The Key | Congregation Beth Am

The Key

By Rabbi Janet Marder on
October 1, 2018

In a book called H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald describes a morning several years ago when she got up very early on a quest to see some wild birds. The area she visited, just north of Cambridge, is a protected domain set aside for endangered species, with a mix of pine forest and sandy heath. It’s one of the driest areas in England. Because of its harsh and desolate terrain, it’s called the Brecklands – literally, the broken lands.

She writes: “The day built itself. A sparrowhawk, light as a toy of balsa-wood…zipped past at knee level, kiting up over a bank of brambles and away into the trees. I watched it go, lost in recollection. This memory was incandescent, irresistible. The air reeked of pine resin and the pitchy vinegar of wood ants. I felt my small-girl fingers hooked through plastic chain-link and the weight of a pair of….binoculars around my neck. I was bored. I was nine.  Dad was standing next to me. We were looking for sparrowhawks. They nested nearby, and that July afternoon we were hoping for the kind of sighting they’d sometimes give us: a submarine ripple through the tops of the pines as one swept in and away…. For a while it had been exciting ….But when you are nine, waiting is hard. I kicked at the base of the fence with my wellingtoned feet. Squirmed and fidgeted. Let out a sigh. Hung off the fence with my fingers. And then my dad looked at me, half exasperated, half amused, and explained something. He explained patience. He said it was the most important thing of all to remember, this: that when you wanted to see something very badly, sometimes you had to stay still, stay in the same place, remember how much you wanted to see it, and be patient. ….He was grave and serious, not annoyed; what he was doing was communicating a grown-up Truth, but I nodded sulkily and stared at the ground. It sounded like a lecture, not advice, and I didn’t understand the point of what he was trying to say.

“You learn. Today, I thought, not nine years old and not bored, I was patient and the hawks came. I got up slowly, legs a little numb from so long motionless, and found I was holding a small clump of reindeer moss in one hand, a little piece of that branching, pale green-grey lichen that can survive just about anything the world throws at it. It is patience made manifest. Keep reindeer moss in the dark, freeze it, dry it to a crisp, it won’t die. It goes dormant and waits for things to improve. Impressive stuff. I weighted the little twiggy sphere in my hand….And on a sudden impulse, I stowed this little stolen memento of the time I saw the hawks in my inside jacket pocket and went home. I put it on a shelf near the phone. Three weeks later, it was the reindeer moss I was looking at when my mother called and told me my father was dead.

“I was about to leave the house when the phone rang. I picked it up. Hop-skippity, doorkeys in my hand……Dead. I was on the floor. My legs broke, buckled, and I was sitting on the carpet, phone pressed against my right ear, listening to my mother and staring at that little ball of reindeer moss on the bookshelf, impossibly light, a buoyant tangle of hard grey stems with sharp, dusty tips and quiet spaces that were air in between them and Mum was saying there was nothing they could do at the hospital, it was his heart, I think, nothing could be done, you don’t have to come back tonight, don’t come back, it’s a long way, and it’s late, and it’s such a long drive and you don’t need to come back – and of course this was nonsense; neither of us knew what the hell could or should be done or what this was except both of us and my brother, too, all of us were clinging to a world already gone.

“…Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob.’ Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try. ‘Imagine,’ I said, back then, to some friends, in an earnest attempt to explain, ‘imagine your whole family is in a room. Yes, all of them. All the people you love. So then what happens is someone comes into the room and punches you all in the stomach. Each one of you. Really hard. So you’re all on the floor. Right? So the thing is, you all share the same kind of pain, exactly the same, but you’re too busy experiencing total agony to feel anything other than completely alone. That’s what it’s like!’” [from H is for Hawk (2014), pp.12-15].

Helen MacDonald’s book is a kind of travelogue, an account of what it is like to be in the broken lands, that dry and desolate place where you go when the one you love has died. Sometimes it comes as a shock, like you’ve been kicked hard in the stomach, and you can’t catch your breath, can’t get your bearings, can barely speak. Sometimes the slipping away is more gradual, and there are long stretches  -- weeks, months, years of saying goodbye before the final farewell. The loss is often shared – there are others who mourn for the person you’ve lost – but it is also solitary. There are no words to communicate the specific quality or magnitude of your pain. And even if you are surrounded by sympathy you can still feel achingly alone.

The world’s philosophers try to prepare us for this journey that everyone takes, sooner or later, to that barren terrain of separation and loss. Wrote Marcus Aurelius in the second century:

“A little while and you will be nobody and nowhere,

nor will anything you now behold exist;                                                                

nor one of those who are now alive.

Nature’s law is that all things change and turn, and pass away,

so that in due order

different things may come to be.  [From Meditations]

We Jews have our own version of this teaching in the words of Ecclesiastes, our biblical philosopher from the 4th century BCE: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. Eit laledet v’eit lamut. A time to be born, a time to die” [3:1-2].

Ecclesiastes is the book chosen by our Sages to be read on Sukkot. Its mood of autumnal melancholy matches this season when the days grow shorter and the leaves begin to die. Nature’s transition mirrors the transitory nature of our lives, and all life.

But there is a deeper lesson in Sukkot. Rabbi Aviva Richman writes: “For the past few years, I have had the opportunity to lead [services] for Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret in a beautiful outdoor retreat surrounded by colorful deciduous forest. In that setting, I had a very simple but striking experience. I lay in a hammock, held by the strong net of ropes tied between two trees, and at the same time, held my baby, six months [old] at the time. In that moment I had the feeling of a kind of paradox—being rocked myself as I rocked my baby, simultaneously holding someone else while being held myself. Why was this sense of holding and being held so striking? It encapsulated the essence of what we had been doing for seven days of Sukkot.”

Rabbi Richman refers to the two central mitzvot of this festival. First, there is the mitzvah of holding the lulav, sometimes called the  “four species” – palm branch, myrtle, willow and sweet- smelling etrog. Second is the mitzvah of sitting in the Sukkah. As she writes: “For seven days, we engage in a reciprocal act of holding and being held. We hold the four species in our hands, and we are held in the embracing walls of the sukkah”  [From “Holding and Being Held: A Theology of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. Mechon Hadar].

Ponder that image – a woman lying in a hammock, cradled securely so she will not fall, as she holds her baby in her arms. And ponder this: A person sitting in safety and peace, held within the sheltering walls of the sukkah; then standing, taking up the lulav, holding it firmly and pronouncing a blessing. There is a link between our sense of safety and our ability to rise up and say a blessing. There is a connection between the feeling of being held and the power to hold another.

And so we ask ourselves, as we gather to remember our dead, who it is who holds on to us and keeps us alive. Whose embrace cradles me and assures me that I will not fall? Whose comforting touch offers me shelter, even as I grieve? And just as important: Who needs me, leans on me and looks to me for strength? Maybe it’s our daughter or son, or a cherished friend, or a little dog who are telling us, each in their own way, that we are somebody who matters.

Two lessons for those who dwell in the broken lands in the aftermath of death: first, protection. When you’ve been kicked in the stomach and knocked to the floor, you need someone who will hold fast to you, and not go away. And second, patience. You cannot know how long it will take before you feel safe again, before you can breathe again; before you can stand upright and feel grateful and blessed to be alive.

Towards the end of her book, Helen MacDonald describes looking through her father’s notebooks, taking comfort in holding familiar objects that he once held. She writes this: “I put the notebook back and as I do I see there’s a piece of brown cardboard between the next two notebooks on the shelves. Puzzled, I pull it out. It is a blank piece of thick card cut roughly along one edge. I turn it over. My heart misses a beat, because stuck to the other side is a silver doorkey under three inches of clear tape. And five words written in pencil: ‘Key to flat. Love, Dad.’

Dad had posted it to me last year so I could stay at his flat in London when he was away. I'd lost it, of course. ‘My daughter, the absent-minded professor,’ he’d said, rolling his eyes. ‘Don’t worry. I'll get another one cut.’ But he’d never got round to it, and I’d not thought of it since. …I read the words again and think of his hand writing them. And I think of Dad holding my own tiny hand….back when I was very small….

            “…I held the cardboard and felt its scissor-cut edge. And for the first time I understood the shape of my grief. I could feel exactly how big it was. It was the strangest feeling, like holding something the size of a mountain in my arms. You have to be patient, he had said. If you want to see something very much, you just have to be patient and wait. There was no patience in my waiting, but time had passed all the same, and worked its careful magic. And now, holding the card in my hands and feelings its edges, all the grief had turned into something different. It was simply love. I tucked the card back into the bookshelf. ‘Love you too, Dad,’ I whispered [p.268].” 

We give thanks, on this day, for the ones who stay with us and don’t go away, sheltering us in our grief. And we pray for patience and strength to endure, as the reindeer moss endures, waiting for things to improve.  The key will turn; the doorway to hope will open. Seasons change and different things will come to be. Someday we will stand up again, breathe free, hold fast in gratitude to the life that is ours. Someday, through time’s slow magic, it will not hurt so much, and we will hold nothing but love.


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