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Yom Kippur 5782 ~ I'm sorry

A while back, a child lay in the intensive care unit of the hospital. The parents were sitting in the waiting room together with their friends. One well-meaning friend turned to the mother and offered her words of comfort. Here is what she said: “In a couple of days your child will be fine!” The mother turned to the friend in anger and said: “how can you even say that?” I would venture to say that at the outset of the Delta variant similar words were expressed.

We often like to say things, yet we often don’t know precisely what the right words should be. Yet, for the most part, we like to be helpful to other people, we like to give them advice and encourage them with hope for tomorrow.  In shiva houses, for example, people like to tell the mourners about their own experiences with death.  We like to offer our condolences. Unfortunately, our language does not give us the appropriate words to say. More often than not people express their sympathy with the following three words: “I am sorry.”  Time and time again, as I reflect with mourners, they tell me that those words are the least helpful. I have actually heard these words from mourners in our congregation as I have sat with them to discuss their loss. What was that person sorry for – for my loss? for the pain I am feeling? Did they do something that they should be sorry for? How can they even feel what I am going through at this moment?  “I’m sorry” may not be the best expression, despite its wide use and it is often what we blurt out, simply because we cannot find another appropriate word to say at the spur of the moment. It is also what we have been conditioned to say.

Here is another phrase we like to tell people who are in the midst of experiencing a challenge in their lives: “Don’t worry, it’ll work out for the best,” or “time is a healer of all.” I have learned through my experiences over these past thirty-nine years in the pulpit rabbinate that time does not heal. Time only distances us from hurt. It allows us to move on, suppressing the pain of the moment.  Yet, we continually sense that loss and at times sense it more acutely. Then again, time also distances us from the joy of success.  That is why we find ourselves constantly attempting to find new ways to be successful and new adventures to find meaning and happiness in life.

A colleague recently shared with me her thoughts on the matter as we discussed this sermon. She expounded: “When you are in deep mourning, you are wearing colored glasses and you experience everything in the world through those lenses. Everything is filtered through that grief and those lenses. As you pass through that process, you realize that you have more than one pair of glasses. Then when you start putting on those other lenses, you experience through those other lenses. The hard part in the transition is when you find yourself with those other lenses and not with your grief lenses on.  Eventually you get to the point where you realize that you can carry them with you and not living life through those set lenses of their memory and loss.”

The Shulchan Aruch, the great medieval Jewish Book of Law counsels us that when we go into a shiva house we are to remain absolutely quiet. We are required to say absolutely nothing. We are supposed to wait until the mourner speaks before we say anything. Allow the mourner to set the subject.  Talk about what he or she needs to hear, not what we want to tell them.   Extend your hand to them, you will then feel what they are feeling. You will connect with them, without a single word having been passed between each other.

Connecting without words; Feeling the connection to another; Not trying to place our own spin on what others are thinking; not trying to evaluate situations but living through them and helping another to live through their moments. These words of the Shulchan Aruch apply not only to mourning, but to every aspect of daily living.

Ecclesiastes, a book of wisdom found in our Bible, suggests that many of us are unable to achieve this level of understanding in relationships. We find it difficult not to tell our own personal stories, when trying to help others. We have to find reasons why bad things happen to people. And we have a need to delve into other people’s lives and examine them. Ecclesiastes suggests that our need comes from our desire to find permanence when we sense a downward slope in other’s lives. We need to justify why good things happen to us, and why we are “lucky,” when others around us are not. Or conversely, why we seem to have challenges and bad luck on a more frequent basis than what we think is normal.  While we are attempting to be comforting, in many ways, what we are really doing when we share our own personal stories, thoughts and explanations is finding a safe haven for ourselves. Our words might be our own personal prayers. 

The classical story of suffering is that of the Biblical figure Job. He is depicted as the righteous person, who was rewarded for his faith. But then life changes. Job’s sons and daughters all perish in calamities. Job is faced to deal with his own self. And as he does, Job’s friends come forward to comfort him, offering their own personal take on why such a tragedy befell their comrade. Each friend comments that Job must have sinned – that can be the only reason!

Ecclesiastes asks: why is it necessary to find meaning in tragedy or in challenges of life? Why must we try to philosophically understand why bad things happen to good people? Why must we try to tell our own personal stories of life?  Is our goal simply to alleviate our own fears about our own personal lives? Are we attempting to justify our lives vis-a-vis the one who is in need of our helping hand? What is appropriate to say and do? What are the appropriate words, the expression of compassion? Should we be empathetic and even suggest such sensitivities or is that similar to expressing the words: “I am sorry.”

Moses responds with compassionate prayer for his sister Miriam. Stricken with leprosy, the Torah explains that Miriam’s illness was a direct result of her speaking ill about Moses’ wife Tziporah. The Bible justifies her illness. Moses turns and ignores the justification. He doesn’t look for an answer “why?” He only wants to find a cure. And so, he cries and prays to God: אל נא רפא נא לה, Compassionate God, please heal her!

Similar to Moses, we respond to seeing mourners in their first week of shiva by offering a prayer on their behalf: המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים, May God give you comfort, with all the other mourners in Zion and Jerusalem. We are making a statement of a hope that God be compassionate with those who are now suffering a loss.  While the words may not be actually the following in one sense I believe the thought might suggest: May you find comfort in the stories of the life of your loved one.   To quote a familiar reading “Not how did he die, but how did he live. Not what did he gain, but what did he give. These are the units to measure the worth of a man as a man, regardless of birth.”  And I trust that as you are right now thinking of your loved ones who have passed away, you too are finding comfort by their life stories. 

The word המקום, has a second meaning. המקום means the place, not only will God  provide comfort, but that the place, the people who are with you will surround you with a sense of whatever it is to help you walk through the valley that you are in. As my teacher and colleague, Rabbi Harold Kushner teaches the “thou” in “thou preparest a table,” are the friends, family and acquaintances who surround the mourner and provide the mourner with comfort of place and space. Space is not in what we need to grieve, but what the individual experiencing the life changing moment is going through. And that is not only related to death, but so many other moments of challenge.

Some of you have already experienced such moments. You may recognize that when we talk, I ask you to share with me certain things about your loved ones such as “if I were to meet the individual for the first time, what would I remember about him or her?” Or “share with me a good memory or story.” Or “if there was a lesson you could learn from his or her life what would it be?” It is their stories and your stories…that is the essence.

A little girl returned home from her friend’s house all in tears. She turned to her mother and said that something awful happened that afternoon, her friend’s doll had broken. And there was no way to fix it. Her friend was really sad and so too was she.  “Momma, after supper can I go back to Susie’s house?” “Honey, why would you want to do that, you cannot fix the doll?” “But Momma, please, please can I go. I don’t want to fix the doll. I just want to sit beside Susie, hold her hand and cry with her.”

One Orthodox woman actually lived the life of this story. Her husband was a patient in Memorial Sloane Kettering hospital.  Her husband shared a room with a woman by the name of Jan who was from New Jersey. Every day, this woman came in to visit with her husband. She soon became friendly with Jan. Together they would spend the hours, knowing that both for her husband and for Jan, life was full of challenges.  Jan lost her hair to chemotherapy. And she immediately put on a bandana, covering up her head.  The woman and Jan spoke about the shmatta on her head.   No, nothing could be fixed. Time would not mend.  And the bandana was a means of coping with what was, rather than bemoaning what had been.  That night, the woman came up with her own response to Jan’s predicament. And the next morning, she returned to tell Jan of her plan. She took hold of a bag and opened a box. And inside it were two of the most beautiful turbans that Orthodox women wear to cover their heads. “Here,” she said. “Try one on.”  Jan smiled and rushed to put on one. She could sense the specialness of the head covering. It had been worn to express modesty. And now her illness would be reflected in a most modest of ways.   A simple act of chesed, compassion and kindness.

Here are some words of prayer and chesed, compassion, that were e-mailed to Memorial Sloane Kettering to Jan by one of her cousins, a friend of mine:

Dear Jan,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       I spoke with Mom yesterday and she told me what is happening. It's hard to comprehend, yet life seems unimaginable most of the time anyway. The road ahead appears bumpy at best, but of all the people I know, you are a skilled and brave driver. In my heart, I am fighting the fight with you and on more practical terms, I have sent a package out to you today, which you'll have tomorrow that is filled with great diversions! I love you and miss you.  You are in my thoughts and in my heart daily. Speak to you soon.

My friend shared with me a second letter that read:

                 It is a balmy summer day here and my thoughts have wondered to you. It is the kind of day that reminds me of you. Calm and beautiful with the touch of sweetness in the air. You and your husband have always been my inspiration when it comes to parenting and marriage. Very much like my own parents were. The commitment and dedication to each other and your children is what I have tried to emulate. Your influence in our lives has been great and I wanted you to know that.

Jan died a few days later, knowing that she was loved, that she was thought of, and that she made a difference in other people’s lives.

If you were able to write a letter to your loved one today, what might your words say? What would you want to tell them, knowing that they are still loved, that they are still thought of, and how they have made a difference in other people’s lives? If someone could write a letter to you today, what might they say? What would you hope they would say?

Today  is Yom Hadin, the day of judgement. But it is not the day of judgement for other people in this sanctuary. It is not time to look at others’ lives. It is Yom Hadin for our own personal selves. Today, we can write our own personal letter to ourselves in our prayers.

A congregant once taught me that for most of us we find its too difficult  to sit alone and deal with our own selves and be with ourselves. We avoid painful things. We prefer harmony versus truth. We sense that we are the center of the universe, and so we award ourselves with all that life can offer.  While our prayers talk about our misdeeds, our sins, and while we klup ourselves on our chests, let us instead focus on the real me. Let me find chesed, compassion for myself without words, without excuses, without praise, without stories.  Just let me find the “me.”

Ecclesiastes offers us some valuable wisdom:

When standing before God,

you rush to speak, your heart bursting with needs and urgency.

You crowd the air with words of praise and pleading.

You leave no room for Silence and none for hearing.

It is not God you worship, but your own voice and opinion.

Better to stand in Silence.

Do not rush your words but seek to quiet them.

With a quiet mind, a heart still and silent,

you will see the infinity of God and the finity of self.

Humility will embrace you,

and you will fade into

That Which Is All That Is.

Your words will be few;

the Silence, great.

There is room then for listening.

May your world and that of the loved ones who you have come to remember today be filled with peace and chesed, kindness.  And may we find compassion in knowing that truth; and knowing what words are most appropriate  And let us say amen.

Fri, March 1 2024 21 Adar I 5784