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06/09/2022 07:29:43 AM


Rabbi Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon

In Jewish culture, we have two very different phrases to refer to someone who is deceased. 

Alav Hashalom (for a male) or Alehah HaShalom (for a female) means "peace is upon her."

Zichronah Livrachah or Zichrono Livrachah. Usually translated "Of blessed memory," but it could also mean "May his memory be a blessing."

As far as I know, the two terms are used interchangeably. But they mean very different things.

Alav Hashalom is focused entirely on the soul of the departed. It is related to the Muslim phrase, "Peace be Upon Him", but I think it's a little different. 

"Peace be upon him" suggests a hope or prayer. "Alav HaShalom" - peace is on him - is a statement of confidence. We know they are at peace. 

Zichrono Livrachah is more ambiguous. May his memory be a blessing - a blessing for whom? For their own soul? For us? And how? What does it mean for a memory to be a blessing?

I've been thinking of the image of rocks in a riverbed, as a metaphor for our memories of lost relationships. When the rocks are first thrown there, they have sharp edges. The pointy parts might be the pain of loss. They might also be pain from the relationship itself: regrets, disappointments, anger at the person from when they were alive.

But over time, the river smooths out the things that jabbed us. And then our polished memories offer a smooth riverbed. They provide structure and beauty for the flow of our lives. 

I want to share with you an incredibly sweet story of Yizkor and blessings. A story that literally embodies the concept of "zichrona livrachah".

It's the story of a woman named Wilma Weisman. I don't really know Wilma. I've had one phone call with her. And - full disclosure - because we played phone tag a bit, when I finally talked to her it was at a time when I could not take notes. So some of the details of the story may be off, but the big picture is absolutely true. I've heard it twice now, from Wilma herself and from her sister, Dottie Carlin.

Dottie I know quite well, as she is a good friend of my parents. We originally met the family through Dottie's husband, Dick, zichrono livrachah, who was a colleague of my father's. For 24 years, my father and Dick held adjoining offices in the Chemistry Department of the University of Illinois's Chicago campus. Dick was a quiet man, an intellectual, an artist with a zeal fro life, always with a twinkle in his eye.

Dick developed a disease that presented very similar to Alzheimers. It was agonizing to watch this creative, curious mind slip away over 15 years. He finally left our world in 2013.

Through a terrible coincidence, Wilma's husband, Harold, also developed Alzheimers. Dottie was caring for Dick in Chicago, at the same time that Wilma was caring for Harold in their hometown of Fairfax, VA. Harold died eleven years ago, after 9 years of illness. I can only imagine that this decade-long ordeal brought the two sisters closer. 

Wilma and Harold belonged to Congregation Olam Tikvah, a Conservative synagogue in Fairfax. They were not synagogue regulars - so to speak - but they always attended on the High Holidays. And Wilma made a point of attending the Yizkor service on Yom Kippur to remember her parents. She always found the experience to be, in her words: "somber, but also uplifting."

The first year of saying Yizkor for someone who was beloved can often be heart-wrenching. Those first Yizkor services are part of the mourning process. We need to feel the pain in order to release it.

But with a disease like Alzheimers, you are already mourning the person a long time before they physically die. This was the case for Wilma. When it was finally time to add Harold's name to her mother's and father's, it was almost a relief. Wilma continued to experience Yizkor as a quiet comfort, a time to reflect and remember what once was. 

Fast forward several years. On a Yom Kippur afternoon, Wilma was standing to recite the Yizkor, as she does every year. And she heard behind her the sounds of full-on weeping. She turned around, and saw a man about her age, overcome with grief. 

When his sobs quieted a little, she managed to catch his eye. She invited him to sit with her just outside the sanctuary and share his story. His name was Joseph, and his story was the exact opposite of hers. Joseph and his wife, Esther, had been excitedly planning all kinds of adventures, now that they were both retired. One day, she suddenly began experiencing pain. She was diagnosed with cancer, and was gone 6 weeks later. He had not time to accept the cruel change in his reality. This was the first Yom Kippur since Esther had been wrenched from him.

They sat on a bench in the synagogue lobby for quite some time. He didn't learn anything about her except her name. But he did remember that. And a few months later, he looked her up in the synagogue directory, gave her a call, and asked if she wanted to go on a date.

It was a lovely evening. Wilma learned more about his retirement plans, that he's an enthusiastic dancer, that he loves the theater. She shared that she doesn't dance but would be willing to try, she also loves theater, and she planned to work for some time yet. 

He did not call her back for a second date, and she did not see him again for many months. But the next Yom Kippur, there he was at synagogue. This time, he made it through the entire Yizkor service with just quiet tears in his eyes. And again they talked for a long time out in the lobby. She shared with him that had set a date for her retirement. 

And that week - he sent her a pair of dance shoes and invited her to go dancing. And she is still dancing with him in those shoes, several years later.

Wilma is 80 years old. She and Joseph are getting married this July. 

She is over the moon. She did not think romantic love was possible for her again. She had no particular plans for her retirement. And now, she's planning a wedding party for 100 people. She and Joseph have been traveling and are looking forward to more. 

Harold's long, slow death taught Wilma that our lives are not in our control. She had had no particular plans for her retirement. And now, she's planning a wedding party for 100 people. She and Joseph have been traveling and are looking forward to more.

Harold's long, slow death taught Wilma that our lives are not in our control. Nature can be cruel, and pain that we did not ask for and do not deserve can be thrust upon us, whether we are ready, or not. Joseph's sudden appearance in her life taught her that joy, too, can be thrust upon us unexpectedly, if we are willing to grab it. She is juicing every day for al the drops of joy it can give her. 

Soon, Joseph will be breaking a glass under the Chupah. The tradition to break the glass dates all the way back to the Talmud, when glass was a thing of real value. When my husband and I got married, we just used a cheap light bulb wrapped in a cloth napkin, because it makes a good "pop". But that broken glass was not meant to be a mazel tov moment. We are meant at that moment to destroy something of actual value. Because we we keep our sorrows and our joys isolated from one another, neither is complete. Instead, we bring sorrow into our moments of joy, and we bring joy into our moments of our sorrow. They temper one another. And the tinge of sorrow makes the joy richer. 

I am certain that Harold and Esther will both be there, at that Chupah. Wilma and Joseph carry their memories with them. In a very literal sense, the memory of Joseph's first wife enabled the blessing of his second marriage.

But in a more abstract sense, our memories of past relationships are there with us, in all of our relationships today. They whisper in our ear. Even when we don't hear them, even if we try to block them out, they silently prod us. 

So our tradition instead tells us to invite them in, but thoughtfully. Set aside time first to mourn and heal, and then remember and reflect. Frame our memories with prayers. Mine our memories for sparks of goodness, sparks of blessing. Hold on to that goodness and lift it up.

May today's Yizkor prayers help you remember moments of joy that you shared with them, or wisdom that they taught but had slipped to the recesses of your mind, or mitzvot that they taught but had slipped to the recesses of your mind, or mitzvot that they modeled. If their memories also push sharp edges into your heart, may today's Yizkor service help soften those edges. 

And may we leave today's service carrying with us the joy and wisdom and goodness into the rest of our lives.

Fri, September 30 2022 5 Tishrei 5783