I Do Not Sew – A Yizkor (Memorial) Drash

I do not sew.

Sewing and cooking – some of the traditional aspects of being a homemaker – are not my forte. I am envious of those who do it well. I love filling our home with love, yet sometimes I wish I knew how to fill it with good food or with the quick threading of a needle that can fix a button or a hem for my family.

I do not sew.

When we experience a death, as Jews, we traditionally tear our clothes. It is an outer, physical reflection of the intense emotional pain we feel in our hearts. As Reform Jews, who pride ourselves on decorum, we simply put on a black ribbon and tear that.

The deaths we have known this past year tear our hearts.

In just a moment, as part of our Yizkor service, we will list of names of those who have died… of congregants. We knew them. We loved them.

Each year in our minds, we think about our personal list of loved ones who are gone… perhaps our grandparents, our parents, our siblings, our friends, our spouses, our children. With each closer circle of relationship, our lives are left more tattered a.nd torn.

Added to the list of names, are the US cities touched by tragedy… Pittsburgh, Poway, El Paso, Dayton, right here at UNC-Charlotte. The list is painfully and far too long.

We think about the list of countries… Sri Lanka, New Zealand, the Bahamas and more.

I do not sew so how can I repair the tears caused by the tragedies that keep coming our way impacting our friends and our fellow congregants. The natural disasters and the mass shootings – the 334 of them this secular calendar year alone.

When I was a student rabbi in the summer of 1994, I was working as a Chaplain Intern at New York Hospital.  Observing an open heart surgery was part of the program. The night before the surgery I could not sleep.  I imagined myself fainting at the sight of blood.  When the clock turned to 4:30 am, I got up and made my way to 69th and York, put on scrubs, and entered the operating room. After all the medical prep, I watched a team of doctors remove a healthy vein from the patient’s leg and then graft that healthy vein onto the damaged heart. Hour after hour, the surgeon simply and painstakingly sewed a vein onto a heart and enabled the patient’s life to be extended.

I witnessed the power of sewing to literally heal a heart and a body.

I know hearts can heal. But I do not sew.

In the Talmud, there were rabbis who were healers. They could literally extend their arm, lift up those who were afflicted and heal them.

Rabbi Yochanan was one such healer. Yet when he himself fell ill, he needed another rabbi, in this case, Rabbi Hanina, to help him get back to full health. This led the Talmudic sages to famously say, “A prisoner cannot free himself from prison.” One needs another to heal.

I have always imagined each recitation of Kaddish and Yizkor as a stitch in the seam that repairs the fabric of our lives that has been torn by grief.  We do not need the seamstresses’ nickel plated needle and fiber thread, nor the doctor’s suture needle and surgical thread.

Words are our needles; memory is our thread; and the healers are those who have died whose legacies guide us on our journey through grief.

Let me share an example from one tragic loss from this past year.

Bert McLeod, a Beth El member who both became Bar Mitzvah and played spectacular trumpet in our very first teen band on this bima, was 26 years old when on May 15th he suddenly died. He had literally just completed his sophomore year at Columbia University with a cumulative 3.6 grade point average, was awarded a merit scholarship for his upcoming Junior year and was coming home the next day for the summer when we believe he had an accidental overdose that stole him from this world.

Bert loved politics and had a heart for justice. He had planned on attending a Bernie Sanders rally on the day he arrived back here in Charlotte. Bert would write me in response to my editorials telling me one time that I should run for mayor and another time, on my birthday, that I should run for president. He should have been the one to run for office.

His twin sister, Melissa, shared a eulogy just one day after what would have and should have been their shared 27th birthday.  (As a twin myself, I could not imagine having her level of eloquence and composure.)

As part of her most exquisite eulogy she wrote as the older twin:

“I always tried to protect you and guide you, like a big sister would. Your incredible intelligence and tenacity helped you excel in everything you attempted. You were never short of happiness and humor- but spontaneous, unwise decisions would often set you back. As a Navy veteran with an Ivy League education, I was so looking forward to your future accomplishments.

“Now, sweet brother of mine, my only sibling and best friend, I need you to guide me. Now that you’re one with G-d and the Universe, you have the answers that I do not. Help me, help me to understand these questions that I must carry:

First: How can I live my life without my other half, my sidekick, when my identity is so utterly shaken?

Second: What can I do for our parents so that they can get through this pain and find happiness again?

Third: Why is it that everyone else gets to keep on living and celebrating while the light of our world is gone away?

And, lastly: How can I carry the weight of keeping your memory alive when it hurts my soul to acknowledge your absence?”

Melissa understood that the key player in healing her unfathomable and indescribable pain was her twin brother, himself. She needed his answers to guide her on the journey through grief.

Those who have died are our healers and the service of Yizkor is our time to hear their voices through the veil of time and space, of life and of death.

Now is the time to live the lessons they taught and to let their memories become the seam of our altered lives.

In the book of Genesis, the patriarch Jacob, despairing, tore his garments when he thought his son Joseph was dead.

In the book of Second Samuel, King David and the men who were with him rent their clothes when learning of Saul’s death and Jonathan’s death.

Job, in the book that bears his name, tore his clothes in sorrow and grief for his children who tragically were stolen from him.

The keriah, the ritual tearing, is meant to be performed while standing representing strength at a moment of grief. Yet we feel so weak and sick when we are confronted with the death of those we love.

The torn garment is meant to be worn for the seven days of shiva or for the thirty days of sheloshim, yet we know that grief extends far longer than that short span of time.

Jewish law, halahah, teaches that after that initial stage of mourning the fabric can be sewn up fully or alternatively the seam may remain imperfect with uneven stitches for all time.

Broken hearts abound in this sanctuary. This past year the fabric of our world, our country, our congregation, and our lives has been forever altered.

When I was working as a single rabbi in Scarsdale there was a woman with whom I was exceedingly close. She was fighting breast cancer. I’d call or visit her almost every Shabbat to see how she was.

I was traveling when she died and I broke a cardinal rule for rabbis on vacation.  I returned home for her funeral. When I went to her home for shiva, I met her son. Though he lived in Charlotte and I lived in New York, he called me several weeks later to go on a date. By chance, our first date was one day after sheloshim, the thirty day period of mourning. Unbeknownst to me or my now husband Chip, Cynthia Wallach had told her friends that what we she wanted was for me to be with her son.

I do not sew. Chip does. He threads a needle and sews far better than I ever could (and he cooks).  Thankfully he fills our home with good food.

Cynthia Wallach who was gone sewed the torn heart of Chip’s grief and of my own.

I do not sew – with fabric at least. I do sew with words. We all can sew with that.

The book of Ecclesaistes teaches, “For every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven; a time to be born, and a time to die;  a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;  a time to seek, and a time to lose;  a time to rend, and a time to sew.

May this Yizkor prayer, this time of remembering, create another healing stitch to heal our broken hearts. May the thread of memory bring us a measure of repair. May our lives, altered by our immeasurable losses that require us to now live not with our loved one but for them, move us to create a most beautiful quilt.