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Passover Yizkor—Moving Forward

04/18/2023 10:00:47 AM


Rabbi Ezray

A key moment in the Passover story comes just after our triumphant exodus from Egypt. Pharoah changes his mind and sends chariots after the Israelites. With the Egyptian army rapidly approaching and the Sea of Reeds in front of us, the Israelites panic. Everything seems lost! They scream at Moses: “What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’” Moses tries reassures them that God will take care of everything. He says: “The Lord will battle for you; hold your peace!”

You would expect the sea to part at that moment, but then God says what may be one of the most important verses in the Torah: “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.” Va’yisu—Go forward. This commandment reverberates to this very day. Amidst fear, loss, paralysis; Va’yisu—Go forward!

Go forward, even amidst fear and change. These are easy words to tell people, but much more difficult to actually do. It’s hard to move forward when you are paralyzed by fear. Moving forward after a loss, when the memory and sadness at the loss of a loved one feel as if you cannot move at all because the grief is overwhelming, sometimes seems impossible. Yet the wisdom of va’yisu extends from our ancestors standing at the Sea of Reeds as the Egyptians approached, to today.

How do you do this? There is a powerful TED talk by author and podcaster Nora McInerny that I shared several years ago (originally this was shared with me by Rabbi Corey Helfand) called, “We Don’t Move on From Grief—We Move Forward.” I bring it up again because her wisdom about moving forward with our grief is where we begin. Nora faced an unfathomable series of tragic events in 2015. On October 3, she lost her second pregnancy. Five days later, her dad died of cancer. And then, on November 25, her husband Aaron died after a yearlong fight with stage-four brain cancer. It’s hard to know what to say or how to react when you hear a story like Nora’s. The pain is simply overwhelming.

In her TED Talk, Nora pushes us to hold onto grief, be changed by it, and allow memory to inspire and re-define us as we move forward—va’yisu. Her wisdom is that we don’t move on, we live with, accepting the pain and brokenness of the unimaginable, and we move forward, allowing it be part of our essence.

The message to move forward, but not move on pervades the Seder. Think about matzah. One aspect of matzah is to experience the pain of our slavery. We feel the hunger of meager portions. We break our matzah in half symbolizing having even less than the meager portions that hardly sustained us. We feel the pain! We ingest it! And then we do something interesting; we rewrap part of it to hide with the hope of rediscovering it later, finding our hidden pieces amidst brokenness.

This is Yizkor, where we embrace our sadness, the broken matzah, and rediscover missing pieces amidst brokenness. Our discovery of the afikomen reminds us we can retrieve hidden pieces and in fact some of the lessons in the brokenness help redefine us. We find wisdom we didn’t even know we possessed.  We create empathy and connection with others who suffer. We discover wisdom that we would not have possessed if not for our suffering. We move forward with our past, our suffering, and its lessons.

In Nora’s talk, she talked about how people could not understand her pain and the most insensitive thing people ever said was that she should, “Move on.”  While Nora has remarried and is successful, she makes it clear that she has not moved on. Listen to her words: “I haven’t ‘moved on,’ and I hate that phrase so much, because what it says is that Aaron’s life and death and love are just moments that I can leave behind me. When I talk about Aaron, I slip so easily into the present tense – because the people we love, who we’ve lost are still so present for us. So, when I say, ‘Oh, Aaron is...’ it’s because Aaron still is...he’s indelible, and so he is present for the work that I do, in the child that we had together, in these three other children I’m raising, who never met him, who share none of his DNA, but who are only in my life because I had Aaron and because I lost Aaron.” The matzah that we eat reminds us that our pain stays with us, it is part of our essence and allows us to grow. Our loved ones are always there with us, and we redefine our present as we bring the past with us. Nora McInerny talks about how her late husband stays with her: “When you fall in love, finally, like really fall in love with someone who gets you and sees you and you even see’s so quiet, it’s this invisible thread of calm that connects the two of us even when everything is chaos, when things are falling apart, even when he’s gone. That stays with you...He’s present in my marriage to Matthew, because Aaron’s life and love and death made me the person that Matthew wanted to marry. So, I’ve not moved on from Aaron, I’ve moved forward with him.” In the Exodus story, God tells us, Va’yisu—Go forward. We move forward with our wisdom, our pain, our past, our love.

Today as Yizkor approaches, think about how we go forward shaped by our memories and sadness; and the love that transcends death. New possibilities emerge; the hidden matzah is uncovered! In her beautiful new Haggadah, Night of Beginnings, Marcia Falk writes that breaking the matzah reflects the brokenness we experience together with the, “Breaking open of the heart that puts us in touch with our deeper selves and that may even serve as a gateway to wholeness.” She writes of a wholeness built on connections, awareness of hidden parts of self that emerge. Her words capture Yizkor: “We dwell in a world of brokenness, but we yearn and strive for wholeness. It is elusive, but it is our birthright. The pursuit of wholeness is the human calling.” As we stand for Yizkor, let’s allow our steps forward to lead us to the wholeness that lives amidst brokenness. Goodness, kindness, empathy; what has been hidden awaiting discovery? 

Fri, April 19 2024 11 Nisan 5784