My mother’s Yahrzeit begins tomorrow evening.
I’ve never observed a Yahrzeit.
Until this year, I also never participated in the Yizkor service. Yizkor is a memorial service with many different customs. Growing up, in my synagogue, it was customary for all those with living parents to leave the sanctuary during the service. There are many different schools of thought as to why. Some also say that you should not attend a Yizkor service within the first year of mourning because it’s too emotional when everything is so recent.
I can confirm that part is indeed true. It is extemely emotional to sit in a service dedicated to remembering your loved ones when you have just lost one of the people you loved most in the world. I bawled (and I’m talking uncontrolled sobbing, tears streaming down my face sobbing) during the Rabbi’s Yizkor sermon. Never before have I cried so much during a service. Never before have I felt like the Rabbi was speaking to me, like he could read my mind, until I listened to his sermon during Yizkor.
I was so moved by the sermon, that I emailed to tell him and to ask if he would be willing to share a copy with me.
I’d like to share the sermon with you here. The following is the sermon as read by Rabbi Scott Rosenberg at Har Zion Temple, Yom Kippur 5778.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah! I hope everyone is finding meaning in this most sacred day.
In a few moments we are going recite Yizkor, the memorial prayer. We will take our Yizkor books in hand, turn the pages, recite the words and review many of the names that this sacred community recalls this holiest day of the year. This hour is dedicated to memory, it is a time filled with emotions and it is a time filled with questions.
The Yizkor service opens with a powerful question: Adonai Ma adam vataydaehu, Adonai, what are human beings that you take account of them, mortals that you care for them? Humans are like a breath, their days like a passing shadow. We know our time on this earth is limited and we know the feelings of sadness and grief that are associated with loss. Today, we come together as a community of understanding, surrounding ourselves with others who have walked the path of loss. We are here to support each other. We are here to ponder life and its meaning. So today, as we prepare to recite Yizkor, I want to ask us a very real and difficult question, it’s a painful question: “How many times in your life have you really grieved?”
I know that relatives and friends have died and you have felt sad, or angry, or confused. But for many, if not most, it didn’t take long, a few days, or at most a week, and you were back to almost normal, absorbed in living your life. You might not have admitted it to anyone, even yourself, but you coped, you went on, you were ok.
Over the years, I have talked with a lot of people about the difference between sadness and real grief.
Here is what I call real grief: even years later, you find yourself staring at the wall or out the window and you don’t even know where you are or what you’re doing. This is deep, wrenching grief. You’re crying and you don’t even know it. You look at photographs with a lump in your throat. Years after their deaths, you look at everyone sitting at the Pesach Seder and all you want in the world is for that loved one to be there, just for one night, even if it means they’d criticize the brisket.
Maybe you’ve never had that kind of mourning, and if not, you’ve been lucky.
But if even one time in your life you were destroyed by a person’s death, I want to share a story with you. It’s not my story. It’s a story that was recommended to me by a friend who had suffered real grief.
It’s actually a children’s book called Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss by Pat Schwiebert and Chuck DeKlyen. Here is the story.
Once, there was an old, wise woman named Grandy. Grandy, had just suffered a big loss in her life so she decided to make tear soup from scratch. For many years, the custom of making tear soup had been forgotten. People found that it was easier to just take a can from the shelf and heat it up.
Grandy decided that this approach was not for her so she went home and pulled out a big pot, big enough for all of the memories, all the misgivings, all the feelings and all the tears she needed to stew in the pot over time. You see, grief takes longer to cook than anyone thinks it will.
She put on her apron because she knew it would get messy. Grief is never clean. People feel misunderstood, feelings get hurt and wrong assumptions are made all the time.
And then Grandy started to cry. She sobbed. She wept quietly, and sometimes, when she was alone in her car or in a place where no one else could hear her, she wailed. She needed to make the tear soup by herself. People have a hard time seeing tears.
But when she tasted a sip of the broth, all she could taste was salt from her teardrops. It tasted bitter. Some of the memories she stirred in were bad and sad, but some of them were good or even silly.
Over time, she stirred in many different memories. But then she ran out of things to add. And in a way this was worse. She felt cold and empty; the pain she was feeling was indescribable.
What was strange to her was that when she looked out the window, she was surprised to see how the rest of the world was going on as usual while her world had stopped.
Grandy had friends who meant well, they filled the air with words, but none of their words took the smell of tear soup away. Grandy was gracious because she knew how her friends felt. They wanted to help, but they couldn’t.
Sometimes she would ask people, “Care to join me in a bowl of tear soup?” But most would reply “ I don’t have time for tear soup today.” Even some of her good friends who passed her house and smelled the aroma of tear soup, just kept going hurriedly past her door.
A few people could have a cup of tear soup, and even fewer of her friends could join her in a whole bowl.
There was one friend name Midge who admitted that she didn’t know what to say but seemed to understand why Grandy had made such a big pot of soup. Grandy said to her:
“I feel like I’m unraveling. I’m mad. I’m confused, so I can’t make any decisions. Nobody can make me feel good. I’m a mess. I just didn’t realize that it would be this hard.”
Midge said they should go for a walk. Grandy knew that exercise was good but she felt like she had concrete blocks strapped to her legs.
Grandy kept praying even though she was mad at G-d. She realized that while some people think that faith can spare you from sorrow and loneliness, she was grateful for all the emotions that G-d had given her.
People would ask her: “Is it soup yet?”
Or they would say: “It’s time to get out of the kitchen.” She knew they meant well, but they just didn’t get it.
One of the hardest moments is when you decide that it’s okay not to eat tear soup all the time.
But she also realized that you’re never really finished eating it.
That’s the story of Tear Soup.
As Jews, we cry a lot. We cry from grief, like in this book, and we cry from joy. At Yizkor, a lot of us taste tear soup.
To those of you who have been there, who can relate to the idea of tear soup, I want to offer you a two word blessing: Yasher Koach.
It is the same blessing we offer to one who has received an honor as part of our service. It means “May your strength be firm!” It carries with it the hope that this act, this part of life will give you the strength to move on to future mitzvoth, to continue to live with meaning and purpose.
Yasher koach, because somehow, despite the dreams and nightmares you had during the night, or despite the fact that you didn’t sleep all night, you get up in the morning.
Somehow, despite a grief that never goes away, you go to work or go out to lunch with friends and smile, even when they’re talking about nonsense.
Somehow, despite a pain that always, always hurts, you go on with your life.
Yasher Koach, May you be strengthened. May G-d help you to keep going.
But there is a second reason I want to say Yasher Koach and that is because you loved someone so much, so intensely, so deeply, that the person’s death wrecked you. It was real and if you are still in grief, years later, it means that you are a real human being, a human being with depth and levels and a real heart.
So here we are at Yizkor and we remember a lot of people who have passed away. But mostly, we think about the few people who we miss all the time, who we eat tear soup for, even on a fast day.
May their memories continue to inspire.
I often think about this sermon.
I give myself a little “Yasher Koach” whenever I have to find the strength to get through something. When there are times that I just have to go on with my life. To go on despite being absolutely wrecked inside.
I think about the entire story of Tear Soup. That’s me. I am the story of Tear Soup.
It’s not a recipe I ever expected or wanted to make, but it’s one I’m sure I’ll be adjusting the flavors of for the rest of my life.