This past July I spent a lot of time swimming in rivers. And one of my favorite things to do was to collect rocks. Not just any rocks, but special rocks. Rocks that people at Kol Tzedek would hold in their hands during the Yizkor service on Yom Kippur as they share a name or a story of someone they have loved and lost. This Yizkor tradition at Kol Tzedek has had a profound impact on me personally. And I took great pride in filling old yogurt containers with just the right variety of rocks.
This week has been full of both birth and death for members of the Kol Tzedek community. It seems to me that the month of Elul is that kind of time, a time of transition, cool nights and warm days, when life and death are in close proximity. I think it is for this reason that there is a custom in the month of Elul to visit the graves of those we mourn.
In his daily Elul reflection, Rabbi Jordan Braunig writes:
"Moments of transition, like moving from one year to the next, can be stark reminders of the people who aren't at our side. Grief is odd and unpredictable, we are as likely to feel the sharpness of loss in happy moments as we are at proscribed times of somberness. That said, I am often caught off guard by the way that stepping up to a gravestone can level me. Somehow the proximity tends to overwhelm our defenses, allowing us to feel all the sorrow that we manage in the day to day.
"The task of visiting the cemetery within a month's time is not always feasible. We live far from where we grew up, families are spread out, or loved ones have chosen not to be buried at all. Yet, even at a distance it is possible to feel the sense of closeness and accompaniment. In particular, in the midst of the self-examining work of teshuvah we can often hear the voices of those who have loved us, coaching us on, reminding us of who they knew us to be. The poet Gail Mazur, writes about this ongoing instruction in her work entitled, Unveiling:
"'I say to the named granite stone, to the brown grass,
to the dead chrysanthemums, Mother, I still have a
body, what else could receive my mind's transmissions,
its dots and dashes of pain? I expect and get no answer,
no loamy scent of her coral geraniums. She who is now
immaterial, for better or worse, no longer needs to speak
for me to hear, as in a continuous loop, classic messages
of wisdom, love and fury. MAKE! DO! a note on our fridge
commanded. Here I am making, unmaking, doing, undoing.'
Today I invite you to use your writing or reflection to 'visit the grave' of someone whose loss you mourn. Perhaps you knew this person intimately or maybe it's someone you never met but whose death calls to you in this season of reflection. What has happened this year that you want to tell them about? What messages, as the poet wrote, do they not need to speak for you to hear?"
Some of you may already be receiving the Elul writing prompts from Rabbi Jordan. But for the benefit of all of us, I shared with you today's prompt with the hope that you will make some time in in the coming days "to visit the grave" of someone whose loss you mourn. I know for me personally there is someone who died a few years ago before I had a chance to ask for forgiveness. I am eager to share some words of teshuvah with her in my heart this Shabbat.
Wishing you all a shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.