Looking At A Skyscraper Up Close

This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk on Yom Kippur, 2020.

It was almost 11 years ago, when we still lived in Virginia. I had spinal surgery to fuse portions of my lumbar spinal column. It was my fourth back surgery and the most successful. But the day after, it felt like, to quote the doctor, someone had hit me with a 10 lb. mallet repeatedly in my gut, because quite frankly, that’s what occurred. The day after, I had a busy array of visitors.

First, a nurse was checking my vitals when a call came in from my brother-in-law David, only he was playing a familiar trick on me and on speakerphone was addressing me not as David Bradley, but as an imitation Irish Catholic priest named Father O’Flanagan encouraging me to get strong and making up playful dirty limericks to coax out my laughter. His Father O’Flanagan imitation had me cracking up. It always does. But it was worth the painful tug on my stitches.

A few moments after the call, in walked a member of the synagogue who was an obstetrician at the hospital. She delivered babies for a living. But I had just conducted her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah a few weeks earlier and she saw my name on the patient roster, so into my room came a caring obstetrician, to make sure I had everything I might need.  When she left, about 15 minutes later in walked two uniformed policemen. I put on my glasses to see that I knew both of them. I served as the volunteer chaplain for the local Jewish police officers’ group, and part of my job was to call and check in on officers who’d been sick or injured in the line of duty. These guys were repaying the favor, visiting me and offering me support.

Passing the officers in the hallway and into my room came my dear friend Mohammed Magid, an Imam who leads one of our nation’s largest mosques. Only Mohammed had just come from a wedding, so he arrived at my hospital room in full clerical regalia. He sat by my bedside and asked me just the right questions that would open my heart to him about the challenge of recovering. I was afraid and I could tell him. Mohammed stayed with me for some time. But I don’t remember when he left because I must’ve dozed off.  A nurse then entered my room and said, “Mr. Nosanchuk, this is Becky. My shift is about to be complete. I’ll be back tomorrow. Jennifer is already here and is about to come in and give you your meds.  Ok?”  I nodded my assent. She then turned to me and asked, “Before I leave, do you mind if I ask you a question?” I said, “sure.” So she replied: “Ummm…who are you?”

Who are you? The nurse had to break all of her hospital training just to ask me, for after hearing Father O’Flanagan, seeing two cops, an obstetrician and a tall Sudanese-born imam visit one man in the span of an hour or so, she had to know who was lying before her in the hospital?

Over 11 years since that day, I’ve come to realize that the answer to “who are you” at any given moment is that you are the constellation of people who look out for you, who look after you, who do something when you are hurting, injured, or making a comeback. That’s who you are! That’s for sure who I am!

It’s Yizkor. It is the weakest hour we experience during the High Holy Day season. We hardly remember our names. We are hungry, yes. But not just for food. This year we ache for the shoulders of friends who COVID-19 caution won’t allow us to hug. This Yizkor, because of coronavirus, you are at home and can’t hug your close friend or congregate at temple or go to tomorrow’s Indians game or go anywhere you like within six feet of another living, breathing, unmasked human being. But even though it is 2020, it is also Yizkor and that means we remember. We remember right now all the people who looked out for us and looked after us. We remember them because we’ve been blessed to live long enough to survive them.

Who are you thinking of, right now? When you were hurting or afraid, who has showed up for you? Who are you thinking of? Is it your child whose fingers interlocked with yours reminds you of discoveries and adventures you cherish? Is it a mom or a dad who used to call you to tell you a joke they knew you absolutely needed to hear? Maybe it is a sister or a brother who you could confide in and tell things you hadn’t shared aloud with anyone else? Might it be a partner or a spouse, the sound of whose voice made your breathing soften and your toes curl – they were a person who let you know that you are more than a jumble of nerves. You were their lover, their confidant, and the object of their affection.

Who are you? You are all these people and more! You are your friends, your family, your community, your temple and even your clergy. You are the people who did something whole and pure for you which was a salve to your wounds. Because it’s Yizkor, you miss the people who hung in there with you. You miss them today because the work of atonement is huge and lonely. This day is awesome and filled with dread. The language of our prayers wreaks of guilt and forces us to admit our mistakes and regrets. On Yom Kippur, we pray no One less than the Holy One of Blessing shows up for us, sits at our bedside, helps us to rise and steadies our steps. Why? Because someone who used to steady us has died!

I thought I knew what grief was after my father died almost six years ago. He had Alzheimer’s and so he died a 1,000 times over a decade until he breathed his last in January 2014. But there is something people don’t warn you about grief. They don’t tell you how encompassing it is. They don’t let you know that there are days that you can’t see anything else in front of you.

Well, most people don’t warn you. My friend Mohammed is not the kind of person who tells you “I am going to pray for you.” He just calls you and whether or not you answer, he just starts praying. For three years after my dad’s funeral, I kept the recording of Mohammed praying for my strength on my voicemail. For in that message he told me that it was going to hurt. But he also said that he was going to be there for me always and that God would be with me and both have been true.

My brother-in-law David, the voice of Father O’Flanagan, a few hours after my dad’s funeral, he texted me from Philadelphia, a quote from a novel called Mary and O’Neill, by Justin Cronin. In the story, a son and daughter are coping with the sudden loss of both of their parents. Although the relationship between the children and their mom and dad is fraught with tension, regret, and misjudgment, the book describes their pain as “a loss so overwhelming they simply couldn’t take it all in, like looking at a skyscraper up close.” (Mary and O’Neill, Justin Cronin, 2001: Dial Press, NY, p. 84)

Have you ever done that? Have you ever stood close to a skyscraper, close like your nose was against it? Do you remember how that felt? If you’ve never done so, imagine it. From where you are seated right now, look to the highest height of the tallest building you’ve seen. Really lean back! Do you see it, if only in your mind’s eye?  Now listen carefully to me carefully:  grief is not just noticing the edifice that is in your way. No, to grieve is to carefully, patiently, step back to a space where you gain perspective and healing. For some it takes months and for others, many years. It’s frightening to grieve. Stepping backwards and having faith you won’t fall, that’s not easy. But Jewish tradition shows us how to step back one pace at a time. For each step, there is a ritual. Today and again twelve days from now at the end of Sukkot, that ritual is called Yizkor.

It is Yizkor. Every time we pray at Yizkor, the losses we’ve sustained remain as tall as they ever were. Yizkor is a skyscraper placed right in front of our faces today. Sitting this close to our grief on an already difficult day, it hurts. It’s supposed to. Knowing that the physical presence of a loved one is erased from our midst is harsh. It feels unfair. It makes you crave to know how your world is supposed to go on when the people who’ve sustained you have died.  If this is the struggle you have faced, as rabbis are wont to do, I want to tell you a story. It is heralded in Jewish folklore but which was retold beautifully in Rabbi Karyn Kedar’s beautiful book, God Whispers.

The story begins many years ago in a far-off town, where there lived a man whose business was on the brink of ruin. He had one opportunity to save it, and so he traveled to a neighboring town to arrange a business deal. As luck would have it, the man made 500 rubles that day and it was exactly enough to keep him going. He was on his way home and decided to stop in to see his rabbi. The rabbi greeted him and exclaimed “How good it is that you come to see me at this time. I must have 500 rubles to give to a family in town who is desperately in need!”

“Rabbi,” he said, “you know that I never deny you anything. But please, this time is different. You see, I must have these 500 rubles to save my business. Please understand. I’ll give you 500 rubles as soon as I can.”

But the rabbi would not give in, and promised the man that for his 500 rubles, God would reward him many times over. After much heated discussion, he began to give in. The rabbi asked him what he might want in exchange for the rubles. The man considered all the troubles he had faced in his life, all of the doubts that had been resolved and those that remained. He said to the rabbi: “I hear that there are thirty-six righteous souls in the world and because of their righteousness, the world is sustained.”

“That’s right” said the rabbi.  “Well,” said the man, “I would like to see one of these thirty six righteous human beings before I die.” “Granted,” said the rabbi, “and may God reward you!” And the man went on his way, but as promised, his business flourished. The years went on and he realized he had never met one of the 36. He went to the rabbi and inquired when he would be able to meet one of the people who sustain the world. The rabbi instructed him as follows: “Go into the woods. In a clearing, you will see a small house with the light of a candle flickering within. Inside the house lives a tailor. He is one of the righteous persons that you seek.”

Excited, the man rushed to the woods. He wandered in the dark for what seemed like a long time, until finally he came upon a clearing where there was a small house lit by a candle flickering inside. He approached the window and saw a tailor mending clothes. He was about to knock on the door when he thought, “How can I approach a tailor without having something to mend?” He took off his pants and tore them and then he knocked on the door.  “Come in,” said the tailor. “Will you mend my pants for me?” asked the man. “Of course,” responded the tailor who promptly began to mend the torn pants.

Then suddenly a strange thing happened. As the tailor put a needle into the pants, the man felt a piercing pain. Then the tailor pulled the needle through, and the man felt another piercing pain through his entire body. But when the tailor pulled the thread so that the pieces of fabric came together, he felt a release from the pain. So this pattern continued, a piercing pain followed by another piercing pain and then a tremendous relief. Suddenly the man understood. This righteous tailor, one of 36 souls that sustain the world, was healing the world through his work. He did this first by mending fabric, then by healing a man, and finally by doing his part to mend the world. (God Whispers: Stories of the Soul, Lessons of the Heart, 1999: Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT), p. 110-111.)

I love this story. I love how it reminds me of the holiness that is contained in even a tiny stitch someone places to mend two pieces of fabric. This story makes me imagine that there was never a more holy time than now to mend the world and never a less! Right now it is wondrous to know exactly who I am should a nurse come to my chair in treatment and ask me who I am?

For I know more than ever that I am all the people who’ve ever cheered me up or encouraged me onwards. I am the hundreds of you who’ve held me and this temple close to your heart while I’ve been weakened by a dreaded disease. But I’m not surprised to feel your support. For we are part of a people who’ve spent thousands of years rushing into the dark woods in search of the light of a flickering candle.

But there is no need to search the woods today! There are righteous people praying with us and praying for us, lighting candles for us to see at this moment: doctors and nurses, religious leaders and policemen….they and so many more tzadikim, live right among us. There are bushes we walk by every day, forgetting to see within them are flames alive with God’s presence. There is within life, all life, both beauty and ugliness, both tragedy and delight. Like the story of the man wanting to know how the world would be sustained, during our lifetimes we are pierced with pain, sometimes more than once, but then someone shows up, a person with holy intention places thread in a needle and repairs our torn fabric.

No one, no one escapes life without pain. Yizkor, this memorial service, tells us that there is grief, bitter grief that is harder to experience than what people warned us. Sometimes that grief is all that we can see. It’s like looking at a skyscraper up close! But if we know who we are, if we remember who we are, we’ll know exactly what to do. We’ll notice the pain. We’ll take measure of it. But then we’ll step backwards, slowly, carefully, and find a place of healing, a place where we can sit always, within a people of kindness, Amen.

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