The other day, my daughter pulled a box down off of the bookshelf with a 24 piece Sesame Street puzzle inside. Dumping out the box, I helped her put together the puzzle, piece by piece, handing her the right piece to put into it’s waiting spot, slowly, until the puzzle was almost completed.
After the 23rd piece, the box was empty. Etta exclaimed, ‘Oh No! What happened to the piece?’ I said ‘Well, Etta, we lost it. I don’t know where it is.’ And then, more to myself than to her, I added, ‘That’s just how it is. The puzzle is as done as it’s going to be. OK?’ She had a look on her face like ‘I don’t understand. But, ok.’ And I was surprised to be sad. Usually when I lose something around the house, I put in the effort of searching for it, if only to give me the satisfaction of knowing I tried to solve the problem.
But at this moment, I felt a sense of calming sorrow: there was no 24th puzzle piece. This puzzle was going to be permanently unfinished. The puzzle was as good as it was going to get: nearly perfect, but ultimately in state of eternal absence.
This is a dvar torah about loss. To some degree, it is the complementary dvar torah to the talk I gave on Rosh Hashanah; living in a world with awe also means living in the world in a raw and unfiltered way. It means being exposed. It means accepting loss and dealing with it; not locking it up and pretending to go on with our lives. So let’s talk about it.
Life has many measuring sticks by which it can be examined: personal growth and change; professional accolades and success; happiness; material success; physical prowess; an ever-receding hairline. But one constant marker in all of our lives is our confronting loss. From the moment we are born, we begin to experience loss. Maybe at first it’s our pre-school classmates moving away. We outgrow some of our favorite shirts or a favorite toy. As we get older, we discard friendships that no longer suit us, or a former friend discards us as they hook on to the cooler crowd. We leave high school behind and our parents behind as we go off to college.
But of course, these small and temporary losses are trivial compared to the inevitable experience that every person comes to grips with: the death of a loved one, be it a friend , family member, grandparent, or parent.
The human experience is also about loss in another, profound, way: the constant and unceasing loss of memory. There is a remarkable irony to the fact that the time of most joy and growth in our lives, the period from birth to 4 years old, is at the same time a period with the least loss and the most loss. Young children are much less likely to experience the loss of a loved one, simply because their parents and grandparents are most likely to still be relatively young and healthy. On the other hand, try to remember your earliest memory. For most of us, that memory will occur between the age of 4 and 7. The period before the age of 4; of goodnight kisses and playing on the swings and falling down and skinning your knee and being held in your mother’s arms; it’s gone. Totally lost.
So too are most of our memories: try to remember what you had for breakfast 22 days ago. Or what the weather was like on your 37th birthday. Unless you have some kind of freakish memory powers, it’s gone. Your brain retains things that are exceptional and jettisons much of the rest. This is probably, in the parlance of the hi-tech business, a feature and not a bug: forgetting is a hard-wired defense mechanism for us. Imagine if you held on to every slight, every offense, every unkind word you ever heard. Imagine if you retained a strong memory of every fall, every injury, every car accident you ever saw. You’d need a team of therapists to work through the anger and fear you’d build up. One the greatest blessings for me as a married person is having a terrible memory: I reflexively forgive my wife for every fight we’ve had within 24 hours, if only because I usually can’t remember why I was so mad in the first place.
There are, in fact, a very small group of human beings who do not possess this function of forgetting. People known as hyperthymesiacs, also called people with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, or HSAM, can recall almost every day of their lives in near perfect detail. It is exceedingly rare: only 25 documented cases exist. It is also viewed by some of those that possess it as a disability. Hyperthymesiacs describe the condition as exhausting. They also often find living in the present as difficult, and many constantly dwell on the past. Some describe holding onto a fond memory and falling back into it again and again, constantly reliving it, and feeling a decreased desire to do new things because they can fully relive their best moments in their minds, which makes sense. If you can forever experience your best day ever, why go out and have a mediocre day?
There’s clearly a reason, then, for forgetting. Letting go of the past is helpful in moving forward into the future. But erasing things completely, both things that were awesome and things that were painful, is not good. There is a time and a place for remembering, and a time and a place for living.
And this brings me to Yom Kippur, and one of the most sacred and remarkable services our rabbis ever devised: Yizkor.
Yizkor means ‘remembering’. It is a service that appears four times throughout the Jewish year; Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, the last day of Passover, and Shavuot. Why these days? Nobody knows; or in other words, no one remembers.
Yizkor has its roots in the 5th century CE, but doesn’t definitively enter into our liturgy until the Machzor Vitry of the 11th century. Sources disagree on why it was introduced into the Yom Kippur liturgy. Either it is there so that the living can ask forgiveness for the dead, or it appears on this day because the solemn themes of life and death make the tone and temperament of remembering our deceased a natural fit.
Which brings me back to loss. In the immediate aftermath of a loved one’s death, their absence is pervasive and all encompassing. Everything reminds us of them, and the very fact that they aren’t there, aren’t in their bed, aren’t ever again going to walk through that door and give us a hug is crushing. Our grief is all-encompassing. Our loss is total. There are no words that can console the one that has lost; not at the funeral, not at the shiva; and it is the reason that the Jewish tradition teaches us to say the following statement: haMakom yinachem etchem btoch shaar avlei tzion v’yerushalayim; May the Holy One comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem; and nothing more. When the mourner speaks to you about something else, then you can respond. But the shiva house is not the place for idle talk, or misplaced philosophy about why someone died, or whether that person is in a better place. It is a time to express solidarity with the mourners. To silently say: you are in pain. I cannot take that away. But I can sit with you, and perhaps we will feel not so alone.
Our memory loss, over long stretches of time, will allow that grief that was so total to fade to the point of being something we can bear. And yet, we feel guilt when go too long without remembering a loved one. And we feel more alone when we grieve alone. So our tradition brings us together on Yom Kippur day to remember, individually, each having our own silent memories, but together, as a community.
The words of the Yizkor service itself are not at all remarkable. We say a name. We proclaim to God to remember them. We pledge tzedakah on their behalf. The rabbi recites ‘el male rachamim’; God full of mercy, who dwells on high. We say kaddish- a ubiquitous prayer that precedes a lot of other prayers with no specific connection to death or afterlife at all. It is a spiritual non-sequitur that goes just about anywhere, using flowery Aramaic to proclaim God’s greatness in a dozen lofty synonyms.
What is most remarkable about Yizkor is that it is not remarkable at all. And I think that is the point: no words a rabbi 1000 years ago could write will suffice. The name of the departed, and your taking a moment to remember them, is the most important part. We say one line which I think captures that best: ana tehei nafsho tzrorah bi’tzror chaim - their soul shall be bound up in the bond of life. By a living person invoking their deceased’s name, with give them new life, in our memory, at yizkor. They become bound up with us, as they were when they were alive.
The other reason we say yizkor on this day, other than the solemnity of the day or the importance of asking forgiveness on behalf of the deceased, is the strong aspect of memory achieved through repetition on these High Holy Days. Every person that comes to shul on Yom Kippur can remember the days in their youth: getting dressed up in itchy clothes and sitting silently, and with great boredom, next to their mother and father and siblings, their uncles and aunts and cousins. And over the years, those pews next to us empty of some of our loved ones, and fill with new, smaller, equally bored little loved ones.
The Yamim Noraim evoke memories because they are a significant marker in time. The machzor is the same, year after year, basically, for two thousand years. We, however, are different, and who sits next to us might be different too. And so we need a moment in the service to acknowledge that, and to say ‘I remember my bubbe, my grandpa, my brother, my spouse, my parent.’ The machzor is the same, but my family may be a little different this year.
When I was a kid, I used to play at the playground by the park in front of my dad’s condominium. My sister and I would get picked up on Friday afternoon and have dinner with my dad. In the morning, we’d pretend to play rocket ship in an old tv box we decorated with crayons, and watch cartoons, and wrestle on his impossibly squishy water bed. In the afternoon, we head to the park next to the lagoon, which had gigantic swings, and a long slide, and big broad polished piece of mirror like steel that you run up and slide down.
My dad and sister and I would ride our bikes to the park for a while and play, and then ride a little further to the video arcade at Fisherman’s Wharf, or down to The Shack for some chili cheeseburgers.
On a couple afternoons, a girl about a year or two older then me, a black girl, with two pigtails coming off her head, would join us at the park, and we’d run around and play tag. Our dads would stand off to the side and make small talk. And we’d pick up our bikes and go off to the next adventure.
One day, while my sister and I were playing, my dad noticed the little girl’s dad, a tall, lanky man, standing off to the side, and he walked over and said hi. He asked, naturally, where his daughter was. And the man replied, with calm sadness, that she has passed away two years year earlier, from a brain tumor.
This story I tell, oddly, not because it’s sad, although it makes me sad just to think about it. I tell it because it illustrates the nature of loss: we lose, and we go on.
I tell you this because of how struck I am at the challenge for this father, and for any of us, to return to a place filled with memory, and to stand there again. To not go on, to avoid those places, to not remember, is to try to pretend like loss doesn’t happen. Like life is a non-stop party with all sweet and no bitter. For that dad to come back to the playground tells me that he had chosen to remember, and in remembering, to live, and to lose; and to live on. It was strength, not weakness; that brought him back to that place.
We have a shelf full of puzzles at our house. And at least a handful of them are missing one or more pieces. And I get the urge all the time to toss them out; because another puzzle costs $3 at the store, and because why keep around an imperfect puzzle, a puzzle that will never be complete?
But I don’t. Because I am that puzzle. And so are all of us. We are permanently unfinished puzzles; wonderful works of art, each missing a couple pieces from our lives. My three year old doesn’t get why Abba gets so agitated when things go missing. She lives to make messes, to half-finish drawings, to fall down and skin her knee and get back up and forget it ever happened. She likes the puzzle with 23 pieces. We take it out again and again and she’s ok with that. And every time I take it out, I become a little more ok with it too. And tomorrow at Yizkor, we’ll get a little bit more ok, together.