Yizkor Sermon

Sep 20, 2021 | Rabbi Jordana Chernow-Reader, Sermons

Sinai and Grief: We wander in the desert together

In psychiatrist Elisabeth Kulber-Ross’s book “On Death and Dying,” she identifies five stages of grief that people experience after the loss of a loved one.  While every person grieves in their own way, there are commonalities in the grieving process.  The stages according to Ross are: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Grief is not a linear process of moving from one stage to the other. Instead, as each person grieves in their own way, it is an interlocking web of feelings and emotions.

The long and painful path of grief is a journey we walk individually, but today, we are united in our mourning seeking comfort from Jewish tradition and one another.  As Jews, we have been walking difficult paths together since Biblical times. We walked out of slavery together, and together we walk in mourning.

After the Israelites live through the ten plagues, they are finally allowed to leave Egypt.  But this was not a clear path, instead Pharaoh sends the Egyptian army after them.  They arrive at the Red Sea with the troops just behind them.   They fear they will drown in the Red Sea.  Sometimes our grief feels like this, it is more than we can bear.  It chases us at every step, we fear we will drown in our sea of sadness and tears.

But the sea parts and the Israelites are able to cross to the safety of dry land on the other shore.  In our lives, grief comes and goes like waves.  We have times with it is overwhelming and moments (here and there), of relief.  At times we feel like we are surround with grief, and others when we feel like we are on the other shore.  As we make our way through these waves, our journey continues.

We think of the receiving of the Ten Commandments as an apex of the Israelites’ journey in the desert.  Although Moses was the one on the mountain, all of the Israelites were part of this powerful experience of connection with the Divine.  The text reads: “there was thunder and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain and a very loud blast of the horn, and all the people who were in the camp trembled.  Moses led the people out of the camp and they took their place at the foot of the mountain.  The smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently.  The blare of the horn grew louder and louder.  As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder.”

Sinai was a holy moment that was witnessed by all of the Israel, but not all of them could really see or hear it.  Some of the Israelites were consumed by their own thoughts, their anxieties and fear.  The trauma and loss they experienced as slaves and leaving Egypt was so present for some, that they couldn’t fully engage in what was going on around them.  They were not in the right place to celebrate the wonderment of revelation at Sinai.

We know moments like this, when we have wanted to engage with what was happening around us, but were so immersed in our sadness we were simply unable to find joy.  We can feel overwhelmed by the mountain of our loss even being around other people’s joy can feel painful.

Grief can be all consuming making it difficult to see anything else that is happening around us.

In the rabbis’ version of Sinai God literally holds the mountain over the Israelites’ heads and threatens to bury them if they do not accept the Torah.  This image is theological disturbing, but I share it with you today, for the metaphor it provides us about grief.  Perhaps in your process there have been moments when you have felt like you are under a mountain and there are times when you have wondered if you will ever be able to get out from under the weight of it.

Yet somehow we manage to keep moving forward.  Painful as it can be, we continue walking through the desert step by step.  We wander in our grief together, yet each of us on our own path.

Today, we feel the pain of our losses more acutely.  Whether our loved one left us very recently, or many years ago.  We remember their laugh, the food they used to make, their sense of humor, their voice, their smell, their hugs and the special things that made them, them.

We wish we had more time with them.  To give one more hug or hear them laugh once more. To say all of the things we need to say to them, once more.  There is pain in knowing we will never hear their voice again.
We miss being able to talk to them.  To tell them about our day, to speak to them in a time of need or to share a funny story.  These relationships were central to our lives.  They were the people who helped us connect with the deepest parts of ourselves and gave our life purpose.

We are wandering in the desert without them. Perhaps today offers us some comfort, like the Israelites felt when God provided them food, water, sustenance in the desert.

We know our loved ones are gone, but they are still with us.   They live on in the names we give the next generations, in the stories we tell and the memories we share.   We do everything we can to keep their memories alive.

There is comfort in knowing that their stories will continue.  Even today the stories of our ancient Israelite ancestors are with us, right next to every story we share of a beloved grandparent, parent, a wife or husband, a child, a friend.

Yes our loved ones are gone, but their stories and our memories of them live on.
We all wander in the desert, on our own path, walking at our own pace and remembering our loved ones.
We love them and we miss them.
The Israelites wandered in the desert, we wander too.
We walk alone and also we walk together collectively experiencing our grief.
We fear we will drown, we can’t see what is around us and we feel the mountain of grief.
Yet we keep walking one day at a time, step by stepWe help each other to march forward.
Like the Israelites, we too, journey through the desert together
We keep alive the memories of those who started this journey, whose hopes and dreams continue in us.  They are in our thoughts and hearts today and every day.
I invite you now to take a private moment for your loved ones that you are remembering today.

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