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September 30, 2017

Al Kol Eileh: Processing Loss on Our Terms (Yom Kippur 5778)

Julia R. Cadrain

Al​ ​hadvash​ v’al ha’oketz,​ al​ ha’mar​​ v’hamatok…​ al​ kol​ ​eileh​ ​sh’mor​ ​na​ ​li​ ​Eli​ ​hatov

God,​ ​keep​ ​all​ ​of​ ​these​ ​safe​ ​—​ ​the​ ​honey​ ​and​ ​the​ ​bee​ ​sting,​ ​the​ ​bitter​ ​and​ ​the​ ​sweet.

Naomi​ ​Shemer’s​ ​song​ ​​Al​ ​Kol​ ​Eileh​​ ​grabs​ ​our​ ​hearts​ ​right​ ​from​ ​its​ ​first​ ​notes.​ ​While​ ​her melody​ ​is​ ​resonant​ ​and​ ​accessible,​ ​the​ ​song​ ​actually​ ​conveys​ ​a​ ​nuanced​ ​message​ ​that​ ​speaks​ ​to us​ ​in​ ​this​ ​moment​ ​of​ ​memory.​ ​Instead​ ​of​ ​only​ ​recalling​ ​the​ ​appealing​ ​parts​ ​of​ ​life,​ ​Shemer describes​ ​the​ ​full​ ​range​ ​of​ ​experiences​ ​—​ ​the​ ​sweetness​ ​and​ ​the​ ​sting,​ ​the​ ​tension​ ​and​ ​the release,​ ​the​ ​ache​ ​and​ ​the​ ​balm.​ ​She​ ​assures​ ​us​ ​that​ ​life​ ​is​ ​complicated​ ​and​ ​dynamic,​ ​​brimming with​ ​highs​ ​and​ ​lows.​ ​Our​ ​tradition​ ​teaches​ ​that​ ​we​ ​often​ ​encounter​ ​these​ ​peaks​ ​and​ ​valleys​ ​all​ ​at once,​ ​and​ ​even​ ​seems​ ​to​ ​insist​ ​that​ ​this​ ​inherent​ ​contradiction​ ​is​ ​necessary​ ​in​ ​marking​ ​the passage​ ​of​ ​time.

This​ ​idea​ ​of​ ​contrasting​ ​emotions​ ​coexisting​ ​is​ ​reflected​ ​in​ ​some​ ​of​ ​our​ ​most​ ​profound life​ ​cycle​ ​rituals.​ ​At​ ​Central,​ ​as​ ​you​ ​know,​ ​we​ ​recite​ ​a​ ​prayer​ ​of​ ​gratitude​ ​—​ ​the​ ​​Shechechiyanu​​ ​— immediately​ ​after​ ​the​ ​​Mishebeirach​​ ​prayer​ ​for​ ​healing.​ ​In​ ​the​ ​joyful​ ​final​ ​moments​ ​of​ ​a​ ​wedding ceremony,​ ​we​ ​shatter​ ​a​ ​glass​ ​to​ ​acknowledge​ ​the​ ​brokenness​ ​still​ ​present​ ​in​ ​our​ ​world.​ ​And when​ ​we​ ​utter​ ​the​ ​words​ ​of​ ​mourners​ ​Kaddish​ ​at​ ​a​ ​graveside,​ ​we​ ​actually​ ​recite​ ​words​ ​of​ ​praise: Yitgadal​ v’yitkadash​​ ​…​ ​exalted​ ​and​ ​hallowed​ ​be​ ​God’s​ ​name.

The​ ​Talmud​ ​even​ ​asks​ ​that​ ​our​ ​own​ ​personal​ ​words​ ​of​ ​memory​ ​contain​ ​this​ ​same complex​ ​mix​ ​of​ ​emotions.​ ​The​ ​Hebrew​ ​word​ ​for​ ​eulogy​ ​is​ ​​hesped​,​ ​which​ ​means​ ​“praise.”​ ​But​ ​the Talmud​ ​teaches​ ​that​ ​the​ ​words​ ​of​ ​a​ ​eulogy​ ​should​ ​break​ ​our​ ​hearts,​ ​and​ ​make​ ​us​ ​cry.​ ​It​ ​also charges​ ​us​ ​to​ ​tell​ ​the​ ​truth,​ ​saying,​ ​“we​ ​should​ ​recall​ ​the​ ​good​ ​qualities​ ​within​ ​the​ ​departed,​ ​and maybe​ ​add​ ​a​ ​bit​ ​to​ ​them,​ ​but​ ​not​ ​exaggerate.​ ​And​ ​if​ ​they​ ​did​ ​not​ ​have​ ​any​ ​good​ ​qualities,​ ​do​ ​not mention​ ​them.​ ​If​ ​they​ ​were​ ​wise​ ​and​ ​righteous,​ ​then​ ​recall​ ​them​ ​as​ ​wise​ ​and​ ​righteous.”

Our​ ​tradition​ ​gives​ ​us​ ​permission​ ​to​ ​name​ ​the​ ​truth​ ​of​ ​our​ ​own​ ​experiences​ ​around death.​ ​It​ ​acknowledges​ ​that​ ​there​ ​is​ ​no​ ​one​ ​way​ ​to​ ​remember​ ​a​ ​life,​ ​because​ ​the​ ​way​ ​we​ ​process​ ​a loss​ ​depends​ ​on​ ​us.​ ​If​ ​our​ ​relationship​ ​with​ ​the​ ​person​ ​who​ ​passed​ ​away​ ​was​ ​strained,​ ​or abusive,​ ​or​ ​we​ ​were​ ​estranged,​ ​we​ ​may​ ​not​ ​feel​ ​like​ ​grieving.​ ​Or​ ​if​ ​we​ ​are​ ​grieving,​ ​that​ ​grief could​ ​contain​ ​a​ ​longing​ ​for​ ​what​ ​could​ ​have​ ​been,​ ​or​ ​regret​ ​over​ ​words​ ​either​ ​unspoken​ ​or spoken​ ​too​ ​harshly.

Perhaps​ ​if​ ​our​ ​relationship​ ​was​ ​particularly​ ​painful,​ ​or​ ​if​ ​there​ ​was​ ​a​ ​prolonged​ ​illness, death​ ​may​ ​even​ ​come​ ​as​ ​a​ ​relief.​ ​In​ ​these​ ​situations,​ ​we​ ​might​ ​be​ ​exhausted​ ​from​ ​watching​ ​the suffering​ ​of​ ​someone​ ​we​ ​love,​ ​from​ ​caring​ ​for​ ​them,​ ​or​ ​from​ ​being​ ​in​ ​a​ ​constant​ ​state​ ​of​ ​anxious vigilance,​ ​wondering​ ​if​ ​this​ ​goodbye​ ​will​ ​be​ ​the​ ​last.​ ​It’s​ ​not​ ​that​ ​we​ ​don’t​ ​mourn​ ​the​ ​passing​ ​and miss​ ​the​ ​person,​ ​it’s​ ​more​ ​that​ ​the​ ​mourning​ ​is​ ​accompanied​ ​by​ ​a​ ​feeling​ ​of​ ​release.

Or​ ​perhaps​ ​our​ ​loss​ ​elicits​ ​grief​ ​alone.​ ​Maybe​ ​the​ ​death​ ​was​ ​sudden,​ ​and​ ​we​ ​didn’t​ ​have​ ​a chance​ ​to​ ​say​ ​goodbye.​ ​Someone​ ​was​ ​taken​ ​from​ ​us​ ​before​ ​his​ ​or​ ​her​ ​time,​ ​and​ ​it​ ​feels​ ​senseless and​ ​unfair.​ ​Even​ ​when​ ​someone​ ​lived​ ​a​ ​full​ ​life,​ ​we​ ​might​ ​still​ ​find​ ​ourselves​ ​utterly​ ​unprepared for​ ​the​ ​loss.​ ​They​ ​are​ ​wrenched​ ​from​ ​our​ ​presence,​ ​and​ ​we​ ​are​ ​not​ ​ready​ ​to​ ​say​ ​goodbye.​ ​We might​ ​feel​ ​overcome​ ​with​ ​emotion,​ ​or​ ​we​ ​might​ ​feel​ ​numb.​ ​We​ ​might​ ​be​ ​unable​ ​to​ ​stop​ ​crying,​ ​or find​ ​that​ ​we​ ​cannot​ ​shed​ ​a​ ​tear.​ ​Whatever​ ​response​ ​we​ ​have​ ​to​ ​death,​ ​our​ ​tradition​ ​sees​ ​us​ ​and makes​ ​space​ ​for​ ​us.

Our​ ​process​ ​of​ ​saying​ ​goodbye​ ​and​ ​mourning​ ​can​ ​evolve,​ ​too.​ ​Perhaps​ ​this​ ​is​ ​why​ ​we​ ​are called​ ​upon​ ​to​ ​attend​ ​​yizkor​​ ​services​ ​year​ ​after​ ​year.​ ​Because​ ​after​ ​someone​ ​dies,​ ​our​ ​memories remain​ ​dynamic​ ​and​ ​our​ ​relationships​ ​may​ ​continue​ ​to​ ​transform​ ​over​ ​time.​ ​If​ ​you​ ​are​ ​here remembering​ ​someone​ ​who​ ​passed​ ​many​ ​years​ ​ago,​ ​your​ ​experience​ ​of​ ​the​ ​loss​ ​may​ ​feel different​ ​now​ ​than​ ​it​ ​did​ ​then.​ ​And​ ​if​ ​you​ ​are​ ​living​ ​in​ ​the​ ​wake​ ​of​ ​a​ ​more​ ​recent​ ​death,​ ​your emotions​ ​might​ ​be​ ​shaped​ ​by​ ​the​ ​freshness​ ​of​ ​that​ ​loss.​ ​Our​ ​tradition​ ​gives​ ​us​ ​permission​ ​to process​ ​loss​ ​on​ ​our​ ​own​ ​terms.

So​ ​when​ ​we​ ​smash​ ​that​ ​glass​ ​under​ ​the​ ​chuppah,​ ​and​ ​when​ ​we​ ​cry​ ​and​ ​laugh,​ ​praise​ ​and wail​ ​through​ ​a​ ​eulogy,​ ​we​ ​take​ ​part​ ​in​ ​our​ ​tradition​ ​of​ ​honoring​ ​every​ ​authentic​ ​response. Wherever​ ​you​ ​are​ ​on​ ​this​ ​​yizkor​ ​​ afternoon,​ ​may​ ​you​ ​feel​ ​the​ ​grace​ ​to​ ​process​ ​your​ ​loss​ ​in whatever​ ​way​ ​resonates​ ​with​ ​most​ ​you​ ​right​ ​now.​ ​Because​ ​we​ ​are​ ​together​ ​on​ ​this​ ​painful,​ ​holy path​ ​of​ ​having​ ​people​ ​and​ ​then​ ​losing​ ​them.​ ​And​ ​all​ ​of​ ​it—​ ​the​ ​honey​ ​and​ ​the​ ​bee​ ​sting,​ ​the regret​ ​and​ ​the​ ​relief,​ ​the​ ​laughter​ ​and​ ​the​ ​sobbing,​ ​the​ ​brokenness​ ​and​ ​the​ ​peace​ ​—​ ​all​ ​of​ ​it​ ​is sacred.

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.