Your Invisible Village
Kol Nidrei - Yom Kippur
Rabbi Aaron Weininger
Who is your invisible village? Who are the people who have died whose voices and silence, whose laughter and tears, accompany you to this moment?
On Rosh Hashanah, we reflected on opening the many doors to Jewish life. On Yom Kippur, I think about those who come knocking on the doors to our hearts, to inspire and comfort, to console and heal with their love.
During this holiday, I not only want to be sealed in the Book of Life. I also want to feel life with those who aren’t here to live it with us.
Who is your invisible village, knocking on the door to your heart?
Some of you know, I became an uncle in April. My niece was born in Jerusalem to my brother Dan and sister-in-law Shani on the morning of Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach. Obviously she is the cutest. And the smartest. And the most fun for her uncle to shop for. My niece is the only five month old in Jerusalem to sport Minnesota team gear that her uncle doesn’t even root for. But hey, you gotta have Minnesota Pride. While I hope she won’t need it, she also has her first knit sweater for when she visits the first weekend of November for my installation.
As I walked into the Hadassah Hospital room to meet my niece for the first time, I saw my mom holding this sweet baby girl. Cradled in her arms and resting on her shoulder, this first grandchild for my parents was at total peace.
As I watched my mom, herself now “bubbie,” I felt my own bubbie’s presence. An immigrant from Lithuania, born in 1897, Sarah Wiener was my maternal great grandmother, my mother’s maternal grandmother. Once Sarah became a bubbie to her first grandchild, she was known as bubbie to everyone. Her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and even her neighbors called her bubbie. Everyone on the block waited for my bubbie’s latkes, kugels, and gefilte fish that she made from scratch. The process of fish making started at the market, moved to the bathtub for free swim, and eventually to the kitchen, where the fish met its fate with the most loving but lethal hands. Bubbie’s food didn’t just enter your mouth. It touched your heart with love.
As I saw my own mother rocking her granddaughter in that Jerusalem hospital room, the memories flooded of visiting my bubbie and feeling her warmth. Our bubbie’s smile lit up her face, and any room she was in. And if only the wrinkles on her face could talk! I imagine they would tell stories about my mom as a kid, growing up in her grandparents’ home in the Bayside neighborhood of Queens. But by the point I have memories with bubbie, she was no longer talking much or chopping fish. She was mostly very quiet but smiling at us, especially when we sang holiday songs at her bedside. She spent the last six years of her life at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale. It will soon be thirty years that my bubbie died at the age of 97, and I recall flying home early from Israel where we were supposed to spend six weeks of that summer.
We read in Shir HaShirim, Song of Songs, (5:5) the words Hazzan Dulkin and I chanted a few moments ago: Ani Yesheina v’libi eir, kol dodi dofeik pitchi li ...
“I was asleep but my heart awoke is that my dear one, knocking on my door?”
Who is knocking on the door to your heart?
We embrace life when we accept death. Accepting death does not mean justifying it. Accepting death means acknowledging that it touches us and shapes us and even comes to sit next to us on this Kol Nidrei through the end of Yom Kippur.
The intensity of life pulses when we confront its fleeting nature. We touch death to know how much every breath matters. Tonight our hearts may be sleeping but we are yearning to wake. What would it look like to let in the love and care of those who died before us?
As I shared at her funeral earlier this month, my wise friend, our dear member Carolyn Abramson of blessed memory, asked Rabbi Kravitz and me in the weeks before she died, “Rabbi, what makes a Jewish funeral a Jewish funeral?” In that moment, all I could muster is that time stops. “Time stops,” I told Carolyn, “and it’s reoriented to make us be in the moment.” Today time stops and is reoriented. Not because today is a funeral, but because our brush with mortality allows us to live. We measure the day of Yom Kippur differently than any other day, because on this day we encounter death to better encounter life. We don’t measure by meal times and other markers of the day that give us pleasure. We have no where to go and nothing to do, but to unravel “the protective armor” the term my colleague Rabbi Jan Uhrbach uses for the layers that have created separation. Once we remove such layers, we listen for the knocking on our hearts. Carolyn is with me. So many are with me, accompanying me on this bimah, and their qualities too. Who died too young and who lived a long life. The way they laughed, or came lovingly to minyan, and taught at the Gan. Those who lingered at kiddush a bit longer, who asked the question that changed the course of a class, whose smarts and sass took no prisoners, who loved ice cream, whose warmth and sense of humor enveloped, who never missed a beat, who survived the Holocaust, and whose indomitable spirit still moves us.
Who is your invisible village?
We gather to affirm life even as we imitate death: we wear white, fast, and refrain from the pleasures that animate life. We come as close as we can to feeling that this life is fragile, and then we take a step back from the precipice, with the first morsels of food at break fast. Many things can be true at the same time. Yom Kippur makes room for the most profound to be held in the same day: we hold death to appreciate life. But we need help holding it. Those who died, they help us. We imagine the Psalmist who praises “the One heals the broken-hearted, binding up their wounds, who numbers the stars, giving each one a name.” Tonight the faces of our loved ones form a kaleidoscope, dazzling in the lights of the sanctuary and in the starry night sky that takes us home.
My brother and sister-in-law named their daughter Hallel Nitzan for the season in which she was born and for our Grandpa Bud. Hallel recalls the praise of the Passover holiday, and Nitzan in Hebrew means bud and signals the rebirth of spring. From slavery to freedom. From death comes life. From winter, spring. From Grandpa Bud, another great grandchild to carry his name and his legacy.
When we touch death, we bring into life the lessons and stories and laughter and tears that are accumulated wisdom for us to carry. We allow worlds to meet, as they did in the hospital room on that early April morning. And as they do for Yom Kippur. Many of you share with me that you regularly talk with loved ones who have died. You argue with a partner. You cry with a parent. You share the experience of sitting at the bedside of a child, reading a bedtime story that you never want to end.
The Hebrew poet Rachel captures as much when she writes,
“They alone are left me; they alone still faithful,
For now death can do no more to them.
At the bend of the road, at the close of day,
They gather around me silently, and walk by my side.
This is a bond nothing can ever loosen.
What I have lost: what I possess forever.”
Encountering death does not mean understanding it, or giving pithy explanations for it. I don't believe in a God who causes suffering. God spends God’s time protecting the invisible village and making it visible to us. God lifts up the caresses, the laughter, the smiles, and recalls words we wish we said and words we wish we held back. The prayerbooks we hold should not be read as a neatly packaged theology. If they are, our tradition is guilty of theological malpractice. Instead the imperfect words in front of us are a first attempt of our ancestors to uncover God in a chaotic world, ideas penned by people who carried the same range of emotions as we do: psalmists and teachers and prophets and other flawed and fallible human beings who like us were in search of something beyond. In search of their own invisible village. And who found the imperfection of words, now in our hands, to convey that.
We are accompanied by both life and death on the pages of our prayerbooks and in the living texts of our lives. Even moments of birth make room for those who have come before and the stories that shape us as a people. My niece is rooted in the stories of the holiday on which she was born, and in the gefilte fish of our bubbie, and the integrity of our grandfather. So is her uncle. So is each one of us in our own way. Our villages tonight come in different shapes, and they ebb and flow. Our villages grow in hospital rooms in Jerusalem upon the arrival of a sweet niece. Our villages grow in sanctuaries to hold us on this most solemn day.
The prolific writer and author Diane Cole reflects on her own experience of attending minyan to say kaddish, in her seminal work, now thirty years old, After Great Pain, a New Life Emerges. She writes, “Our dead inhabit us like ghosts. The trick… is to befriend them rather than have them haunt us. They will greet us on sad anniversaries as well as in joy. We will imagine a deceased parent’s response to her grandchild’s arrival; or we will call back from memory the words or actions of the one person to whom we would have turned were they still there. And eventually, when we hear the voice again, it will bring not just pain but comfort and resolution.”
That, I believe, becomes our invisible village.
At best, our society has a complicated relationship with death and dying. We don’t like saying somebody has died. We resort to euphemisms. We say somebody has “departed” “passed away” or “lost their life to…” But in Judaism we don’t lose our lives. We live them. And then they end, however they end, and we gather close. We locate our invisible villages to mourn, and we locate love to keep going. Gathering is the essence of the way the Torah describes what happens after death. Each of our patriarchs is “gathered to his people” — Abraham in chapter 25 of Genesis, Isaac in chapter 35, and Jacob in chapter 49. Tonight we notice our invisible village gathering around us. They knock at the door to the heart, and we are ready to gather close and listen.
Yom Kippur rarely makes it into the top five favorite Jewish holidays. We tend to like holidays that give us clear focus and a good party. Yom Kippur is not a sad day, and it is not a happy day. It’s the last option on a multiple choice test that we circle, “all of the above.” Today we turn all the pages of life: we confront mortality to live more fully. To snuggle with our nieces who are the most precious. And to recall our bubbies and grandpas. And for some of us to remember our beloved children, our partners and parents, and dear friends and relatives who are not here with us but who are our village. For when we find that love, we honor another teaching in chapter 8 from the Song of Songs, that love is as strong as death: כִּֽי־עַזָּ֤ה כַמָּ֙וֶת֙ אַהֲבָ֔ה.
I invite you to use this Yom Kippur to locate loss in order to locate life. Take a break from the pages called from this bimah to locate one word or phrase or image of a loved one, to sit quietly to hear what you need to hear, and also let go of what you need to let go.
Ani Yesheina v’libi eir, kol dodi dofeik pitchi li ... “I was asleep but my heart awoke, is that my dear one, knocking on my door?”
May the Book of Life have room for all of us, held in the land of the living by all who came before. Those who taught us, who loved us, and who tonight are knocking on the door to the heart. And let us say: Amen.
Adath clergy, staff, and congregants share