This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur Memorial sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2018/5779 as part of a series entitled “Either/And.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.
One of the most common Jewish commandments is Zakhor – remember. The verb appears over 160 times in the Hebrew Bible, not counting parallels like “do not forget.” The traditional Friday evening Kiddush blessing describes Shabbat as both a remembrance zikaron of creation, and a reminder zekher of the Exodus from Egypt – neither event happened historically, but we should remember them. The novelist Jonathan Safran Foer even calls memory a Jewish Sixth Sense:
Touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing…memory…[While some] process the world through the traditional senses, and use memory only as a second-order means of interpreting events, for Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer, or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger.
The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins. It is only by tracing the pinprick back to other pinpricks – when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it, when his grandfather’s fingers fell asleep from stroking his great-grandfather’s damp forehead, when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain – that the Jew is able to know why it hurts.
When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like?
How DO we remember? We see, we feel, we experience in the Now. When now becomes then, a shift happens – a short-term memory of “just now” becomes a long-term memory of “then.” The present becomes the past. And very quickly. The older we get, news stories that were current events appear in history books. If you know a high schooler studying modern history, read their textbook and be shocked. Children born in the year 2000 just started college. Today becomes yesterday becomes last year in a backward glance, and it can feel like the space between the immediate now and the distant then is a chasm.
There are moments that bridge the gap, times that “then” and “now” come together. One of those moments is the afternoon of Yom Kippur, at the end of our Jewish New Year observance, when we reflect on love and loss. Rather than outsourcing the job with “Yizkor, He will remember,” we prefer to take ownership and say “Nizkor” – we will remember.
Where were you the FIRST time you heard that a parent or grandparent had died? Chances are you remember the moment very clearly. It could have been in a car, a hospital, a home. Early in the morning or the middle of the day. That moment of loss then can become now just by remembering. That feeling of loss then can be felt now, in this season, or any moment an absence is noted – a joke you want to share, a story you remember, a lesson you learned. The rabbis said there is no early or late in the Torah, using any passage to explain any other. We might say there is always early and late in mourning; there is always where we were then, and where we are now and the space and time between them that makes the difference between immediate loss and loving memory. Then and now.
This High Holidays, we have gone beyond the binary – rather than either/or, we live through either/and. There is no more stark binary than alive or dead. We can wax poetic about someone who is alive and also dead in some emotional ways, or someone who is dead and yet alive in our memories. But there are times we have to accept the binary, accept that someone we love is dead. They exist in the past tense while we are in the present and future.
Or are we? Beyond the binary of then or now. Are our lost loved ones exclusively past? We remember them as they were then, but our most vivid memories of them feel like the present on instant replay. Then becomes now all over again. Projecting the present into the past does not work – my maternal grandmother died in 1989 and never knew the internet. Projecting the past into the present does work – I remember her jokes, I still play the same word game with my mother that my mother played for years with HER mother. And we have started playing it with my daughter. As I mentioned once before, the smell of Gerber baby food bananas instantly transported me from feeding my infant daughter to my own childhood enjoying my grandmother’s banana bread with her secret baby food ingredient.
Then and now exist within us at every moment. We are always who we were as well as who we are. We filter the world and new experience through the lenses we have grown over the years. So, too, with our loved ones who are no longer with us. They are part of us, alive in our memories, a presence in our present, then and now at one moment.
In the Hebrew Bible, every major character dies, except Elijah. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses – they all die. We assume their wives die too, but we rarely read about them. In our own experience, we know that everyone dies, and we know that NOT everyone is remembered. That is what makes our memory special, and precious, and important. When we remember them, when we remember then, we transcend the limits of now. We go beyond ourselves with fact and with feeling to find fellowship together, each with our individual losses and legacies.
Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is a powerful and poetic exploration of a year of grief after the sudden loss of her husband. At the end of the book (p225-6), Didion reflects on the passage of time, and the beginning of a new year.
I do not want to finish the year because I know that as the days pass, as January becomes February and February becomes summer, certain things will happen. My image of John at the instant of his death will become less immediate, less raw. It will become something that happened in another year. My sense of John himself, John alive, will become more remote, even “mudgy,” softened, transmuted into whatever best serves my life without him. In fact this is already beginning to happen. All year I have been keeping time by last year’s calendar: what were we doing on this day last year, where did we have dinner,…is it the day. I realized today for the first time that my memory of this day a year ago is a memory that does not involve John. This day a year ago was December 31, 2003. John did not see this day a year ago. John was dead…..
I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. Let them become the photograph on the table. Let them become the name on the trust accounts. Let go of them in the water.
Knowing this does not make it any easier to let go of him in the water….