I am sitting on the BART train writing my sermon for yizkor on Yom Kippur. Yizkor, meaning “he will remember” is the service where we remember our loved ones who have passed away. Traditionally those who still have their parents do not stay for the service. And I have an admission to make… I am blessed that both my parents are alive and I have never been to a yizkor service. This is my first. And so, I ask myself, what can bring to this moment that won’t be trite or off the mark, coming from someone who has not had to confront that finality of death?
I am afraid of death. Not so much for myself but I have been afraid of losing my father for as long as I can remember. Perhaps it is a remnant of the loss that I experienced as a child of divorce but I don’t have the same inner voice of panic when I think about the other losses that, if life unfolds in the natural order of things, must come one day to those for whom I care deeply.
My parents are both at the stage where they are cognizant of their mortality. My father tells me “you live on through the good deeds you do while you are here on Earth”, and my mom tells me “the dead never leave you, it’s the living who move away.” My mom’s comment is a “glass half-full, half-empty” statement about independence, about the power of love, and the power of memory but it is true, the dead never leave you because they are a part of you. Both my parents are right. We are imprinted upon by those who came before us, good or bad. In studies of the brain, powerful events form physical imprints in the brain structure. While we cannot yet translate those imprints to reveal their secrets, we can see that they exist. And so, the memories of our departed really do live on in the minds (and bodies) of those whom they have touched.
I am not the first person to have grappled with the inevitability of loss or with what happens when we die. Do we simply cease? Do our souls continue while our body returns to the earth? Do we have souls? I have found comfort in several ideas that are a bit varied and perhaps unconventional in their sources.
I was a huge fan of the TV show Star Trek Voyager which has a lot of Jewish themes running through it. In one of my favorite episodes, the starship Voyager encounters a people who believe that when they die they will be transported to their moon, a sacred place which is situated within a band of rings that surround their planet. There, after their lives on the planet are completed, they will join their ancestors and live for eternity. As the Voyager crew explores said moon, all they find are the mummified remains of the dead which have been transported from the surface below. The Voyager crew can see there is no afterlife, no eternity with relatives on the moon. Through a transporter mishap, one of Voyager crewmen, Harry Kim, lands on the planet and as the story unfolds, he tells the people on the planet what the Voyager crew now know – that when the inhabitants of the planet die, there is no afterlife with their relatives as their tradition teaches. This knowledge challenges and threatens the way of life on the planet. The ruling powers do not want this knowledge to get out and they try to kill Harry. Ultimately Harry trades places with someone who is about to die and he escapes taking the knowledge of what really happens on the moon with him. Harry survives and the way of life on the planet is preserved. As the Voyager crew is getting ready to leave the planet, they analyze the rings that surround the planet of which the moon is a part, and they find that they have an unexplainable bio-energy signature. They find that rings are alive and they themselves house the energy of those who have died, and this energy in turn is nurturing the planet. I love this story. It incorporates the mystery of what happens when we die with the possibility that our desire to live and to be in contact with our loved ones who came before us, may be a reality.
Jewish tradition has a strong vision of a soul that is separate from the body. Jewish practice in burial rites recognizes this and respects the soul’s process of departing from the physical world. An example would be that after a person has died but before the body has been buried, it is not permitted for the attendants or mourners to eat, drink or perform a mitzvah in the presence of the dead. To do so would be considered mocking the dead because the dead can no longer do these things, and until the departed is buried, there is a sense that the soul is still “hanging around.”
This idea that the soul, or the life energy remains for some period, can be found in the Jewish Kabbalistic mystical idea of רצו ושוב. Ratzo V’Shov is a Chassidic term; literally meaning “run and return.” Ratzo is a state of longing to cleave to G-d; the passionate desire of the soul to transcend its material existence, to “run forward” and cleave to its Source. Shov is the soul’s sober determination to “return” and fulfill its mission in the body, the resolve to live within the context of material and physical reality, based on the awareness that this is G-d’s ultimate intent. In the Voyager story, the souls of the people on the planet longed to cleave to their source, to the energy and souls of their ancestors who now resided in the planets’ rings… and the souls of the ancestors were determined to return, to fulfill their mission to the body and to nurture and infuse the planet.
The idea that we are a part of a closed system of energy that recycles itself is not new. I found the following reading intriguing from Aaron Freeman, as heard on National Public Radio. “You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.
And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him/her that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let him/her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her/his eyes, that those photons created within her/him constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.
And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.
And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly.”
Today as I look out from the bima, I see friends and family. My mother is here and so is one of my sons. It is a beautiful thing to see your children grow and flourish and become adults. And as they do, I look in the mirror and I can see the passage of time. Each time I look in the mirror, more and more I see the face of my mother looking back at me. And when I see my mother drive up to my house, more and more I am struck by how much she resembles my grandmother. We can’t stop the passage of time. It is an on-going cycle of renewing and recycling of which we an integral part.
And so now, when I think about the inevitable, I am less afraid. I am comforted by the knowledge that we really do live on in the good deeds that we do on earth, and the memories of those whom we have impacted; that we are part of a closed system that recycles itself; and that “according to the law of conservation of energy, that when death comes, not a bit of me will be gone; I will simply be less orderly.”
G’mar hatimah tovah – may you be sealed for a good year.