Summoned to Praise: Shavuot Yizkor 2012 | Congregation Beth Am

Summoned to Praise: Shavuot Yizkor 2012

By Rabbi Janet Marder on
June 4, 2012
Words of Sara Teasdale: a poem called “May Day.”

"A delicate fabric of bird song
Floats in the air,
The smell of wet wild earth
Is everywhere.
Oh I must pass nothing by
Without loving it much,
The raindrop try with my lips,
The grass with my touch;
For how can I be sure
I shall see again
The world on the first of May
Shining after the rain?" 
                                                  -  Sara Teasdale, May Day 

Begin with the springtime, for this morning of Yizkor comes to us on the soft warm breezes of spring. In the land of Israel, the first fruits of the season were once gathered at this time – golden wheat and barley, ripe grapes, figs and dates – and brought to the Temple in baskets tied with festive colored ribbons. The earth, too, is patterned with ribbons of bright color on these sunlit days – fields of flowers, fresh green leaves, gardens erupting in a chaos of new life.

The ancient call to give thanks for the richness of the harvest lies at the root of the pilgrimage festival we celebrate today. These three biblical holy days – Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot – are called in Hebrew shalosh regalim; regalim from “regel – leg or foot.” For on these three days all Israel was called to gather in Jerusalem; walking there on foot, whole families journeying together, making the climb up to that mountaintop city where all the people met in celebration.

These three festivals, these regalim, are holy days distinguished by the act of showing up, getting to a certain place on your very own legs and being part of the community. And so they remain for every person present here today; though it is not, let us acknowledge, always easy to show up for occasions like these. For the festival mornings offer us liturgies of praise and thanksgiving, and we are not always of a mind to praise.

For every person who blesses God for this beautiful spring, and for the clear blue sky and the song of birds, there is a cynic of the likes of Dorothy Parker, who wrote: "Every year back spring comes, with nasty little birds, yapping their fool heads off and the ground all mucked up with plants."

If you are tired, or angry, or very busy or in pain; if you are preoccupied with your own sadness or frustration or fear, the springtime barely penetrates.  It hovers on the edge of consciousness, beyond the field of our cramped vision; we cannot take it in. For how beautiful can the world be if it no longer holds the one we love?

And yet tradition calls us to be here today, to show up and take our place amidst the community; to try to climb up, somehow, to a higher state of mind – one sanctified by praise, one lifted up by joy.

Words by the American poet Ted Kooser, called “Father,” dated May 19, 1999:

Father
May 19,1999
Today you would be ninety-seven
if you had lived, and we would all be
miserable, you and your children,
driving from clinic to clinic,
an ancient, fearful hypochondriac
and his fretful son and daughter,
asking directions, trying to read
the complicated, fading map of cures.
But with your dignity intact
you have been gone for twenty years,
and I am glad for all of us, although
I miss you every day – the heartbeat
under your necktie, the hand cupped
on the back of my neck, Old Spice
in the air, your voice delighted with stories.
On this day each year you loved to relate
that at the moment of your birth
your mother glanced out the window
and saw lilacs in bloom. Well, today
lilacs are blooming in side yards
all over Iowa, still welcoming you.
                                             --Ted Kooser in The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, p.245

We recognize this as a poem of praise; praise of a beloved father and also, strangely, praise of death. It is death that has preserved the father’s dignity, kept him from a narrow, circumscribed life in extreme old age spent “driving from clinic to clinic”; kept him from years of debility and suffering and falling away from the man he was in his prime. Death has protected the man’s children, as well, who are spared the difficulty of caring for their father, and also of seeing his painful decline.

Is this a selfish poem? Might the father have wished for more years of life, even if they were plagued by ill health and frustration? Should the son and daughter have accepted their responsibilities with grace and welcomed the opportunity to give back to the one who gave so much to them?

Such questions miss the point, I think, of these words of Ted Kooser. This is a poem composed twenty years after the death of the father. It is not about looking back and pondering what should have been. It represents the deliberate choice of a loving son to accept what did take place – that he was robbed of his father on a certain day, long ago, and that can never, ever be changed. It demonstrates the poet’s decision to read the past in a certain way – to see that even in an act of loss and deprivation there is good that can be embraced.

For me the poem represents the fruit of many long years of wrestling with what happened to his father – a man taken away suddenly, taken away still in the vigor of his days, taken away, I am sure, in a way that gave pain to his survivors.

This conscious, deliberate choice to search the past for the good it may contain liberates the son to celebrate and praise the man he has lost; even while confessing that he still misses him every day, in simple, concrete ways – his touch, his scent, his voice recounting the stories he loved to tell. The poet has freed himself from the question “why?” and from the painful phrases mourners use so often to torment themselves: If only I’d insisted that she go to the doctor; if only I’d made him stop smoking sooner; if only I’d insisted on a second opinion, or a third; if only I’d taken better care of her; if I’d been more vigilant, more forceful, more assertive, quicker to respond.

And the poet has freed himself, as well, from wondering what might have been if only he’d been more present and attentive, more patient, slower to anger, more loving and compassionate towards the father who is gone. He has freed himself, finally, from gnawing memories of his father’s undoubted imperfections – all the things that may have frustrated or annoyed or hurt him when he shared his father’s life.

The poet has resolved instead simply to praise and be grateful. And this opens him to the world and its beauty; to the sight of purple lilacs sprouting up all over Iowa, evoking memories of his father’s vibrant presence.

In time we could all bring ourselves, I imagine, to this open spirit of praise if we are mourning a person who died at what we like to call “the right time” – as the Torah says of Abraham, “old and full of years.” It is another matter altogether to think about  a death that feels bitterly premature, that robs a young person of many good years and infinite possibilities, that robs us of what we deeply believe we deserved to have. Surely there is nothing to praise in such a death, and there are endless reasons to know pain and grief and rage.

No one would blame us if we stayed in that dark place forever. And for those who have sustained such a loss there is wrestling to be done and the sharp ache of realizing over and over and over again that the one you loved so much is gone.

No one but the mourner can decide, when the time is right, to surmount death and resolve to live on with praise and nothing but praise. It may be reason that moves you, or a sense of your own self-preservation, or a need, born of love, to honor the teachings of the one who has died.

No one but you will grasp the heroism it takes to make such a decision. No one but you will know how hard it is, every single day, to uproot anger at all the things that went wrong, or anguish at what could and should have been. No one but you, perhaps, will sense how lonely it feels to go on without the one whose love was the center of your life. And no one will grasp how difficult it is to give up the idea that we deserve anything at all.

The decision to praise comes at the end of long acquaintance with grief. It cannot be hurried or forced. It comes, if it comes at all, upon realizing that life – all of it, every single day – is a gift; not deserved; not born of entitlement or necessity. Life is given, improbably, for however long it is given. Given to some longer than to others, for reasons we can never discern. Given to the ones we loved; filled with whatever goodness and beauty embodied their days. And given now to us; this life, given out of mystery – and someday given back into that same mystery from which we came forth.

And so Yizkor summons us all – children mourning beloved parents, parents mourning beloved children; husbands and wives who are missing their best friend and lover; those who have lost kind brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and friends. Yizkor summons us all to liturgies of thanks and praise. It teaches us to grasp this one essential truth: that our life depends on making the decision to praise. It reminds us that we go forward by simply showing up; showing up for life, getting out of bed, going out, getting around on our own two feet, resolving in our heart that we will make that slow and painful climb up the mountain, to a place where we can stand with others in celebration.

It starts, as all good things start, with the springtime; with soft warm breezes, bird song and bright flowers that speak of renewal and rebirth. The journey back to life begins when we embrace this world, the only one we have, and cherish its beauty, and affirm that we do not want to miss even one minute of this precious, irreplaceable day.

"A delicate fabric of bird song
Floats in the air,
The smell of wet wild earth
Is everywhere.
Oh I must pass nothing by
Without loving it much,
The raindrop try with my lips,
The grass with my touch;
For how can I be sure
I shall see again
The world on the first of May
Shining after the rain?"
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