Find the Good

Yizkor 5776, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

Why do we observe Yizkor? There are traditional reasons, to be sure. Traditional Judaism understands the soul to be eternal, but once separated from the physical body, it is no longer capable of performing mitzvot or doing good deeds. Hence, it falls to the loved one’s closest relatives to do good deeds on his or her behalf. Once upon a time, funds for tzedakah were committed in the name of departed loved ones during Yizkor, in order to help elevate their souls wherever their eternal resting place might be. And there was understood to be a positive chain reaction, one good deed leading to another – pledged funds would benefit the departed, and those acts of lovingkindness would increase the chances of one’s own personal atonement, in turn. I suppose, like many synagogues, we see the remnants of that practice in the donations raised through our Yizkor booklet each year.

I think there is still something to this “once upon a time” reason. I think we do find comfort in sitting here with our personal memories; standing up in tribute to our loved ones who are no longer with us; and knowing that we are doing something affirmative and public to not only honor, but continue, their legacies.

Yet I think there is another reason we observe Yizkor, on Yom Kippur especially. When we lose someone we love, we become particularly sensitive to the themes of this day – the themes of mortality and finitude, and choosing life while it is ours to live. Our Yizkor liturgy understands this and underscores it. The guiding imagery of this Yom Ha-Din, Judgment Day, is The Book of Life, its pages open, awaiting our inscription. One need not believe in fate, or divine judgment, or even God, to know that all we are guaranteed in life is the one page open before us. One only need to have loved and lost to understand that. So mingled with our memories is the appreciation that life is a finite gift. Were that we could spend all of it with those we love most, that’s a given. But in their absence, we come searching… how can we live it best? How can we give it the most meaning? What lessons about life do we learn from death?

Heather Lende is an obituary writer in the small town of Haines, Alaska. With a population of 2,000 that makes her whole town not even twice the size of our KKBE congregation. So what she writes are much more like personal eulogies than the formulaic obituaries we typically see in the paper. These are people she has known in some capacity – or, if not, talking to their friends and family members places their stories in the context of the community she knows and loves. Just as we experience in our own congregational community, all deaths are sad for Lende; some more tragic than others. Her job, regardless, is to pull up a chair, accept a cup of coffee, and listen. And from all she’s heard, she’s learned incredible life lessons.

A couple of years ago, she was asked to write a short essay describing just one piece of wisdom by which one could live one’s life. Just one? She had written obituaries for almost twenty years. As she said, “The journal’s editor assumed that I must know something about last words and good lives. But I didn’t have such pithy haiku wisdom at the ready. So I pretended I was on my deathbed. I imagined I’d already said good-bye to my husband, children, grandchildren, and all the great-grandchildren I hadn’t even met yet. If indeed all the wisdom I had in my heart was to be summed up in final words and it was difficult to speak more than, say, three, what would I say?”

And then it came to her: Find the good.

“Writing obituaries is my way of transcending bad news,” she writes. “It has taught me the value of intentionally trying to find the good in people and situations, and that practice – and I do believe that finding the good can be practiced – has made my life more meaningful.”

When Lende volunteered to help clean out the cabin of town resident, Russ, before it was auctioned off to benefit Hospice of Haines, she thought she’d be there for an hour, not all afternoon. “I never envisioned sitting outside in the spring sun for hours,” she said, “sorting his bills, receipts, and especially all those cards for recycling – whites, colors, cardboard.

“Russ had willed his home and its contents, including his TV, easy chair, and a shelfful of military-themed videotapes, to our hospice organization, which had arranged for his care after a lifetime of smoking caught up with him. When the hospice board president suggested that a fellow board member and I clean up the place before the sale, we were happy to help. Compared to other hospice work, this was easy on the heart. Besides, it wouldn’t take long. Russ’s cabin only had two small rooms.

“He lived a simple life but was not a woodsy hermit. His place is on the main road at the edge of town. A few curious drivers slowed to check us out. There’s not a lot of privacy in a small town. I was determined to protect Russ’s.

“So when I opened the first cigar box filled with greeting cards, I tossed them without a peek. By the tenth box, though, I looked more closely at each envelope. Who were they all from? Why had he saved them? What did they say? Not much beyond the publisher’s sentimental verse followed by a handwritten Thinking of you, or Hope you are well, or on one tucked into an envelope postmarked in Maine, So glad to finally meet you Uncle Russ.

“While researching his obituary, I had called his brother back east and learned that Russ had been born and reared in Maine, joined the Army right out of high school, and then disappeared by degrees. Pretty soon, there was no forwarding address. No phone calls, no letters, no cards. Nothing. For thirty-eight years. …

“I asked why. What had happened? His brother told me Russ had spent that time riding the rails. He had been a real-life hobo before a searching family member discovered him alive and well in Alaska. I had hoped to learn why he had been gone all those years; that must be the crux of Russ’s life story, I thought. But his brother didn’t share the reason, if he even knew, and instead said all that mattered was that Russ had been found and that, by the time he died the family had been happily reunited for several years. Relatives had visited Russ in Haines, and he had traveled to Maine. The brothers played music together. The nephews enjoyed fishing in Alaska. …

“Russ’s mother died before the family found him, but on her deathbed she made her other children promise that when Russ turned up (and she knew he would) they’d give him her Bible. In it was a note. Wherever you are I hope you are happy and well, she wrote in shaky old-fashioned cursive. Remember me always. As I have always you since the day you left us.

“After Russ’s brother delivered the Bible, his relatives must have begun writing to his Alaska address, mailing him all these Christmas, birthday, even Thanksgiving cards, and he, in turn, must have been so grateful that he saved what appeared to be every single one.”

“I believe gratitude comes from a place in your soul,” Lende writes, “that knows the story could have ended differently, and often does. And I also know gratitude is at the heart of finding the good in this world – especially in our relationships with the ones we love. … You don’t have to be an obituary writer to connect the dots and shift priorities so your regrets will be no worse than wanting one more day with the people you have loved well in the place that means the world to you.”

Goodness – is it with us always? Can we feel it even now?
Consider this: the eye is narrow in its gaze.
For, at this very moment, some lives are bathed in miracle:
a newborn child in the arms of parents who were past the point of hope;
the happiness of improbable love after many years alone;
recovery from surgery; the easing of grief;
food for the hungry, rain after drought,
the first light of peace in a war-darkened land.
May we look up from our dark places with a measure of gratitude:
Somewhere, even now, wonderful goodness blossoms forth.

It is our task in life to find it. Amen.

Heather Lende’s book is called Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-town Obituary Writer (2015). Closing prayer is adapted from Mishkan HaNefesh for Yom Kippur.

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