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5773/ 2013
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Thank you for your interest in my sermons. I hope you enjoy reading them. Please note that this material is under my copyright. You have my permission to forward it in its entirety, but not excerpted, as long as you include this disclaimer. I am sorry for these conditions, but they save me a lot of explaining on the other end! Jack Moline

Six weeks ago, when last we gathered for the purpose of Yizkor, I talked about a children's riddle: what gets larger the more you take away. The answer is, a hole. It was my hope, as it always is, that the rush of bereavements we have known this year in the congregational family would subside. And, as you know, that has not been the case. Last week alone four members lost loved ones.

All loss is important. I would be hard-pressed to suggest that all loss is equal in the eyes of the beholder; many of you know the difference between tragic death at a young age and the welcome we offer that dark angel for a suffering elder. But loss is loss. Grief is grief. A heart may be broken many ways, but it is broken nonetheless. How are we to avoid being overtaken by the cost of our love?

I want to turn to two sources unusual for a Yizkor sermon in an attempt to begin an answer. One is another religious tradition. And the other is the current Vice-President of the United States.

Buddhist tradition offers a story about Kisa Gotami. "Kisa" seems to mean "skinny," but don't rely on me for that translation. Kisa was apparently a wonder child of a sort. A story is told of her ability to turn the ashes of material possessions into gold and silver. What is important is that she was wise and blessed from an early age. But then comes this story:

Kisa Gotami had an only son, and he died. In her grief she carried the dead child to all her neighbors, asking them for medicine, and the people said: "She has lost her senses. The boy is dead. At length Kisa Gotami met a man who replied to her request: "I cannot give you medicine for your child, but I know a physician who can." The girl said: "Please tell me, sir; who is it?" And the man replied: "Go to Sakyamuni, the Buddha."

Kisa Gotami ran to the Buddha and cried: "Lord and Master, give me the medicine that will cure my boy." The Buddha answered: "I want a handful of mustard-seed." And when the girl in her joy promised to procure it, the Buddha added: "The mustard-seed must be taken from a house where no one has lost a child, husband, parent, or friend." Poor Kisa Gotami now went from house to house, and the people pitied her and said: "Here is mustard-seed; take it!" But when she asked, "Did a son or daughter, a father or mother, die in your family?" They answered her: "Alas the living are few, but the dead are many. Do not remind us of our deepest grief." And there was no house in which someone beloved one had not died.

Kisa Gotami became weary and hopeless, and sat down at the wayside, watching the lights of the city, as they flickered up and were extinguished again. At last the darkness of the night reigned everywhere. And she considered the fate of humanity, that our lives flicker up and are extinguished. And she thought to herself: "How selfish am I in my grief! Death is common to all; yet in this valley of desolation there is a path that leads to immortality if one surrenders all selfishness."

Just as in Midrash we get to determine the moral of the story, this Buddhist tale reaches its own conclusion. But one of my colleagues notice the almost Chassidic-like quality to the story, particularly of the visit from door to door, receiving a mustard-seed from each household. For me, it resonated with the famous story of the man who spoke harshly of another and was told to scatter a pillow-full of feathers in repentance - and then to collect the feathers. And it has a little bit of the classic tale "Stone Soup" mixed in - people suffering from hunger pool their resources and thus sustain the entire town. But here the impossible task produces the comforting result. Yes, every household knows grief. But every grief-stricken household produces a display of compassion and generosity. What Kisa Gotami collects is not a cure, but comfort. What she collects is not restoration, but renewal. What she collects is not compensation, but compassion.

The mustard seed is a favorite prop in a lot of traditions. In Christian Scripture it is described as the smallest of seeds that grows into the largest plant in the garden. In the writings of our sage Nachmanides, the Ramban, the Creation is described as beginning with a world the size of a mustard seed. In this story, the mustard seed is something of insignificance, something anyone can spare.

And I think that's the point. The cure, the restoration, the compensation Kisa Gotami seeks is impossible. But what she needs, as opposed to what she wants, is a small matter available from everyone she meets, just as she now has her own handful of mustard seeds for the traveler who will come to her door. The valley overshadowed by death described in our own Psalm 23 is present in this Buddhist tale as well, and there is nothing to fear because no one traverses that valley unaccompanied.

We have a tendency to look to holy figures from the past to teach us truths like this. We have a tendency to dismiss the words of people in public office as self-serving and rehearsed. And no doubt the demands of public life have a negative impact on the ability of politicians to seem genuine and sincere.

I am not commending or criticizing the whole of Vice-President Biden's persona to you. But I do want to suggest that a time from his life when he needed mustard seeds has produced an insight for him that has been valuable in too many situations for this country, and ought to be reassuring for us as we remember losses fresh and losses long ago.

A year ago, just at this time, he spoke with families of fallen troops. And he said these remarkable words, reported by "Politico.":

"It was the first time in my career, in my life, I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide," he said. "Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts, because they had been to the top of the mountain, and they just knew in their heart they would never get there again."

"I was down in Washington hiring my staff and I got a phone call, saying that my family had been in an accident," he said. "And just like you guys know by the tone of the phone call, you just knew. You knew when they walked up the path. You knew when the call came. You knew. You just felt it in your bones: Something bad happened. And I knew -- I don't know how I knew, but the caller said my wife is dead. My daughter is dead. And I wasn't sure how my sons were going to make it. They were Christmas shopping and a tractor trailer broadsided them.

"In one instant, killed two of them and, well..." Biden said, his voice trailing off before finishing the thought.

He was angry, he said, angry they were gone, angry at God, and he recalled walking through the rotunda at the Capitol, on his way home to identify the bodies.

"And I remember looking up and saying, `God,' I was, as if I was talking to God myself, `You can't be good, how can you be good?'"

Biden said he was lucky to have the support of his family, but as the days and weeks unfolded, it sometimes wasn't enough.

"There was still something gigantic missing," he said. "And just when you think, `Maybe I'm going to make it,' you're riding down the road and you pass a field, and you see a flower and it reminds you. Or you hear a tune on the radio. Or you just look up in the night. You know, you think, `Maybe I'm not going to make it, man.' Because you feel at that moment the way you felt the day you got the news."

And he said well-wishers would express their condolences and often tell him that they knew how he felt, something he resented.

"You knew they were genuine. But you knew they didn't have any damn idea, right?" Biden told attendees at the TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp in Arlington, Va. "That black hole you feel in your chest like you're being sucked back into it."

He said a phone call finally jolted him out of despair. It didn't take away his grief but showed him a path through it. Biden didn't identify the caller by name but said he was someone whose wife had also died suddenly. The caller told Biden to start marking in a calendar each day how he felt, and that, after a few months, he would find that he still had dark days but that they would grow fewer and further apart.

"He said, `That's when you know you're going to make it,''" Biden said.

Biden concluded his remarks with some advice: to keep in mind what late loved ones would have wanted and that loved ones who are alive still need you.

"Folks, it can and will get better," Biden said. "There will come a day - I promise you, and your parents as well - when the thought of your son or daughter, or your husband or wife, brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye. It will happen."

Mustard seeds. Calendar squares. Kind words. Phone calls. Each one a small thing, virtually without inherent value, and yet, in the aggregate, they rescue us from the darkness that threatens. They accompany us through the valley. And while our tradition makes its own contribution through kaddish and candles and yizkor, the fact is a mustard seed from anyone's home will serve the purpose.

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