Every now and then I have a conversation with my mother that goes something like this:
-Jack, do you remember Sidney Levinfeld?
-No, I don't.
-Sure you do. You remember, he and his wife Thelma lived over near
-No, it doesn't ring a bell.
-Yeah, yeah – they had three kids. One of them was about your age.
-Sorry, I don't know that person.
-Oh yes you do. He was president of B'nai B'rith when they had that
-I have no idea who you are talking about.
-Sure you do. He always wore the plaid sport jacket and the striped
-Yeah, okay, vaguely I remember the sport jacket and pants. So what
We call it The Dead Report at my house, and as many times as I have been set up with "Jack, do you remember...." I never figure out that if I just say yes, I'll get the dead report over with and go on to something else – like the medical report.
I suspect it is pretty natural to begin thinking in terms of who shall live and who shall die as the time between on Yom Kippur and the next seems to get shorter and shorter. At some point or another, everyone gets interested in the obituaries, and eventually they get read first before the op-eds, then before the comics, then before the financial page and finally even before the sports page. And of course, many of us are here today less because it is the last day of Pesach than because we are about to say Yizkor. Death draws our interest with increasing power as our encounters grow more frequent and more familiar. It seems to have a magnetism that seeks out the tiniest bits of iron in our lives. We are fascinated not only by the fresh news of death, but by the staying power of our sense of loss.
I don't mean to make sport or be critical of our fascination with death, especially in these moments just before we give ourselves over to the memory of those whose lives have ended before our own. The losses we have suffered are genuine, and they leave empty spaces that are never really filled. Like you, I have suffered my share of bereavements. My father's death, untimely though it was, came when he reached an age that sounded pretty old to me at the time. His relative youth occurs to me only in retrospect. But I never fail during Yizkor to remember my two high school pals, Corky and Fred, one of whom forfeited his own life at age 36 and the other of whom died in his sleep a few years ago, each of whom took with them a piece of that invulnerability we all so believed in as teenagers.
Yet, I worry about our willingness to be drawn back into grief with the same abandon we once reserved for laughter. What is it that is so seductive about the dead that we return to them with such diligence?
Our tradition has a regimen of mourning that is designed to affirm its place in our living. Seven days of full bereavement, thirty days of sorrow expanded to a year for parents. As the days of that period wear on, the mourner is encouraged to re-immerse in life more and more – returning to the outside world, and then to workplace, and then to the social circles once so natural a part of daily life. First the mirrors return, then the friends, then the music and finally the fullness of joy.
It is human nature to resist certain structures and Jewish nature to push hard against our own structures. A seven-day shivah has become unusual. Some of the reason is that medical science has lengthened the time of dying to such an extent that grieving begins far ahead of death. But part of it, too, is that we are impatient with sitting still for so long and marinating in memory. Our busy lives mean that long stretches of daytime hours at home are spent without company or comfort.
Those of us who are professional Jews tend to look with concern at the phenomenon, but we are likely to overlook the fallout at the other end – the unwillingness of the bereaved to relinquish their grief when the moment is right. I know a man who said kaddish for his wife for five years. I know another who imagined seeing his wife in clouds and tree trunks and the folds of bedclothes. I know a woman who, thirty years later, cannot mention her mother without choking back the tears. I once knew a lonely and isolated woman who spent each evening lighting yahrtzeit candles for relatives whose names she transferred faithfully each year from one funeral home calendar to the next.
When grief is not acknowledge and expressed in its time, it takes up residence in the heart, and like a magnet attracts the iron scraps of sadness in that litter our world. That iron rusts and chafes and becomes an increasingly constant presence.
Our tradition recommends too much grieving. You might not know it from the commemorations of our collective tragedies throughout the ages, but Judaism seeks to give bereavement its full fury and then contain its aftermath. A wonderful midrash warns us about doing otherwise.
R. Meir said: To what can you liken a person who sees a mourner after a year's time and speaks words of consolation? To a doctor who meets a patient who had broken his leg that he mended a year earlier, and who then says, let me break your leg again so I can show you how skilled I am at medicine.
I am always glad to see the larger crowds that come on the concluding days of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot to remember their dead. These are among the sweetest moments of the year, a time when the sanctuary fills not only with our current members, but with our generations of past members as well, with visitors from another time and place. This is the time and these are the moments that contain our residual grief. Here is the place, surrounded by memory, that we reassure ourselves that we have not forgotten, and we reassure ourselves that we will not be forgotten.
But when Yizkor is over, it is time to return to the festival and the joy from which these moments have been borrowed. It is time to return to the friends and the children and the grandchildren and the cousins and the neighbors. It is time to return to the op-eds and the comics and the sports page. It is time to return to the task of building wonderful memories that will encourage those who survive us to go out into this world and make the most of living, because there will never be need to multiply the opportunities to remember the dead.