What would we do with such a magic wand? What miracles would we cause to happen? Would we make the weather hotter or colder? Could we use our magic wand to create more money or somehow avoid the evening commute? Would everything we do be for good? Would we use our wand to play a practical joke, to exact revenge, keep a certain person from talking, or playfully cast a spell on someone we don't like?
On the 7th day of Pesach, our Torah reading features the Israelites' miraculous crossing of the Sea of Reeds. God instructs Moses to lift up his staff and hold out his arm over the sea so that the waters will split. The Israelites are able to cross on dry land, escaping their pursuing oppressors. But in these final hours of our Pesach celebration, as we think about this story, and we think about the power of Moses' staff to perform signs and wonders, our thoughts also turn to Yizkor, our memorial prayers.
What would we do with such a magic wand? Who would we heal? Is there someone we would want to bring back to life? Whose loving hug or playful laugh, innocent smile or joyful presence would we just want to have a bit more of? Whose sagely wisdom or enchanting stories would we yearn to hear again?
At these tender moments of Yizkor, we allow ourselves to go into those deeper, unresolved places in our souls, to connect with our feelings, memories, heartbreak, grief, and loss. And for just a moment, even though we have known absence and been torn by the truth of life, we allow ourselves to imagine our loved ones by our side. The poignancy of Yizkor, the power of memory, is that in these quiet spaces of reflection, prayer, and song, we can allow sadness to enter. We can remain silent if we wish. We can cry if we need. And we can know that we are held.
Those of us who have endured bereavement know the painful truth. There is no magic wand for mourners. There is no magical object that can take away the sadness. The only way to walk through the valley of the shadow of death is to allow ourselves to feel our pain, and to take gentle steps forward, one by one by one.
There is a beautiful line towards the end of Jonathan Safran Foer's 2016 novel Here I Am where the main character Jacob reflects on his marriage to Julia. He recalls his mother's speech at their wedding when she offered them a strange blessing, "In sickness and sickness," she said. "That is what I wish for you. Don't seek or expect miracles. There are no miracles. Not anymore. And there are no cures for the hurt that hurts most. There is only the medicine of believing each other's pain, and being present for it."
Jacob's mother's speech holds a powerful parallel with this time of Yizkor, as we gather with our community. Community is not a magic wand that takes away the pain. But in the presence of community, we are not alone. Community, in and of itself, is not a miracle, but the in-reach and support of community has the power to be miraculous. Community is a collection of each us, as broken as the next. And here, we cannot cure "the hurt that hurts most" but we can be present with one another, and share in the journey of each other's pain, just as we can share in life's greatest, most beautiful, most precious joys.
In community, we walk through the valley of the shadow together. Sometimes we feel the arm of someone around us. At other times we are the person standing by someone's side, offering a listening ear, a gentle touch, the gift of presence, a calming word, or extending our hand to help bring them through the perils of a fraught emotional journey.
It was the late Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel who wrote, "The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference." Part of the pain we feel at the seasons of Yizkor is due to the love we have given and received. In a world that teaches us to compartmentalize, to shut off, to keep a "stiff upper lip," to bury our feelings, move on, get over it, and be indifferent, Wiesel's lesson and the true lesson of Yizkor is just the opposite. We cannot, we must not be indifferent to our grief. We must allow ourselves to feel and cry our tears, to express our anger and our misery, to speak about how alone we feel, to address how our losses never truly leaves us.
Yizkor is our time and space to let it out. And to allow ourselves to fall into the arms of someone who gets it. Because there are plenty of people who do. There are plenty of people who know how to hold us. More than we know. And we need each and every one of them by our side.
There is no magic wand. There are no miracles. There is only Yizkor. There is only the power of sadness, the power of community, and the power of God, to shepherd us through the dark passages of our lives, and to remind us, that even in the valley of the shadow, there are signs and wonders that continue to be performed, with each and every passing day.
Deuteronomy 26:8, A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices, pp. 76-77.
Exodus 4:17, A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices, pp. 76-77.
Exodus 7:8, 7:17-19, 9:22, 9:29, 10:12, 10:22, et al.
Exodus 14:16, 21, 26.
cf. Psalm 23.
Jonathan Safran Foer, Here I Am: A Novel,Kindle Locations 9371-9372.