Delivered on Yom Kippur, Yizkor, 5777; October 12, 2016
Walt Whitman once wrote, “They are alive and well somewhere, / The smallest sprout shows there is really no death, / And if there ever was, it led forward life, / and does not wait at the end to arrest it, / And ceased the moment life appear’d.”
Yes, “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death.” We are a part of a cycle, a turning. Even when we cease to be but a memory, our energy generates new life in the smallest sprout. We are a part of the natural cycle that continues to spiral forward in life. When one’s life comes to a close, her memory can continue to energize the lives of those who remain. Such a task is not grand or lofty. It is evidenced in the smallest sprout that shoots up in the Spring.
In this regenerative cycle of life and death, of love and loss, we return to the place of memory, in order to both look back and look ahead. Meaning is in this place, because we value the memories, and we pray that those memories are small seeds, there to be planted and to show that the smallest sprout can grow.
A memory has generated in me a small sprout of a thought that continues to grow. My grandmother of blessed memory once told my mother that a parent’s job is to make memories. My mother shared this lesson with me, with my brother, with our family, as we sat with my folk’s rabbi preparing for my grandmother’s funeral service. When you think you have heard all the stories, all the lessons, all the memories, a short impactful sentence like that comes up, and plants a seed that rests there until ready to germinate. As Liz and I prepare to welcome in a new baby, and we take on the mantle of parents, I continue to meditate on my grandmother’s lesson. It is a seed that is getting ready to sprout. I can hear her say it with her own voice, her arms lovingly wrapped around me like she did, “A parent’s job is to make memories.”
The cycle of loss in our Jewish tradition has great wisdom in its organization. After we lose someone, we move from shiva through shloshim and then month-by-month through twelve months of reciting Kaddish. At the close of that period, we hold an unveiling, in which we dedicate a matzeivah, a marker for the person’s memory.
Several years ago, I had come to a cemetery to be with a family for this unveiling service. I knew the family, and had officiated at the funeral, but had never met the person who had died. Through the memories that we shared in preparation for the funeral, the family told me a little bit about who she was, what her legacy was, and what they were hoping to carry forward about her in their own lives. She was someone who loved colorful art. She had tried painting. What she created were big splotches of color on canvas that vibrated with energy. To hear her family describe it, she lived her life with the same vibrancy.
As I made my way through the unveiling liturgy, the family offered some memories. One granddaughter who was a talented singer sang a song that she and her grandmother would stand in the kitchen singing together while they cooked for family meals. After concluding with kaddish, when I invited the family to symbolically place stones on the marker, they all smiled and laughed through their tears. Someone produced a small grocery bag, passing it around. Each person in the family reached in, and pulled out a unique rock that had been painted in gaudy, bright colors. These stones had been prepared just for her. They were painted in the same style she lived, and many of the children and grandchildren had painted messages about her, on the stones, as well.
“They are alive and well somewhere, / The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,” Whitman said.
We each carry memories of our loved ones who are no longer physically with us. But through memory, it is as if they could be. Even in death, they continue to teach us, to offer seeds that sprout with new energy and growth. We, the ever diligent gardeners, know that we must continue to come back to this place, to this time, year after year, to sow those seeds if we want to see those sprouts.
We must recognize that not all relationships are easy; some are painful. Not all are examples by which to live. This has an energy of its own. Some were taken too soon; some in violence or in pain. One loss cannot be compared to another, because just as each precious life is unique, so is the memory. We honor the many ways we each need to go about remembering and go about memorializing.
As we reflect on those whom we have loved and whom we have lost, may their memories continue to endure and energize us, toward new life.