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To Gather and Be Gathered

Yizkor * Shemini Atzeret 5780

October 24, 2019

“Open closed open. Before we are born, everything is open
in the universe without us. For as long as we live, everything is closed within us.
And when we die, everything is open again.
Open closed open. That’s all we are.”

 Yehuda Amichai

Erin Williams Hyman wrote:

 “I love this piece of poetry of [Yehuda Amichai] and I think about it all the time—the way before our existence we are part of the limitless pulse of energy, and how we are returned to it after the short parenthesis that is our individual bounded life. In this vision, death is like a new breath, a universal exhale, a release back into the all.”

Erin was a writer and editor, a mother of two, who died on September 18th, 2014 at the age of 42. When Erin was first diagnosed with breast cancer, she started a blog called “B’Matzav,” for “reflection on healing, thriving, and parenting with breast cancer, from a Jewish perspective.” She shared these words about Yehuda Amichai’s poem in a eulogy she wrote for a friend and posted on her blog. Her family shared these words in their eulogy for Erin.

Sitting with the mystery of what happens to us when we die, I am moved by Erin’s notion that we are returned to the all of existence, reunited with the endless energy of the world.

It evokes for me the language used in the Torah to describe the moment of death of our ancestors, including the end of life for Avraham Ya’akov, and Aharon. 

 וַיָּמָת אַבְרָהָם בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה, זָקֵן וְשָׂבֵעַ; וַיֵּאָסֶף, אֶל-עַמָּיו.

And Abraham died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people. (Genesis 25:8)

Va-ye-a-sef el amav,” the Torah records. “And Avraham was gathered to his kin, to his people.”

What is the destiny of our souls when we die? Who do we become to our people, to our peoples, to our family, our community, our world, to our ancestors and our descendants? Who are we to those who have already left this world and to those we leave behind here?

Commenting on the meaning of the phrase “Va’ye-a-sef el amav,” that Avraham was gathered to his people, Sforno teaches – “ne’esaf el tzrur ha’hayyyim l’hayyei ha’olam im tzadikei hadorot,” – Avraham was gathered into the bonds of life for eternal life with the righteous people of all the generations.” The one and only Avraham became one with all those who came before him and all who were yet to come.

This past Elul, my family lost our beautiful matriarch, my Great Aunt Ruth Mendelson, at 100 years old. As Aunt Ruth was drawing closer to the end of her life, the line between this world and the next began to blur. Often, Aunt Ruth would describe how her grandparents and parents and siblings who had died, were coming into the room to pay her a visit. Her beloved relatives were coming to gather her in and bring her home. 

This is not an uncommon experience for those who are dying. David Kessler, an educator on the topics of grief and death, wrote a book called Visions, Trips, and Crowded Rooms: Who and What You See Before You Die, in which he describes his father’s experience at the end of his life, as he was visited by his wife and mother who had passed away years earlier. Kessler spoke with a number of caregivers, medical professionals, hospice nurses and clergy and learned that many people had witnessed similar phenomena as they accompanied relatives and patients transitioning between worlds. For Kessler, this notion of people being visited and gathered in by deceased loved ones was profoundly hopeful. It gave him faith that there is more than what we see here in this world. It affirmed a belief for him that nothing and no one is lost and that we are all eternally connected.

My Aunt Ruth, of blessed memory, had an unbelievable memory. There is a story I have been thinking about this month:

Labor Day Weekend, seven years ago, Yosef and I are in the car, on our way back from a wedding. We are following highways, making our way out of Connecticut. Every few hundred feet, a tree calls to us from the side of the road. Already, there are branches that boast patches of orange and yellow. Yosef notices a green sign on the side of the road –  Moodus – 2 miles. Moodus, Connecticut.

Moodus. My Great Aunt Ruth, my grandmother, Ann, and my Great Uncle Al grew up there. My great grandparents had a Bungalow Colony there where people came to vacation in the summer. My great grandfather, Mike Elkin, sold eggs wholesale. I grew up hearing stories of my great grandmother Bertha’s sponge cake, the dozens of eggs she opened into each loaf, the cracked ones that my great grandpa couldn’t sell. My mom and her cousins still joke about how it was a wonder nobody got salmonella all those years.

We turn off the highway toward Moodus and Yosef and I have no idea where to go. I am eager to uncover the memories of my family. My whole life I have felt a strong connection to my grandmother, Ann, my namesake. I never met her. She died of breast cancer when my mother was barely thirteen years old. After her mother died, my mother spent many summers in Moodus. At last, we have made it to Moodus, and we see only a lumber-yard, a boarded up gas station, a Dunkin Donuts.  

So we call my Aunt Ruth, who at the time is 93 years old. She is so happy to hear we are in in Moodus. I ask her, “What is the address of the house where you and Uncle Al and my grandmother grew up?” I’m all ready to plug it into the smart-phone, to the GPS.  But Aunt Ruth responds, “We didn’t have addresses back then.” 

“Tell me where you are. What do you see?” 

We explain as best we can. And she guides us up and down hills, past a Catholic church and a cemetery, to where the synagogue used to be. It’s a two story building, like she describes. “The women sat upstairs. My mother baked for the kiddush.” Only it’s a house now. It’s a brown and yellow building. There’s a rusty car outside, stripped of tires, under repair. I look for signs that it was a synagogue once.  I see only a sign on the outside of the house that reads “Poop Deck.” I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry.

Then Aunt Ruth directs us to her house. “Now keep going down – make a right, and that was our house.” There are six tiny houses gathered nearby – the Bungalows. My mother says they used to be named for her and her cousins. We knock on the door, trying to see if we can get inside. There is no answer. Finally a man comes out from one of the small houses. “Can I help you?” he asks. I’m not sure what to say . . . “My great grandparents used to live here . . .” I explain. To him, we are strangers. I leave a note for the landlords – explaining that I am Mike Elkin’s great grand-daughter, that I happened upon this place, that the property is beautiful . . . We call Aunt Ruth and we stay on the line with her as she directs us to the cemetery.  She guides us through the maps of her memory. . . We place stones on the graves of my great grandparents.  

At Jewish cemeteries, many monuments are inscribed with the Hebrew letters – nun, tzadi, bet, hey – “teheye nishmatah tsrurah b’tsror ha-hayyim.” May her soul be bound up in the bonds of life. This inscription is connected with the custom of placing stones on the graves of loved ones. The word tsrur, in Hebrew, in addition to meaning bond, means pebble. 

On Yom Kippur I shared a teaching about this custom from Rabbi David Wolpe, who writes: 

“In ancient times, shepherds needed a system to keep track of their flocks. On some days, they would go out to pasture with a flock of 30; on others, a flock of 10. Memory was an unreliable way of keeping tabs on the number of the flock. As a result, the shepherd would carry a sling over his shoulder, and in it he would keep the number of pebbles that cor­responded to the number in his flock. That way he could at all times have an accurate daily count.

When we place stones on the grave and inscribe the motto above on the stone, we are asking God to keep the departed’s soul in His sling. Among all the souls whom God has to watch over, we wish to add the name–the “pebble”–of the soul of our departed.” 

As we mourn and as we remember, we call out to El Maleh Rachamim:

God, full of compassion, we pray, may no soul be forgotten. May the souls of our loved ones be gathered in and held in the all of existence. All of us, the living, the survivors – we are God’s partners in the work of gathering. As we pray for the souls of our loved ones to be remembered above, we put in the work down below to turn memory to blessing. To harvest the wisdom and the teaching and the soul footprints of those who have died. To retrace their steps. To keep their presence close to us. To live in such a way that their lives become a source of nourishment for us and for the world.

We have just finished a week-long celebration of the festival of Sukkot. One of the names for the holiday given in the Torah is Hag Ha-Asif, the Festival of Ingathering. The holiday comes at the end of the growing season for fruit and grains. It marks the culmination of the harvest. During the time of the Temple, it was also the most popular of the pilgrimage festivals, with the greatest number of people gathering together in Jerusalem, bringing 70 bullocks, the largest number of offerings of any festival. The Talmud teaches that these offerings were brought on behalf of all nations and all peoples.  We are all connected, the festival teaches. 

During the past week, we have gathered together in the shelter of our Sukkot. We have welcomed in the presence of ushpizin, holy ancestors. We have welcomed in neighbors and community members of all faiths and backgrounds. In our hands, we have brought together bundles of willow, myrtle, palm and etrog. This Hag Ha-Asif has kept us busy gathering; And living, with the awareness that all of creation is tied together.

Today, the eighth day, the culmination of our holiday season, comes also as preparation for parting ways. It may be hard to believe – after a month thick with chagim, that our streak of yamim tovim will indeed end this week. We will return to our individual, parenthetical lives. But we will take with us the reverberations of the festival;

the abundance of the harvest spun into memory. 

the aftertaste of a freshly-picked apple dipped in honey, 

the feeling of raindrops falling through skhakh

the echo of the shofar calling out to our Compassionate God – Avinu/Malkeinu! 

El Maleh Rachamim – Remember us for life and for good!

May these memories of the season be nourishment for us to carry us through the days and months ahead – to remind us that, as Erin Williams put it, we are part of “the limitless pulse of energy.” We are always part of the all.

As we now enter the space of Yizkor, we link ourselves with the memories of our loved ones who have died. 

Parents and siblings, partners and children. 

So conscious of their absence, we search for their presence around us and within us. 

May our memories of them nurture us and bring us blessing. And while each of us sits alone with our experience of grief, may we know that we and they are held and gathered in each moment.