In honor of tonight’s airing of the final episode of the TV series: The Good Place, I am posting a sermon I delivered before the Yizkor, Memorial Service on Yom Kippur 2010. I would love to read responses and your own stories! (There are no spoilers- you can read this before you watch the show.)
Before I begin my remarks, I want to acknowledge my Rabbinic colleague, Rabbi Elie Spitz who was, I believe, the first Conservative Rabbi to address the issue I will address today. He relates that it took courage for him to do. I completely understand his feelings.
I also wish to express my appreciation to a few friends in this congregation and beyond who also encouraged my thinking and my speaking and teaching about my thoughts. Thank you.
Yizkor is a time for stories – those we tell with a smile or a tear, and those which, for whatever reason, we choose to keep to ourselves.
This morning, I want to share a story with you. It has a few laughs, a few tears, and it is definitely a story that I cannot keep to myself.
I have told it to a few of you already and never really considered telling it in such a public way. However, the more I thought about the story and the impact it had on me, the more difficult I found it to speak on anything else this morning.
I am keenly aware that there is an inherent risk in my telling this story at this time. But the best sermons are the ones that come with a bit of risk and push all of our boundaries a bit.
My story is absolutely true in every detail and in every nuance. It is a story of an event which moved me this past year like none other did. It is a story the likes of which, I am sure, many of you could tell and I want you to view my telling this story as encouragement for you to tell your story if you have been reluctant to do so. I certainly believe these stories are deeply “Jewish” stories, consistent with our tradition and our perspective on life and on death. I hope all of you will share your stories with me.
As you know, I received an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary this past May for serving more than 25 years in the Rabbinate. You may not know that my brother, Charley, received the same honorary degree for the same reason at the same ceremony. In March, two months before the convocation, Charley and I received an email from the public events office of JTS.
The email was prompted by the fact that there was a discrepancy in the material that we had submitted for our diplomas. We had been asked for our parents’ Hebrew names and my brother and I had each spelled our mother’s name differently. My mother’s Hebrew name, or Yiddish name to be precise, was Ginessa and neither of us really knew how to spell it. My brother and I had spelled it differently when we filled out the forms for our original diplomas two years apart in the 1980s and, although we had come to an agreement more than twenty years later on how to spell it on her headstone, this year, for some reason, we each used our original and inconsistent spellings of the name. JTS, known for its academic honesty and intellectual precision, wanted to know what to do. Could we possibly choose one of the spellings in order to be consistent?
I found this extraordinarily funny and called my brother and he was already laughing hysterically for the same reason. We both kept picturing our father, alav hashalom, laughing at us for not checking with each other, and our mother, aleha hashalom, smiling with a bemused expression deriving great satisfaction from the fact that she was the subject of such a confusion. She would have thought it was so ironic, having the name she never liked as the issue of a great Jewish academic debate.
My brother and I then spent some time reminiscing, laughing through a few tears because we knew the timing was perfect as the next night was Mom’s fifth yahrzeit.
We decided to ask JTS to keep the machloket (an academic disagreement) going and to spell the name differently on the two diplomas.
As the day wore on my laughter began to turn to real and deep sadness. I have this midlife orphan stuff down pretty well; but every once in a while it gets to me, and this was one of those days. All that I kept thinking about, all day long, was that in the 5 years since her death, my mother had already missed 4 simchas: our kids’ bar and bat mitzvah and the weddings of my brother’s two daughters. And I realized she would not be present at the ceremony which, with all due respect to my kids and my nieces, would probably have meant more to her than any of the others – seeing her two “boys” together on the stage receiving these degrees.
I couldn’t get this sadness out of my mind all day. It was a miserable day and just before I left for shul, I checked my email and read the response from JTS. They were willing to suspend academic correctness and glad to help continue the family tradition of different spellings. What a relief!
I was about to turn off the computer when suddenly a word flashed into my head for the first time in years.
The word will not be familiar to most of you, but those of you who grew up in Boston around the same time I did or before may recognize it so I will mention it for the sake of completeness and to show those of you who are familiar with it how unlikely a word it would have been to pop into my mind on a March afternoon in Ann Arbor in the year 2010.
The word was Norumbega.
Norumbega Park was an amusement park a few miles from where I grew up. Now there is a Marriott hotel there on the Charles River right near Brandeis University. I know I went to Norumbega when I was a little kid. We rode the merry go round and we fed the ducks on the river, but I don’t remember it well; the park closed when I was about 6 or 7.
As I sat at the computer I started thinking about one building at the park called the Totem Pole Dance Hall. I never went there of course, but I remember it because it had remained open – or at least the sign remained visible – after the rest of the park closed. I had a mental image of the sign on the front of the building and I wondered that afternoon whether it was as I remembered. So I went to Google and typed in Norumbega; and sure enough a few entries down the list, after the Norumbega Boy Scout Council and the Norumbega Apartments, I saw a website for “Memories of Norumbega Park”. I clicked on it and there were 6 or 7 different “folders” of material. I went to one randomly and it included a section called “Archival Pictures”. I clicked on that link and 5 thumbnail pictures came up, pictures so small you can’t really see too much detail.
None looked like it was a picture of the Totem Pole and time was getting short, so I started to leave the website. But then my attention was drawn for some reason to one of the pictures. I couldn’t figure out what was happening in the picture and it looked intriguing, so I clicked on it.
The picture was of a woman looking at animals on display at the park’s small zoo.
And I nearly fainted.
For the woman in the picture was the exact double of my mother: the build, posture, the hair, the facial expression, the clothes, everything – absolutely uncanny similarity.
I was alone in the house and was frantic. I did not what to do or to say. I printed the picture out and took it and my hands were shaking. A few minutes later, Ellen walked in from walking the dog and I called her in and said: “Look at this”. She looked at the picture and said, and I quote: “I never saw this picture of Gert”.
I sent it to my brother on email with a topic: “Sit down for this one.”
He called me one minute later – a record for him – and said: “This is incredible. It isn’t her, is it?” I said: “I don’t think so, the dates don’t match”. But, then he said: “Either way, it’s incredible”.
And then he asked me, as he always does when I send him unusual stuff from the Internet: “How did you ever find this?”
And as one academically and rationally JTS-trained Litvak Rabbi would say to another, I answered him: “Who knows?”
But after I hung up the phone, I took a deep breath and admitted to myself that that wasn’t the right answer.
There was only one right answer.
I have no doubt whatsoever that this was not a coincidence. Ani Ma’amin b’emunah shlayma…I believe with perfect faith that in some way, my mother led me to find that picture.
I have always believed in existence after death and since my parents’ death, I have believed in it even more strongly. I have no idea what that existence is and I assure you I am in no hurry to find out. I have felt my parents’ presence in dreams and, occasionally, in an unquantifiable feeling which I can’t describe. But now, after my Norumbega experience, I believe something else.
I believe that in ways I wouldn’t even pretend to understand or even try to explain, those whom we love can and do occasionally let us know that they are still with us.
I know some of you accept this- you’ve experienced it as I have. But I also know that many of you can’t believe what you are hearing. So be it. Last year, I would have been fascinated by the story, as I have been with stories of this kind for years; but I would have looked for other explanations or just chalked it up to coincidence or wish fulfillment. I no longer look for other explanations. I believe because it has happened to me.
I have not changed my beliefs about death and mourning since this experience. I still believe that death is an end. And it is still so very, very sad. There is nothing that can replace having our loved ones sitting beside us, living and breathing and smiling as they look into our eyes; that all ends with death. And so despite what I have experienced, it has not changed the way I look at mourning or how I will guide you when, God forbid, you experience the death of a loved one The funeral will be just as difficult, the sadness just as intense, the goodbyes just as final and no anticipation of such a moment as I described will soften the blow of death.
But I have taken tremendous comfort in this experience and I believe that if you are open to this type of experience and allow yourself the freedom of accepting something which can’t be explained but which feels so very real, you will know what it really means when we say the dead are with us bitzror hahayim, in the bond of life, and you will find it a comfort beyond any that you could have imagined.
If it has happened to you, I would love to hear about it.
To all of you, trust me, it happens. And I believe it is real.
And maybe it has happened many more times, but in my rational stubbornness I missed it. Maybe you’ve missed it as well. This year, starting now, open your eyes, your ears, your heart, your mind and see if it in fact happens to you.
And maybe next year at Yizkor, when we say: “Our loved ones are with us in the bond of life”, you will quietly and simply nod your head through the tears and say: “Yes, they most certainly are … and I have a story to prove it”.