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Rabbi Ezray - Yizkor: Facing Pain and Discovering Meaning 

09/20/2021 09:31:27 AM


Rabbi Ezray


One of the moments that has stayed with me from last year’s services was right before Yizkor.  In an empty sanctuary with my computer in front of me I looked at all the zoom squares and tried to feel the connection that can be present even when we are not physically together.

         And then Rabbi David and Robin Teitelbaum came on screen.  It meant so much to see them–knowing that Rabbi’s health was declining. To exchange greeting­-once they figured out unmute­-and have him and Robin hear our love filled me with emotion. I knew it might be one of the last times I saw him, and indeed our beloved Rabbi Teitelbaum died last March.  For all that I know he lived a long and full life–I remain filled with sadness.  I miss him and I know those of you who knew him do so as well.

         Yizkor is the time we allow loss to be felt. The focus on memories of those we love who are no longer with us allows grief to pour out. We stand amidst others who understand our pain as each of us sit with our own losses. Yizkor allows us to think about the memories that are always with us.  Having a focused moment allows us to sit with them, let them speak to us–and even more memories flood in.  Memories of Rabbi Teitelbaum live in my heart, and I feel that he is speaking to me. Throughout the pandemic, I have tried to channel his calm wisdom whispering to me. 

         When I wrote my Rosh Hashannah sermon focusing on the connections that hold us up amidst difficult, painful times, I remembered him telling me after 9/11 to focus the sermons I was re-writing on the line in the High Holiday liturgy: V’ya’asu kulam agudah echat–and you shall make them a single bundle. He urged me to focus on the unity the moment created, and how we need to come together and comfort one another as we unite around shared values. It was such wise advice and you heard me use that verse this year. 

         I wish I had listened better in 2001–for while my sermons were good, Rabbi Teitelbaum understood that the call of the moment was holding people together in unity. Yet he never criticized my choice to go in a different direction. In fact, he said, Yafeh Darashta–good sermon. David–which is what he preferred to be called after he retired–knew when and how to critique, and when not to.

         That memory led me to think about the powerful sermons he gave from this bimah­-his compassion exuded and his call to activism characterized by marching with Dr. King inspired–and continue to inspire. David’s ability to bring Jewish values to everyday life lives in my words and teaching. His mentoring, support and unconditional love strengthen and inspire me. I thought of him serving in the Korean War, setting up a tent to have services for the soldiers and knew he would smile and understand what we are trying to do this year as we set up this tent. I thought of him tending to the soldiers and reminded myself of my role to care for each of you.

         David led us through difficult times communally­, especially after the fire destroyed the building in 1979, and personally when we were experiencing difficult times. When I suffered a heart attack in 2002 he stepped forward to give sermons for the High Holidays to ease my load and always was a listening ear.  David always had my back. His strength, support and wisdom remind me that I can lead us through difficult times. I think of his outspoken opinions about peace and justice and try to allow his wisdom to inspire me even when he is not here give me advice. I pulled from his passion and spirit in embracing innovation to meet these moments. I see how his love of family sustained him and feel the blessing of my family. I hold on to his love and support. I know that a piece of him lives through how I channel his love.

         I invite you to take a moment–think of the people you are holding onto at Yizkor. Think about the lessons, wisdom, support and love they gave you to lift up. Let your mind and heart fill you with memories you may have forgotten until this moment. Allow pain and sadness to emerge. The tears of Yizkor as we miss our loved ones are holy tears. 

         I ended my eulogy for Rabbi Teitelbaum by quoting from a eulogy he gave about a great man.  He said: “A mighty oak has fallen and there is a space in the sky.” Yizkor is when grieve the trees that have fallen and the space that is left in the sky. Create room for that grief. Listen to these excerpts from Maya Angelou’s poem When Great Trees Fall that is printed in its totality in the Yizkor booklets–it captures the impact of loss.

When great trees fall, rocks on distant hills shudder,

lions hunker down in tall grasses,

and even elephants lumber after safety.

When great trees fall in forests,

small things recoil into silence,

their senses eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,

the air around us becomes light, rare, sterile.

We breathe, briefly. Our eyes, briefly,

see with a hurtful clarity.

Our memory suddenly sharpened. 

And when great souls die,

after a period peace blooms,

slowly and always irregularly.

Spaces fill with a kind of soothing electric vibration.

Our senses, restored, never

to be the same, whisper to us.

They existed. They existed.

We can be. Be and be

better. For they existed.

         What wisdom did our loved ones leave with us that in Maya Angelou’s words allow us to: “Be and be better. For they existed.”? Rabbi Teitelbaum left books and essays full of his wisdom. Here is some of his wisdom I am continuing to learn, taken from a note Rabbi Teitelbaum wrote when he was the head of the Board of Rabbis to all of us area rabbis: “Take care of yourselves, create balance and do not seeking to please everyone. Learn to say: ‘I don’t know’ when that’s the case–and don’t hesitate to say ‘I can’t help you’ when that’s the case. Be a good listener. Respect the person and the person’s feeling–even when you may disagree. Study an issue carefully–don’t leap to judgment.” It felt like David was talking directly to me. Allow yourself to sit with the wisdom of your loved ones. Where does it come out in your behavior? Where do you need to live it more fully?

         David taught us to transform our grief into meaning. When I first came to Beth Jacob, he left a shelf of books. I don’t know if he left them for me, if they were books of which he had duplicates, or maybe in the packing up, these few were overlooked. All I know is that they were there. One of them was one of my favorite books, Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl. Frankl, a Holocaust survivor writes about finding meaning amidst terrible loss. The book had passages Rabbi Teitelbaum underlined and his notes in the margins. It is a book whose wisdom I return to–made even more special knowing Rabbi Teitelbaum learned from the same book.  Finding meaning does not reduce the pain of the loss–it gives us the ability to hold pain and loss together with lessons and purpose which can emerge amidst the loss. Here is a line that Rabbi Teitelbaum underlined: Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing, change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph (Man’s Search for Meaning, pp. 146-7).  Rabbi Teitelbaum taught us how to do that.

         Kindness also transforms pain:  Listen to another passage from Victor Frankl: We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms­-to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way. Rabbi Teitelbaum taught us to choose our own way–always guided by kindness.  

         It is a mindset embedded in the Yizkor service. In the Yizkor Memorial Prayer we pledge tzedakah in memory of the person we have lost. Meaning emerges from the deeds our departed loved ones inspire us to do. Think about how you can transform pain into meaning through tzedakah, kindness, and good deeds. You will honor your beloved and open doors to find comfort.   

         Victor Frankl, Rabbi Teitelbaum, and our Yizkor prayers remind us that meaning exists amidst pain. We have the capacity to move forward step by step finding purpose, meaning, and transforming through kindness. Rabbi Teitelbaum taught us that. He was very clear that he did not believe in the afterlife. He believed that the only immortality that exists is the immortality of influence. Let’s allow Yizkor to remind us to grieve and to allow the influence of our loved one’s memories to keep them alive.

Mon, August 15 2022 18 Av 5782