Editor’s Note: As Passover ends, we are again given the opportunity, in ritual fashion, for one of our tradition’s Yizkor services. To remember is a gift. This guest blog post for Pesach Yizkor is from Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin of Hollywood, FL. It was recently delivered by him as the period of Sh’loshim was completed for his father. Thank you Rabbi Salkin. May the memories of all that we hold dear continue to be a source of blessing.
Yesterday evening, at dusk, I took a walk.
This is not exactly newsworthy.
I left my house, and I walked one long block to the Intracoastal. I stood, and I watched the water flow, and a few boats go by. I then made a U-turn, walking back along a different route – making a large circle, and returning to my house.
It took all of ten minutes. It took all of an eternity.
The reason for my stroll was not exercise. Neither was it to experience the peace of the water flowing by. The reason for my stroll was to fulfill a particular mitzvah that our tradition connects with mourning. The tradition is this: at the end of a mourning period, the mourner leaves his or her dwelling, and walks around the block, and then returns to his or her home.
Why do we do this? It is because the first mourning period is like a period of confinement. When it ends, we break loose – like a prisoner leaving a prison, or some would say, like a newborn leaving the womb. We burst forth into the world, and we are ready to embrace that world in its fullness once again.
Thus comes the end of shloshim for my father, the thirty day mourning period that our tradition mandates.
To quote the Psalm: I have walked “through the valley of the shadow of death.”
“For Thou art with me,” the Psalmist continues. The Psalmist means Thou as God, but you have all been my human Thous, my human stand-ins for the Eternal One, mortal messengers of the divine. You have walked with me on this journey, on this path for which there is no adequate GPS or Waze, a traversal that every mourner ultimately must make on his or her own.
For these past thirty days, in mentioning my father, I have called him avi u-mori, my father and my teacher. While he has not been physically present to teach me during these past thirty days, in a deep spiritual way he has been more than present. I have listened to him again, and I have heard him again, and I have internalized, in a way that I had never dreamed possible, so much of what he tried to teach me in my life.
Even more so, perhaps, in his death.
I would lift up for you the words that countless comforters said to me over the past four weeks since my father’s funeral. My colleagues, and my more Jewishly aware friends, each said to me these words: Ha-makom yinachem otcha: may God comfort you…b’toch shear avelelei Tziyon v’Yerushalayim – in the midst of all those who still mourn for Zion and Jerusalem.
Each time I heard those words, I knew that they came from the heart, and therefore, they entered my heart. But more than entering my heart, those words have stuck in my brain – like a religious ear worm, like a tune that you cannot get out of your head.
Let me therefore tell you how my father’s death has taught me – which is to say, whether he knows it or not, and whether in life he would have accepted it or not – how my father taught me as well.
Let me start with how that prayerful statement refers to God. It is a most unusual term: ha-Makom. Ha-makom literally means “the place.” God is the place. God is the place beyond all places. In a Hasidic story, a man says to his son: “I will give you a gold coin if you can tell me where God is.”
To which his son responds, with an appropriate amount of traditional Jewish snark: “And, I will give you three gold coins if you can tell me where God is not.”
When we call God ha-makom, the place, we are saying that God contains the whole world; that God contains the whole universe; that God contains every aspect of existence. We are saying that there is no place where God is not. Present in the tender moments of birth, and present no less in the equally tender moments of death; present in our laughter, and present in our tears; present in the babies we hold in our arms, and equally present in the ancient parents whom we also hold in our arms.
But, there is one more thing that I must say about ha-makom. We call God the place. But, we can translate ha-makom literally, and even make the place not even refer to God.
“May the place comfort you.” This holy place gave me comfort. I am grateful to my friend and partner, Cantor Rosen, for leading the shiva service – in this place. I am grateful to my friend and student, Michael Roberts, for leading Shabbat services on the Friday night when I was sitting shiva – in this place. In fact, it was this place that offered me the comfort that I needed. This place in which I have taught Torah offered me the Torah of the heart when I needed it the most.
Let me move one step further. The well wisher asks that God comfort the mourner – “in the midst of all those who still mourn for Zion and Jerusalem.”
For decades, I have said these words to mourners. Only now have I truly come to understand what they really mean.
It is simply this. At no point in the life cycle does the Jew walk alone. We walk with our family. We walk with our friends. We walk with our history.
I invite you to understand the curriculum of the life cycle ceremonies. I invite you to understand what each ritual comes to teach us.
What happens at a brit or baby-naming? The mohel or mohelet invokes the presence of Abraham. He or she echoes God’s words to Abraham: “Walk before Me, and be whole.”
The mohel or mohelet points to an empty chair, and says: “Zeh kisei shel Eliyahu ha-navi” – “this is the chair of Elijah the prophet” – for we imagine that Elijah attends every covenantal birth ceremony. Abraham is the first Jew. Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah, is destined to be the last Jew.
History lives in this child, and through this child. We do not walk alone.
What happens at a wedding ceremony?
It is so much more than two people declaring their love and commitment to each other. The wedding ceremony is actually a miniature re-play of the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
At that moment, the couple are no longer themselves. The sheva berachot, the seven wedding blessings, invite the couple to imagine themselves as Adam and Eve, cradled yet again in the Garden of Eden.
The sheva berachot end with the proclamation that this marriage may herald the coming of the Messianic Age. “Yet again may it be heard in the streets of Jerusalem: the sound of bride and groom rejoicing, the sounds of children playing…”
History lives in this couple, and through this couple. We do not walk alone.
I will never forget the day when I performed a renewal of vows ceremony in Jerusalem. It was on the steps of the southern wall excavation. We were looking south, into Ir David, the city of David, the Palestinian village of Silwan.
I said those words to the couple — “Yet again may it be heard in the streets of Jerusalem: the sound of bride and groom rejoicing, the sounds of children playing…” I then stopped myself, and I realized: the words I had just said were the words of the prophet Jeremiah. He had said those words as his people were marching into exile. He had intended those words as comfort to his people.
I said to the couple: look through your own eyes at the ancient city of David. Imagine that you are looking through the eyes of Jeremiah, for that is exactly what he saw. History lives in you, and through you. You do not walk alone.
And then, the funeral.
That is why we offer those words to mourners. “Ha-makom yinachem otcha: may God comfort you…b’toch shear avelelei Tziyon v’Yerushalayim – in the midst of all those who still mourn for Zion and Jerusalem.”
We live in two particular spiritual dimensions.
We live as part of history – that our weeping for our dead echoes the cries of those who wept at the destruction of Jerusalem — first, at the hands of the Babylonians; second, at the hands of the Romans. We are weeping for our dead, in the year 2019.
But, we join our hands together with theirs, and we say: You had your losses as well. We are with you. History binds us together. History lives in all of us, and through all of us. We do not walk alone.
And – as much as we live as part of history; as much as we live in the dimension of time – we also live in the dimension of space.
There are those who mourn in Zion and Jerusalem. They mourn those who are gifted and blessed in years; they mourn those who have died of cancer, and heart disease, and Alzheimers.
There are those who mourn in Zion and Jerusalem because of loved ones and friends who have fallen victim to terror – those who, in the words of the great modern Hebrew poet Bialik, “have died before their time, and before anyone’s time.”
History lives in all of us, and through all of us. We do not walk alone. In times of grief, and in times of joy – time collapses. Space collapses. And souls become attached to one another – across the millennia, and across the miles.
That is what the death of George Salkin, avi u-mori, has taught me. In the midst of my mourning, I am one with everyone who has ever mourned.
There is one last thing that I have learned, or that I remembered – and once again, I learned it in this place.
It came up as a question. I was to be here for shiva on the Friday night after my father died. It was the first Friday night of March. The Shabbat Live Band was to be here to play.
Someone asked the following question: Is that really appropriate? After all, the rabbi is in mourning. Wouldn’t the service be too festive, too joyful for him?
But, you could say the same when anyone dies. It cannot simply be about the rabbi’s loss. Any family in this synagogue can and does experience a death. Shall we therefore silence the band when that happens?
I was clear in my answer to the questioner – who only meant well, who was utterly sensitive, utterly solicitous of my feelings.
No, I said. Shabbat is a joyful time. You are not even supposed to mourn on Shabbat. Why is that?
Because of a very special Jewish way of viewing the world. It is a way that flies in the face of our culture of personalism, where I expect that society is going to meet my needs at any given time.
It is simply this: The emotions of the community, and the emotions of the calendar – always take precedence over the emotions of the individual.
Communal joy trumps individual sadness. Shabbat trumps shiva.
Communal sadness trumps individual joy. Yom Ha Shoah trumps a wedding.
Through one 98 year-old man’s singular death, I learned once again of the power of community, and the power of history.
To all those of you who were malachei ha-sharet, ministering angels of God – you who served as God’s stand-ins in providing comfort and meaning – I shall remain ever grateful.
Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin has served as the senior rabbi of Temple Solel since August, 2015. Prior to that, he had served congregations in New Jersey, Georgia, and New York.
Rabbi Salkin is blessed with a national and international reputation as one of America’s most quoted rabbis and thought leaders. His words have been cited in The New York Times, The New Republic, and USA Today. He has appeared on many television and radio programs, and has spoken in more than a hundred communities, including in Israel, Great Britain, Cuba, and Poland. His colleagues describe him as “intellectually fearless;” “an activist for Jewish ideas;” and “a public intellectual of the pulpit.”
Rabbi Salkin’s books have been published by Jewish Lights Publishing and the Jewish Publication Society. His books have dealt with such subjects as the spirituality of career, masculinity, Israel, righteous gentiles, and Jewish history. Several of his books have won national awards. Rabbi Salkin has been named responsible for the spiritual revival of bar and bat mitzvah in America – largely through his first book, Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim The Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah (Jewish Lights Publishing). His new book, The JPS Bnai Mitzvah Torah Commentary, was published in Spring, 2017.
Rabbi Salkin’s blog, “Martini Judaism – for those who want to be shaken and stirred,” won the 2015 Religion Communicators Council (RCC) Wilbur Award for Faith-based Blogs. His essays have appeared in numerous periodicals, including The Washington Post, Forward, JTA, Tablet, Wall Street Journal, Moment, The Jewish Week and Readers Digest.
A native of New York, Rabbi Salkin was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York in 1981. He was one of the first Jews to earn the Doctor of Ministry degree from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1991. Rabbi Salkin has served on the boards of many national and local Jewish organizations, and an activist for Israel and Zionism.
In his spare time, Rabbi Salkin likes music, reading, and going to the movies. He is married to Sheila Shuster, and they have four children: Samuel, Rachel, Alexandra, and Gabriel.