“It’s All For the Best” – Nizkor 2017

This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2017/5778 as part of a series entitled “Forbidden Phrases for the New Year.” 

A child dies after only a few months of life. A young woman battles breast cancer for years before her death at 36. A vital and active tennis player, a loving father and grandfather, has a surprise medical episode that begins a 2 year long decline until the end. On the verge of a long-awaited retirement, a degenerative illness begins that takes a full decade to run its course through physical disability, dementia, and finally death.

These are only 4 of the funerals I have led over the past 15 years. Sometimes I can say in my eulogy, as I said about my own father’s death just before this Rosh Hashana, that this death is sad but not tragic – someone has died after a long and good life, they were ready to go and went relatively quickly and painlessly, and we know that death is the way of all living things. If our loved one had a good life and a good death, we the survivors usually handle it pretty well.

But then there are stories like these four. Our emotions and our reason cry out, “This is unfair! This is NOT the way things are supposed to go!” Traditional religion tried to offer its consolations: you’ll see them again in another life, so this loss is just intermission. Or maybe they did something wrong for which they were punished –the system must be fair even if you are sad. Upon hearing of a death, Jewish tradition prescribed the phrase “barukh dayan ha-emet – blessed is the true judge.” Another religious option: what seems unfair here will be made right in the next world. And finally, “It’s all for the best.”

What is “It’s all for the best” trying to say? It says that a kind and benevolent author is writing the story of your life, the story of every single life. “It’s all for the best” says that even though this tragedy seems without purpose, amazingly painful and shocking and cruel, the loss is part of a plan that is good overall. If you suffer, you are meant to learn compassion or to become tougher or to burn off your sins in advance. If you face loss, it simply had to be, because “it’s all for the best.”

And we know, we KNOW this is just not true. Car accidents, natural disasters, personal disasters like heart attacks, they did not have to be. They are not all for the best. Sometimes memory brings us warmth and consolation, and sometimes it makes us mad – why is this person only a memory and not still here? One of the first couples I met when I began working at Kol Hadash in 2004 were Sam and Joan Berger, a nice elderly couple. Sam unfortunately died within a couple of years and relatively quickly, and just about every time I visited Joan in the decade between Sam’s death and her own, she would tell me, “I’m mad at Sam – how dare he leave me!”

We do not want to live and remember in anger. When we speak of peace at a funeral service, it is not only for the deceased to “rest in peace,” but also for us to find peace, to make our peace with the new reality of a world without our loved one to talk to, to hear, to embrace any more. We cannot control what others say to us – they may offer us the consolation of an afterlife in which we may not believe, or divine praise when we have nothing to be grateful for. They may say, “it’s all for the best.” Our grief will not be diminished by lashing out at them, but a quiet “I don’t agree” makes the point just as well, and with the dignity of integrity.

Jewish tradition does offer alternative responses to “blessed is the true judge.” We often use a line from the book of Proverbs (10:7) – zekher tsaddik livrakha – the memory of a good person is a blessing. In Jewish usage, if you see the letters “Z – L” or in Hebrew zayin lamed ז”ל after a name, it means “their memory is a blessing” from the same source.

Human emotions serve a purpose – they allow our complex brains to express what we cannot analyze. If we are angry, it can be natural and healthy to express it. If we know deep in our guts that it is NOT all for the best, then we can say that too.

I could say that my father’s death was sad but not tragic, that he made it four years after his initial diagnosis with pancreatic cancer, that he got to play tennis and read and sing and dance much longer than we had a right to expect. And yet, I know there will be times to come when I will feel like Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, saying “Please, I want some more.” Regret and anger and sadness are all natural human emotions, part of the human expression of grief, and it is good that we feel them. Our deceased loved one’s new status as loving memory becomes a part of our life, our new routine. It may not be for the best, but it is, and we know it.

NIZKOR (We Will Remember)
by Arthur Liebhaber

I got a promotion,
I started to make the call,
Then I remembered.

I got sick and didn’t know what to do,
I started to make the call,
Then I remembered.

I forgot what that Yiddish expression meant,
I started to call,
Then I remembered.

I wanted your recipe,
I started to call,
Then I remembered.

Good news, bad news,
Wisdom and guidance,
I start to make the calls,
But then I remember.

You aren’t out there,
You aren’t going to answer.
You’re in my heart,
I’ll always remember.


About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
This entry was posted in Funerals, High Holidays. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to “It’s All For the Best” – Nizkor 2017

  1. Yolanda Fleischer says:

    What a beautiful and, ultimately, uplifting post.

Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s