“Joys Over Oys” — YK Yizkor — 5778

02/10/2017 at 14:08 1 comment

“Joys Over Oys”


Yom Kippur – Yizkor

Neil F. Blumofe

30 September 2017


In our tradition, counterintuitively for us perhaps, Yom Kippur is considered to be a joyous day – our sages deriving this meaning from the Song of Songs which teaches – go forth on this day – may it be a day of gladness of the heart.  These joyful moments are consistently celebrated today among the Mizrahim – Jews who derive from local Jewish communities in the Middle East.  In their prayers and in their poetry, known as piyyutim, on this day, there is an abiding confidence that Av haRahaman, and Av haSelichot – The Merciful God, and The Forgiving God — will forgive all of their sins – so they stand before God in this time with gratitude and hope.  In the Mizrahi tradition, the foundation – the basic understanding — is that the petitioners, these supplicants on the most awe-inspiring day of all, do not feel abandoned – but rather, are uplifted and reassured by praying their prayers and singing their piyyutim.


This is not an easy pivot for many of us, who are suspicious of faith and vulnerability.  Many of us have been conditioned that pretending is advantageous to us, as we go through the motions of our lives.  Many of us hold at arm’s length this classic idea that Yom Kippur is a corresponding hue of Purim – a time of absolute celebration.  Whereas Purim is a time of disguise and concealment, Yom Kippur is a time of exposure and honesty – today is a day when we have nothing up our sleeves – when we don’t compensate for our deficiencies with other activity.  We are to show up now wearing white to see the arc of the sun as it set and rises and sets again – and we are here, with our thoughts, baggage, and overall perplexity, without a distraction, without an escape route – as our defenses, offenses, illusions, collusions, deceptions, exceptions, truths, and untruths are laid bare — and this can be maddening.


How can we find joy in such a fraught time?  To stand here in joy sounds illogical.  The author Susan Piver writes in defense of holding onto sadness, stating – when you look out at this world, what you will see will make you very, very sad.  This is good.  You are seeing clearly.  Genuine sadness gives rise, spontaneously, naturally, completely, to the wish – the longing – to be a benefit to others…Despair is what happens when you fight sadness.  Compassion is what happens when you don’t. 


Perhaps the one who recognized this sense of sadness most deeply in our tradition was Rebbe Nahman of Breslov, an 18th-century rabbi.  I spoke about him a few weeks ago, when I introduced the concept of hitbodedut, a spiritual practice of unburdening ourselves with the goal of freeing ourselves from all negative traits which obstruct our spiritual transformation.  Essentially, this is stream-of-consciousness expression – what Freud developed into what became known in the salons of Vienna, as the talking cure.


Hitbodedut is the articulation of whatever may come to us as we go about our way, oftentimes surprising us in our revelation – as we give permission for words and ideas to just fall from our lips.  Rebbe Nahman would regularly practice hitbodedut as he walked in the fields and the woods outside of his home in the Ukraine.  This is an intensely personal practice – where the rawness of what we keep buried within us – again, what became known later as the subconscious that bubbles up – and then, is hopefully released, which then allows space for something new to open.  Friends of mine who regularly practice hitbodedut see it something akin to how other people practice mediation or yoga – this being a method steeped in a Jewish oeuvre — a private time to release all that is pent up, sublimated, or repressed.


To casually look at Reb Nahman’s writings, one would not readily think that he was one who knew sadness, intimately.  In fact, his legacy is one that leverages joy.  He is regularly quoted as saying, it is a great mitzvah to be happy always – and, always remember, joy is not incidental to spiritual quest.  It is vital.  However, beneath these determined, sunny quotes of uplift – we can see that Reb Nahman, like we do, very often speak about and concern ourselves with that which we are most needing to hear.


Rebbe Nahman writes movingly about the power of kvetching – or, as he calls it, the krechtz.  This is the sound we make when deeply sighing – and he teaches us to honor all of our sighs and our groans, stating that sighing is an extension of our breath, which is the vital force of human life.  Reb Nahman says that sighing is holy – and as we recognize what we lack, through the sigh, the lack is made whole.


There is a well-known joke about a man who goes to a world-renowned therapist and says that he is depressed – saying that it is hard to keep everything together, all of the balls in the air, all of the plates spinning.  He tells the therapist that he feels alone, alienated, and isolated – and the world is too overwhelming for him.  The therapist responds, saying, “I know something that will cheer you up – there happens to be a great entertainer in town this evening – the clown Pagliacci – with his antics, and his humor, he will definitely make you feel better.”  And the man burst into tears, and he cries, “O doctor, what can I do – I am Pagliacci.”


In the tragic opera Pagliacci, composed by Ruggero Leoncavallo in 1892 — before performing, the miserable clown Canio sings – ridi del duol, che t’avvelena il cor!  Laugh at the grief that poisons your heart.  And in Yiddish, there are many colorful phrases that highlight the gulf between how we truly feel, and the face that we feel that we must show in public – such as these two — Az oif dem hartsen iz bitter, helft nit in moil kain tusker – if there’s bitterness in the heart, sugar in the mouth won’t make life sweeter.  Nit yeder harts vos lacht iz frailech – not every heart that laughs is really cheerful. 


Reb Nahman, and in fact, many of us, strive to wield a determined positive attitude against darkness – not because we underestimate darkness, but because we know darkness all too well, and know how unbearable it can be.  We would much rather be entertained than have to confront our fears of mortality, our melancholy, and our tedium.


What do we need to hear, now?  Can we create our own space, as we stand for Yizkor and cry – not only for the memories that we keep – but also for all that we mourn within ourselves?  Can we take this timeout – this moment when we don’t have to be brave, when we don’t have to be calm and carry on — so we can crumple into ourselves for these precious moments, supported by the gravity of our tradition?  Can we let the laughter die away for a moment, so we can see and celebrate the sadness – thus enabling us to open and cleanse our hurts?  Let’s try it now – each of us in our own way, to heave a kvetch – or to give a mighty krechtz – a holy oy.  Let’s give voice to the lack within us – and through our oy, we can be made more whole — [OY}.


Throughout the year, sometimes we may feel like we have a duty to perform – that our role and our task is similar to the one performed by the boy made popular by the American author, Mary Maples Dodge in her novel Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates – the story of the boy who kept his finger in a leaking dam, in order to stave off a flood.  This is how we may go about many of our days – keeping the flood in, coping as best we can.  However, now is the time when we remove our finger for a moment, to let the gushing out – the primordial water – the tears that acknowledges our pain and in their release, relieves our discomfort.


In our tradition, Yizkor is the moment when we even call on God to move the Holy Throne of Mercy from atop the firmament that protects us – in order for us to taste the salt of the original floodwaters that will come rushing in – those very same waters that overwhelmed the generation of Noah.


And too, like Jonah, we are in the depths – this is not even a time for mercy – for that Holy

Throne has been removed in this time — this is just a time to acknowledge the dull thud of what is.  When in the belly of the fish, Jonah merely states what is – he doesn’t ask for mercy – he prays – l’kitzvei harim yarad’ti, ha’aretz b’riche’ha va’adi l’olam, va’ta’al mishachat cha’yai haShem Elokai – I went down to the bottoms of the mountains – the earth with her bars closed on me forever – yet you have brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God. 


We are here now as Jonah, dwelling in the bottom of the pit – trying to reassure ourselves by looking hopefully towards a Divine Mirror that only offers opaque-ness, in return.  We ourselves must walk this narrow bridge for this moment, until breads and circuses return, and we have our liturgy, our ritual and our drama with each other and our disputes with God to keep us busy.  All of that is silent now.  We recognize too that as much as we miss our loved ones – the sadness that we feel, the depth of longing that is pressurized within us – we can let go of it now – and we can feel the power of the name of God first revealed to Moses at the burning bush – ehyeh asher ehyeh – we can summon the pool of tears that is within us up and out – as we acknowledge, what is.


At this moment our prayers of supplication, our prayers for mercy cease, and a quiet acknowledgment of this unfortunate, yet very affecting aspect of life – our knowledge of death is seen and shivering, felt by each of us in this sanctuary.  This no longer translates as theory – this is no longer a prayer that we pray in the plural, so we can be absorbed into the larger whole.  This isn’t Ashamnu – we have sinned.  Here, it is just each one of us, weeping alone into the Divine Void.


Our tradition imagines God as standing closer to us now, as if an accessible shape in a field.  Ani l’dodi v’dodi li.  It is not until Sukkot that we go out into that same field, actively looking for this more exposed God.  Here at Yizkor, in the belly of the fish, we are asked to see reality for what it really is – for each of us in this honest moment, to gaze behind the curtain.  To see this, to perceive this moment, is difficult – as Plato writes – to see the light of what is really real would hurt his eyes, and he would escape by turning away to the things which he was actually able to look at – and these he would believe to be clearer than what was now being shown to him. 


We are now in a moment when we perceive the harrowing reality in the Garden of Eden – a place where we cannot sustain our human gaze and live.  So, we are trekking together, for an instant, and as we emerge from this alarming experience – from this love and terror in the God encounter, joy will come.  When we behold the depth of our pain, when we allow ourselves the wailing groan of unrestrained tears – when we do not put any constrictions on this Yizkor, then in turn, we can appreciate a fuller joy – a joy that is a truth underneath the grief of our heart.


Beyond sadness, it is in the compassion where we are able to cultivate joy, no matter the state of our soul.  As the author, Brene Brown writes – I spent a lot of years trying to outrun or outsmart vulnerability by making things certain and definite – black and white – good and bad.  My inability to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability limited the fullness of those important experiences that are wrought with uncertainty – love, belonging, trust, joy, and creativity.  We are now guided into an important experience that in considering mortality, is wrought with uncertainty.


Freud reputedly wrote that the reason we think and talk about sex all of the time, is because we are petrified to talk about what lies behind sex itself, about that which defines the human condition itself, which is death.  In this moment – during Yizkor, we are back in the womb – hayom harat olam — a time for appreciating our origins, for lamenting our wasted time, and for keening for those whom we miss, so dearly.  This moment is an oy that we allow ourselves – so we don’t have to pretend.  And the art of this – what stops this from becoming an absurdist, existentialist play – is that from here, now in the belly of the fish, before we are again released back out onto dry land, that we are to make our peace with uncertainty – and we are able to live daily with gratitude in the light that makes the shadows on our cave.  The reality, that happens after we present our elemental tears – the moment after the oy, is enough.


We dispense with the gnawing feeling that existence is horrifying, and that our lives are perpetually in the throes of a bad joke; and instead, we emulate Reb Nahman, and our Mizrahi brothers and sisters, and nurture joy in every moment – convinced that we live by the grace of God and that as the great Talmudic sage, Akiva, teaches us – all that is, is kol man d’avid Rachmana l’tav avid – that nothing happens by accident or by chance – that nothing happens without God’s decree – and that ultimately, all that God does will ultimately lead to good – and we live in a perpetual state of simcha, of joy.


If we in fact can take care of this sentiment, believe it and enact it, we will be granted the power to actually influence events in this world, so that the good that was originally decreed, and that sometimes gets lost in translation and exchange, can be seen and felt by us every day as well.  This is the power of Yom Kippur – and it is for this reason that our tradition considers this time to be a time of great joy.  Indeed, Judaism teaches that in Hebrew, the word for thought – machshava, is comprised of the same letters as b’simcha – in joy – that it is with declaring joy, that even our thoughts themselves are transformed into simchah. 


During Yom Kippur, we are given the gift of sensing the different dimensions of our existence – that we are on just one plane of reality, and that we are locked in relationship with generations past and future.  It is here that we stand at the intersection of past and future – we see that our sadness is unique and belongs to us – and yet we see that we can yet return it to that which exists well beyond us.  It is this, which is the sustaining joy – that ultimately our hurts don’t belong to us – we are here just to realize them, clean them and then return them transformed to the worlds beyond us.  Surely, we too belong to that which is greater than ourselves – as we ask ourselves, what really do we need, anyway – and what really do we need to hold on to – and most difficult for us, can we reshape our perspective and our relationship concerning death, itself?


It is in the considering of this, that we are able to sing in joy – as we swiftly move into and out of this Yizkor moment – eyes open in it, and then blinking the moment will gone – and in its wake, we are then able to feel gratitude for the breath, the krechtz, that we take, now.  And while we may not yet be fluent in the sacred poems of the Mizrahi tradition, let us take a page from their machzor now and apply the idea of existing in joy to our own songs and inherited musical references, as we prepare for our individual tears flood this sacred space – and let us hold fast that there is joy just behind our sorrow.


The community that oys together joys together.  To remind us of the joy that is in the silence after the oy, before we begin Yizkor, let us first sing this song of joy together – and in this singing let our burdens be lightened – and let us feel, truly feel, the festive majesty of this day – let us feel the resounding b’simchah that is continually within us, let us feel our barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world, as we proclaim — kol man d’avid Rachmana l’tav avid – all that happens will ultimately lead to good – as we  each of us, yet together, assuredly remove our finger from the dam in this moment.  So, are you ready? …


One, two, three, four —


I Just Want to Celebrate (1971)

Rare Earth

I just want to celebrate another day of livin’
I just want to celebrate another day of life
I put my faith in the people
But the people let me down

So, I turned the other way
And I carry on, anyhow

That’s why I’m telling you
I just want to celebrate, yeah, yeah
Another day of living, yeah
I just want to celebrate another day of life
Had my hand on the dollar bill
And the dollar bill flew away
But the sun is shining down on me
And it’s here to stay

That’s why I’m telling you
I just want to celebrate, yeah, yeah
Another day of living, yeah
I just want to celebrate another day of livin’
I just want to celebrate another day of life…


Don’t let it all get you down, no, no
Don’t let it turn you around and around and around, no


Well, I can’t be bothered with sorrow
And I can’t be bothered with hate, no, no

I’m using up the time but feeling fine, every day

That’s why I’m telling you I just want to celebrate
Oh, yeah
I just want to celebrate another day


Oh, I just want to celebrate another day of livin’
I just want to celebrate another day of life…


Don’t let it all get you down, no, no
Don’t let it turn you around and around, and around, and around
And around, and round, and round
Round, round, round, round
Don’t go round


I just want to celebrate
I just want to celebrate
Well, I just want to celebrate
Said I just want to celebrate (celebrate)
I just want to celebrate (I want to celebrate)
I just want to celebrate (I got to celebrate)
I just want to celebrate


G’mar Hatimah Tovah.


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October 2017

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