September 25, 2023 -
This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk at the Yom Kippur Yizkor Memorial Service, 2019. We encourage you to share comments below, or to post the link to this post on social media such as Facebook or Twitter, or to share with others by email, to continue the conversations it engenders.
Once there was a news director at a TV station who assigned a reporter to interview a retired woman in her 80’s, who was now getting married for the 4th time. Believe it or not, she and her fiancé, also an octogenarian, were making a big fancy wedding. The reporter asked her questions about her life and what it felt like to be marrying again. He asked her about how she met her spouse, and what he did for a living. “He’s a funeral director,” she answered.
“Interesting,” the reporter responded. Then he asked if she wouldn’t mind telling him about her first three marriages. She paused for a few moments, needing time to reflect on her life and its loving relationships. A smile came to her face as she answered proudly that she had first married a banker when she was in her 20’s, then a singer in her 40’s. She had married a minister in her 60’s and now, late in her life, she was marrying a funeral director. The interviewer asked her what it was like to be in love so many times. She answered: “I married one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, and four to go.”
It’s good to laugh, isn’t it? Yom Kippur is filled with so much dread and awe that one might forget that getting through it together is something to celebrate. But our Day of Atonement is softened because we are present for one another, holding space for one another, observing our tradition in unity. Part of that happens when we let go. For it is truly uplifting for fellow congregants to hear and see joy and laughter arise from within us, even today.
In Torah, the most famous laughter is Genesis 18, when a 100-year old Sarah is told she will soon conceive a child with Abraham. How does she respond? In astonishment, she laughs b’kirbah, translated as “inwardly” (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 88), “to herself,” or as the medieval commentator Rashi puts it, “she looked at her insides (i.e., she realized the aged condition of her body) and said, ‘is it possible that these insides can carry a child?’” My colleague Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker explains further that Sarah “laughed for the joy of receiving the blessing of a child after being denied for so long. She laughed at the miracle of this birth. She laughed at the idea of the sexual experience she would enjoy with her husband conceiving a child…and she laughed at her poor old body experiencing pregnancy so late in the game.” Rabbi Dunsker adds: “I imagine her denying her laughter [to God] while at the same time struggling to wipe the smile off her face… But that lie brings her a reward…[of] direct communication from God…God trying to hide a smile as well when calling her on the lie, the way a parent does when he or she catches a young child in a small lie or a moment of absurdity.” (Adapted from Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker, “And Sarah Laughed (And Laughed and Laughed)” published at https://reformjudaism.org/and-sara-laughed-and-laughed-and-laughed)
At Yizkor on Yom Kippur, I like that picture very much: imagining God trying but failing to hide a smile from us. For even at Yizkor, not all the thoughts that arise for us are serious.
Yizkor inspires the memories it does.
When I was 14, I was sitting with my dad at a family wedding. A little while into the wedding celebration, I asked if he’d let me taste some of the bourbon in the bottom of his glass. Go ahead and tell me to remember his principles and values. I can do that any day. At Yizkor, I’m remembering the sound of his laughter when I convinced him to let me taste his bourbon and reached for the glass. I’m also remembering the kiss he snuck on my cheek when I took a sip.
Now…when Michael Nosanchuk would laugh, really laugh, there was a sigh afterward. I don’t know why. But this Yizkor, I remember his signature sigh like he’s right here next to me. O God, I wish he was! I wish he was well and alive at my side. For it was never his bourbon I wanted. It was misbehaving with him in plain sight, earning his laugh, hearing his sigh, and getting his kiss on my cheek that I wanted.
This past year, our entire nation witnessed similar laughter and misbehavior in plain sight. It was during the funeral of President George H.W. Bush. Did you see the memorial service when it was on TV? I am remembering when his son, the younger President Bush, was shaking the hands of all the Presidents and First Ladies. He was clearly experiencing, by far, the most gut-wrenching moment of his life, the loss of his father. But if you watch the video, you’ll see W catch a glance of his friend Michelle Obama, and place a sucking candy into her hand as the two of them giggled aloud in front of about ten thousand cameras.
Did you see that video? The President was continuing a playful game he’d started a few months earlier at Senator McCain’s funeral. I just loved it. Didn’t you? Suddenly we weren’t watching a state occasion. We were witnessing a man in pain communicate to his friend, “I’m getting through this moment because of you… because I can be myself with you…because I can let myself laugh with you.” Those are the best moments. Don’t you think? I believe that if God is guiding and intervening in our lives, what God wants most is for us to find the people with whom we can laugh without limit no matter where we are standing.
You may think permission to laugh and misbehave at sobering moments is a modern innovation. But it’s not true. Our sages have long portrayed humor as a source of healing when we are wounded or humility when people are taking us too seriously. Bending and breaking official rules of etiquette is part of how Jewish folklore depict our humanity.
There’s even a Hasidic story about three kids who broke away from their Sabbath prayers at temple and hid themselves in a barn. Why? They wanted to go there to share a smoke. They were discovered by their teachers who were ready to punish them. One of the kids exclaimed aloud: “I don’t deserve punishment. I forgot today was Shabbat!” The second kid said: “And I forgot that smoking on Shabbat is forbidden.” The teachers looked at the third child who then said, “I too forgot.” They asked: “What did you forget?” To which he replied, “I forgot to lock the barn door.”
I forgot to lock the barn door. It is Yizkor. It is the time of Yom Kippur when it is OK to leave the barn door unlocked. It is Yizkor, and today I want you to remember your loved ones laughing.
Be accompanied right now by your gratitude for all those who came before you did for you. Tomorrow you can go back to remembering the things they can no longer do. But for today, I beg of you to remember the sense of humor they showed when they forgot to lock the barn door, when they tripped and fell and laughed at themselves.
It is Yizkor, so forgive them their faults. Set aside their imperfections. For a few precious moments, remember that there may be no one but you to remember the genuine unrestrained laughter of your parents, your siblings, your friends, your spouses and partners. Listen in your heart for their laughter. Look in your mind’s eye for their wide-eyed grin. Drink some of their bourbon. Feel their kiss on your cheek. See them trying to hold in their laughter and smile but not succeeding, because whatever mischief you’d accomplished was just too damn funny.
It is Yizkor and not just any Yizkor. On Yom Kippur we offer these memorial prayers at the exact moment when our ancestors would’ve brought their sacrifices to the altar. You need to know: there was no moment more grave and serious to them, for bringing what was precious to the altar was how they prayed. This was when they expressed to God and community what mattered most. We are their descendants, only we come hear bearing only our memories. Some made us cry. Some made us hurt or hope, and other memories we bear, even at Yizkor, can only ever make us laugh.
Elohenu Velohei Avotenu, God of all generations, laugh with us. For everything in the life you’ve granted us points to one truth: that the moment we stop laughing we start dying.
So we beg of you, take our laughter to the most private part of Your house. Hold it as a holy and precious gift. O God if this Yizkor you don’t see anything we’ve done that makes you smile and laugh, then come find us. We’re over here hiding in the barn, but we left it unlocked. And why? So that you could find us, and we could laugh together.