October 2, 2023 -
This sermon, Lost and Found and, was shared by Rabbi Elle Muhlbaum during Yom Kippur, 2022.
Lost and Found and
When I was fifteen and a half, I got my learner’s permit. This temporary license came with a great sense of excitement, responsibility, and freedom. I lived in Cincinnati at the time, and by the time I finished my in-car practicals and the series of required classes, I was ready for my real Ohio driver’s license. It happens that I have a really good sense of direction. And I’ve done a lot of driving in my time, including years spent in New Jersey, where they don’t believe in exit ramps and instead force traffic directly from the highway into a shopping plaza parking lot. All of that did not prepare me for navigating the many octopean intersections of the eastern suburbs of Cleveland.
With practice, I’m becoming an expert at Fairmount Circle. I’ve grown accustomed to the idea of having six or more lanes to choose from when in the middle of an intersection. When I approach Green and Shaker, I no longer fall into the trap of being in the wrong lane and accidentally heading somewhere I don’t mean to. But, I still feel my whole body snap to attention when I approach the Fairmount-Coventry-Scarborough zigzag. When we first moved here, I decided to select a road with confidence, figuring that even if I picked one that wasn’t my most efficient route, I’d get back to a main thoroughfare eventually. This led me on many wonderful adventures, particularly around the Shaker Lakes. I can get semi-lost, never entirely losing track of where I am headed, always knowing how to retrace my pathway home, but not quite exactly where I intend to be.
That meandering has led to many extra minutes in the car, but that extra time has been quite valuable. That gray area of not-entirely-lost feels so poignant in this time when ambiguous loss permeates humanity. In March of 2020, many of us began sheltering in place as the early stages of the pandemic unfolded. We watched our daily briefings on live TV and followed the recommendations to stay home to “flatten the curve.” We thought it would be for a couple of weeks, and then maybe a couple more. Before we knew it, life had utterly changed. So many of us, especially those of us privileged enough to have flexible workplaces, internet access at home, and safe domestic environments, felt we were doing a service to society by simply staying home and hiding from the virus encroaching around the world. It was right around Purim, and though we knew we’d be moving to Cleveland, I didn’t know it was the last time I’d work in my office at my Temple. I didn’t know Purim was the last time I’d see our community. I didn’t know that I’d already gone to our local café for the last time, or run into a friend at the diner for the last time, or danced a hora at a bar mitzvah in the social hall for the last time. How could I know?
Especially in those early days, when we didn’t know much about the disease causing so much worldwide devastation, we had to adapt how we approached everything, including death and dying. In general, Jewish practice does death well: we use tangible symbols like torn garments or kriya ribbons to mark how torn we are inside at a time of loss, we use our own hands to lovingly bring our dead to their final resting place when we place earth on their caskets, we support our mourners in their times of grief with shivah minyanim and filling homes with people and stories and memories. In those early months of the pandemic, all of that disappeared. Families couldn’t travel to be together for burials or communal grieving rituals. Cemeteries and funeral homes had new safety procedures, restricting how many could gather and meaning that mourners were left isolated, physically and emotionally, as they suffered through their losses. Houses of mourning sat empty during shivah and beyond, bereft families left to navigate the murky waters of loss completely alone, all while feeling afraid of contracting disease.
Today we find ourselves in a different chapter of this story of the pandemic. The disease has evolved, as has our knowledge and understanding of it. In the United States, there have been over 1.05 million deaths due to COVID. Worldwide, over 6.53 million people have died from COVID. Over 6 million family networks changed, over 6 million neighbors gone, over 6 million futures cut short. Our society has not marked these millions of losses yet, neither locally nor globally, but there will be a reckoning. That vast amount of loss cannot occur without lasting impacts on humanity. When I think about all of those individual lives lost, I find myself feeling overwhelmed by the amount of unresolved grief humanity is holding.
Unresolved grief and ambiguous loss are a part of our reality across society, now more than ever before. Dr. Pauline Boss studies ambiguous loss, which is the type of loss where “there is no verification of death or certainty that the person will return to the way they used to be.” This could arise in a couple of different forms. First, when there is physical absence with psychological presence, as in a family where immigration, divorce, kidnapping, or natural disaster has taken place. Then, there is ambiguous loss with psychological absence and physical presence, as in the case of cognitive disease like dementia, or catastrophic injuries that entirely transform a person’s existence. Ambiguous loss is loss that can’t ever really be resolved. Dr. Boss teaches, “Ambiguous loss makes us feel incompetent. It erodes our sense of mastery and destroys our belief in the world as a fair, orderly, and manageable place” (Boss 107).
Ambiguous loss isn’t only experienced with a loss of a person, though. That feeling of incompetence and spiritual confusion that comes with ambiguous loss of a person can occur with other losses as well. One of the universal experiences of the pandemic has been that each one of us has experienced loss of some kind over these last two and a half years. Some experienced tragic loss, faced with the death of loved ones, or with unexpected job loss. Others have experienced smaller, less dire losses of simple things that make life worth living: happy gatherings like birthday parties, coffee with friends, working in a social environment, traveling…the list goes on. My own sister graduated from Columbia on zoom. As much as many of us have tried to will it to be, there is nothing normal about this pandemic reality.
In a recent interview with the American Psychological Association, Dr. Boss spoke about the need for resilience in the face of ambiguous loss, and the closure that so many of us crave but won’t ever attain, because grief sticks with us. Dr. Boss said, “…. What [we] want [after a loss is not closure, it] is certainty of what that loss was…[Ambiguous loss is] a loss you can’t see… [ambiguous losses] have no quantification, they’re so uncertain… What makes this [moment] different is that we have all these ambiguous losses that have happened to us. And so, the general population is talking about mental health issues…[but] We cannot pathologize normal reactions to a pathological situation. We have just had two years of a pathological situation [with a] pathogen out there where we can’t see it causing many, many deaths, many, many illnesses, and just uprooting the entire world from what we used to do and how we used to live. We have had major loss, but not all the loss was quantifiable. Yet, it is real.”
Each one of us carries some measure of ambiguous loss. It’s tempting, in the absence of clarity or closure, to cling to the reality of the past, hoping that some sense of what once was normal will one day return. But the world we knew in those early days of 2020 is forever changed. So, we must move forward, carrying our unresolved grief with us as we do.
Following the death of her father, Clevelander Kathryn Schulz wrote a breathtaking memoir entitled Lost & Found. There, Schulz writes about what it is to lose and to grieve, sharing her own experience and contextualizing how losing and finding are guarantees of the human condition. We get lost while we drive, we lose loved ones, but we also lose so many other things, “because we are human, because we have things to lose” (Schulz 15). Schulz writes, “Over and over, loss calls on us to reckon with this universal impermanence–with the baffling, maddening, heartbreaking fact that something that was just here can be, all of a sudden, just gone” (Schulz 20). “On average, according to data from surveys and insurance companies, each of us misplaces roughly nine objects per day–which means that by the time we turn 60, we will have lost nearly 200,000 things. … Across your lifespan, [she writes,] you’ll spend roughly six solid months looking for missing objects” (Schulz 13). We lose things because we have what to lose.
In those early days of hunkering down and sheltering in place, one thing many people reported experiencing was an increase in pareidolia, which is the phenomenon of seeing human faces in otherwise ordinary objects. I remember a particular hinge bracket on a door in our old apartment that I thought looked like a face, with two screws as eyes, and the shape of the mounting bracket underneath looking like a wry smile. Though we quickly pivoted to online platforms to connect with the world around us, the loss of seeing human faces in real life caused our imaginations to find human faces in unexpected places. This is connected to bereavement hallucinations, those unusual and bizarre moments when it feels like a deceased loved one is visiting you.
Yom Kippur is, at its essence, a day of remembering what we have lost. On this day of Yom Kippur, we recognize our own mortality. We’ll gather this afternoon to recite yizkor, our memorial prayer. But in the process of teshuvah, repentance, we also remember what else we’ve lost because of human actions, either our own or someone else’s. This year, we’ve lost important relationships, opportunities to connect, our ability to care well for those around us, peace in our families. We’ve lost our tempers, our priorities, our sense of obligation. Repentance is our chance to find peace in our loss, to name our unresolved grief at our own actions. And while Yom Kippur, our day of atonement, is considered our holiest of days, the act of repentance is not designated to this day or this season alone. In fact, our Mishnaic sage Rabbi Eliezer taught, “v’shuv yom echad lifnei mitat’cha—repent one day before your death.” Later generations of rabbis understood this to mean, with no ambiguity, that since we never know when our last day will be, we should live our lives in a state of repentance.
The fact is, we never know when our last day will be, nor when the last time we do something will be. As a parent of young children, I feel this deeply, on an almost atomic level. The kids change and grow so much from minute to minute, it seems like the sands of time are flowing wildly through my fingers, try as I might to capture them. Was that the last bleary-eyed early morning nursing session? Will he ask me to carry him again, reaching up those sticky hands and admitting he’s tired? Will she ever again fall asleep, drooling on my shoulder as I wander through the rooms of our home?
These may seem like insignificant moments, but taken as an aggregate, they weigh as heavily as a bone-deep loss. The children of those moments and stages are gone; the ones before me now are different creatures entirely, made up of every second until now and filled with potential. That is the bittersweetness of being alive: because life ends, and because we don’t ever truly know when that will be, we can either live in defiance of our mortality or in acceptance of it. And, I believe, the latter unlocks us to an exhilarating potential: not of loss, but that of finding meaning.
In his piece, “A Pluralistic Universe,” American philosopher William James wrote, “nothing includes everything, or dominates over everything. The word “and” trails along after every sentence.” So it is with life. We lose, and we find. After reflecting poignantly on the loss of her father, Kathryn Schulz leads readers through her journey of finding her partner. She says, “…just as every grief narrative is a reckoning with loss, every love story is a chronicle of finding, the private history of an extraordinary discovery” (Schulz 83). We find things, and people, she notes, in two ways: searching or serendipity (Schulz 88). Our lives are like an ambiguous lost and found; a treasure trove of curated and unexpected moments, alongside empty spaces on the shelves where things are missing.
We find things all the time; sometimes, we find the things we ourselves have lost, and other times, we find things we didn’t know existed. Sometimes we find people, meeting new friends or colleagues, or even reconnecting, re-discovering a long-lost friend, or bringing an estranged family member back into a relationship with us. We find treasures in our old collections, mementos of our past seemingly long forgotten, bringing immediately to mind the time and place connected to the souvenir. In that way, the things we find act like a time machine, taking us back to who we were before. But whether we find something new-to-us, or something known, it comes with a thrill.
Just as we lost things in the pandemic, we’ve also found things. There were so many folks reconnecting with lost arts of cooking and baking. There was found time, no longer spent commuting. There were new ways to interact, creative thinking around what would be a safe way to introduce new babies to family members, new ways to gather for shivah minyanim online, new ways to pray and heal and learn together. Faced with enormous difficulty, human beings have found myriad ways of being resilient, of staying connected.
“…Stories about searching for something are among the oldest, most enduring, and most popular tales we tell” (Schulz 95). Our people love stories, and our own tradition is full of stories of people seeking and searching, losing and finding, wandering and being found.
We like to think that life is orderly, logical, predictable. “Instead, [as Schultz writes,] life is made up of countless unrelated fragments, ‘everything only connected by “and” and “and.’” As it happens, there is a word for things that are only connected by and and and. That grammatical construction is known as polysyndeton, meaning ‘many bindings’ (Schulz 202). Kohelet, the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes, seemed to love the polysyndeton. In Ecclesiastes, which we typically read during Sukkot as we recognize the cycle of life and death in nature, the falling of dead leaves and shortening of days, we learn that everything has its season, “l’chol z’man v’eit l’chol cheifetz tachat hashamayim: a season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven. A time for being born and a time for dying, a time for planting and a time for sowing, a time for slaying and a time for healing… a time for weeping and a time for laughing….”
It reminds me that just as there is a time to mourn the things we’ve done for the last time, maybe without even realizing it, we don’t always recognize when we’ve done something for the first time. When you’ve met your best friend, you don’t truly know it when you meet them. When you eat your favorite food for the first time, you don’t know it until it’s happened. I wish I could go back and read certain favorite books for the first time or savor the experience of enjoying a favorite movie for the first time, seeing a favorite musician perform live for the first time. I wish I could capture the first time I felt at peace, the first time I came to a deep understanding. These good moments pass by, often eluding our grasp until they’ve passed. There may be a season for everything, but we don’t always realize we’re in a good season until it’s over.
There’s a well-known story in our tradition about King Solomon. One day Solomon decided to humble Benaiah Ben Yehoyada, his most trusted minister.
Solomon said to him, “Benaiah, there is a certain ring that I want you to bring to me. I wish to wear it for Sukkot which gives you six months to find it.”
“If it exists anywhere on earth, your majesty,” replied Benaiah, “I will find it and bring it to you, but what makes the ring so special?”
“It has magic powers,” answered the king. “If a happy man looks at it, he becomes sad, and if a sad man looks at it, he becomes happy.”
Solomon knew that no such ring existed in the world, but he wished to give his minister a little taste of humility. Spring passed and then summer, and still Benaiah had no idea where he could find the ring. On the night before Sukkot, he decided to take a walk in one of the poorest quarters of Jerusalem. He passed by a merchant who had begun to set out the day’s wares on a shabby carpet.
“Have you by any chance heard of a magic ring that makes the happy wearer forget his joy and the broken-hearted wearer forget his sorrows?” asked Benaiah.
He watched the man take a plain gold ring from his carpet and engrave something on it. When Benaiah read the words on the ring, his face broke out in a wide smile. That night the entire city welcomed in the holiday of Sukkot with great festivity.
“Well, my friend,” said Solomon, “have you found what I sent you after?” All the ministers laughed and Solomon himself smiled. To everyone’s surprise, Benaiah held up a small gold ring and declared, “Here it is, your majesty!”
As soon as Solomon read the inscription, the smile vanished from his face. The jeweler had written three Hebrew letters on the gold band: gimel, zayin, yud, which began the words “Gam zeh ya’avor” “This too shall pass.”
At that moment Solomon realized that all his wisdom and fabulous wealth and tremendous power were but fleeting things, for one day he would be nothing but dust.
Gam zeh ya’avor: this too shall pass. When things are hard, when loss is fresh and heavy, or ambiguous and unwieldy, that will pass. Loss and grief stay a part of us forever; we grow around our grief, carrying it with us for our lives. But the sharpness changes. Gam zeh ya’avor: this too shall pass. When things are good, and sweet, and easy, when we are happy and radiant and buoyant, this too shall pass. Life, with all its grief, with all its joy, with all its losing and all its finding, ebbs and flows. The constant is change; gam zeh ya’avor.
Like Kohelet teaches us, there is a time for everything, for each experience under heaven. Life isn’t unending sadness or unending joy; life is sadness and joy. There is a time for both, and everything in between, flowing and changing, and sometimes all together at the same time. Gam zeh ya’avor.
I’m thinking again of the polysyndeton, that grouping of phrases tied together with and and and. Multiple conjunctions. Just like the trademark intersections of the eastern suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, those multiple junctions intersecting together, pathways to get lost or to find somewhere expected or unexpected, our lives are, in their own ways, polysyndetons. We lose and find. We are lost and we are found. Lost and found and lost and found and and and. When you find something, or someone, gam zeh ya’avor: this too will pass. When you experience losing something or someone, gam zeh ya’avor: this too will pass.
On this Yom Kippur, we find ourselves at the polysyndeton of the vision in Ecclesiastes: this right now is a season for planting and sowing, a time for hurting and healing… a time for weeping and laughing. Whatever this moment of losing and finding has for us, may we navigate the intersections of our lives with resilience. We are lost and found and.
 Dr. Pauline Boss, Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief
 Kathryn Schulz, Lost & Found
 Pirkei Avot 2:10
 BT Shabbat 153a
 This powerful quote is the epigraph to Schulz’ Lost & Found
 Ecc. 1:1ff