Activating The Immortality Of Those In That Still Room Called Remember
Yom Kippur 5776/2015 Sermon
My grandparents – Louis and Florence Landesman. Their memories are a blessing
While I shared this sermon from the bimah last week – on Yom Kippur – I share it today in written form in honor and in memory of my grandmother, Florence Landesman z”l, who passed away earlier this year and would have turned 100 today. I mention below that Judaism is not a religion that celebrates the birthdays of those who have passed on. This being said, I am using today to return to that “still room” called Remember to remember a lady that had a tremendous impact on my life. Gram, I know you wanted to make it to your 100th birthday. Physically that did not happen. Spiritually it did. Your memory is a blessing.
“The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming.” These words were written by Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner and are part of a longer essay he wrote entitled A Room Called Remember. On the surface, this essay reflects Pastor Buechner’s Christian theology. However, as I re-read his essay, I heard a deeper message, one that transcends the pastor’s theology and captures perfectly the essence of our Jewish Day of Atonement. Pastor Buechner reminds us how challenging it is to do what we are required to do today: to truly look back at our life. “We cling to the present out of wariness of the past,” he says. The past can be a scary place – it’s where we fell hard; it’s where we got those scars; it’s where we tuck away the shame; it’s where we lost; it’s why we have that hurt that we try to push away. But the pastor points out that we have a deep need to go back, “to enter,” what the he calls “that “still room”” – that place “within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again (and) where we are most alive ourselves.” The pastor says that: “the name of (this still) room is Remember—the room where with patience, with (kindness), with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.”
On Yom Kippur, we are obligated to remember our past – not just the things we said and did in the days, weeks, months and years of our lives that led to this moment, but to remember the people who have been part of the journey that got us here; to remember our loved ones who have passed away; to remember the generations of Jews that we’ve never met but, nonetheless, deserve our attention today because they’re part of our story.
For some of us, we began to fulfill this obligation to remember earlier this week by visiting the cemetery and placing a stone at the graves of loved ones. For some of us, we began to remember by lighting Yizkor candles as the sun went down yesterday. Some of us will ritualize this obligation to remember at our Yizkor Service this afternoon – where we say to God “Yizkor – Remember our loved ones!” Later, we’ll continue to ritualize our obligation by taking part in the both the Avodah Service – that pays tribute to ancient Jewish leaders who laid the foundation for our faith – and the Martyrology Service – that honors the countless Jews who lost their lives because of their Judaism, including the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.
Yom Kippur is not just about the living. It’s also about the dead. For if we are to truly know who we are and where we’re going, we must not only spend some time reflecting upon our actions and our relationships with the living, we must also reflect upon how those who are no longer with us transformed our lives. The dead deserve our attention today because they gave us so much.
For some of us, it can be very emotional to remember the great Jewish leaders of the past, the heroic martyrs and the innocent six million Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. With the exception of a few of us who lost loved ones in the Holocaust, however, the emotions we feel when remembering these souls do not come close to the grief we feel when we remember the loved ones we have lost during our lifetime. Many of us don’t want to enter that “still room” called Remember. It hurts too much, so we stay away. Yom Kippur, however, pleads with us: Go into that “still room” where those we have lost remain as if nothing has changed. If we let ourselves enter the “still room”, if we push through the overwhelming, all-consuming sense of loss that we feel, if we have the courage to step into that “still room” and look around, it will allow us not only to honor the dead, but it will allow us to bring new meaning into our lives.
Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish writer, said: “The living owe it to those who no longer can speak to tell their story for them.” We owe it those who dwell in that room called Remember to keep their story alive – to honor them and all that they brought into this world. What they gave to us, through their living, has made us who we are today. We owe it to ourselves to remember them, because by doing so, by remembering how they made us feel so alive, we remember who we are. We bring our life back into perspective. We bring the gifts that they gave us back to life. We learn from the dead how to feel their positive energy and in doing so, they help us transform our lives on this holy day.
Most certainly, when we return to that “still room”, there will be people who don’t capture our attention. Maybe they had no impact on our lives. Maybe we want to forget the impact that they had – because it brought nothing good into our lives. This is okay. Also, there will be loved ones who we remember, but only because they died. Not because they lived. We remember their death – not their life. This too is okay. But we’ll be drawn to those who truly made an impact on our lives and we’ll come face to face with the reality that in order to be meaningfully remembered, the deceased must have lived a life worthy of remembering. This is an important lesson for us today as we reflect upon our own lives.
Judaism is not a religion that encourages us to celebrate the birthdays of those who have passed on. We mark the yahrzeit – the anniversary of someone’s passing. We remember a person for the entirety of their life – which includes their birth, death and, what we refer to as the dash – the line on the marker that sits between the birth and death. It is this dash that defines a person. It is during the dash that we have the potential to leave a lasting impact. Today, yes, we’ll remember those whose dash was unremarkable, but we will also remember those whose dash transformed us. These are the hardest people to remember, because when we do, it reminds us of all that we have lost.
Today, we must appreciate that when it hurts, it’s because the person we remember gave us so much. It hurts because the giving appears to have stopped and we want more: more time, more laughter, more wisdom, more love, more of them. It hurts because when we allow ourselves to enter that “still room”, there they are – waiting – as if they are alive: your grandparents, your mother, your father, your brother, your sister, your husband, your wife, your soul mate, your child, your grandchild, your friend….It might take us some time to recognize them because we have fought so hard not to remember, not to hurt. But, when we enter that room and take a deep breath and look around, we can begin to see their faces, to hear their voices, to feel their touch. We begin to discover that those we have lost still have the power to make us feel – feel grief yes, but ride out the grief – and discover that they can make us feel so alive. And this is why we must go back to this “still room” today.
Move past the grief and discover that they can still have make us smile, make our heart flutter, fill us with warmth. We can hear them – not just their voices, but also their lessons, their laughter, their silly jokes. And we can still be inspired by them, their wisdom, their accomplishments, their courage and creativity. It’s all there in that “still room.” And as we sit in there, with them, in that “still room” called Remember, if we ride out the grief, for a fleeting moment, we experience immortality.
T.H. Huxley, an openly skeptical scientist, wrote that “No conceivable event, however extraordinary, is impossible; and therefore, if by the term miracles we mean only ‘extremely wonderful events,’ there can be no just grounds for denying the possibility of their occurrence.” If you feel it, it is real. And if your deceased loved one can make you feel as you sit in that “still room” called Remember – that room that connects the world of the living to the world of those who have passed on – the fact that you feel is, to me, proof that immortality is a wonderful aspect of our existence that is well within our realm of comprehension.
While I do believe in an afterlife and I do believe that the soul exists after death, the immortality that I am talking about today, the ability of a person’s essence to exist after death and connect with us, with mortals, requires that we engage with the deceased – that we go into that “still room” and remember. If we don’t go to them, they remain alone in that “still room”. It is by entering that “still room” – by remembering – that we endow those who have slipped away with immortality.
For the skeptics out there, the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno agrees with you: there is, he says, “no logical proof that immortality exists.” But, he also says that: “you should spend your life (in a way that makes) you deserve to be immortal.” You should live your life as if you believe in immortality – as if you believe in the power to touch people so deeply that the feelings you evoke in them during your lifetime can transcend time and death. If you can do this – you will not only transform your life – but the life of so many other people you care about.
This is why, today, on the holiest of days, the day that requires us to examine where we have come from and where we are going, we are pushed to visit that “still room” called Remember. When we do, for just a sacred moment, we’ll move beyond logic and experience the immortality of people we miss terribly. And we’ll be pushed to reflect upon what it is that allowed these people to return to us at that sacred moment.
What is it about those who are gone who still have the power touch us so deeply today? What did they do with their lives that makes them so powerful? What is it that makes them immortal? If we can answer this, we can strive, in our own lives, to do what Unamuno urges us to do: live our lives so that we too can be immortal. If we can do this, we will transform the way we look at our lives.
Fortunately for us, we don’t have to look far to learn what makes a soul capable of inspiring us after it leaves this physical world. Our ancestors give us the answer. Centuries ago, like us today, they had to visit that “still room” and they wondered, what was it about the souls of those who have departed this physical world that empowers them to inspire us here? The Talmud gives us the answer.
You’ve often heard me talk at funerals about the Jewish belief in heaven and that there is a special section of heaven for the truly righteous souls. I like to describe this special section as a five star resort with amenities beyond compare. One of the amenities is immortality. There are many different opinions about what you have to do with your life to be able to enter this special section and enjoy the gift of immortality. A lot of Jewish scholars believe that the sages, wise teachers and scholars, the ones who study Torah all day and night, these are the ones who obtain immortality.
However there is a Talmudic tale that speaks of a Rabbi who meets the famous Elijah the Prophet, who lived and died long before this Rabbi lived. Clearly, Elijah the Prophet, having the ability to come to life after passing away, obtained immortality. This Rabbi meets Elijah in a crowded marketplace. He is overwhelmed at coming into the presence of such a prestigious soul and does his best to learn from Elijah. He wants to know how one guarantees their immortality. So, the Rabbi asks Elijah to take him around the crowded marketplace and show him who will experience the gift of immortality. Without hesitation, Elijah points to two men in the crowd. The Rabbi approaches the two of them and asks them: “What do you spend your days doing?” Are you students of Torah, disciples of Jewish law, young, yet wise sages? “No!” The two men reply: “We are jesters. We spend our days making the sad laugh and when we see two people arguing, we try to make peace between them.” (Ta’anit 22a).
From this Rabbi’s encounter with Elijah we learn such a powerful lesson: it is those who bring happiness, laughter, levity and peace into this world – it is those who use their lives to transform sadness into joy, conflict into harmony – it is those who use their days to make people feel better and behave better – these are the people who are given the gift of immortality.
We must take this Talmudic lesson to heart as we travel to the “still room” called Remember. As we enter and push through the grief and the fear, notice that it will be the jesters that come forward and embrace us: the people who brought laughter, who sought peace, who spent their days lifting us higher, making the world so much better, making us so happy, so content with life. These are the souls who have the tremendous potential to inspire us even though they are no longer physically part of our lives. These are the ones whose memories overwhelm us – the ones we push aside because it hurts so much to remember. But, when we find the strength to remember, we not only honor their lives, we activate their immortality, allowing them to continue bringing their gifts into our lives, discovering how these gifts not only renew us, but inspire us to live a life that really matters.
May we all have the courage to go to that “still room” called Remember. And may we return transformed.