Welcome to November, this month of all souls and remembrance, of harvest and gratitude, of longer nights and colder days. This past Sunday, we held our All Souls service. On Saturday, November 16th, we will host a meal at our church following the Greater Lowell Interfaith Leadership Alliance’s interfaith Thanksgiving service at our neighbor church, Central Congregational. At 7 p.m. that same night, we will hold our annual Transgender Day of Remembrance vigil. On November 24th, we will have our intergenerational Thanksgiving service, where we collect donations during the service for the Greater Lowell Open Pantry.
This past Sunday, my sermon was about the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Jewish prayer traditionally recited every day for eleven months, following the death of a loved one. I wanted to share an excerpt from that sermon for this column, for this month of remembrance and gratitude.
Ritual at its best uses a set of prescribed words, actions and symbols to ground us and engage us with the sacred, and with the sacred moments and transitions of our lives. Leon Wieseltier writes: “It is more than three months since my father died. My sister surprises me when she confesses that she still cannot bring herself to listen to music. I see again that the Kaddish is my good fortune. It looks after the externalities, and so it saves me from the task of improvising the rituals of my bereavement, which is a lot to ask.” (Kaddish, p. 39) The ritual of the Kaddish offers an anchor and a way through, when the mourner cannot find it her or himself. It provides the words and the actions when one is too overwhelmed to know what to do: the tether, the link, the words to offer when one doubts, or has no words or power to express. For Jews, the Kaddish is an affirmation of life and God in the face of death. And because it is something that the mourner says every day, the ritual walks with the mourner through that year following the death: through the denial, anger, depression and acceptance, through the anniversaries and birthdays and all the firsts of being without, through the days, the weeks, the months and the seasons. It’s not just the words or the ritual that keep the mourner company, but also all the other people who are mourning at the same time for their loved ones. When the mourner stands up to say the Kaddish, they see the others who are saying it also and are reminded that grief is a human experience, not something that you suffer alone, even though you do. Furthermore, a ritual like the Kaddish gives Jewish mourners the company of all of the generations who have said this prayer before for the same reason, going back thousands of years, and the comfort of knowing that these words and this prayer will be said again for them, and for generations to come. Tethering the great grandparents gone before, the great-great grandchildren not yet born.
The Kaddish is not a ritual that I can use but it is one I can learn from. Affirming life, affirming creation, blessing the world and blessing my source of being even as I grieve: all this I see as offering a path through what is in a very alien and barren landscape, full of sadness and loneliness, anger and despair, emotions that come out of nowhere and pain that feels like it can never be healed. In the task of mourning...we have to hold the paradox that while the people we love die, while we know that we will die, life goes no. Not only that, it goes on with the possibility of beauty, joy, hope, and healing. Life isn’t fair but it is a gift that we have been given.
I did not go to the Red Sox parade yesterday in Boston although Josh took our boys. But I was listening on the radio and heard that when the duck boats reached the finish line of the Boston Marathon, a couple of players got off the boats, lay the World Series trophy down on it and covered it with the 617 Boston Red Sox jersey that had hung in the clubhouse all season while the crowd sang “God bless America.” Such is the power of ritual, to take a moment of violence, death and fear, hold it with a moment of celebration, fun and the playing of a game to join a community of people in reclaiming life in the face of death. This does not undo the violence and the trauma but nor does it allow them to have the final word.
This ritual that we do on the first Sunday in November is the same kind of thing. We take time to name those we love, and make room for our grief. We honor grief as sacred, as the last act of love we have to offer, again and again, year after year. We see that life does and will go on, whether we are ready or not. We see that we are not alone, that we are tethered across the generations, across time, death and space between the stars. How magnificent. How glorious. How blessed. May the Source of Peace indeed send peace to all who mourn, and comfort all who are in need of comfort this day.