Good grief

Grief is a funny thing. A peculiar thing, I mean, not an entertaining one. It creeps in unexpectedly when everything seems fine, silent as Carl Sandburg's fog which "comes / on little cat feet." It does not listen to reason. It pays no attention to any list of gratitudes. When it wells up, cue the waterworks.

Grief brings fragility. As though the delicate eggshell of the heart could crack open at any moment, revealing an endless salt wellspring. Even writing about it from a distance, I want to keep it at arm's-length. I use stock phrases: "a funny thing," "cue the waterworks." I'm deflecting to keep it at bay.

Grief doesn't only come in the aftermath of loss. There's anticipatory grief, awareness that a loss is coming. And sometimes losses compound one another. The loss of health. The loss of the unthinking freedom which comes with health. The loss of an anticipated future, of what one thought would be.

Grief is, I find, not like depression. When I have experienced depression it has placed a scrim between me and the world, whereas grief leaves one exposed and open. When I can head depression off at the pass, that's a good thing, whereas trying to evade grief seems emotionally and spiritually unwise.

Also unlike depression, grief has a known cause: loss, or the expectation of loss. It's not an existential sadness without explanation. Grief has meaning. As Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz has written, grief can offer the gift of transformation when we allow ourselves to feel it fully and to be changed.

Continue reading "Good grief" »

On Yizkor

I've just shared a post about Yizkor on my congregational blog. It's sparked by the fact that we'll recite the prayers of Yizkor, our memorial service, twice in the span of two weeks: once at Yom Kippur, and again at Shemini Atzeret. But what is Yizkor, and why do we say it twice in such rapid succession?

Here's a taste:

The word Yizkor means “Remember!” — and the service with that name is when we remember our beloved dead. We say the prayers of Yizkor four times a year. I follow the tradition which maps these four Yizkor services to the four seasons: Pesach – springtime. Shavuot – summertime. Autumn – Yom Kippur. Winter – Shemini Atzeret. (Even though mid-October won’t be winter yet, thank God. Some sources hold that the fourth yizkor of the year was once held in midwinter, but was moved to Shemini Atzeret for practical reasons of seasonally difficult travel.)

Shemini Atzeret means “the pause of the 8th day.” Sukkot (in Israel and in the Reform tradition of which we are a part) lasts for seven days. On the 8th day, our tradition teaches, God says to us: wait! don’t go! Linger with Me a little longer? We call that day “the pause,” or “the lingering,” of the 8th day. And it’s on that extra day after Sukkot, when Sukkot is over but we haven’t yet pulled away from God’s presence, that we recite Yizkor for the second time during this fall holiday season.

The experience of Yizkor is different at each of these holidays...

Read the whole thing here: The Yizkor of Yom Kippur, the Yizkor of Shemini Atzeret -- What is Yizkor, anyway?

Remembering our beloveds as we linger a little longer

YahrzeitShemini Atzeret: "the pause of the 8th day." The day after Sukkot, when the Holy Blessed One murmurs in our ear, "Don't go just yet. Don't leave this bower where we've spent this past week. Linger a little longer with Me."

Shemini Atzeret: the day when we shift, in our daily amidah, from blessing God Who brings the dew to blessing God Who brings the wind and the rain. (And in this climate zone, eventually, the ice and the snow.) On this day we recite a special prayer for rain.

Shemini Atzeret: another opportunity to say the prayers of Yizkor, the liturgy of remembrance which recite as we remember our beloved dead. Of course, many of us just said Yizkor. There was a Yizkor service on Yom Kippur, a scant twelve days ago. Why are we reciting Yizkor again so soon?

Well. Like anything else in Judaism, there is a multiplicity of answers. But here's an answer which speaks to me.

Continue reading "Remembering our beloveds as we linger a little longer" »

About lighting yahrzeit candles tonight

US_Navy_070426-N-4965F-003_Six_memorial_candles_are_lit_during_a_Holocaust_Remembrance_Day_ceremony_at_Sharkey_Theater_on_board_Naval_Station_Pearl_HarborAs our congregational administrator and I were setting up a table for tonight with a bunch of memorial candles, little folded index cards where people can write the names of those they're remembering, and boxes of matches, it occurred to me that not everyone is familiar with the custom of lighting a yahrzeit candle before Kol Nidre. So I very quickly pulled a few explanatory paragraphs together, printed them and put them in a pretty frame, and stood that frame up on the table with the candles.

I mentioned this on Twitter, and Emily Hauser suggested that I share this here, since some of y'all who read this blog might find merit in it. So here it is. It's necessarily brief; I could say a lot more! But for the moment, this will have to do. If you're lighting a candle tonight but weren't sure why, maybe this will shed some metaphorical light. And if you weren't planning to light a candle, but you have some beloveds who have died, perhaps this will inspire you. (And if you don't have any special yahrzeit candles on hand, you can light whatever you do have. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.)

(For more on yizkor, the memorial service, stay tuned -- I'll have a post on that when we reach Shemini Atzeret. The image which illustrates this post comes from the Wikipedia entry on Yahrzeit candles.) G'mar chatimah tovah / may you be sealed for good in the year to come!

About Lighting Yahrzeit Candles Tonight

Our tradition calls us to light yahrzeit (year-anniversary) candles on the anniversary of a loved one's death and also just before sundown on the eve of Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, Pesach, and Shavuot: the four times when the Yizkor (memorial) prayers are recited.

You can light a yahrzeit candle for anyone you are remembering. Traditionally we light them for parents, spouses, siblings, and children, but you can also light one for a friend, grandparent, or anyone else whom you want to remember at this season.

There are no special prayers or blessings which must be recited while lighting a yahrzeit candle. Lighting the candle presents a moment to remember the deceased or to spend some time in introspection.

In the book of Proverbs (chapter 20 verse 27) we read "the soul of a person is the candle of God." Our tradition has long regarded flames as evocative of our souls. Like a human soul, a flame must breathe, change, grow, strive against the darkness and, ultimately, fade away.

May the candles we kindle tonight in memory connect us with those we have loved and lost, and may their memories heighten and enrich our experience of Yom Kippur.