Yizkor, Yom Kippur, 5775 — Oh, the Places You’ll Go: Under the Sea (The Book of Jonah)

08/10/2014 at 09:40 1 comment

“Under the Sea: The Book of Jonah as a Book of Memory”

 

Yom Kippur – Yizkor

Neil F. Blumofe

4 October 2014

 

As each of us comes with our own expectations and requirements of what Yom Kippur, and indeed, what High Holydays should be and do for us – with our own memories and reports, we approach now Yizkor — this high cliff, this place in our liturgy where all comes to a screeching halt, and we carefully walk over to the edge, to peer down, far down into the deep shadowed valley below – truly the valley of the shadow of death.

Perhaps, as we look down, we see a haze – a filmy indistinctness that obscures our clearer view, and that reminds us that our turn will come, when we leave the high vantage points of clarion, confident perspective – our hale and healthy perch, and as we make our way down, down this sheer cliff, unsure of our footing, down, stumbling to the craggy shore below – where we will see that the valley is not what we thought it was – simultaneously more and less frightening as we enter its engulfing shadows.

Later this afternoon, we will experience the Book of Jonah in its entirety – a confounding story of a hesitant prophet who is pulled from his place to warn strangers of their doom. We will read of a man who tries to escape his inevitability – and at the end, has questions that are not only unanswered, but are also unaddressed. May we see the story of Jonah not so much as someone who seeks to shirk responsibility for this life – but rather as a quest to come to terms with our mortality – an attempt to hold onto the sands of time that fall out of our hands as we try to grasp the purpose of our life.

As we enter that darkened valley, or in Jonah’s case – when he was in the belly of the whale – we realize that all of our best-laid plans fall away. Our ambitions melt in the face of an unplanned reality, as we realize that what we took for granted and what we depended on is gone. We stand here, like Jonah did, asking the hardest questions of our life – our artifice stripped bear as we remember those who gave us life – as we remember squandered opportunities – as we remember, perhaps with shame, moments that we have created upon our canvas, paints that spatter, sullying with anger and staining with hot judgment.

Each of us walks into our unintended Nineveh – a place where we did not expect to go, to be of service to those who we did not seek. Where is Jonah’s family – he is a stranger in both a familiar and a strange land – cast about to fend for himself, without the security of love or belonging? As he walks in this world, thinking that he is unencumbered and commitment-free, he is astonished and surprised by how his life circles back to a sacred center – to how he proclaims himself an Ivri, a Hebrew, when his life is on the line – and how he recognizes his essence, past all of the charade and shielding that he desperately fronts.

Now, during Yizkor, our smugness, our assurance is diminished as we see the shadowed valley more closely. If we pause, we can smell the smells that we have cherished — of foods, of worn clothes, or perfumes of people whose memories we now cherish– of particular cars that we have ridden in, or homes that we have lived in – after so many years, I still remember the smell of my grandfather’s car — things that we have shared – the voices, the laughter and the tears of those who have descended before us into this eternal place. We realize that we will, before too long, be enfolded into this place as well – and perhaps in time to come, others will tell our story on Yom Kippur afternoon, as we tell Jonah’s story – or perhaps anonymous, we and our life, will just sink into the deep.

How can we cultivate an awareness of each passing day that truly informs how we live in the days that we have? How can these moments of Yizkor not just be excursions to the edge – thrill-seeking to a point, yet recreationally put into our photo albums as we trudge on, ultimately unaffected us as we see, feel, and experience now? Also, how can these moments of Yizkor not incapacitate us – not leave us feeble and unable to move by the roadside, helpless in the merciless beating sun, as we pray for some shade, any shade for our weary head?

It’s striking that the Book of Jonah ends unraveled – it is not clear that Jonah is affected by the miracle of his survival. His last words to God are: heitaiv chara li ad mavet – I do well to be so angry, even to death. What will our last moments be like – in the tatters of our mosaic, as we hold our frayed quilt of life, how will we make peace? Will we go down to our depths angry and unrepentant – stubborn in our displeasure? Will anything ever be all right?

The Book of Jonah ends with a gaping open question – with God trying to explain to Jonah, responding with reasonableness to Jonah’s righteous fury concerning the circumstances of his life. Those who do not understand – should God not have compassion on them? Those who are not reflective – who are not present and are not invested in the majesty of God, are nonetheless, part of God’s design. God even shapes the shadowed valley. Really, another name for the pit of death is the Garden of Eden. Be scared. You can’t help that. But don’t be afraid.

We are asked to learn from Jonah – to not be petulant and unforgiving until the end. We are to take up Jonah’s story and continue the narrative. After Nineveh, now what? Do we get back on the boat and try to disappear? Do we recede back into our everyday life, secreting away this infinite experience of accessing and celebrating memory, or do we find ourselves somehow changed, and charged to live well and humbly, even as we step carefully over the sharp glass shards of our losses.

Maybe change starts with a thank you. Maybe our texts are beckoning us to stand on Jonah’s shoulders and model consideration. There is a story told by my colleague Rabbi Michael Simon about an elderly, retired teacher who lived in a nursing home. He was lonely and often felt that the many years that he had devoted to his students were long forgotten. He was able to voracious reader, and his mind was active – and yet, the thought that no one remembered him made him sad.

 

His wife had died years before, and his three children lived far away and rarely visited. They did call him regularly – however, day in and day out, the thought that what he had done for so long and was not appreciated, weighed on his mind.

 

One day, he received a call from a former student. The student asked if it would be all right if she and some of her friends from school came to visit. The retired teacher was thrilled – “of course, it’s more than all right – I look forward to your visit.”

 

Over twenty students, now grown, surprised their former teacher with a gala party in his honor. Each former student got up to speak and expressed appreciation for with the teacher had done for him or her. They related that much of their success in life was because of his positive influence on them. He was remembered. He was noticed, he received attention, and he was appreciated. The work that he had done was living on. After the party, he asked them to call him every once and a while – they said that they would – and they did – and they told their friends that their calls would be appreciated, as well. Each call was a symbol of gratitude that added much light to that teacher’s life, before he died.

 

As we look down into the darkened valley below – we begin to see the shadows of figures – of people that we recognize — grandparents, parents, siblings, sisters, brothers, children – and ourselves. We have this moment now to appreciate and show gratitude for what we have had in our lives. We will soon move to other ground, and yet, we can be guided as we stand here during Yizkor, during this Yom Kippur towards living more meaningful, intentional lives.

When we look back at Jonah we see a man disaffected and removed, sitting with impatience under his mysterious gourd, not grateful for his abundance, not grateful for his precious moments – cantankerous until the end. And how will people look back at us? What moments will describe us – moments that we may be so desperate to promote or to conceal? How do we keep our loved ones close?

Here’s another story: a young lady in her mid-twenties received the sad news that her father had been diagnosed with a terminal disease and had less that six months to live. Ever since she was a little girl, she had dreamed about sharing a dance with her Daddy at her wedding. She now realized that this dream was not ever to be. At this time, she didn’t have a steady boyfriend – certainly not a fiancé – so moving a wedding to an earlier date was not an option. There was no wedding.

 

The young lady, named Rachel Wolf, conceived of a rather unconventional idea. She decided to host a groomless wedding, for the exclusive purpose of dancing with her father. Dr. James Wolf, who was losing his life to pancreatic cancer, was invited to his daughter’s wedding in Auburn, California. Rachel worn a stunning wedding dress and her Dad was decked out in his tuxedo – and they came together for a dance on that day.

 

Father and daughter danced together, surrounded by adoring friends and relatives – who were hugging and applauding. They danced to a song called “Cinderella,” by Steven Curtis Chapman – the lyrics go like this:

 

It’s been a long day and there’s still work to do

She’s pulling at me saying, Dad I need you

There’s a ball at the castle and I’ve been invited

And I need to practice my dancing, oh please, daddy, please.

So I will dance with Cinderella while she is here in my arms

‘cause I know something the prince never knew

oh, I will dance with Cinderella, I don’t want to miss even one song

‘cause all too soon the clock will strike midnight and she’ll be gone.

 

There will be day when Rachel Wolf does get married, for real – and her dad will not be there. However, she has shaped this future moment – she has created memories and images that will invite his spirit and his soul to her on that future day.

It is grief that frays our life’s quilt. It is our recognition that like Jonah, we are most afraid of not belonging anywhere.

We look with uncertainty

Beyond the old choices for

Clear-cut answers

To a softer, more permeable aliveness

Which is every moment

At the brink of death;

For something new is being born in us

If we but let it.

We stand at a new doorway,

Awaiting that which comes…

Daring to be human creatures,

Vulnerable to the beauty of existence.

Learning to love.

-Anne Hillman, “We Look with Uncertainty”

 

So, now, as we turn – as we think of our loved ones – those times when we connected with them. Here in this space – on a walk, in a conversation, a movie that we shared, a quiet moment – a favorite activity. What do we remember? What can we remember, past being heitaiv chara li ad mavet – so angry, even to death?

 

As we enter into this Yizkor, as we recognize that we are at the summit of our hill, as we are also animated in the deep of the valley, we certainly exist in both places, simultaneously, as we invite and allow our tears to fall. We are able to sing our stories, as we are inspired by Jonah, we are able to sing our imperfect stories, and for all of it, as we are able today, to say – thank you.

 

There is a brokenness

Out of which comes the unbroken,

A shatteredness out of which blooms the unshatterable.

There is a sorrow beyond all grief

Which leads to joy

And a fragility

Out of whose depths emerges strength.

 

There is a hollow space

Too vast for words

Through which we pass with each loss,

Out of whose darkness we are sanctioned into being.

 

There is a cry deeper than all sound,

Whose serrated edges cut the heart as we break open

To the place inside, which is unbreakable and whole,

While learning to sing.

-The Unbroken, Sufi

 

(Niggun)

May the memories of all those we remember today be for a blessing.

T’hei nishmoteihem tzrurot b’tzror hachayim –

May their souls be bound up in the bond of life.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Debbie Stern Danforth  |  08/10/2014 at 14:26

    This was inspiring and beautifully written. I thoroughly enjoyed and related to your insightful thoughts. Thank you for sharing so I could read and think about my loved ones whom I miss so much.

    Reply

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