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"My Mother and the Complexities of Love, Grief, and Memory" by Vivien Braly
October 8, 2019, 5780
Green Bank, West Virginia, with a population of 288, is a small, nondescript town like many other small towns in America- it boasts a mini-market and a Dollar Store, a library, post office, a school, and two churches. And yet, it is unlike any other town in the entire country in one crucial way. Green Bank, West Virginia is, by design, the quietest town in America. Home to the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope, the town is located among 13,000 square miles of mountainous terrain known as the National Radio Quiet Zone. Given the telescope’s high sensitivity to any electronic interference, radio transmissions in the area are heavily restricted by law. Residents and visitors to Green Bank must adhere to the nation’s strictest ban on technology; all wireless devices are forbidden including cell phones, ipads and radios. And because they generate an electromagnetic field, also forbidden are microwaves, garage door openers, cordless telephones, and remote control toys and devices. And lest you think one can circumvent these laws and sneak a peak at Netflix or Facebook every now and then, a radio police person strictly enforces the policy with specialized equipment that can detect signals from all unauthorized electronics. This is necessary because, as one local resident explained, “The telescopes are powerful enough to detect the death throws of a star, but also terribly vulnerable to our loud world. Even a short-circuiting electric toothbrush could blot out the whisper of the Big Bang.”
Mr. McNally, a retiree and local resident of Green Bank, thinks that the rest of the country, “out there beyond the mountains,” as he says, “is losing its mind.” And I think he may be right. Just before Rosh Hashanah, I asked a friend and colleague, “what are you bringing with you to the High Holy Days? What’s disturbing you? What is weighing on your soul?” She thought for moment then replied, “I’m working on patience this year because I’ve realized I’m just not as patient as I thought I was or would like to be.” Frankly, I was stunned by her answer and admit to you that I was truly taken aback. I’d fully expected her to tell me how disturbed she is by the rampant inhumanity in our nation and the suffering it inflicts on so many. I expected her to tell me how enraged she is by the erosion of our democracy and of our planet’s future. I thought she’d tell me how demoralized she is by the preponderance of spiteful vitriol, and how impossible it is to escape its blaring noise and hear her own thoughts. I expected her to answer this way because honestly, that’s how I would have answered, and I imagine some of you would have as well. It simply didn’t occur to me that we are allowed to focus on anything else.
You and I don’t live in Green Bank, West Virginia. We can’t readily block out the events of the world nor escape from the onslaught of information and misinformation. We can’t turn away from the lack of civility, integrity, and compassion in our world. We can’t block out the cries of children confined in cages, separated from their parents. We can’t mute the plague of gun violence in our streets and in our children’s schools. We can’t look away from the fires, the floods, the rising tides and temperatures that imperil our precious planet and our future. And we certainly cannot look away from today’s insidious threat to our democracy, to the soul of our nation, and to our own souls as well. And today, this constant cycle of disturbing news has so heavily afflicted our souls, that so many of us are exhausted before we even wake up. I speak with first hand knowledge, because you see, in our household, Frank wakes up earlier than I. He exercises while watching the morning news, flipping from station to station. When he completes his workout, my dear husband then gently wakes me up, sometimes even bringing me a cup of green tea brewed at just the right temperature, and with alarm his voice cries out, “You have no idea what’s going on out there today! It’s getting worse by the minute!”
I heard a story, originally about an Israeli but it could be about anybody, of a man who asks his neighbor, “with everything going on today in our nation and in our world, are you an optimist or a pessimist? And his neighbor replies, “me, I’m an optimist.” So the man asks, “then why do you look so miserable?” And his neighbor replies, “You think it’s easy being an optimist?” And it’s not. We try, but today’s countless crises and unremitting bad news take a toll on our health- our physical health, our mental health, and our spiritual wellbeing as well. In fact, a recent study found that today, so many of us are experiencing increased levels of stress, elevated blood pressure, chronic neck pain, overeating, insomnia, and grinding of the teeth. I feel it too, and sometimes, I just want to go to Green Bank, West Virginia, sit on a chair overlooking those 13,000 miles of lush mountains, and listen for the whisper of the wind and the echo of the world’s creation.
I am speaking about this tonight because I, like many of you, have grappled with this barrage of troubling news over the past year. And I find myself regularly vacillating between two poles, hearing two calls- the blast of the shofar, and the still, quiet voice deep within my soul. Sometimes, I am hyper-alert, agitated, reacting to every headline, every cruel deed, every rupture in our moral framework. Other days, I just want to push it all aside, and hide behind a game of on-line checkers and a good novel. And the truth is, that I have been quieter over the past year. I now see that I’ve been incubating- incubating my passion, my moral voice, and my resolve. As a result, I feel I have let you down at times when I have hesitated from sharing my full voice with you.
Our community is diverse. We are comprised of many ages, races, ethnicities, genders, and yes, political beliefs. And some of us want to engage in issues of the day on Shabbat and holidays, and others do not, just as some people like to conclude services with Adon Olam and others with Ein Keloheinu. But in this New Year, I feel called more strongly than ever to uphold our prophetic tradition, which has, for thousands of years, included protests against corrupt kings and wicked advisors. Entire chapters and portions of the Torah are devoted to societal structures and rules of governance, ethical conduct, and leadership. How can I in good faith look away from our sacred imperative to hold our leaders accountable to the highest values we know? I know that I will not always please you, and I know you will tell me when I don’t, and I certainly welcome the conversation. But I do promise you that we, your clergy, will never abuse the privileged position of this pulpit. And of course, we will continue to offer comfort and hope to one another amidst the chaos of our time as well.
In fact, that is the very voice to which we awaken tonight. As we know, the stirring Unetane Tokef prayer is central to both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, asking “who shall live and who shall die?” In it we say, “U’veshofar gadol yitakah, Ve’kol d’ma’ma daka yishama,” A great shofar is sounded and a still small voice is heard. Rosh Hashanah is the day for the great shofar, the tekiah of the world’s birth. But the still small voice, that is the voice of Yom Kippur, that is the voice of this day. These powerful words, “kol d’ma’ma daka,” come directly from First Kings. In chapter 19, King Ahab and Queen Jezebel had just destroyed all of God’s prophets except one, Elijah, and now they were coming after him. So he fled from them and hid in a cave. The next morning God calls out to him, “Ma l’kha po, Eliyahu? What are you doing here, Elijah? Why are you here?” “I am defending your covenant, your goodness, your covenant,” he responds, “and I am the only one left.” Then God commands him, “Come out of the cave and go stand on the mountaintop.” He complies. And at that moment we read, “the Eternal One passed by and a great and mighty wind split the mountain and shattered the rocks, but God was not in the wind. After the wind, an earthquake struck, but God was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, a fire, but God was not in the fire. And after the fire, Elijah heard a still small voice, kol d’ma’ma daka,” the very voice we listen for today. We often stop reading the biblical text there, but that is not the end of the story. Later in the same verse, we learn that Elijah leaves the mountain and flees to the very cave where God first found him. And so for a second time, so that Elijah cannot ignore this inescapable question, God asks him again, “Ma l’kha po? Why are you here? What are you doing here?”
I’ve been thinking about this question a lot, particularly over the past five months when my dear friend and friend to so many, Jacquie, died suddenly from a massive brain aneurism. I still have the text messages she sent me the day before she died when she and Bruce were visiting Washington D.C. She wished me a happy birthday and asked if I thought Adam might be free the next day for a visit. There is no way she could have known what was to befall her that day. But Jacquie lived each day answering the question of this day, “ma l’kha po, why are you here,” and lived her life with utter joy, an effervescent smile, and abundant love and laughter. And I must tell you that it wasn’t easy for her. She faced considerable challenges, both in her family and in her soul. With Bruce’s permission I share with you that she also battled depression and some days overwhelmed her with darkness. But, as Bruce explains, knowing that people relied on her, propelled Jacquie out of bed each day. She knew exactly why she was here and was singularly focused- she lived to help others- her family, this community, and the many families and children she supported and nurtured through her work in the San Rafael city schools. And every day she and Bruce were together, she’d look straight into his eyes, stop everything, and say, “I just love you so much.” You see, she left nothing unsaid, nothing undone- she just gave generously and loved freely because her life depended on it.
The true question of this day is not who shall live and who shall die, but rather, how we live and by extension, how we die. And this year, there is so much at stake, in our society, our world and in our own lives. At times it feels so overwhelming we don’t even know where to begin. Where can we make a real difference given the gravity of the crises we face? How do we even begin to fix our broken planet? Violence? Poverty? How do we avoid inertia or that very real desire to just run away, to curl up and hide in a cave? And how can we retain optimism and hope despite the relentless upheaval in our nation? How can we remain clear and steady, moral and upright, when the ground beneath us is shifting with every step? Today, our tradition offers us three lessons for navigating our lives in these difficult times.
The first comes from our beloved teacher and friend, Rabbi Michael Barenbaum, of blessed memory, who on Yom Kippur used to admonish us, “Don’t bring the sins and faults of others into this sanctuary and leave our own outside on the curb.” We know how easy it is to focus on the moral failings of others; it has become a national pastime and current obsession. But tonight, we begin and we end with our own transparency and with the truth of our own misdeeds and moral failings; we examine how we, ourselves, have wronged others and where we have missed the mark. The great 19th century rabbi, Israel Salanter taught, that this self-reflection is the very seed from which we begin to heal the ills of the world. He explains, “When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. But now as an old man, I realize that the only thing I can change is myself. But,” he adds wisely, “I’ve also come to recognize that if long ago I started with myself, then I could have made an impact on my family. And my family and I could have made an impact on our town. And that in turn, could have changed the whole country, and we could all indeed have changed the world.” We change ourselves when we truly encounter and embrace the truth of our souls and our lives in the quiet of this holy time.
The second lesson I share with you tonight comes from this very room. Each year we gather together in this sacred place. We pray side-by-side, we lift our voices in unison, and collectively confess our transgressions, and then we go home. But even when we disperse and return to our own lives, we still remain in community with one another. As we know, our prayers and our Torah portion are all in the plural- Atem niztavim, our Torah cries out. You all stand here this day; we all bring divine goodness and generosity into this world. For over 26 years I have watched this community perform selfless and righteous acts in our world. And today, I stand in awe before you. Truly, this community and all we are capable of, is breathtaking. As we know, almost 2,000 years ago Rabbi Tarfon said, lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, it’s not up to us to complete all of the work, but neither can we desist from it. We need one another to complete the transformational task of repairing our fractured world, and often, it starts with one act, deeds we can each perform which combined, make a powerful impact- register voters, listen respectfully to someone whose views differ from our own, join a protest, make a contribution to support human rights. Later this year I’ll be taking our 11th/12th on a Civil Rights trip to the south, and next year, we will take a synagogue-wide trip. And so many of you here tonight are already on the frontlines pursuing peace, and for those who are, we pray you feel strengthened and buoyed by this holy community.
The final lesson tonight is a reminder that we our rooted in our sacred texts which have propelled us and inspired us for thousands of years to bring justice and righteousness into the world. We are aware that today, when reality is being distorted and discredited, it can feel like the ground beneath our feet is shifting, crumbling even. But this holy day calls us to stand firmly in our ideals, in our notion of what is ethical and kind. Elie Weisel tells the story of a righteous man of Sodom who crosses the city protesting the injustices he encountered. The people criticized and dismissed him. A young person asks him,” Why do you continue to protest?” And the man response is profound. “I don’t know if I can change others or not,” he says, “Yet if I continue my protest, at least I will prevent others from changing me.” Today, we stand firm against the insidious moral failings, which threaten our society and our souls as well.
Tomorrow morning Isaiah’s voice calls out to us from our haftarah reading, commanding us, inspiring us to break the bonds of injustice and to let the oppressed go free. He cries out, share your bread with the hungry, protect those with no home; remove the heavy burden of all of those in pain. This is how we reclaim and sustain our moral grounding and our sense of wellbeing today; this is how we will maintain our souls and our society this year, by allowing Isaiah’s words to whisper in our ears and by heeding his call for righteousness and justice. “Ma l’cha po,” Why are we here? One year from now, when we recite the Unetane Tokef and Kol Nidre prayers, we will ask ourselves, what did I do to bring dignity into this world? What did I do to heal our fractured world? What did I do to bring more love and joy, generosity and compassion to humankind, and what did I do to ease the burdens of my own soul?
At the end of tomorrow’s reading, Isaiah makes one final plea to us;
“If you offer your compassion and
remove the chains of oppression,
then your light shall shine through the darkness and
your night will become bright as day.
Adonai will guide you always,
give you strength, and
will lift up your journey to the highest places.”
This is my prayer for you,
For our nation and for our world,
And for all who dwell upon this earth,
in this New Year, 5780.
Once upon a time, a very long time ago, my elementary school music teacher Mrs. Rovetti had each student in our class stand up, one by one, to test our vocal range. It is a day I will always remember. On that day Mrs. Rovetti proclaimed: “Wow, Elana, you have the highest voice in the fourth grade, you are a singer.” And from that moment on that’s exactly how I thought of myself. Before that moment I was just someone who liked to sing. I was just someone who loved music. But after that moment my world was forever changed. Wow, I thought to myself, I am a singer.
My voice and I, we were inseparable. Constant companions. We played, we experimented, we created. Every family car ride was filled with singing for hours. Every night, alone in my room, I sang myself to sleep. Through singing I joined choirs and musicals, performed in Europe, and came to know myself.
And through singing I made best friends, created community, fell in love with Judaism, connected deeply to prayer, discovered my life’s purpose, and through singing I developed my relationship with God. The morning of my bat mitzvah a stranger approached me following the service. I’ll never know who she was, but she changed my life. You should become a cantor, this woman said to me. I never forgot her words. Over time her voice guided me almost inexplicably on my path--You should become a cantor turned into—I will become a cantor one day.
Thirteen years after I became a bat mitzvah I led Kol Nidre services and chanted that prayer to end all prayers for the first time. It was one of the most moving moments of my life. Standing flanked by Torahs in fear and trembling with the weight of generations on my shoulders it was all I could do but bow before the universe in awe. When I was finally ordained a cantor on May 5, 2012 I cried tears of gratitude, joy, and even some disbelief at the journey my voice and I had taken, the ways I’d been touched and transformed, the possibilities for living a life of meaning. A life-long dream of becoming now turned somehow into being and embodiment—I imagined, naively, that this moment of arrival would not be interrupted for many years to come.
But, as many of you know and have witnessed, a year ago I lost my voice as the result of an autoimmune disease and I have been living since with a very different voice than the one I have known. The feeling of grief has been overwhelming—the best way I have found to describe it is that it feels as if my best friend was killed and I did not have a chance to say goodbye or savor our last moment together. I feel I need to describe it in these comparative terms because without that image people don’t seem to understand the depths of what this loss for me.
As I enter into my second year of learning how to walk through life with an unfamiliar voice I reflect on the process of re-learning I’ve been in. How do I stand in front of people when I don’t feel like myself? How do I lead when everything feels unfamiliar? Who am I? What matters to me? How can I connect with God when the path I knew has been severed? What is the universe asking of me at this moment? All of these questions and so much more…so much more than is possible to package and digest neatly into the boundaries of a sermon. Because it has been messy. And it has also been profound.
I share my story this morning precisely because I know that it is not unique. It is not special. It is no more or less deserving of mention than the stories each one of you lives and the acts of bravery that each one of us rises to as we confront the losses that come with living a life. In the course of our lives each of us have our hearts broken more than once. This shattering of our hearts takes many shapes—it is individual and universal. We may lose the people we love--to death, divorce, betrayal, degenerative illness, or a painful growing apart. We may experience the loss of identity that comes with losing a job or retirement, greying hairs and loss of memory, financial difficulty, chronic pain, or loss of strength and function. We may no longer recognize ourselves or our circumstances. We’re no longer able to do the things we once loved that brought us such deep enjoyment. Playing tennis, golfing, or even walking and reading perhaps have become too hard. We may experience the grief of not living up to our expectations for ourselves and find ourselves mourning the loss of unrealized dreams. Perhaps we never found the partner we were hoping for, perhaps we’re unable to have children and have gone through the pain of multiple miscarriages, perhaps our children are struggling more than we’re able to help them or they are estranged from us. Or maybe we just miss them being around more. And of course there are countless more examples. We go through these experiences often feeling utterly alone, and yet all of us have them. You cannot know the depths of my pain, and I cannot know yours…and yet also, we do know, we do understand, on some level.
Judaism offers a path of mourning for those who experience the death of a loved one. And as I look out on this community—knowing some of you who have been through unimaginable loss—I think of the ways that our mourning rituals can bring solace and also the grief that remains after the year of mourning concludes. While we may still feel very alone in our loss, these rituals also offer the community a way to interact with us, a way to respond, and a way to show up in moments of our deepest sadness. In just a few hours we will spend the afternoon together mourning the deaths of our loved ones during Yizkor.
But for this morning’s sermon I want to talk about the grief and losses we experience that may feel unaccompanied. Where we feel that our tradition offers no ritual, no prescribed path. Where we may feel that our community doesn’t see us. When society does not offer an outlet for our pain. These are invisible losses. And the grief that comes from them is sometimes referred to as disenfranchised or unacknowledged grief.
When I first learned in a formal setting about invisible loss during my chaplaincy internship in cantorial school I felt deep relief and acknowledgment. I also felt permission. Together we read the following words from the famous book All Our Losses, All Our Griefs: “Death is only one form of loss.” We read. “Experiences that evoke grief are both more frequent and more varied than most people imagine. The death of a person one loves is such an obvious occasion of grief that many people have come to think of it as the only such occasion. The result of that misunderstanding is that many people have experienced lengthened suffering from unrecognized grief.”
Mitchell and Anderson outline six types of loss—loss of material, loss of function, loss of role, loss of relationship, intrapsychic loss and systemic loss. They also comment on variables within loss—temporary or permanent, avoidable and unavoidable, actual and imagined, anticipated and unanticipated, leaving and being left. I gave examples of these losses earlier in my sermon and they add even more—the grief of ending an affair, the grief of completing a meaningful project, the loss of a beloved pet, disappointment in a role model or one’s country, selling one’s childhood home.
You might find yourself judging these experiences of grief as worthy or unworthy as I mention them. Notably Mitchell and Anderson do not rank or judge the reasons for an individual’s grief. They remind us: “it is not useful to distinguish between losses that evoke grief with a big G or grief with a small g. Unless we understand that all losses, even ‘minor’ ones, give rise to grief we misunderstand grief’s fundamental nature as a normal response to losing someone or something we value.” At the time I read this book I was going through a difficult public breakup after four years with another student in the Rabbinical school program. Reading this book helped me to feel understood. All around us our Jewish community and the rabbis who taught us daily were celebrating engagements with cookies or sending baskets of food and organizing shivas for people who had lost a grandparent and yet, since we had failed them in not getting married (despite the fact it was a very wise decision!), they didn’t know what to say. They went mute. I remember thinking—I need the help of the community now more than when my own grandparent died, but they are silent. They are without a script. Jewish community has failed me. I realized that when the lifecycle rituals of our Jewish tradition were created they were a response to a very different time with very different mores.
Our lifespans today are longer than the rabbis of the Talmud could have imagined and vast changes we may undergo during our lifetime are beyond what they could have anticipated. I vowed at that moment to work with the Jewish community to find ways to expand our understanding of loss and grief and develop new rituals together for experiences that we have not traditionally acknowledged. While I believe the Jewish community has made great strides in this area there is still much more we can do.
Here are a few examples of ways we are doing this at Rodef Sholom that extend beyond the Mental Health Initiative you already know so much about. One member of our community approached us and asked if we would acknowledge National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day from the bimah on Shabbat. Last year, she shared a story of her own experience before the Mourners Kaddish as others in our congregation who have also miscarried or lost a newborn stood in remembrance with fresh tears. We will be observing our second annual moment of this remembrance this coming Friday night.
Another example. One member of our community suggested he start a Mussar Circle for congregants living with cancer so he could give and receive support mediated by a Jewish spiritual practice.
And more. As rabbis we have brought people to the Mikvah to mark significant life passages in their lives such as an abortion, divorce, mastectomy or a clean cancer screening. I want to say to you today that if you don’t see your own grief experience reflected publicly in our community rituals or if you feel like you’re not entitled to ask for help with the pain you’re experiencing please know YOU ARE ALWAYS ENTITLED TO ASK. Your grief is not less important than somebody else’s. It is important to us. Please know you can always reach out.
Of course, community and feeling recognized is only one piece of living with or through grief, though it can help enormously and in unexpected ways. But believe me, I know, that there are times we don’t want to be seen and we don’t want to struggle to feel understood. There are times we don’t want to be asked how we are feeling. And yet we still long for relief from our suffering and a path through our pain. While our Jewish communal rituals may fall short in addressing all of our losses, Judaism does not fail us in offering a response to suffering. Judaism does offer us a path home to ourselves—a way to feel whole again even as we may still feel sadness.
The Kotzker Rebbe famously said—there is nothing so whole as a broken heart—and text after text in our tradition affirms him. There is nothing so whole as a broken heart. It just doesn’t always feel that way. How does our tradition help us find our way to wholeness? First, Judaism gives us permission to cry: In the Tanakh Abraham cries, Rachel cries, Joseph cries, Hannah cries, Jonah cries. Mima’amakim Karaticha Yah—from out of the depths I cry out to you oh universe! They model for us this tender heart of sadness.
We have leaders today that do the same for us—giving us permission to grieve over the state of the world. I think of Greta Thurnberg crying before the UN during her speech. Tears of wisdom, tears that bring great power, tears over the destruction of our planet. I think of Jon Stewart cried before congress earlier this year when he spoke about inadequate access to healthcare for 9/11 responders. There were tears yesterday I’m sure throughout the country and outside the Supreme Court as they deliberated the rights of LGBTQ workers.
Tears bring us closer to understanding what matters in our own lives and in the world. The word for tear in Hebrew is dim’ah which Rabbi Isaac Luria tells us has the numerical value of 120—a number in the Torah which signifies full life and wisdom. Rabbi Jay Michaelson reminds us that tears lie deeper than reason. They are at the heart of mystery and sometimes it is our tears that reveal the key to our mysteries. Perhaps it is for this reason that the great Chassidic teacher Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav teaches that we must carve out time for our grief. We must give an hour to our broken-heartedness each day. Only then will we be able to dance.
There is a beautiful midrash that affirms us when we feel at our most vulnerable: “A human being feels that as long as her vessel or his vessel is whole she is happy with it; but broken she doesn’t like it, she doesn’t want it anymore. God has a different perspective. God’s most treasured vessel is the heart of human beings. If the vessel is whole God has little interest; But God seeks out those who have a broken heart.” When our vessels are broken or a piece is missing it can feel like we are damaged goods.
This brings us to the second piece of Jewish wisdom: Judaism teaches us to embrace imperfection. There is a teaching that it was on Yom Kippur that Moses placed not one but two sets of tablets in the Ark of the Covenant—the whole and the broken. The broken tablets of course symbolize the ways in which the Israelites missed the mark and their very human vulnerability. Why preserve the broken tablets? To remind us that imperfection is holy. If we can find a way to hold and embrace our pain gently with compassion, recognizing that brokenness is simply part of the human condition—in a sense, nothing special. This is the broken heart that makes us whole.
Next, Judaism teaches us that out of the shards of our shattered heart and at moments when all feels dark--creation is still possible. This is our foundational story. The creation of the world emerged out of darkness and chaos. In the Jewish mystical tradition—creation emerges when vessels are shattered. According to the Zohar the Hebrew word mah—which means What? or How? is also a signifier of the Shechinah—the divine presence of God Herself. When we ask those questions in our darkest hours--What? How? In this darkness we allow ourselves the possibility of finding presence and wholeness.
Reb Zalman Schachter Shalomi teaches that moments of enormous personal growth only take place when we are broken open by grief. We do not have to seek answers, and we may not even want to. But grief with the passing of time ultimately nudges us to grow and birth new dimensions of ourselves.
Finally, Judaism teaches us about the balance between agency and surrender: On Yom Kippur afternoon the Great Aleinu Prayer evokes the High Priest bringing sacrifices to the Holy of Holies at the Jerusalem Temple. Traditionally at this moment of the service we not only bow but we fully prostrate ourselves before the divine. This prostration is an exquisite practice. When we surrender fully we come face to face with the very nature of and limits to our existence. We acknowledge that in exchange for continued life, in exchange for more years on this planet, we will encounter beauty and we will also encounter great loss. That is the cost of living.
I remember my own moment of surrender this past year and as I share this story I invite you to think of a time in your own life when from your moment of surrender or acceptance came freedom and healing. For me it was six months into losing my voice. At the time I was having significant trouble speaking as well. I traveled to Toronto for the Parliament of World Religions. I had signed up exclusively for music workshops because I was in the midst of developing a personal website devoted to sacred music and a music podcast. Very quickly into the conference I realized I could not participate in any of the workshops. What was I even thinking? One well-meaning facilitator gave me a drum and told me I could make music with anything, but in my heart that landed as a lie.
When I was serendipitously offered a small group session with the most famous Sikh Qawwali singer in the world I felt a small surge of interest, I felt the old Elana returning. I thought he would be singing to us, but I did not realize he would be asking us to sing for him. My heart sunk. When he asked me to share some chanting from the Jewish tradition I told him I could not. He asked me again, appealing to me to try, and nothing came out.
I left the conference early that day, returned to my hotel, and cried and cried and cried. I yelled Mah! What! I think of Benny’s song earlier today: I stood before the Lord of Song and all I could say was a barely there Halleluyah. In that moment I realized all of my attempts at reframing or pushing for healing weren’t working. I put down the new instrument I was learning. I gave up on creating my music website. I stopped listening to music for months. It felt right. Actually, it was a relief. I surrendered. I gave myself space, time, compassion. I accepted what was going on instead of pushing against it. I made friends with patience. I explored this master class I had been presented with on working with ego and ego-death. I became intrigued by the notion of just showing up.
I noticed something liberating emerging from the idea that nothing I could offer would be able to match what had come before so I might as well experiment with what was going to emerge. I experienced deep appreciation and joy when you in our community sang for me at Shabbat services when I was not able to sing on my own. Even now, as my voice returns, we’re going to have to keep doing that! It was through tears, sitting with darkness, deep self-compassion and surrender combined with the love of this community and the love of Judaism that I came to peace and healing. And while I needed to experience surrender for something new to emerge when the time was right I also embraced the commandment from today’s Torah portion: choose life!
The spiritual work was surrender but the practical work was pursuing every possibility within my control to get my voice back. Our Torah asks us, commands us, to embrace our agency in matters to which we can contribute positive change. The cosmic humor was not lost on me when almost a year to the day that I lost my voice it opened in a new way. I asked them at UCSF what was up? And my voice therapist at UCSF said “I don’t know! Bodies are weird sometimes man.”
Today, nine months after I broke down in Toronto, my voice continues to improve and I have hope that one day soon I will sing Kol Nidre again. But I know it is not my physical recovery that has brought healing. As I enter 5780 I look towards a new year. Please know that you have cared for me immensely and I’m ready to move on in this new year to a new topic of conversation! So don’t worry about me, I am healthy and strong and appreciative—and the reason I share what I have been through with you is only because none of us know what this new year will bring. Along with joy it is also certain to bring loss and sadness and navigating that sadness, living with it and through it, I just want to tell you, is possible.
I also share this story because we are a community. It is our sacred task to see one another in all of our humanity, including the depths of our grief and loss. We are a community commanded to be compassionate, commanded to walk in Gods ways and alongside one another, to be there for one another when we fall, and to be there for one another when we are ready to rise up again. To close I want to offer a song, a prayer. It is one I have used this year as a spiritual practice. At times saying the words has felt like the ultimate irony. And yet when I was finally able to sing it, a little bit broken, I laughed to myself at how could this moment possibly be the best moment of my life? (as the lyrics read) Because as I look around the room today—at this incredible community—I see the good and I know that it must be true.
I bless you this year with so much health.
I bless you for a year of chayyim tovim, a year of good life.
I bless you that you may be written again in the Book of Life. And that whatever befalls you know that the words of our High Holy Day season, chadeish yameinu k’kedem, renew us, renew us back to ourselves, renew us to wholeness— It is possible—no matter what comes your way.
(Rabbi Elana sings May I Suggest by Susan Werner)
May I suggest
May I suggest to you
May I suggest this is the best part of your life
May I suggest This time is blessed for you
This time is blessed and shining almost blinding bright
Just turn your head
And you'll begin to see
The thousand reasons that were just beyond your sight
The reasons why
Why I suggest to you
Why I suggest this is the best part of your life
There is a world
That's been addressed to you
Addressed to you, intended only for your eyes
A secret world
Like a treasure chest to you
Of private scenes and brilliant dreams that mesmerise
A lover's trusting smile
A tiny baby's hands
The million stars that fill the turning sky at night
Oh I suggest
Oh I suggest to you
Oh I suggest this is the best part of your life
There is a hope
That's been expressed in you
The hope of seven generations, maybe more
And this is the faith
That they invest in you
It's that you'll do one better than was done before
Inside you know
Inside you understand
Inside you know what's yours to finally set right
And I suggest
And I suggest to you
And I suggest this is the best part of your life
This is a song
Comes from the west to you
Comes from the west, comes from the slowly setting sun
With a request
With a request of you
To see how very short the endless days will run
And when they're gone
And when the dark descends
Oh we'd give anything for one more hour of light
Still I suggest, this I suggest to you, I suggest this is the best part of our lives
My mother, Rochelle, would ask me sometimes when I was in my 20s, “Was I a good mother?” I knew why she was asking, and I loved her so much that I told her what she needed to hear, “Yes, of course. You were an amazing mother.” I wanted to protect her, and I wanted to make her feel good. I had learned at the earliest age how to stuff my feelings, so it came easy. And then I lost her when I was 26. She had just visited my husband, Ruben, and I at our new home in San Anselmo and she couldn’t wait to decorate it with me. That same week, I got an early morning phone call from my hysterical father, choking out the words, “She is gone.” “Who is gone? I said completely confused. “Your mom. I’m so sorry,” he said as I felt my knees buckle and the breath leave my body. She had died of a heart arrythmia in her sleep at the age of 57 without any warning. I was gutted.
My mom and I had just come through a relatively drama free teen and young adult years together and we had grown very close. The years of my childhood had faded away and I never wanted to look back. She took great joy in me and I felt completely loved by her. At her funeral, I eulogized her and said what everyone who loved her already knew…she was warm, smart, funny and generous. But as the years rolled by, time, distance and life had a way of surfacing things that I didn’t want to see. I willed myself to think of only the good memories of my mom. I spoke of her only in the most loving terms when asked, using the praise we heap on those who have passed away that we love which often isn’t the whole truth. I grieved privately telling myself that it is my style but really it was the best way to avoid talking about what I didn’t want to look at or understand.
The truth was that my mother was bipolar. She came from a long line of mentally ill women and men that damaged her. Her genetics plagued her for her entire life. It took a loving woman and filled her with rage out of nowhere. As a mother, she was all contrasts. To grow up with her was bedtime stories and kisses on your forehead or screaming with full rage about some wrong we had done before locking herself in her room all night. It was laughing with her friends on the phone or picking up the same phone later to scream into it that she knew it is being tapped. It was going to a beach BBQ with family friends or watching her eyes flash from side to side and her jaw clench in a certain way that meant we were in for it. My older sister, Julie, and I would watch her rage build over time like a pressure cooker that had to be released. Most nights she would get into the shower and yell at nothing or have imaginary fights with someone that had crossed her at work. Most days, she was perfectly normal…working hard around the clock as a Coastal Commissioner, coming home to grocery shop, fix us dinner and put us to bed. All I wanted was to be near her, touch her soft hands, listen to her voice and watch the way she threw her head back with she laughed. I loved her more than anything and she scared me. Her moods would shift without warning and it took a heavy toll on my sister and me.
My mom’s mental state made her make erratic parenting decisions that left us alone at home and vulnerable in our neighborhood near downtown LA. People we trusted took advantage of us while our parents were away working. Our mother felt unsafe too…she could be emotionally careless and would often blame us for any wrong that came our way. I was a shy, sensitive kid that learned quickly to be quiet, to have no needs and to keep my head low. I didn’t feel safe in our house which made the world feel unsafe too. When I felt overwhelmed with fear, I would sit on the bottom step of our stairwell where I would press my body against the wall as much as I could…it was the only place in the house where no one could see me through any window. My comfort was to be unseen. Our Mom would always wake up the next day after an episode like nothing happened, so we learned to do that too. We didn’t talk about it for years – not to each other, not to our family and not to our friends. Those years left us quietly broken in many ways.
When I became a mother of three kids, I’d never felt more joy or more vulnerable. I found the weight of motherhood to be crushing…so beautiful, so powerful and so painful. I saw how my kids looked at me for safety and comfort. I watched their eyes change and their little bodies recoil if I had the slightest anger in my voice. I saw the power of parenting in real time and my childhood came back and sat heavy on my heart. In my quiet moments alone, I would think about my mother and it filled me with anger. How could she I thought as tears streamed down my face? We were little girls and we were thrown to the wolves. We had no sanctuary. The hurt flooded out of me as I tried to understand what happened in that house. Her yahrzeit would painfully pass, and I felt completely alone in this new stage of grief. Slowly, I started to speak about my memories to my husband, my sister and in therapy. My therapist asked me to picture myself in my childhood home and I thought of my seven-year-old self sitting on that bottom stair wanting to be unseen. I wept for that little girl who felt so alone. The truth of my mom’s mental illness started to form as I struggled with feeling that I was betraying her and dishonoring her memory by even speaking about it. I was reminded that telling your truth is not betrayal…it is real, it was not my fault and it happened.
Love, grief and memory are complex. We can acknowledge people’s complexity in life, but it is much harder to do in death. When you lose someone, their life and their connection to you takes up precious space inside you that settles in your bones. That space holds memories that make you cry with laughter or feel a love you can’t put into words or make tears roll down your cheeks when you least expect it. When you are grieving someone, who hurt you from mental illness, addiction or any other struggle in life, you don’t have an easy story. It feels isolating to hear only about lost loved ones with seem like perfect people because you can’t see your grief entirely reflected in that. I no longer think of my mother and ask “how could she?” because I know why. She truly tried and she had an untreated mental illness that she could not control. She loved my sister and I deeply and we knew it despite everything. We lost someone that we treasured. She was so much more than her worst days. I miss her everyday and I know that the best parts of me come directly from her. My daughter, Maia Rochelle, is named in her honor. It is possible to hold everything that a person was in your life, all of it, and it doesn’t lessen your feeling of love or loss for a second. On this holy day of Yom Kippur, let’s allow ourselves and others the space for their truth…for love, for pain and for grief in its entirety. Let’s receive that truth with kindness because it is so hard to find the words to be fully honest. Secrets make us speak in half-truths or hold our breath in silence. Their weight doesn’t serve us…they need air to be released.