Part Five
A Sermon for the Yizkor Memorial Service 5776
September 23, 2015

Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn
Congregation Temple Sinai

Every year it means a lot to me that we are here together, “as the closing hour draws nigh.” That’s how the old union prayer book used to express it.

During these 28 years you and I have been together, hundreds of times, rabbi and congregant, we have stood before an open grave. Many tears have been shed, but we also remember as well that throughout some of those tears there has also been some fantastic and totally appropriate laughter for people who were truly unforgettable characters, and who were just too big to die. But of course, they did.

So, we have said our farewells to beloved grandparents, to our unique mothers and fathers, to brothers and sisters, to husbands and wives, and, way too many times, we have laid a child to rest.

I am mindful also, how during these years since 1987, you have comforted us, Andrea and me, when we have said our painful farewells to our own parents too. We returned home to Maryland and to Ohio to bury our parents and precious relatives of their generation – our aunts and uncles, and also some unforgettable mentors whose loyal friendship and patient, forgiving instruction taught us lessons more valued than can be expressed. But they all still tenderly speak to us, don’t you find? You have such people too, don’t you – teachers, friends, associates. You know what I mean. As the Prayer Book affirms: “They still live on earth in the acts of goodness they performed and in the hearts of those who cherish their memory.” Which is not to say, of course, that their passing is not painful to us.

The Irish poet, Sidney Lysaght captures the predicament we all share when we give our hearts away, writing:

If love should count you worthy, and should deign
One day to seek your door and be your guest,
Pause! Ere you draw the bolt and bid him rest,
If in your old content you would remain.

For not alone he enters; in his train
Are angels in the mists, the lonely quest,
Dreams of the unfulfilled and unpossessed.
And sorrow, and life’s immemorial pain.

He wakes desires you never may forget,
He shows you stars you never saw before,
He makes you share with him forevermore,
The burden of the world’s divine regret.
How wise were you to open not! And yet,
How poor if you should turn him from the door.

Yes, how poor our lives would be, had we not made time and place for love.

I would call him the greatest Rabbinic Sage of the 20th century – I speak of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel used to teach:

There are three ways to mourn.
The first is to cry. The second is to grow silent. The third is to transform sorrow into song.

Now, how do we do that? What does Rabbi Heschel mean about transforming “sorrow into song”? We cry, of course, some of us more, some of us less, when we lose a precious love. We sometimes then retreat into a stony silence, a numbness causing us to back away from what now seems like the absurd and ridiculous busyness of life.

We also, as we grieve, learn a thing or two and actually attain unto a more knowing and appreciative embrace of life. No one caught this transformation better than Robert Browning Hamilton when he said:

I walked a mile with pleasure,
She chattered all the way,
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.

I walked a mile with sorrow,
And n’er a word said she,
But oh the things I learned from her
When sorrow walked with me. (Robert Browning Hamilton)

The lessons of grief often prove worthy of our lingering long enough to learn them. Sorrow is a great teacher! And chief among its lessons, according to poet Mary Oliver, is that life must go on and we must be prepared to answer this question:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?”

In the late Marvin Hamlisch’s brilliant musical, “A Chorus Line,” do you remember when Zack, the Broadway director, in the midst of a tension filled competitive audition, poses this question to the dancers who are so intent on getting a part?

If today were the day you had to stop dancing, how would you feel?

And Diana answers him singing that beautiful song: “What I Did for Love,”

But I can’t regret
What I did for love,…
Gone, love is never gone.
As we travel on,
Love’s what we’ll remember

I believe that that is true. And this moment testifies to that fact: Love is what we will remember.

Asra Nomani found it impossible to mourn the loss of her dear friend and colleague, Danny Pearl. Pearl, of course, was that Wall Street Journal reporter who was beheaded in 2002, purportedly by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. She writes that after attending Mohammed’s 2012 arraignment at Guantanamo for the World Trade Center attacks, she posed this question to psychologist Steven Stosny, a question which she had long avoided but desperately needed to ask: “Tell me, what is grief?”

The doctor told her quite simply, “Grief is an expression of love. When you grieve, you allow yourself to love again.”

She interrupted the psychologist asking, “Well, how then do you grieve?” And he answered, “You celebrate a person’s life by living your life fully.”

Look through all of these names in our Memorial Book. How did they get there? They got there because you remembered them and were kind enough to include them on this sacred day. You knew that they had stories to tell and wisdom to impart, and there were things that surely they did for love. And, no doubt, they had their share of regrets and were not always at their best. But, hey, they were a big part of your story too.

The Psalmist teaches: “We bring our years to an end as a tale that is told.” Now, their story is done and it is an unfinished story as is every one of our lives. But ours, ours is still an exciting drama in progress. We have talked together about life and death. Once again, you made it here for this one time in a year intimate service when hearts dare speak to hearts. Is there anything more important for us to say in the end than what that grieving friend was taught by the psychologist? We celebrate a person’s life by living our life fully. Let us be sure that we do just that.
With all my love –