Rabbi Elizabeth S. Wood

Rabbi Elizabeth S. Wood
Celebrating Havdallah

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Over the last several months, I cannot seem to stop thinking about “thestrals”. Before this year, I did not understand this magical and mythical creature in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Thestrals, as we understand them from the 5th book in the series, are gaunt dark horses with wings, but can only be seen by someone who has encountered death. They were there from the very beginning of the series, driving the so-called “horseless carriages” from the train station to Hogwarts, but it is not until Harry witnesses the death of his friend, Cedric Diggory, that he can finally see them. It suddenly puts Harry in a different category, with eyes opened and aware of new things around him, because he has seen and known death.
Before this last year, I didn't really understand what these thestrals represented. As a rabbi, I sit with the dying, and then the bereaved, quite often. They didn't always seem so different to me. Why, after experiencing a death, would the world suddenly seem different, with new and different things in it, to that person? It wasn't until this last year, when I experienced my own tremendous loss that I finally understood: It's not that we see things differently, it is that the world becomes different to us. As one woman in my bereavement group often suggests, “When our loved one died, the trivial things of this world died away as well. We don’t see the world in color, anymore. We are confronted with the reality of black and white and how to navigate in that kind of world.”
In truth, I'm not sure it's that easy of an explanation. Now don't get me wrong - This has been the hardest year of my life. The pain of suddenly losing the closest person in the world to me, who happened to be my mother, role model, confidant and my best friend all rolled into one, was unbearable most days. At the age of 30, I never expected to lose my 61 year old mother, and I miss her more and more every day that she is not here with me. But in those first few days, and even now as I continue to feel this reverberation of grief in my life, I never stopped seeing the world in color. In fact, I've felt a heightened sense of love, support, and gratitude. The triviality of things in this world fell away for me, for sure. And the world is a completely different place for me than before, even though I may appear the same on the outside. But the choice I made to find hopefulness in all of this, and to continue to find beauty and color in our world was the only reality I could bear as I began the monumental task of learning to live my life without my mother.
My mother was the epitome of positivity and hopefulness. She always made the choice to see the glass half full. She believed there was a solution to every problem in life, even if it just meant looking at it from every possible angle. But sitting with her after one of the many blood transfusions she received in the ten weeks between her diagnosis of leukemia and her untimely death, I will never forget when she turned to me, in a weakened moment and said, “You know, Elizabeth, control is just an illusion. We always think we're in control of things, but it turns out that we're not. In the end, we have so little say over what ultimately happens in our lives.” And like all the wise things my mother used to say, she was absolutely right. Control is just an illusion. It comforts us when we are scared and reassures us when we have doubt. But it is not real. If it were, my mother would still be here today, and perhaps a loved one of yours would still be here too. It's a hard concept to swallow that we have no real control over what might happen to us, in our lives. But, luckily, my mother also spent my entire life telling me that the one thing we could control were the choices we make in this world. We cannot control what happens to us, but we can always control how we react and the outcome of our own actions. And, of course, she was also right. You see, it's a fine line between illusion and reality and the difference is control versus choice. Control is just an illusion, but choice is our reality. However, it is not until we are faced with the fragility of life, the possibility of death, and the pain of loss that we, perhaps, can ever fully understand this tension. Control is an illusion, but how we respond, that choice is our reality.
On Yom Kippur morning, we read from the book of Deuteronomy that advises us to choose life. It says, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse - - therefore choose life1.” Now, this does not literally mean that we can stop death by choosing life. If only. It means that we have a choice about how to live our lives, in the face of despair and curse and hopelessness. It reminds us that in every situation, no matter how dire or difficult, we always have a choice on how to respond, how to react, and how to proceed. And it is those choices, in particular, that will dictate how we live our lives, how we find blessings in the curse, and how we find life even in the face of death.
In some ways, I believe that the thestrals from Harry Potter represent the choices that we can now see. The veil of illusion was lifted from Harry's eyes. He can no longer ignore the realities of life so he must make choices on how to live with this greater understanding of the world. Illusion and the illusion of control are gone and that is what makes reality so evident, what awakens us to the truth and fragility of life around us.
This last Wednesday was the twelve year anniversary of the attacks on September 11th. If ever there was a day in our recent history that was more stark and grim reality than control, it was that one, and the days that followed. But in our collective loss, there was not only pain and suffering and fear. There was also hope, and love and a desire to work through grief, together. Rick Hamlin, the executive editor of Guideposts magazine wrote a beautiful article last year about his memories on the days that followed September 11th, 2001. He wrote: Not long after that day, when the sirens of police cars and ambulances still set us on edge, when the streetlamp poles and sides of telephone booths were still plastered with black-and-white posters of the missing saying, “Have you seen?” of “If you have any information on...” I was crossing 33rd street. The woman walking in front of me was clearly grieving, paying no attention to where her feet were taking her, meandering in a fog. Without knowing it, she ran directly into a cop on the corner.
I took a deep breath. A New York cop is not someone to mess with, certainly not to run into. He held out his arms, though, holding her gently by the shoulders and looked her in the eyes as if to say, 'You going to be all right? Did you lose a loved one too? We'll get through this, OK?' Then, he did something remarkable. He gave her a gentle hug, patting her on the back, before they separated and she moved on. If ever a hug was a prayer, there it was. Barriers had dropped, compassion took over protocol, love spoke.
It's what I remember most about those sad days, the lesson I still take with me on the streets of New York. Watch out, look up, someone's sure to be aching or grieving. Be ready to care. Be ready to reach out. A hug can be a prayer.2
What I love most about this story is the choice that the police officer made. He too was confronted with the reality of loss and grief when he got run over by that woman who knocked into him. But, instead of telling her to watch where she was going, he made a choice. He recognized her pain, he realized he had no control over the whole situation, and he chose life – affirming her by embracing her and comforting her in her most painful hour.
Loss is a universal experience. Whether it is personal, communal, or national loss, there isn't one of us here who won't feel it significantly in our lifetime. We each have meaningful and deep relationships that enrich our lives. And it is because of the beauty and strength of those relationships that we end up feeling our pain and our grief so deeply, when these people cease to exist. It's the classic example of King Solomon and the baby. A real mother, one who loves and cherishes and cultivates a relationship with her child, would never let Solomon split the baby, for fear that it would harm the child. It's much easier to lose something we never loved, in the first place, than to give up something that we treasure most of all.
But we all must lose. That's the reality of being human and knowing that we are not infinite beings. I think about how blind I was at this time, last year. On Yom Kippur 5773, my mother was fine, without a diagnosis of cancer and with no knowledge of what the coming weeks and months would quickly bring. Life can change in the blink of an eye and more can happen in a year than you ever imagined or expected. Although we are never prepared for tremendous loss ahead of time, we can consciously think about the choice we have in what to do in the aftermath, in how to relate to others, in how to perceive the world, and in the way in which we care for ourselves and our loved ones.
You, our Reform Temple of Forest Hills, have helped me to find life, even in the face of death. You made the beautiful and conscious choice to support me, to reach out to me and my family through notes, donations, phone calls, meals and expressions of sympathy over the last many months and embrace us as we faced the most difficult moments of all. Each one of these acts have overwhelmed and surprised us, and we are so deeply touched by your actions of kindness and comfort. From the bottom of our hearts, my family and I cannot thank you enough for this blessing of community and support. The gratitude we feel towards you is immeasurable.
The choices that we make to choose life are reflected in the actions that we take, whether comforting someone who has had loss, responding to communal loss, or learning how to live when confronted with our own personal loss. The answer is not to respond with pure positivity and a disingenuous sense of reality. Phrases like, “everything will be okay”, “you're gonna get through this”, and “time heals all wounds” should be thrown right out the window. Instead, our actions can reflect our deep caring for other people, patience with ourselves as we learn to grieve and learn to live without, and an understanding that life is completely different now, once the loss has occurred. Grief is a tremendous teacher, and though the world can seem different, it does not have to include only anger, hurt, and sorrow. It can also include compassion, reflection, and perspective.
The story is told of an old Chinese woman who had two water cans which were attached to a pole. Each day, she put the pole over her shoulders and went down to the river, filled the cans, and walked back to her modest hut. The water can on the right side of her pole was fine and sturdy; when she arrived home it was always full. But the can on the left had a crack in it. By the time the woman arrived home, half of the water was usually gone.
The water can always felt inferior to it's partner. It was ashamed that it was cracked and broken and wasn't pulling it's weight. One day, it turned to the woman and apologized for being so defective. The woman smiled gently and said, “Did you think that I didn't notice that you had a crack, and water dripped from you? Look at the path from the river to my hut. Do you see all the beautiful flowers that are growing on the one side of the path? Those are the flowers I planted there, that you watered every day as I walked home from the river.”
Each one of us is broken in some way. Each one of us can see people around us who are broken and in need of love, care, and attention to what hurts them most. We cannot always control what makes us broken, but we can always make the choice on how we move through it, how we respond to it, and what we can take from it.
One of the greatest lessons that I have learned in this last year is that everything is finite. When our lives are done, they are done. And so, it REALLY is important to make moments count and be unafraid to say what really matters to you and whom matters most. Why are we always so afraid of telling others just how much we love them, how important they are to us, or how much they enrich our lives? Not just family, but friends, co-workers, and people we know in our community. We cannot let moments of love and appreciation and opportunity pass us by. When our lives are done, they are done. It is so important to tell others exactly how much they mean to you when you feel it most. I've also learned to be unafraid of the consequences of making decisions. Life is about experiencing the choices we make and not always being held up by fear or the illusion of control over certain situations. If we live our entire lives in a “comfort zone” than we are playing into a sense of control that we only imagine and that will eventually come crashing down around us. By taking chances and embracing a little bit of risk, you never know who or what might be waiting right around the corner for you that will open up your life in a totally new and different way. And, of course, I've learned to be kinder, more compassionate, and more generous with my time and energy when it comes to others. You never know who might be hurting, when a friendly hug or an ear to listen to them, might be just the prayer they need at that moment. I cannot control what happens in my life and you cannot control what happens in yours, but we can choose to be there for each other in our greatest hour of need. Our loss is going to hurt and we cannot run from it. We cannot stop creating and making significant relationships for fear of what happens when they end. Instead, we must choose to put as much as we can into them and then be secure in the knowledge that amidst all of our pain, the love and comfort of others will always surround us.
Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year. It is a day of reflection, repentance, and acceptance. In essence, it is a day about choice, and about confronting the illusion of control and thinking about how we accept reality and make choices that are good for us in our life. Although we focus on atonement today, what we're really doing is examining the choices that we've made that have brought us to this place and time. These choices aren't just about ways in which we've done things poorly, they are also about learning how to choose life, how to be real and honest with ourselves, and how to make the most out of each moment that we are given. I would give all of these lessons back, in a moment, just to have ten more minutes with my mother. But I cannot control that. Instead, I am left with the reality of her loss....and I choose life. I choose sharing her positivity and her belief in the goodness of this world and the importance of building deep relationships with others. I choose love, and patience, and compassion, and vivaciousness, even in the face of despair and a life that is totally and completely different now that she is gone. But not just because that is who she was or who I am, but because that is what this day is about. It's about starting fresh and saying, what choices will I make this year, so that I can fully embrace life, even though I cannot control it?
Mahatma Ghandi once said, “ I shall pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way, again.” Our lives are a series of ups and downs, most of which we really have no control over. Some days are harder and some days are easier. And none of us is immune to what will inevitably be great loss. At some point in our lives, our eyes will be opened to the reality of life and it's fragility. But, the choice is ours on how we respond, on how we persevere, on how we live each day. Do we choose love or do we choose fear? Do we choose comfort and compassion or do we turn the other way? Do we choose control and illusion or do we choose reality? Do we choose death or do we choose life? The choice is up to you. May each of you find a life that is worth living, even in the face of difficulty. May each of you make choices that help you support others and feel supported by them, in the ups and downs that occur on the journey of life. May each of you be brave enough to confront reality head on, rather than live under the illusion of control. May each of you be written as a blessing in the Book of Life. And if that doesn't go according to plan, we'll figure out how to move forward, one day and one choice at a time. 
1Deuteronomy 30:19
2Hamlin, Rick. Guideposts., Sept 2012