’ starts to move back away from the controls, even though the situation is no less enraging.
And how gradually, ‘fear’ starts to move back away from the controls, even though the situation is no less fearsome.
the other emotions gradually make room for ‘joy’ to come back and join them at the controls.
and again -- ideally -- how ‘joy’ starts to notice the renewed presence of the deceased in the world - maybe first in a dream, then in a facial expression, then in an enduring influence on the world,
and the thought of the deceased that used to trigger only sadness now also can trigger ‘joy.’
And how the ‘joy’ that steps up again to the controls is a more nuanced joy - it’s a joy tinged with sadness, which may actually be a deeper level of joy.
Come to think of it, no one would want to see that movie.
But my sense is that for many of us, some parts of this may resonate with our experience
as well as with the intuitive wisdom of Jewish traditions on death and mourning.
As one reviewer commented about Inside Out:  The movie suggests that the bittersweet is a step up from untarnished joy and shows how frantic cheerfulness can stand in the way of genuine connection.”

There is one additional poignant image from the movie Inside Out that is on my mind as we begin Yizkor --
and it concerns memories.
The memories in Inside Out are stored in a large library - but it’s not a library of books. Inside the girl’s mind is a maze of shelves and shelves of memories, and each memory is like a large globe - it’s large and unwieldy enough that an individual can only comfortably carry one at a time.  And the memories are color-coded based on the dominant emotion in the memory.  

But key to the story of the movie is that the memories change color depending on who is touching them at the moment.
A memory that has always been happy, for example, can suddenly become sad when it’s touched by the character who represents the emotion of sadness.
And this was apparently one of the suggestions of the neuroscientist consultants. Our memories are NOT a dispassionate history of our lives;
Rather, our memories are constantly changing, shifting and evolving.
And in fact, they change slightly every time we take them out to look at them.
and truly they sometimes will acquire a different emotional color based on our emotional state when we take them out to look at them.
Without this active rebuilding process, we forget. Memory is always under construction, always changing.  (adapted from quote from Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur)

And in this sense we are faced with a dilemma.
If we never examine our memories, they will fade.
But every time we examine our memories, they are transformed, at least slightly, sometimes in a major way.

Sometimes, as in the movie Inside Out, memories characterized by joy can become tinged with sadness, when they serve as reminders for what has been lost.
And sometimes, as in Oliver Sacks’ story, memories from the past that were painful can be reclaimed ever so slightly for joy and for fulfillment.

I find that a useful analogy for this process
of continually changing and rebuilding our memories
is a practice that any of us has participated in if we have ever visited a jewish cemetery.
As you may know, it has long been a custom upon visiting a grave at a Jewish cemetery
to pick up a stone or a pebble and to place it on top of the headstone as a token of the visit.

While explanations differ about why we do this, there is an authoritative historical explanation:  in Biblical times, a grave used to be marked by a גל אבנים - a mound of stones.  And anyone visiting a grave would feel a sense of responsibility to add to the monument, or to replenish the monument if any of the stones had become scattered. And this custom persists today even though graves today tend to be marked by one large headstone rather than by mounds of stones.
But maybe this custom persists because it reminds us of the impermanent nature of any monument we create-  a monument made of a mound of stones can’t be made ‘once and for all.’ it has to be revisited, tended, replenished.
And similarly, the memories we have of our loved ones. When we revisit them, we strengthen those memories, though we also transform them.

And in this light I would invite you to note that we are doing something today at yizkor that we haven’t done before.  Under some of the pews - the pews that are marked by a dot - you will find a little container of small stones.  And in a few moments, I will invite you to take this container and take a stone, and pass it to the people near you so they can take a stone if they wish also.

And I invite you to hold on to the stone during the Yizkor memorial prayers, as you are focusing on the memories of your loved ones, relatives and friends who have died.  
If you wish, you can think about this stone representing your memories of your loved one you are remembering today.
And if you wish, you could think about how touching those memories will transform those memories -- adding to them some of the color, some of the holiness, of this place.
Some of your own emotions as you stand at the brink of a new year.
some of our community’s common prayers and hopes and best wishes for a year of goodness and fulfillment.
Perhaps feelings of forgiveness, as we stand today on a day dedicated to forgiveness.
And then - after our Yizkor memorial prayers - what you do with the stone is up to you.
You may choose to deliver it to a grave of a loved one, together with the prayers and memories that you are investing in it - so you can use it literally to build up the monument / mound of stones of your loved one.
You may choose to take it home as a reminder of your loved one in your home.
You may choose to return it to the container, either here or downstairs.

Another explanation that is given for why we place stones on the gravestone
is that the hebrew word for stone is אבן, which in turn is made up of the two hebrew words אב and בן which mean ‘father’ and ‘son,’ but arranged such that they overlap. (Rabbi Meir Goldwicht)  Thus a stone is a symbol of the continuity of generations - not only of fathers and sons, but of all relatives -
as we invoke their memories, as we invite their voices into our sanctuary,
and as we commit ourselves again to put their values at work in the world.

I invite you as quietly as possible to locate the box of stones near you, and assist us in distributing stones to anyone who would like one, simply to hold as we recite the Yizkor memorial prayers, and then to do with it whatever you wish.

I invite you now to close your eyes as we invite the presence of those we remember today
to come into our minds --
we spend a moment to see their faces, to hear their voices,
to feel their embraces.
Let us take a moment of silence now.

No comments:

Post a Comment