It’s the year 70 of the Common Era. Titus, the great Roman general, and his massed forces are at the gates of the Temple itself. They break into the Temple compound. Titus himself rushes toward the Holy of Holies. Sword drawn, he pierces the curtain, penetrates into the greatest secret of the Jewish people and finds …. well he finds nothing.
One interpretation suggests he was quite sure he would find an idol in there. How would it be possible, thought Titus, for this Israelite army to defend a God who had no physical presence? Titus could be inspired by Mars, god of war. He was, after all, right there in this idol or that. And instead these Israelites, we, have no thing at the heart of our faith. I imagine Dorothy at the end of the Wizard of Oz, pulling back the curtain, to find no gnomic lever-pulling coward. For there is no incarnation of the Israelite God in the Holy of Holies. We avow an ‘invisible’ deity.
Actually invisible is already too much to say about God. For Maimonides, greatest of all Jewish theologians, God has no form at all – there is no physical place in which God is, such as there is another physical place in which God is not. Our theology is not based around the physical.
And this is possibly the single most radical secret of Jewish existence, for here we still are almost 2000 years after the destruction of the physical centre of Jewish life – the Temple – still doing our thing. Despite the destruction of the Temple, the Romans destroyed neither our soul nor our future. It turns out, with the benefit of 2000 years of hindsight, that building our soul and our sense of a future out of the non-physically-present, was part of why we, as Jews, are still here today. Because neither our soul nor our future are carried in physical objects, we are somehow invulnerable to physical attack. Instead we carry our soul and our future in the ritual and memory and that no Roman can destroy.
A second story.
This time set at a Bet Din – a court – the European Masorti Bet Din where two of my colleagues and I sat listening to a Portuguese man explain how he traced his Jewish ancestry back the times of the Inquisition – 1496 and all that. “We’ve always known we have Jewish roots,” the man explained in halting English. “We never eat pig, we bury our own dead and we always sweep the dust into the centre of the room – never through the door.” He looks at us expecting the warm smiles of recognition that had, until this point, been the marker of our meeting. And we are looking confused.
Avoiding pork, we get. Burying our own dead we also get. But sweeping dust into the centre of the room, as opposed to sweeping straight out of the door …? It’s not a Jewish practice we have ever heard of. And we are the Rabbis.
Two things are however obvious. Firstly sweeping dust into the centre of the room is, somehow, Jewish – and secondly this is something to do with a 500+ year old story of crypto-Jewish existence.
We worked out the solution to the dusty mystery. At some point it was considered a Gnai – an affront – to the Mezuzah – to sweep dust right past scrolls containing no less than the Shema. Instead the Portuguese tradition was to sweep the dust into the centre of the room, and carry it through the door. And then came the Inquisition. All forms of physical Jewish identity become punishable on pain of death. So the Mezuzah comes down and all that is left is the tradition about sweeping the dust. And this is the remarkable piece – this tradition survives – 500 years. It’s a tradition built around the thing that is not there. It’s a marker of Jewish identity and meaning that honours the absence of the physical. These are Jews making meaning in the absence of the thing itself.
And a third story.
This one from our Seder Night. Right before the egg and salt water we do ‘Korech’ – the Hillel sandwich. We take Matzah, charoset and bitter herbs and eat them together. ‘Yocheluhu,’ my family chorus as one. But pay attention, this is another of those rituals based on the thing that is no longer. The Hillel sandwich was the way the Paschal sacrifice was eaten –with Matzah and bitter herbs. The verse is all about how to eat the sacrifice, but there is no sacrifice left to eat. We eat the subsidiary bits and pieces – a bit like a spoon of noodles and kneidlach devoid of chicken soup – but the essence isn’t there. We eat to remember what is no longer. It’s Jewish memory based around the absence of the physical, memory as a ritual shadow.
I’ve been making a list of these stories for some time. If you have all day – and I suppose we do have all day – I could continue to plot the way Jews demarcate the border around what is absent in a way that makes the absent present.
This extraordinary relationship with the non-physical goes to the heart of who we are, as remembering and ritualising Jews, it goes to the heart of how we have carried meaning these past millennia.
We are the people of the Rubin Vase – that optical illusion where the vase only exists as the space between the contours of two faces turned toward each other in profile.
But I have shared enough examples. Let me instead make explicit the connection I’m sure you have made already.
This is what we are doing here, now, at Yizkor – making present what is physically absent. This is why, and this is how, Jewish memorial works.
Lives leave outlines in those left behind. Loving memorial makes present what is no longer physically present. Zichronam L’vrachah we intone – may their memories be a blessing. The very phrase captures part of the power the non-physically present, part of what it is to live beyond death in the imprints made in those who have loved and lost.
I want to share two Jewish insights, for those of us interested in the way this particularly Jewish form of memory and meaning works. They apply equally towards our memory of others and the related quest of leaving memories behind for others to remember us by.
The first connects to a Hebrew word – Kavanah – literally, direction, figuratively, intention. Within more Kabbalisitically inclined Jewish communities there is a tradition to announce the intention to fulfil a Mitzvah before performing the deed. ‘Hineini Muchan uMezuman L’Kayam Mitzvat Aseh’ – ‘Behold I am ready and bidden to fulfil the sacred obligation to …’ whatever it may be; shake a lulav, light candles, hear the shofar. It’s an attempt to bring one’s focus to the thing one is about to do. Of course we should be present in the things we do. Sounds obvious. But it’s quite contrary to how we mostly live our lives.
We run so fast we overtake ourselves. We are thinking about our day ahead as we have breakfast. We are thinking about our commute as we say goodbye to our loved ones. We are fortunate to squeeze out a Kavvanah to consider our loved ones at all. We need to pause and establish our Kavvanot – take moments to be present in the present. The Jewish marking of memory is powerful – powerful to last millennia – but it can’t survive an absence of Kavvanah, a lack of attention paid to the marking of memory.
We light candles, we take a day out from the cacophony of the world out there, we stand during Yizkor and make a space to remember. That’s what all these rituals are about; creating enough space in our lives for intentionality to mean something, creating Kavvanot. Or maybe the memories come flooding in of their own timing, ‘when we lie down, when we get up.’ So be it. Have a Kavvanah to remember, to hold them present, to allow these memories to be blessings in our lives. Bring the attention to make our memories the sorts of memories that survive physical absence.
There is all the difference in the world between sweeping up to get rid of dust and sweeping up to connect to our sacred heritage. There is tremendous difference between lighting a candle coz it looks nice and focussing on marking the onset of Shabbat, a holy day, or a Yartzheit. The difference becomes manifest in the moment it takes to bring our Kavvanah to bear on what we are doing.
And a second observation.
You never know what will stick. I’m sure all of us would like to be remembered as kind, warm, humorous, insightful and dependable. And indeed many of us will be remembered in such general terms. But my experience, as I talk with families about their memories of lost loved ones, is that the generalities are the least crystalline parts of the memories they have of those who have gone. The clear memories will be a jumble of snapshots, half moments – that time when we were on the rowboat and, that time when we thought we were getting the bus to and … these scraps survive clearly. But you never know what will stick. Who would have thought that the sweeping of the dust would last 500 years? What survived was not a generality of being kind or charitable or pious. What survived was a specific ritual moment. So this is the message. Engage with specifics.
A few years ago there was an advert for Virgin Airlines - a man sits on a bench only to see the Angel of Death next to him, the Angel nods up and the man sees a block of concrete hurtling towards him. Everything pauses as the man’s life flashes before his, and our, eyes. There’s a lot to go through, memory after memory of life lived to its fullest. The angel looks bored. More images, and more. The angel dozes off. The man gets up and leaves as the concrete block crushes the space left vacated. I loved that advert. But here’s the challenge, I’m less interested in what we remember about ourselves, when our time comes to find the Angel of Death sat next to us on a park bench. What will those we leave behind remember of us when we have gone? If our loved ones were asked for three things we had done in the past month, what would they say of us – specifics now; individual moments, things said, things done. It’s a good test. The Talmud demands that we perform Teshuvah as if today was the last day of our life. What specifics of our life would survive if this was, God forbid, the case. If nothing comes to mind, I’ll give you another day – do three things tomorrow that are worthy of surviving your absence.
Two ideas about the memory of no physical things.
We need to bring Kavvanah – intentionality to our relationship with memory. We need to be deliberate and to create the spaces and the quiet in which to make the memories of those we have loved and lost survive their absence as a blessing.
We need to live our lives with specific commitments to make our own lives blessings when we are gone. We need to live to create an imprint in the lives of those around us that makes our life worth its living.
And if we can do these two things then, truly, the memories of those we have lost shall be a blessing, and – and may it be many, many years from now – we may deserve to be called a blessing also.
Hatimah Tovah – a good sealing to all