Parting's Sweet Sorrow
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This past August, while our own children were off at summer camp, Debbie and I hosted our annual send-off for the families of college-bound students. All the parents exchanged stories of the ease with which our children went off to camp or college and the emotional ordeal of being the parent left behind. Each separation, one parent related to me, was incremental preparation for the next more painful separation. But those separations, that parent went on to explain, are required if it is the growth of our beloved children that we are seeking. From the cutting of the umbilical cord right up to marriage itself, separation and self-reliance, letting go and growing up are necessary and interdependent steps in creating resilient, independent and self-confident individuals. Not unlike – in fact, exactly like – in the Bible, from the limits of Eden to the border of the Promised Land, God’s children venture forth into the unknown. Do we want to let go? Does God? Of course not. And the truth is, we never get used to it. But let go we must. So we resist and beg our loved ones to stay just for a short while more.
And now, as we arrive at Yizkor, we are asked to draw on a similar feeling. For what is true for our visits with the living is also true for the memories of the loved ones we recall today. The tablecloths, traditions, melodies and memories of these holidays are being packed up. What is Yizkor if not the opportunity to linger for a time with the memories of our dearly beloved? Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, husbands and wives – they are always in our thoughts. Their yahrzeits are annual reminders of the gaping loss left by their death. But today at Yizkor, especially on this day of Shemini Atzeret, we are asked to breathe in the memory of their lives, to dwell, as it were, in the sweet shadow of their abiding presence, and to reflect and appreciate how we continue to be shaped by the example they left. A quiet word of advice that continues to guide us. A commitment to a cause that we have now made one of our own priorities. An innocence of spirit or courage of heart that they were able to maintain, to which we will ever continue to aspire. Are there tears at Yizkor? Of course there are. But Yizkor is also a precious gift. It does not last forever. We savor this time to drink from the cup of memory, knowing that only too soon, we will, like the children in Rashi’s parable, be on our way once again.
A final thought. Shemini Atzeret teaches us that as strong as our yearning for God may be, equally strong if not stronger is God’s yearning for us. By extension, this moment of Yizkor similarly calls on us to draw close to the memory of our loved ones – jealous of every second – even in the awareness that it is fleeting. But maybe, perhaps, there exists a third quiet message of our Shemini Atzeret parable. God is still God and we are still God’s children, but the feast refers not only to the festive season now passed, but to the passing season of our own mortality. What is life if not an invitation from the divine to enjoy the fruits of this world while we may? Psalm 27, the psalm of the season, expresses that each one of us seeks God’s nearness, wanting nothing more than to be taken into God’s dwelling. Our stay there, we know, will not be forever. As in the case of those we remember now, every life has its limits. God knows this better than anyone, and is likewise jealous for every moment we can be brought close to our Creator’s presence. So we hear God’s voice imploring us to draw near, to live as long as we can, as honorably as we can, as closely as we can, to the divine image in which we were created. Some day, one day, we will have to leave, and God will have to let go. But until that time, we can grab hold of the memories of our loved ones and to the opportunity of our existence, and in doing so be assured that in the generations to come, it will be memories of each one of us that will be worthy to reside in the hearts and souls of those who will follow.