This High Holiday sermon was delivered at Yom Kippur Memorial services at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in September/Tishrei 2021/5782. It was part of a series entitled “After Disaster.” Video of these High Holiday services and sermons is available here.
How can we wrap our minds around mass death? Do we understand all those deaths through piles and piles of things – shoes and eyeglasses, or paperclips, or candles, or panels in a quilt? Do we understand all those deaths through particular stories of particular people: Anne Frank of the Holocaust, Ryan White of AIDS, the testimonies of former slaves like Fredrick Douglass and Sojourner Truth? Can we understand better if we COMBINE overwhelming numbers with particular names – memorial recitations on Holocaust Memorial Day/Yom Hashoah, monument walls like the Vietnam War memorial, the yizkorbukh/memory book of destroyed East European Jewish shtetls? Or perhaps when we face the death of so many instead of just one, words fail; perhaps we understand mass tragedy best through the abstraction of art or monuments, like the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama commemorating lynching victims with hanging steel monoliths. We could make a secular pilgrimage to sites of suffering, walking where they walked and where they died – European death camps, or anonymous mass graves at schools intended to “civilize” indigenous peoples, or African slave castles and American auction blocks. Today it might be emergency rooms and nursing homes and cemeteries where so many have mourned COVID losses over the last 18 months.
The truth is that ALL of these approaches can be effective ways to remember both the many, and the one. Think of a loved one that you have lost; most of us have a few. There are particular items of theirs that we keep to remind us of them. There are the stories they told, and the stories we tell about them. There are the moments in the calendar when we remember their names – birthdays or yahrtzeit/death anniversaries, or a memorial service on Yom Kippur. We might own art or listen to music they loved, we might visit the house where they grew up or the house where they raised us or the country from which our family came here. Some visit the cemetery, especially near the Jewish New Year. We know they are not precisely there to listen to us, but the very action of going there is an expression of the love for them that we still feel. When my father died four years ago, I had not lived in his house, the house in which I grew up, for almost 20 years. Going back to that home, helping to clear it out, saying goodbye for a last time – it was still a site of memory. I can imagine in the future driving past that home again with no family connection there active, and still feeling all the memories come back to me.
Just a few months ago, in the last few months of the Jewish year just ended, we hoped that COVID-19 losses were winding down; I thought then of something Churchill had said in November 1942: “this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” We knew this summer that the virus was still out there, that variants might still do damage, that stubbornness or fear had left too many unvaccinated and at greater risk. We knew there is a world beyond the United States where thousands more will still die. But we did not expect to lose well over 1000 Americans per day AGAIN in a fourth wave of bereavement. And with rising cases in the least vaccinated areas, September may be even worse before things begin to get better. We know that those over age 65, hit so hard in the earlier waves, are today over 80% fully vaccinated. And despite the high profile of the delta variant and breakthrough cases and rising cases among children, the DEATH rates per case for the vaccinated and those under 12 are still very low. Those odds do nothing to comfort those mourning a loved one lost to COVID, because that loss is not the many – that loss is the one, the only one, the one they loved.
These waves of losses upon losses, especially after hope, may sound familiar at a memorial service – the experience of grief at the loss of a single loved one is often described as like waves, sometimes overwhelming, sometimes just a reminder of their absence. Over time, the waves of grief may recede like the tide, but there are also moments when the tide of grief returns and seems to drag us down until it again retreats and we can return to life.
Perhaps this wave is the last major wave of COVID-19, and it will finally recede into the background like the flu, managed with booster shots and washing hands. Even IF this disaster is gradually ending, we still face the challenge of AFTER. If we tried to grapple with the total personal impact of 650,000 individual deaths, it would overwhelm us. Each of those thousands of people who died, no matter whether they were already old or sick or in the peak of health, they each had widening circles of family and friends, colleagues and connections that still feel today the impact of their loss. Each deserved individual funerals and mourning, even over Zoom or in the cemetery with just a few people present. And, of course, there were plenty of losses of loved ones unrelated to COVID at all – cancer and age and accident did not take a holiday. We held this Yom Kippur nizkor/we will remember memorial service long before COVID, and we will continue in the future. To remember, we do a little of everything. We hear personal stories, we think about the big picture of life and death as well as the personal, we visit the cemetery, we build monuments, we recite names, and we remember to remember.
In 2020, the wider world of Humanistic Judaism lost a sweet, wonderful, brilliant woman. Marilyn Rowens was an early member of the Birmingham Temple, the first Humanistic Jewish congregation, and she was instrumental in creating programs for children and adults for over 30 years. I began my rabbinic studies near the end of her time as Executive Director of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, and I have many vivid and wonderful memories of learning from and laughing with her. At her funeral, which I watched on Zoom, her family read something of hers I had never heard, a short piece called “wave bye-bye.” As we wave bye-bye to the Jewish New year just ended (and the long Jewish year just ended, and good riddance to that!), we remind ourselves that waving bye-bye to those we love is part of life, a lesson we learn again each time we love and lose and love again.
Life is waving bye bye to people places things ideas & yesterdays.
What a thrill! What a joy. The very first thing our babies learn to do is to wave bye bye. As soon as they’re born they smile they coo they laugh their eyes sparkle. We rejoice & we proceed to teach them the very first lesson of life—to wave bye bye—the very first lesson & the continuing most significant & difficult lesson of life—to wave bye bye.
Nothing is permanent in life. Husbands, wives can go away or get sick. Lovers fall out of love. Jobs & possessions lost. Children leave home. Nothing is permanent except saying bye bye, sometimes with joy, sometimes with sorrow. Saying goodbye is universal & no one can avoid it.
And oh, the many ways we can say it! It isn’t always happy & it isn’t always sad. It’s just a very important part of being alive. When we say goodbye to something that’s over, we say hello to something else that’s just beginning!
How we handle saying goodbye is how we handle our lives. & it is not easy.
What does bye bye mean? Letting go, saying farewell, departing, setting free, giving up,
releasing, disconnecting, partying company getting unjoined, existing independently—separating, not being dependent anymore.
How do you let go of someone you love? Children grow & leave. Parents grow old & die. How do we let go of loves? A harsh break is almost impossible to handle – to adjust to. The
cracks in life are brittle & harsh. If we can see ourselves, if we can reflect the light of awareness from others. If we can laugh- then the waves of isolation are manageable. Laughter is our defense. Laughter is our tool!
When I think of my sister I can see sparkling dancing blue. The blue of her eyes. & I can hear her laughter. A laugh that gallops up from the tip of her toes to the ends of her curly blonde hair. A contagious laughter that mixes with the air & provides a healthy perspective for everyone in her presence. A woman of wit & humor. Her smile & optimistic attitude made us forget when we were near her that hers was a terminal illness & her laughter was vehicle for saying goodbye. During the last few months of her life the family shared old stories & memories. Her son brought her home from the nursing home for a birthday dinner. She relished her favorite dishes, enjoyed the candlelight & wine. We talked about her teenage days when she worked in my father’s grocery store. How she hated it! The horrible tasks she had to do. She repeated the old story for us about pulling a pickled herring out of the herring barrel for a fussy customer, “no not that one – give me a bigger one,” the customer insisted. My sister thrust her hand in the slimy barrel again & again. The last time I saw her before she died, we talked about our children, our Aunt Minne, our unfulfilled dreams—& the pickled herring–& we laughed. We waved a final bye bye. I carry her laughter with me always.
But each bye bye is waved on the threshold of a new & exciting hello! We don’t completely say goodbye. We change our perspective & see our future differently—more clearly. We gain awareness from each ending experience from each separation. Separating & breaking away from people, places, things, parents & children, is the process of change- the process of going from one space to another- the process of growth.
There is a time for laughter when there is nothing better than laughter. We want to make others laugh. We are connected to the world by laughter. Laughter connects us with people. We need each other for tears & laughter.
The power & strength of all my future hellos rests on the foundation of my experiences, my awareness of my need to be attached to the world & my ability to skillfully wave bye bye,