Yom Kippur — Yizkor (5780) — The Minister of Loneliness

07/10/2019 at 16:22 Leave a comment

“The Minister of Loneliness Arrives at the Gate of Tears”


Yom Kippur – Yizkor

Neil F. Blumofe

9 October 2019


When I was growing up outside of Chicago, there was a kid who was part of my larger friendship circle, who sometimes burst into tears whenever there was a group gathering together. It could be when there was a birthday party, or when we were exploring the woods or the farmer’s cornfields near our suburban houses, or when we went to school.  When asked about this unusual behavior, he would sometimes be silent, and when he would respond he would say something about how not everyone had this chance to be happy, or to enjoy nature, or to learn – it was a bit strange and awkward, and usually we would leave him alone, or he would disappear for a while and then return and we would resume our activity, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.


At that age, we didn’t know the meaning of the word empathy – we didn’t consider putting ourselves in the shoes of others to see how they experienced life, or if someone among us was struggling or having a different reaction to our shared time – we didn’t offer space for that person to feel seen, let alone safe – as little boys, with a particular easygoing and even serene shunning, we were much more severe, dismissing these feelings as bizarre – letting that other kid suffer his feelings without our support.


And over the many years later, as we all grew up and drifted apart, we have lived our lives, tangentially, infrequently or randomly keeping track of our trajectories on certain social media groups that scooped us back together.  From time to time, there might be a stray picture or two from a reunion that would surface that would display a person from so long ago – challenging my remembrance of him from my childhood – recognizing both the endowments and the ravages of time.


We mostly connect in this way, when one among us dies.  Over the years, there have been many who have done so – many from illness, some from accident, some from suicide.  And I wonder, and I have wondered for a long time, how we are afflicted inside – what we carry within us every day – as I speculate on whatever happened to that kid who burst into tears, because he was overcome — feeling the feelings of others present and not present.  Back then, among us, we didn’t know what to do with those who were different or who expressed themselves differently than what was publicly allowed – perhaps the most compassionate thing we could have done, is not done anything at all – which happened, most of the time.


We would simply do things together and sometimes quietly drop a kid or two from the group for a while, if it became too uncomfortable.  Everything was tacit and implied – there were no major confrontations. And all of this ceased to be an issue when we all began to drive – because then, we weren’t stuck with each other – we were much more independent in the long, pre-internet, pre-Uber, non-public transportation, suburban afternoons.


For many years, I have often thought about our ancestor Isaac in this context.  Isaac, the son of Abraham, who was prayed for by his parents, for so long – and then entered a dysfunctional household with an older half-brother and a sort of step mom, living alongside his mother – and after Hagar and Ishmael were kicked out of the house without careful provision, he was suddenly picked up by his father one day and brought to a mountain to be sacrificed.


And while his dad didn’t ultimately go through with it, it still must have been traumatic for Isaac. When Isaac gets home from this misadventure, his mom dies and his father sends one of the household staff to get him a wife, to replace the nurturing presence of his mother.  If he only had a car and could get away from home – to interrupt and even put an end to such wounding.  I have often thought about Isaac in the context of my childhood and the kid who sometimes burst into tears – and how he must have been so lonely and feeling so powerless and overwhelmed as these events happened to him.  This loneliness is a lesson our sacred texts want us to consider – and I would like us to consider our own loneliness, and how we live with and come to terms with our loneliness, as we honor this time of Yizkor, on the holiest day of the year.


How often do we feel out of place?  When do we feel that our circumstances and our accustomed experiences do not match what we feel inside – how estranged we are from our feelings, as we, determined or trapped, go about our daily routine?  Our heart is sometimes like a heavy stone – and those upon whom we rely – those into whom we put our trust – when they die, we feel undone – almost betrayed by their absence.


For in the story of the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, it is the soul of Sarah that is unspooled.  She never gets closure with Isaac – he is taken from her without her knowledge, and the only time that she actually speaks about her son, is when he is born, as she says – God has made laughter for me – whoever hears will laugh for me – for a I have borne a son in Abraham’s old age!  These are the only words that Sarah speaks in reference to her son – in the Torah, she never actually speaks directly to her beloved son, Isaac — he is then whisked away as part of a test of her husband’s faith in God.  Her entire world has been taken away – and in the words of the Israeli poet, Binyamin Galai – and Sarah died – but truthfully, her candle was extinguished many years earlier, before her last place of rest was dust.  And the coffin in which she lay, was made all these years of the memory of the wood, split on another mountain – on another mountain, in the land of Moriah. 


How much are we living, like Sarah, in another space and time – imprisoned in our present day – largely inattentive to what is now – going through the motions, because our hearts are connected to crucial other moments in our past – or connected to other people in our past, who are now, gone from here?  How often does our heart feel world-weary, or even sometimes like an amputated stump, as we make our way in the world?  Like the kid from my childhood, why can’t we too just burst into tears at the difficulty and the sadness as we feel the sheer weight of the anguish – can we not feel, can we not hold, as the radio journalist, Herbert Morrison felt as he watched the Hindenburg suddenly burst into flames in 1937 — oh, the humanity!


A year or so ago, the United Kingdom appointed a governmental official to be a Minister of Loneliness.  Part of the press release read as follows – for far too many people loneliness is the sad reality of modern life.  In an article in the Harvard Business Review, a former Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Murthy, wrote – loneliness is a growing health epidemic.  We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980’s. And here we are in 5780, at a poignant moment, deep in the center of Yom Kippur, when the gates to all of the worlds are open – and our sanctuary is filled – not only with all of us – but our space is also teeming with the specters of our recollections.  A grandmother.  A child.  A good friend, who has died too soon.  Classmates. A kid from childhood.  A mom.  A dad. A mom and a dad – and so many in our lives, that we are surprised with wonder at our own survival.  Each of us are miracles that summon other miracles as we remember.


And yet, these memories seem taut, as they are personal and perhaps, complicated, and held too tightly. Each of us, in our own world – scratching the surface of these precious few minutes, daring to uncrack our hearts for a moment as we remember our loved ones – and then from here, we close up our emotional shop and continue with a stiff upper lip into the rest of the Day of Atonement – keeping our tears at bay, and pushing down deep our loneliness, into ever buried places within ourselves.


Let us cry – let us now burst into tears — our tradition teaches that the Gates of Tears are always open.  When we pray our prayers with tears – when we remember our loved ones with tears – when we think of our own loneliness with tears, all of who we are flies straight through the Gates of Tears.  Let us cry and expect an answer – as the Kotzker Rebbe taught – the Gates of Tears, which are always open, has a Gate in the first place – to remind us that we deserve to be answered – and to not have our tears be tears of hopelessness.  Let us not sacrifice our ability, our license to weep, for without crying, what do we become?  Yehuda Amichai, wrote movingly about this when he writes about a third son of Abraham, named Yivke – which means, crying:


Abraham had three sons, not only two.

Abraham had three sons, Ishmael, Yitzhak and Yivke.

Nobody ever heard about Yivke, because he was the small one

The beloved son who was sacrificed on Mount Moriah.


Ishmael was saved by his mother Hagar, Yitzhak was rescued by the angel,

But nobody saved Yivke. When he was small

His father lovingly named him Yivke, Yivk, my lovely little Yevk.

But he sacrificed him at the Akeda.

The Torah says it was a ram, but it was Yivke.

Yishmael never again heard God in all the days of his life.

Yitzhak never laughed again, in all the days of his life.

And Sarah only laughed once, and then, never again.

Abraham had three sons,

Yishma, Yitzhak, Yivke,

Ishmael, Yitzhak-el, Yivke-El.


As we think today about the heartache of Isaac, the sadness of Sarah – and our own sense of loneliness and desolation – we get to have these sacred moments to reflect, to remain silent, and to share.  In a moment, I am going to ask you to close your eyes and to choose a person to think about during this time of Yizkor – someone who has died recently or long ago. Someone you can handle speaking to right now.  I am going to ask you to cry – to feel, to have a powerful moment.  This is the day for this kind of sensitivity – to have the defenses against vulnerability laid low.  Yizkor is an explicit, communally-supported, emotionally safe encounter with the memories of those we’ve loved and lost – including the grief that we inevitably feel about that loss.  Allow this time to be what it needs to be – take a deep breath, relinquish your judgment of others, or self-doubt.  What do you want the next generation to remember?  What do we wish to forget?  This is the time for us to access or recover our empathy.  You also have permission to stop this mediation at any time – or to choose a different person to think about if the feelings get too intense.  As we can, let us go on this journey – let us drop in.


Close your eyes.  Imagine this person sitting alone in a chair, in a simple room as you enter.  Greet them however you would like, and then pull up a chair next to them.  In this time, you have a chance to speak with them – to ask them questions and perhaps to share with them something that has happened in your life – something that you want this person to know. 


When you are ready, wish them goodbye – and let them know that you may visit them again next year. This year at CAA, we have begun connecting established people in our community, with others who have recently arrived – this deepens everyone’s investment in each other and serves to strengthen our holy community.  We will apply that model today – as we reflect on the experience that we have just had – At this point, I invite you to turn to someone who did not know the person in your mediation and to share a bit together.  If you prefer, you can take a few moments of self-reflection, however, I think processing the journey that you have just been on with someone else, will help to reinforce it – and allow it to become a flowing source of healing as we continue to live through some of the loneliness of our own lives.  Allow this time to be powerful and share with each other for 3-4 minutes each.


I wish you enough sun to keep your attitude bright, no matter how gray the day may appear.

I wish you enough rain to appreciate the sun even more

I wish you enough happiness to keep your spirit alive and everlasting.

I wish you enough pain so that even the smallest of joys in life may appear bigger.

I wish you enough gain to satisfy your wanting.

I wish you enough loss to appreciate all that you possess.

I wish you enough hellos to get through the final goodbye.

I wish you all enough as you appreciate all the love you remember at this time.



Entry filed under: Judaism, Liturgy, Torah. Tags: , , , , , , , , .


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October 2019

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