Monday, 20 September 2010

Shadow Chasers and Shadow Makers - Yizkor Sermon



I read this year the story of Invisible Stanley.

I read it to my four year old and he loved it, but it’s been haunting me.

Poor Stanley wakes up one morning invisible.

His kid brother calls his parents into the bedroom to witness a bulging shape in the bed; there is the clear outline of a child, but no visible child.

I want, this Yizkor morning to talk about this outline.

This palpable imprint of an invisible person.


Often, when officiating at funerals or Shiva services I’m struck by the presence of this imprint of a disappeared person.

I’ve stood around a grave where loss creates a hollow space delineated by the web of family members and friends standing around.

Sometimes I feel I can almost make out the outline of the life lived in by looking at the outline of friends and family.

It can sometimes feel as if the imprint of the deceased remains, even in their invisibility, like the imprint of some invisible child discernable only in the impressions made in the bed-clothes.

And even as the body is lowered into the dust, decomposing already.

There remains something.

Lives leave outlines.


There’s a Hebrew term, actually a term drawn from Lurianic Kabbalah, which captures the idea perfectly - Reishimu.

The Hebrew root – Roshem – has something to do making an imprint or recording something, but the Kabbalasitic term Reishimu has an additional valence


In Lurianic Kabbalah Reshimu refers to the remnant traces of the Divine still present in the world after God’s withdrawal from the Universe.

It’s like the thin sheen of wine in a glass after the wine has gone,

The wine is gone, but the scent, the reiach, the spirit, lingers and provides a connection to what once was.

The specific valence held by the term Reshimu is that the thing which created the impression is gone, to be replaced by a very active absence, a longing and a sense of loss.

I’m not interested today in the sense of Reshimu as part of a complicated Kabbalistic system,

But rather the sense in which we stand here today, at Yizkor, trying to hold on to the lingering scent, trying to remember the impression, trying to hold the shadow left behind when the physical presence has passed away.


Or perhaps there are two things we are doing today, on Yom Kippur. One is we are trying to hold onto that which has gone, and the other involves encountering our own mortality. We think, surely, about what it is we will leave behind when our time comes.

Who will stand by our grave?

What will be the shape of the web our life will leave behind?

What will be our Reishimu?


We are here today as shadow chasers – still trying to hold onto the remnants of lives loved and lost.

And we are here today as shadow makers – casting our lives beyond our own physical possibility.


I have some advice for the Shadow chasers, and the Shadow makers among us.


The Shadow chasers first.

How do we hang on to a disappeared life?

I know for many of us here it’s a nonsense question – the lives we commemorate today suffuse us so completely that any notion of forgetting who it is who bore us, or loved us seems ridiculous, but bear with me.

Because I think the first step in holding onto a shadow is a little counter-intuitive and applies, perhaps most especially, to those among us who hold on most tightly to our disappeared loved ones.

To hold onto a shadow we first have to acknowledge that we cannot hold onto the physical reality.

The first thing to do is know the life has indeed gone.

The Talmud observes that when we die we die with our hand opened, we are no longer grasping after the material.

The dead let go of us.

And we are called upon to do the same.

I think that is the reason for the Shivah, the Shloshim, the first year of mourning rituals. They are designed to allow our fingers’ grasp to loosen, till we no longer cling onto that which has forever gone.

For those of us who have lost loved ones their physical presence is often the greatest way in which they were present in our lives.

But we can’t mourn properly – we can’t hold a shadow – while we look to cling to a physical reality.

Denial is, of course, one of the classic stages of mourning and we all do it in one way or another, but refusing to let go of the corporeal leaves us gripping on to that which has become empty and distracts us from paying attention to what can be, what must be held.


This year saw the passing of the greatest modern Yiddish poet, Avraham Stutskever.

Stutskever wrote a haunting poem about the murder of his mother in the Nazi takeover of Vilna.

Stutskever imagines running into his mother’s room after her death and seeing her torn nightshirt he pulls off his own clothes and climbs into the shirt, desperate to retain a physical connection with his mother.

And then, in the poem, his mother speaks to him, tells him to get out of the shirt. To let go of the physical in search of some other way of keeping her memory alive. [1]


You need to find other ways to hold onto to me, she calls and if you do;

‘I will still be alive

as the pit of the plum

contains in itself the tree,

the nest and the bird

and all else besides.’


So how do we hold onto shadows?

If we can’t hang onto the physical we need to address the emotional, the intangible – the values, the outlook, what the Rabbis call the ziv hapanim – the glow of the face, the life spirit of those we loved.

And then we need to bring our own lives, and the values of our own lives, into engagement with the values of those who have gone.

We need to shuffle our lives around these values, interleafing them with our own sense of self, like a pack of cards rippling together. So they continue to live inside us,

‘as the pit of the plum

contains in itself the tree,’


Actually that might be a touch over-romanticised.

Not every value needs to be, can ever be, internalised.

Some need to be rejected.

Judaism isn’t as simple-minded to assume that we would all wish to emulate every value of our parents. Sometimes relationships are more complicated than that.

But where we do strike out on our own – heading in the opposite direction of those who have gone before us – we should still recognise the impact on our lives of those we remember.


There is a story told[2] of the young Chasidic Master who takes over the court of his deceased father and promptly starts to change everything his father spent his life establishing. One of the father’s loyal servants challenges the son, ‘why are not following in the path of your father?’

The son responds, ‘My father taught me always to do what I think is right and never to assume that what ‘was’ must always ‘be.’

It’s possible to keep alive the memory of the deceased by doing the opposite of what they did.

One just has to act in their memory – b’zichronam.


Zecher – often translated as memory actually means something different from the English term often used to translate it.

Zecher / Yizkor doesn’t mean intellectually noting something in the same way we dig out the answer to a trivia question.

Zechor is not intellectual observance, it’s a full bodied commitment to live our lives in such a way as to make that which we remember live on.

Zachor et yom hashabbat – remember the Sabbath day – means make Kiddush, light Shabbat candles

Ve’Zacharta ki eved hayita beretz mitzrayaim – remember you were a slave in the land of Egypt – means you have to be wary of oppressing others.

A Hebrew sense of memory mandates action.

And Yizkor requires us to hunt through a person’s life in search of the ways in which we can live that life forward.


We live our memories, our zichronot, out in our every day lives.

But sometimes it’s not so obvious we should do this, or the memories have become a little faded, and that’s where ritual memory steps in.


The rituals of Jewish mourning are so are actions to perform b’zicharon – in active memory

We light a candle.

We give a gift of Tzedakah.

We say the Kaddish.

Come to shul to hear the El Malei Rachamim

We create a casing for the shadow.

Ritual allows us, forces us even, to re-encounter those who populated our lives and filled our lives with meaning while they were present for us.

Ritual is a vessel to hold that which, for whatever reason, we can’t hold directly.


And I believe it works.

I believe it is possible to let go of the corporeal and hold on to the shadow b’zicharon actively and meaningfully.

I know that my life continues to be populated by those I have loved and lost.

Holding on to their shadows doesn’t stop raw pain of recent loss, but it does help.

It makes William Faulkner’s exquisite observation almost most real.

It was Faulkner, of course, who said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” [3]


So this is how we hold onto Shadows.

We accept the loss of the physical.

We hunt through the values and the messages of the life lost

And we allow our lives to be impacted, we live out memory as a physical response.

Through our day to day actions and through ritual.


And what of us – those who are still alive.

Thinking today, surely, about our own mortality.

How do we cast a shadow that can last longer than our lives?


There is a Talmudic[4] tale of Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yonatan walking together in a cemetery and the thread of Rabbi Yonatan’s Tzitzit is trailing along the ground – he’s frum, you see, he wears his Tzitzit dangling long.

Rabbi Hiyya tells him to lift them up, so the dead won’t say ‘Tomorrow they are coming to join us, and today they gloat over us.’

Rabbi Yonatan ignores the advice rejecting the notion he should show humility before the dead by citing the verse from Ecclesiastes – The Dead know nothing.[5]

But Hiyya strikes back. He accuses Yonatan of understanding the verse backwards. When the verse speaks of the dead, says Yonatan, it means people who despite being alive are called dead. Meanwhile, he says, there are those who despite being dead, are nonetheless called alive.

There are those who are dead, even though they are alive.

And those who are alive, even though they are dead.


I think this analysis is precisely about what it means to live on after death.

We have to live in such a way that there is something that trails after us, like a wake trailing behind a ship that has slipped over the horizon.


What are we leaving behind?

There is a Jewish tradition of writing Ethical Wills, documents where people, often later in life, record the wisdom they would most wish to share with the generations to come.

As documents they have never particularly moved me.

But earlier this year I caught a web-phenomenon.

A professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University was diagnosed with terminal cancer and gave his last lecture to a crowd of students and faculty at the University.

Go home and google Last Lecture. It’s an incredible attempt to live beyond his life – the life he knew was ending. He gives this lecture, and he writes a book to leave something behind for his 3 children the oldest of whom is 4. The rest of us get to look in.

My favourite part, actually it’s only in the book, is when he gives his eighteen month old daughter some advice about dating, when she gets old enough to date.

‘Ignore everything your suitors tell you,’ Professor Randy Pausch advises, ‘and watch what they do.’

Ignore the words and watch the deeds.

My kids do that already.

I suspect we all do.

But it’s great advice for those of us thinking about our own shadows.

What we say counts for less than what we do.

Far, far less.

We all have opportunities to do things that will outlive us.

We all have opportunities to cast mighty pebbles beyond the reach of our own lives – as parents, friends, Jews – members of this community, as members of this society.

We cast pebbles not only in the grand gestures – the things a person might be able to do once of twice in a life.

We cast pebbles in our tiny actions – the way we greet a friend, the way we greet a stranger, the way we greet the Sabbath, the food we eat.

To re-imagine a Yom Kippur appropriate image, maybe once we are gone the books of our life get passed down to those we leave behind and our every deed and misdeed is recorded therein –

Vhotem yad col adam bo

The seal of every person is inscribed within them.


There are those the Talmud calls dead even while alive.

And there those we all know who are alive even after their death.

We live beyond ourselves – we cast a shadow beyond our mortality – by living our lives deliberately, aware of the wake that will stretch back behind us.

Our actions inscribe the book our mourners will read when we are gone.


Of course the two parts of this sermon – the part about holding shadows and the part about making shadows – are only the opposite sides of the same coin.

We leave for others that which they will remember us by when we are gone.

We remember in others what they leave for us to remember them by.

We are zocher what others hizkir

Books are inscribed, books are read.

There is a roshem, there is a reishimu


Because, in our faith, and certainly on this day, death is not the end.

It merely marks the transition from our casting of shadows, to the holding of shadows that will be done by those we leave behind.


Or in the words of a poem I found unattributed in a eulogy give by Rabbi Louis Jacobs in 1961


There is a haven where storm-tossed souls may go –

You call is death – we, immortality.

Your kindly thoughts and deeds –they will live on

This is not death – ‘tis immortality.

And now you know the thing that all men learn

There is no death – there’s immortality.[6]


Gemar Hatimah Tovah – may we be sealed for a good year

[1] Burnt Pearls:Ghetto Poems

[2] In Schachter-Shalomi Spiritual Intimacy

[3] Requiem for a Nun

[4] Brachot 18a-b

[5] 9:5

[6] Endpage Address in Memory of Hyman Stone 1903 - 1961

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