Monday, May 20, 2013

Hitting the Snooze Button: #Shavuot Yizkor 5773

A little belated, but here are the words I shared for Yizkor on Shavuot.

Hitting the Snooze Button:
Shavuot Yizkor 5773

I am a snoozer. There are days, on occasion, on which I pop out of bed ready to face the day, but most days find me putting off the inevitable in 9-minute increments. It’s not that I am not a morning person, or that I am not getting enough sleep. For me, it is the delicious knowledge that it is not time yet, that there is more, that I can step out of the urgency for a moment. And so I do. For 9 minutes at a time, burrowed in the covers, blissful in the knowledge that there is more time.

Before the advent of coffee-and hence the advent of the Tikkun Leil Shavuot--it seems that the Israelites, camping at Sinai, loved their sleep as much as I do. The rabbis of the Zohar teach that as the moment of revelation drew near, the people of Israel slept soundly. So soundly, in fact, that they almost missed revelation. Forget the blaring of shofars, the crashing of thunder, the flashing of lightning--the Israelites slept right through it. At the very last moment, the midrash continues, Moses woke each and every Israelite, ensuring that they would not miss God’s words. There was no snooze button; one more minute and they might have missed it all!

Jonathan Franzen, the author, wrote of his challenging relationship with his mother. Spending time with her was difficult, and so even as she was dying, he kept his visits to no more than 3 days—his limit before she drove him crazy. And he writes:
“She, for her part, was accustomed to my leavings and didn’t complain too much. But she still felt about me what she’d always felt, which was what I wouldn’t really feel about her until after she was gone. ‘I hate it when daylight-saving time starts while you’re here,’ she told me while we were driving to the airport, ‘because it means I have an hour less with you’.”[1]  

Would that we had that sort of personal alarm clock, an innate sense of what moments in life--and in the lives of our loved ones--that we cannot miss. We know we are to be there for births and for funerals, for weddings and conversions and bnai mitzvah. But, of course, those aren’t--by and large--the moments that we miss.

You’ve all seen, I am sure, the vacation pictures of someone “holding up” the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or the beach trick of “holding the sun.” Tricks of perspectives, all of them, but I think they have something to teach us. There is a Hasidic teaching on perspective, that I heard someone share once at a funeral for their spouse. The teaching reminds us that: If you hold your hand up in front of your eyes, your small hand is enough to cover up a mountain.  On this holiday of mountains, of grandeur and glory, it is a good reminder that the same is true of life. If we go through constantly focused on the big stuff, we miss the beauty and majesty of every day.

Joan Walters wrote the following of her adult children:

My 20-something son and daughter now just roll their eyes when I send news snippets about grape tomatoes recalled due to salmonella, or a bicyclist across the ocean dead in an accident without a helmet. My son answered his phone one day recently at a Toronto intersection and before I could speak, said: “Mom, I’ve taken my vitamins, I’m eating an apple, I’ve already had two bottles of water, I’ve washed my hands three times today and I’m waiting for the walk sign to say go. Happy?”

Can Joan’s son have any idea how much he will miss the articles he dismisses with a laugh? Can her daughter imagine not getting the worried phone call?

How are we to know that a quick phone call, rushing between appointments, will feel like a gaping hole when we can no longer make it. How are we to know that it’s not until we stop receiving those annoying forwards that we’ll miss them--and the person who always sent them. How are we to know that while our loved ones are noticeably absent in the big moments, it is often the small moments, the everyday interactions, that bring our losses into stark relief. . We think to ourselves: Oh, I have to call and tell her what just happened. We pick up the phone only to remember that she isn’t there to answer.

If only someone could come along and say--in the midst of that phone call, while writing that email, over coffee or bagels, in the midst of everyday life--WAKE UP! If only we could always remember that, unlike my everyday life, there is no snooze button. There is no button we can press, no words we can say, nothing we can do to have those 2 more years, those 5 more months, those 9 more minutes.

Ted Kooser, an American poet, has written extensively on death and mourning. In his poem “Father,” he writes:

I miss you every day – the heartbeat
under your necktie, the hand cupped
on the back of my neck, Old Spice
in the air, your voice delighted with stories.
(quoted by Rabbi Janet Marder, Shavuot 2012)

These are the precious moments, the moments that we will miss, the moments we cannot recreate. As much as the high and lows of life and its cycles, these moments--the everyday, the quotidien--these are the moments to celebrate. For when they are gone, it is at times an unfathomable loss.

Shavuot is, among other things, a holiday of awareness, of presence.  It is a reminder to wake up, to look up, to listen for the words around you. Shavuot, with its moment of revelation, reminds us of the urgency of time—the endless march that we are all powerless to stop.

In our liturgy, we call Shavuot zman matan Torateinu, the time of the giving of the Torah. Why the giving of the Torah, the Divine act, rather than the time of receiving Torah—our human response? Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotsk teaches that Shavuot is called the time of giving of Torah because the giving was a single moment, the revelation at Mt. Sinai. It was a time, long past. The receiving of Torah, however, is constant, he says. It happens in each and every moment when we encounter the Divine, when we study Torah, when we engage in acts of lovingkindness. Just as Shavuot is a holiday of presence, then, it is a holiday of relationship. And so, the Kotsker Rebbe’s teaching is just as true for us and for our loved ones.

The moments we had with our loved ones might have been just those—moments. Transient, ephemeral, fixed in time. But what we received, the legacy, the love, the memory—those are constant, they are eternal. And perhaps that is one of the reasons that Yizkor is a part of the Shavuot commemoration. It does not evoke the sense memories of Passover; it is not wrapped up with the High Holy Day season like Shmini Atzeret. But on this day, as Moses moves to rouse the Israelites, to awaken them to presence—we get a snooze button.

For these moments of Yizkor, we get to have our loved ones with us, for just a few more moments. For these moments of Yizkor, we feel their presence. For these moments of Yizkor, we get what we cannot have in life—just a little bit more time.

Yizkor—we remember.

[1] Jonathan Franzen, “My Bird Problem” The New Yorker, August 8 and 15, 2005