Rabbi David Ellenson, PhD & Chancellor Arnold Eisen, PhD – March 15, 2019
From the astoundz
We know Billy Crystal as a very funny man. He’s also an introspective Jewish man. In his book, “700 Sundays”, he wrote about his father’s funeral and the first day of shiva. He recalled that he sat with his grandfather in the living room of the family home. Together, they watched people come and go in and out of the house. He observed that no one wanted to say anything to anyone. It used to be a lively house filled with friends and family. Now, he noted, it felt more like a funeral home with strange customs and awkward pauses. More than one person looked at them and said, “Time would heal. Time would heal.” Finally, Billy’s grandfather turned to him and said, “[I’ll tell you what time is;] time is a bastard. When you’re sad there’s too much of it; and when you’re happy there’s never enough.”
Eventually, Crystal dealt with the death of his father, personally. He compared the horrible heavy feeling to a big boulder he carried around with him everywhere he went. The size and weight of the boulder was an enormous burden of sadness. When he woke up in the morning, he could barely get out of bed because it sat on top of him. In his work, every natural instinct to get things done was made harder. In every place he went the seat next to him, which was supposed to be for a friend, was filled with his boulder of grief. No one else could see it. Only he saw it and felt it. Only he could despise it.
For Crystal, the boulder began to crumble when he recalled the time his mother asked him about his life. She asked him, “Billy, are you happy?” Are you happy with the choices you made and with the people you made them?” He said to his mother, “[Yes], I am.” She did him a favor that he didn’t expect. She pointed him in the direction he needed to go in.
His parents weren’t going to be there for him, forever; their role was always to help him make his own choices and find his own happiness. So, when she asked, “Are you happy?” she was pleased to know that he was; and that his father, of blessed memory, could rest in peace. More than ever, he valued his parents’ role and especially his father’s memory for the joy they helped him find for himself in his own life. Joy was all they wanted for him and his brothers. Now, when he thought about his childhood home, Billy Crystal accepted that the house was gone now and so were its occupants. It was sold. But, he wrote with brilliant poignancy, “It doesn’t [really] belong to new owners. I can close my eyes and go there anytime.” Isn’t that wonderful? The house will always be his and so will his family that lived there. Only he can see inside its living past. It’s like a game he plays with death and wins every time.
The blessing of memory helps us reclaim what death cannot take from us, too. It’s the familiar voice, the beautiful face, and the special moments. But, some of us have been carrying our own boulders around for a long time. I understand it. When we grieve deeply, we live in a veiled world that weighs upon us. Everything takes energy we don’t have, and, for the foreseeable future, seems unavailable to us. Even when our home is filled with people, we might feel terribly alone. When we listen to others we might not really hear. We might feel disoriented.
You’ve told me, yourselves, that the phone doesn’t ring or the text message doesn’t come the way it used to. Familiar and easy conversations don’t happen between you and anybody else the way it did with them. And, yet, our reflexes are still active. We can’t stop feeling like the phone will ring or buzz. We can’t help but turn and talk as if our beloved is still there ready to reply. Maybe we thought that it would have been easier. It’s not easy to learn that the future will never be exactly the same again.
But, our antidote to such grief is not mythology or superstition. Judaism helps us retrieve from death that which can never be taken away from us. Ironically, death can make even more vivid precious memories of our beloved. Suddenly, it isn’t the moment of death that we recall, but rather all the times we did share. They are the times that made us who we were, together, and who we are still on our way to becoming. We wouldn’t have traded them for anything. What we had was good even when it wasn’t great; and, if we’re fair about the past we may even say that it was great sometimes.
Eventually, if we let it happen, our boulder crumbles, too. The pieces do break away. We get out of bed in the morning with a little less difficulty. We leave the house and make our way without an anchor around our feet. And, when we spend time with friends and family the seat next to us is filled with more smiles and greater laughter again. So, what happened to all those broken pieces of the boulder that once held us back? I’m uncomfortable with the idea that they simply disappeared. Then we might conclude that that boulder wasn’t ever real. But, it was real, even if no one else could see it.
I prefer to believe that the broken pieces are memories. They help us orient to our changed environment. I also believe that the broken pieces are the small stones we still carry with us to the cemetery. Every time we lay a stone on the grave, the burden of our grief lifts a little more. The death of our beloved, though real, cannot deprive us of what they helped us become in their lifetime and what we must now continue to become in ours. They are only gone if we exclude them from our thoughts and memories. The weight of the stones in our hands, borne by us, alone, is transferred now to the earth. The burden is lightened. The earth bears its weight now. Our beloved is remembered and we, freer to move about, make our way, as we go forth in peace, to life.
Yizkor, this time set aside for remembering, turns us to each other, a congregation of mourners who seek God’s blessing on their beloved. So we pray: O God, remember our loved ones, the men, women, and children, who graced our days, that we may know that love once shared in this world is a love that endures in the peace of life eternal. May you embrace them, God, as they once embraced us; love them as they loved us; and, then with grateful hearts, may we all be comforted. Amen.