Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen
“Birth is a beginning and death a destination,” and while these words are very familiar to us they still bring up so many questions. What does it mean to say, death is a destination? I think of a destination and it brings to mind a trip of some sort that might include a great meal, beautiful scenery or the opportunity to see someone. But death a destination? That does not seem like an ideal destination. On the other hand, these are the questions many ask, ‘what happens when we die?’ Where do we go? What is our destination? If we have these answers, it might provide some more comfort to those who mourn.
A caveat before we enter this realm of asking what happens to us after we die; Judaism does not provide a clear answer. There is no solid concept of heaven or hell. Judaism is very ambiguous about this question. We first look to our text, the Tanakh, the Bible. We hear references to Sheol, the bowels of the earth. A metaphor for oblivion, not really a place where the soul lives on in full consciousness. The notion of resurrection appears in two late biblical sources, including Daniel 12:2 — “Many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, others to reproaches, to everlasting abhorrence” — implies that resurrection will be followed by a day of judgment. Those judged favorably will live forever and those judged to be wicked will be punished. And this idea of resurrection is not totally clear as to when it will happen, why it will happen and how it will happen. Will everyone be resurrected? What do I have to do to be worthy of resurrection? And after the time of Daniel, another concept of the afterlife was conceived within Judaism: the immortality of the soul, the notion that the human soul lives on even after the death of the body. In the Middle Ages, Jewish mystics expanded this idea, developing theories about reincarnation — the transmigration of the soul.
Answers to what happens when we die; are not so clear and this can be very difficult, especially when we are a people who want answers to our questions. Will this determine our faith, our belief? Or will the answers comfort us especially in moments such as these when we are wrestling with the pain of loss?
Our rabbis struggled with this question as well and with the desire to be in touch with someone who is in another world. The rebbes were determined that from this world to the upper realms was so close, so close, that yes, we would be able to be in touch with those who have gone before.
Before Reb Yitzchak Vorker left this world, he promised his son that he would contact him from heaven and tell him how things were for him in Gan Eden. But four weeks passed, and his son didn’t hear from him. He couldn’t understand what was going on, so he went to his father’s best friend, Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, and said: “Rebbe, I’m so worried about my holy father. He promised to come back and speak to me, if only in a dream. But it’s been four weeks, and I haven’t heard anything from him. Do you think something could have happened to him in Heaven?”
And the Kotzker Rebbe answered. “The truth is that your father also promised me to come back and tell me what happened to him in the World Above. And I got worried when I didn’t hear from him. So I went up to Heaven to look for him.
“Let me tell you what happened: I went everywhere in Heaven searching for your father. I went to the palaces of all the tzaddikim, all the holy people – of Rashi, the Rambam, Rabbi Akiva. I visited the place of the prophets, and even went to the very highest levels– to Moshe Rabbeinu and our holy fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Everywhere I went, I said, ‘I’m looking for my friend, the exalted Reb Yitzchak Vorker. Have you seen him?’
And they all told me, ‘Yes he was here. But he didn’t stay. He went on…’
I didn’t know what to do, where else to go. So finally I asked the angels, ‘Have you seen the holy Reb Yitzchak Vorker? Do you know where he went?’
And this time I got an answer, the angels told me, ‘If you keep going in this direction you’ll come to a thick dark forest. You must pass through it, and when the forest ends at the sea, that’s where you’ll find him.’
So I kept walking through Heaven, and as the angels had said, I soon came to the darkest, most forbidding forest I had ever seen in my life. I wanted to run away. I started to hear a strange sound.
Finally I came out of the trees, and found myself on the shore of the sea, an ocean so big I couldn’t see the other side. And I realized that the sound I’d been hearing was coming from the waves. But it was not the sound that waves usually make… it was more like a wail, a moan, a scream – full of the most desperate pain. Never in my life had I heard waves crying and begging like this… And there at the edge of the ocean, I saw your father, the holy Vorker. He was leaning on his staff, staring at the sea. He never took his eyes off the water.
I ran toward him, ‘Reb Yitzchak, my holy friend, what is this place? What are you doing here?’ He turned towards me, ‘Ah Mendel, don’t you recognize this ocean?’
‘No, what is it? What’s that sound? What’s going on here?’
‘Mendel, let me tell you…this is the Ocean of Tears, the sea of Jewish tears. I want you to know that every tear is so precious to the Master of the World. God takes all the tears and places them here. And there were so many tears – that they formed this huge ocean… When I came here and heard the sound of the waves, the cry of all the suffering of so many, I can’t tell you how much it broke my heart. And at that moment I made a sacred vow: “Master of the World, I swear to you by Your Holy Name that I will not move from this place until You have mercy on your people, until you turn all the pain to joy.”
‘My dear friend,’ said the holy Rebbe, ‘I will never leave this Ocean until God has wiped away all of the tears.’ ” (Lamed Vav, Tzlotana Barbara Midlo, 2004, p.369)
This year we have seen a lot of loss. There was a period during the year when it seemed that the obituary notices would not stop. Day after day we sent notices of family members who we lost, some who many knew and some who were the loved ones in our community. Some notices might have been a shock and others were expected. Either way, loss is loss. Even the 98 year old mom who lived a long life, still a loss. Even when someone succumbs to death after a long battle of fighting cancer and it is expected, it is still a loss. Even when we might say, it’s better this way, they are no longer suffering, it is a loss. And there are tears we shed for each of them. Some flow more than with others, but our ocean is filled with tears of lives well lived yet no longer here with us so that we can tell them how much we loved them and how each individual affected our lives.
Amidst all of our loss we especially remember Bernie Horwitz and Chelle Friedman of blessed memories. Bernie and Chelle died only days apart. Two mensches from our congregation. Two leaders who challenged us to always do and be better. To always remember the importance of community and not just for what the community can provide us, no, Bernie and Chelle taught that we have a responsibility to give to the community in order to ensure that it will be here for the next generation.
Bernie served on many committees and as temple president. Yes, he financially supported the congregation in tremendous fashion, but his time was his most precious gift. Bernie believed in ensuring that all people had a place in the congregation and he would be the first one to argue that a gala should have a price tag that was affordable for all for wouldn’t it be better to have more people celebrating together than only a few who could pay for the honor? It was not that he did not believe in philanthropy, Bernie absolutely preached that those who could give more should in order to ensure that all could participate. While we are grateful to him for what he gave to rebuild TBS following the fire, including the beautiful chapel we so love, he would argue about how can we build a place if we don’t build the community first. That’s why he was so passionate about his establishing and maintaining the Maxine Horwitz Cultural Series, named after his wife Maxine who predeceased him. Bernie knew that these programs brought people together for an evening or afternoon of inspiration and connections. Filling a space with those who cared about being together and for one another was so important to him.
Chelle Friedman was the ultimate greeter and hostess at Temple Beth Sholom. Every year Chelle led the charge of our High Holy Day greeters. She carefully poured over her charts and maps in order to make sure that every space was covered by a friendly face welcoming family and guests to TBS. She met with her team and encouraged them to be warm, loving and welcoming. It didn’t matter if you saw the person the day before or if it had been a year, each person who entered these doors should feel loved and connected.
Chelle sat in the back corner of the board room each week for Torah study. There she had in front of her a box with the nametags of each Torah study participant. I even had a nametag she would hand me as I came in because she believed, even if one person should not know our names, they could feel disconnected or lost. With each of us having our names displayed in front of us everyone was equal and important. Chelle knew how good it felt to be called by your name and acknowledged. Come to Torah study for the first time, she learned your name, come a second time, she got your number, come a third time, you have your own name tag because now you are a regular.
These yizkor moments are filled with tears of mourning. There is the cry of pain and hurt that comes from moments like these, moments of loss. The tears may come suddenly or slowly, but as our rabbis teach, God collects them all for every tear is precious. Each person’s mourning is unique and there is no wrong way to mourn. When I served as a chaplain in a hospital in Cincinnati many years ago, I saw so many forms of mourning and grief. And each person had to experience it in their own way and I could not tell them, this is how you should mourn. I could only acknowledge their pain and encourage them to not run from it, but rather to it and be in it.
I imagine that Reb Yithak not only stands on the shore of the ocean of tears but rather he stands at its edge allowing the waves to roll over his legs. That he stands in this space listening to the cries and moaning and in his immersion he so wants to turn these cries into joy.
Debbie Friedman of blessed memory wrote: You turn my mourning into dancing a text from Psalms. To which she added: You turn my mourning into dancing so that my soul might sing to You. O God, I will thank you forever. I sing praises to the Holy One who lifts me up when I have fallen. And I have cried to You to heal me and you have answered all my prayers. I ask that You be gracious and hear me ADONAI. I have called to You to help me, you’ve supported me with joy. You turn my mourning into dancing so that my soul might sing to You. So did my soul sing to You, and it not be stilled. You turn my mourning into dancing.
Was this what Reb Yitzchak waited for on the shores of the ocean of tears? In the pain of hearing the cries of those souls in that place, did he hope to turn his mourning back into dancing – to allow all those who suffer the pain of loss to turn their mourning into dancing and to hold on to the joys of memory?
This afternoon, as the gates of the new year begin to close, as the sun begins to set, we stand on the shores of our own sea of tears. We remember those who we can no longer hold onto or kiss. And as our tears wash over us they seem to cloud our vision at first, but then the tears clear our eyes and we are able to stand in a place of remembering the joy that our loved ones brought to us. All of our tears are not tears of pain, there are tears of joy and blessing as well.
Birth is a beginning and death a destination, but life is a journey that we explore together with those who are with us today and those whose memories we carry with us. And some day, our memories will carry the next generation to the sea of tears where they will stand and listen to the melody of remembrance.
Kein Y’hi Ratzon