We gather together at our Yizkor (memorial) services for a common purpose – to honor the memories of loved ones through the ritual of communal remembering. When we do, we fit into three categories of mourners: those who have experienced a death in the last few months, those who have experienced a death in the last year, and those who have experienced a death or more than one death over a period of years. If we were to be constituted as a support group rather than a group of people praying, we would take the opportunity to sit and tell our stories, to talk about the people for whom we mourn, to reflect on the feelings we have had as a result of their deaths, and to share the insights that we have gained in the process. All of that would be the key to making each one of us believe that “I am not alone,” “my experience is not unique,” “there are other people who know what I am talking about,” and “I am among those who think that my reactions to death are normal.”
When we pray in a synagogue, our verbalizing is through the language of our tradition and through the structure of our service. It is based on the assumption that there is a God in Whom we believe and Who, in turn, listens to us when we pray and answers those prayers in one way or another. Every Yizkor service is an opportunity for you to affirm that you are connected, that you are not alone, that your experience is not unique, that others know what you’re talking about when you mention a loved one who has died, and that those others think that you are as normal as they are. You also have the chance to connect with others after the service, if you choose to stay. I believe, with all my mind and heart and soul, that we can be of help to one another in dealing with death in general and the death of loved ones in particular. My beliefs are summarized in this reading, written by Ann Weems, called: “I See Your Pain”:
I see your pain
And want to banish it
With the wave of a star,
But have no star.
I see your tears
And want to dry them
With the hem of an angel’s gown,
But have no angel.
I see your heart fallen to the ground
And want to return it
Wrapped in cloths woven of rainbow,
But have no rainbow.
God is the One
Who has the stars, and angels, and rainbows,
And I am the one
God sends to sit beside you
Until the stars come out
And the angels dry your tears
And your heart is back in place,
Weems, Searching for Shalom, 23.1
The pain that you experience because of a death can be emotional or physical, solitary or shared, sudden or prolonged. It can leave its mark in a way that can seemingly never be healed, or it can be lessened by a belief that we can be healed by life itself. The pain that you experience because of a death is forever etched into your memories and your souls because of the love you felt for the person who has died. And every time you think of that person, and feel a pang of remorse, or a tinge of regret, or a moment of remembering, you may feel that you’re giving in to the pain and that it will never leave you. In those times, you may feel like you want to banish the pain with the wave of a star.
We are the ones God sends to sit beside you until the stars come out again. All of us who have experienced the pain of death know that such pain cannot be totally banished – by ourselves, by our friends, by a star, not even by God. It is not the wave of a star, the sense of something magic, or the reliance on something miraculous that helps us deal with pain.
It is the presence of others who are there when we need them, who help us when we haven’t even asked, and who are silent when we just want to vent. And, I don’t believe that they are sent by God to take the place of God. I believe that, when each of them acts to sit beside another person until the stars come out, they are acting in a Godly way.
The tears that you cry because of a death may be private or public, periodic or persistent, many or few. Crying can be regarded as a sign of weakness and the inability to cope, or as a sign of healthy emotions and the ability to face reality. The tears that you cry because of a death are because of the love you felt and still feel for the person who died, a love which our funeral ceremony praises as being stronger and more powerful than death.
And, any time you cry when you think of that person, and you recall what you said on a certain occasion or didn’t say, what you did or didn’t do, you may feel that the crying is permanent, and that the tears will never end. In those times, you may want to dry those tears with the hem of an angel’s gown.
We are the ones God sends to sit beside you until the angels dry your tears. Actually, I believe that it is we who are the angels. All of us who have experienced the pain of a death know that tears are inevitable, and most of us realize that they are natural. They are not necessarily a sign of weakness and the inability to cope. In fact, they can serve a cleansing function for our bodies and our souls. It is not the angel of a Biblical story or a movie who will come to console you. It is a true angel, a true malach, a messenger in human form. It is a relative or a friend, a child or an adult, a clergyperson or a health professional, who will literally sit beside you or across from you, who will reach out to you on the phone or with a note, or who will engage you in a lengthy conversation rather than just asking how you are and not listening to the answer. I don’t believe that God sends winged angels from on high to dry our tears. I believe that, when each of us acts to dry someone else’s tears, then it is we who are angels, behaving as God would want us to behave.
The tear in your heart that you experience because of a death can be immediate or delayed, constant or sporadic, expected or surprising. It is recognized in our ritual with the tearing of a shiva ribbon, which we explain as meaning that material things are insignificant to us in comparison to death, but also as meaning that the physical damage done to that small piece of cloth is like the emotional damage done to us. To me, the idea that your heart may fall to the ground or feel torn because of the death of someone you loved indicates a sense of giving up hope and giving in to the grief. Some damage, you may think, can never be repaired. Some things, you may believe, may fall and never be picked up.
We are the ones God sends to sit beside you until your heart is back in place. It may not be in the same place as before, and it may not be in the same shape as before. It is not put back in place by a miracle or an angel, because you merely sit there waiting for it to
appen, or because someone else is merely sitting next to you waiting for it to happen. It is put back in place because God has put within each of us the power to draw on faith and courage, determination and perseverance, resilience and optimism. It is put back in place when we take advantage of the sense of partnership that is available to us – involving ourselves, others, and God – to wrap that naked and vulnerable heart in the clothing of hope, to pick up the heart that has seen only the color of black, and to remember that the world in which we live is a rainbow.
God is the One who has stars and angels and rainbows. But we are the ones God sends to sit beside you until the stars come out, and the angels dry your tears, and your heart is back in place. When that happens, we are, indeed, “rainbow blessed.” We, who feel cursed by death and because of death, can feel blessed because of what God has implanted within us, because of what others can bring us, and because of what we can do. Look for the ones God has sent to sit beside you, be among the ones God has sent to sit beside others, and you will discover the blessing of seeing the world in its true colors.
Rabbi Stephen A. Karol is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook, New York. He was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati in 1977, and has served at Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, New York, Congregation Sha’aray Shalom in Hingham, Massachusetts, and Temple Isaiah. He teaches at Temple Isaiah and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Stony Brook University, and is a frequent speaker at synagogues, churches, Jewish Community Centers, and various organizations on 15 different topics. Rabbi Karol lives in Port Jefferson Station, New York with his wife Donna.