Rabbi Cohen’s Yizkor 5779 Sermon – You Never Know?

Yom Kippur – Yizkor 5779
September 18, 2018
Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen

You Never Know?


I admit it, I’ve had a hard time sitting down to write this sermon. Usually, my Yizkor sermon is one of the first I write. It’s the personal, kishke sermon that seems to flow. But this year, this year is different. Then again, every year is different. Every year there are personal stories of loss that wash over me and carry the sermon. And while there are numerous stories to share this year, rather than washing over me, I feel a little like they are overwhelming me this year.

We’ve spent this High Holy Day season focusing on how we can heal ourselves, mind, body and spirit. We’ve examined our community and the new directions we can take in our engagement and empowerment. We’ve wrestled with God and how each of us personally understand God or not understand God. We are working on being vulnerable and not feeling shame in who we are but rather celebrating our authentic selves. And of course we recognize that each of us are a part of a larger world and even the smallest action by one person can affect so many others.

Over a month ago, I lost a friend and colleague. Rabbi Daniel Treiser was not a classmate or an especially close friend who I called weekly. He was the type of friend that when I saw him at conferences or we talked online or on the phone, we fell right back into the conversation started months before. During the High Holy Days, we would pass sermons around between us and other colleagues for review and thoughts. Daniel always had a great ear for each sermon and suggestions for illustrations or other directions, including, you might want to rethink the whole thing. Fortunately, there was always enough time to play with the sermons. Daniel was a big man with a big heart. He could never say anything bad about anyone and just wanted to love every person and especially have them love themselves. This past year he battled cancer and as valiantly as he fought, he lost his battle as the sun began to rise on the High Holy Day season. There was a part of me that was angry at him – he always gave me such great ideas for sermons, this was not how I intended him to help me this year.

Almost three weeks ago I said goodbye to another friend, Michael Yutkin. Michael was the husband of a friend and colleague, Corie. We all met 18 years ago at a Sukkot gathering at Rabbi Donnell’s when she and Michael returned from her year in Israel. We knew we were meant to be friends because Corie and I share a birthday and we share an anniversary. I had the honor of installing Corie as a rabbi in Baton Rouge and naming their daughters, Ariella and Shayna. They returned to Orange County a few years ago and she’s bounced around doing a number of rabbinic gigs in congregations and in the community until she landed as the rabbi for Chapman’s Fish Interfaith Chapel. Six years ago, Michael called Corie from a meeting in Chicago, waking her in the middle of the night complaining about a horrible headache. She told him to take advil and call her later since she just got Shayna, then only a few weeks old and Ariella to sleep. Michael went to the hospital that morning and was in surgery soon after for a brain tumor they found, glioblastoma, the same type of brain tumor that took the life of John McCain and so many others. Knowing that there was at most a five year survival rate, Corie and Michael investigated and got involved with conventional and experimental treatments. Six years and three days after his diagnosis, Michael died being held by Corie.

Not only am I her friend, but Corie asked that I be her rabbi, the families’ rabbi as they said goodbye to Michael – an honor but one not eagerly accepted. No one ever actually WANTS to help bury a friend. But we do it because, this is our friend and we do anything for our friends and ones we love, no matter how much it hurts.

Two weeks before Michael died, I sat with him in the hospital and he gave me an image I will never forget. Michael said that he felt like he is battling the Bozo Bop, you might remember the blow up punching bag that when you knock it down it bounces right back up at you. Michael felt like he had been punching the clown down over and over again and it just kept coming back and hitting him again, right in the head. Proverbs (24:16) teaches, A righteous man falls down seven times and gets up. Michael kept trying to get back up again and again, but even the righteous man fall.

How many of us have experienced the Bozo Bop, the clown that no matter how hard we try to knock it down and out of our way, it keeps coming back again and again? We endure so much pain in our lives that sometimes it feels as if life only keeps coming back to hit us with one more thing. One more struggle, one more loss. And those moments when we just want to cry out and say to God, why do you let bad things happen to good people? Why did you take Daniel away from us, from his family and his community? Why did you take Michael away, leaving two small daughters without a father?

Tragedy is not God’s will for us to endure. Instead, we can turn to God to help us overcome tragedy and know that God is just as outraged as we are. Yet, there comes a point when we have to surrender to the reality of our destiny. Like Daniel and Michael and so many others, there is a point that we surrender into the place many of us know, hospice. The opportunity to say, the time has come for me to release myself from this body and allow my spirit to transcend to another realm.

Suffering and loss has meaning if we can allow ourselves to look more deeply at the purpose of our suffering. There is a midrash that tells us that while Moses was climbing down the mountain with the two stone tablets on which God had written the Ten Commandments, he had no trouble carrying them although they were large, heavy slabs of stone and the path was steep. After all, though they were heavy, they had been inscribed by God and were precious to him. But when Moses came upon the people dancing around the golden calf, the legend goes, the words disappeared from the stone. They were just blank stones again. And now they became too heavy for him to hold on to.[1] The stones had lost their purpose of carrying God’s words on them and became just stones again. They were too heavy to carry, their burden too great for Moses.

Could we bear any burden if we thought there was no meaning to what we were doing or experiencing? Suffering and tragedy is not a part of God’s master plan and we do not see meaning in them when they are happening to us. But, Rabbi Harold Kushner suggests that we can give them meaning when we say, ‘now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do with it?’

The burden of carrying the loss of our friends and loved ones is sometimes too great to carry. But we don’t and we shouldn’t carry it alone. From the moment our loved one dies, we are not left alone. We are surrounded by our community to help guide us and support us when we are trying to carry two blank stones whose weight prevent us from moving. We stand in a space of loss and mourning that may feel as if we can’t move another step. I’ve stood with you and with friends who as we prepare for a funeral have said to me, “I can’t move.” But somehow we do. Somehow we find the strength to put one foot in front of the other and move through the rituals of the funeral and burial. Often it is a blur and there are only glimmers of it that we remember. I remember when I first experienced loss, losing my grandmother at 13 was so difficult and painful. I was old enough to know what was happening and young enough to be confused by the emotions that washed over me. I remember sitting at her gravesite on a cold February day in Colorado. I sat paralyzed, only able to hear the words of Rabbi Zwerin and stare, stare at one end of her casket. Later, I was so distraught because I learned that I spent the entire funeral staring at her feet! My mom comforted me by telling me that she had beautiful feet and it was ok. Today, I make a point to tell especially children in attendance, where their loved one’s head and feet are, then they can choose where to look.

We surrender to the journey of life that is before us. The other day, as we said goodbye to Bonnie Schupak, of blessed memory, I was reminded that from the moment we are born we begin the journey toward death.

Rabbi Alvin Fine wrote a poem with this in mind and one we share often in our funeral liturgy:

Birth is a beginning and death a destination;

But life is a journey.

A going, a growing from stage to stage:

From childhood to maturity and youth to old age.

From innocence to awareness and ignorance to knowing;

From foolishness to discretion and then perhaps, to wisdom.

From weakness to strength or strength to weakness and often back again.

From health to sickness and back we pray, to health again.

From offense to forgiveness, from loneliness to love,

From joy to gratitude, from pain to compassion.

From grief to understanding, from fear to faith;

From defeat to defeat to defeat, until, looking backward or ahead:

We see that victory lies not at some high place along the way,

But in having made the journey, stage by stage, a sacred pilgrimage.

Birth is a beginning and death a destination;

But life is a journey, a sacred pilgrimage,

Made stage by stage…To life everlasting.

Much like the words of Ecclesiastes: To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven, we see the juxtaposition between one emotion and another. Yet, Rabbi Fine presents our challenge that even from defeat to defeat to defeat, we have the choice to look backward or ahead.

Loss can overwhelm us and consume us in that moment. But then we move on our journey once again, because what choice do we have? There is no other way other than forward even as we struggle through pain and loss. Our sacred journey is filled with opportunities for memory, learning and growth. Brene Brown reminds us that while we might want to run from grief because loss scares us, yet we reach toward grief because the broken part wants to mend.

This is what yizkor is about, especially at the end of our Yom Kippur day. We have done a tremendous amount of work from the beginning of Rosh Hashanah until this moment as the sun begins its arc toward evening and the closing of the gates. Our work is not only how we heal ourselves in this moment, but it is also about how we heal ourselves in those most vulnerable moments, those moments of loss, pain and sadness. Our authentic selves are made vulnerable with a choice to either fully expose ourselves or to bury it deep within for another day, another week or another year. Yizkor is not only a chance to remember what or who we have lost, but to challenge ourselves to let others in and be with us in our pain and in our struggle. It is our opportunity to turn to God and ask God to support us on this sacred journey. We sit in this sanctuary not alone, but surrounded by so many who share stories of loss and some who have found the path back into the light. May each of us, on this sacred journey, in the midst of our own struggles know that we are never alone and know that there is light before us and all around us. Just as the yahrzeit candles remind us of the light of the soul of the ones who have gone before us, so too may the light of memory carry us forward into healing of heart and soul.

[1] Rabbi Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

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