Rabbi Cassi’s Yizkor Sermon 5782

The Path of a Mourner

Yizkor 5782/2021

Rabbi Cassi Kail

Mourners didn’t just enter the temple mount. They did so in a special way, a unique way. Whereas everyone else entered to the right, they went around to the left. It sounds like such an insignificant detail, and yet the Talmud insists that it is the only way—it is one of the few things about which the rabbis agreed.

As they walked around the path, they came face to face with the other community members who would ask them why they are walking to the left, inviting them into conversation. “Because I am a mourner” came the reply. “May the Presence of God comfort you.”[1]

It was such a simple moment, and yet so affirming.

As Rabbi Anne Brenner explains, “Those walking in the opposite direction, former mourners who had made it through, affirmed by their presence the possibility of healing. Looking into their experienced eyes, the mourners found comfort in the knowledge that one does not walk the mourner’s path forever. Those who had never walked the Mourner’s Path looked into the face of grief and learned that death and loss are part of life. Knowing that someday they too would walk this path, they could prepare themselves for that eventuality. They realized also that, when that day came, they would not be alone; they would walk in the company of other survivors.”

Today, we are here as a community of mourners who have lost so much in this past year, and over the course of our lives.

We feel the weight of our grief on this holy day, as we contemplate our own mortality, as we welcome in a new year.

“The existence of the Mourner’s Path confirmed that it is acceptable for those facing significant loss to be out of step with others and affirmed their status as a normal part of community life.” Anne Brenner continued. “Having their experience mirrored in this holy place kept mourners from feeling invisible, unsupported, or ashamed.[2]

Our grief changes us. It transforms us. And yet it is so often invisible.

This Temple ritual, as small as it might seem, meant everything, because it made visible the invisible. It offered room to continue to mourn, to continue to share stories of love and of grief for as long as a mourner needed—and to be met, with empathy.

Each year we have Yizkor services for this very reason. Some of us have lost people in recent days and weeks. Some, in the past year, and some ages ago, but our grief never disappears.

“There is no magic answer to loss.” Explains Rabbi David Wolpe. “Nothing, not even time, will make the pain completely disappear. But loss is transformative if it is met with faith. Faith is our chance to make sense of loss, to cope with the stone that rolls around in the hollow of our stomachs when something we loved, something we thought was forever, is suddenly gone.[3]

The ritual of entering the Temple, like the ritual of being present and lighting candles today is a way of making our grief visible, of giving ourselves the chance to mourn—and those around us the chance to see us, and to receive us with love.

The book “God loves stories” includes a tale about a man who was one of the most successful pediatricians in New York. One of his patients was a young boy who had reoccurring cancer. His treatments were very painful, but the doctor was able to reduce his pain with anesthesia. One day the boy caught a cold, but he desperately needed a treatment. The doctor couldn’t give 11-year-old Brian anesthesia because doing so could have been extremely dangerous.

The doctor sat the boy down and said, “You know Brian, I love you very much, and I have to give you this treatment. But I can’t give you the anesthetic this time. I can’t take away the pain. But here is what I will do. Every time I apply the treatment, I’m going to hold you, I’m going to hold you through this whole thing. And each time the pain comes, I’m going to be there and hold you, and you’ll feel better.” Sure enough, it worked.

There are times in life when we cannot do so despite our desire to take away the pain. But we can hold one another through it.

We here today are mourning losses for people who left an indelible mark on our soul. We mourn for our family and our friends. Our grief and pain cannot be taken away, but perhaps being with one another, we can receive love and support we need to make that pain bearable.

Today, each of us enters to the left.

As we walk the mourner’s path, may we feel seen. May we greet one another with words of comfort. And when words fail may we remember that sometimes presence and support can be the balm we need to get through even the most difficult pain.

[1] Tractate Semachot 6:11

[2] Anne Brenner “My rough road to healing was eased by following an ancient map” on reform Judaism.org Reclaiming the Mourner’s Path | Reform Judaism

[3] Rabbi David Wolpe, from Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times