Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Healer of Broken Hearts - (Yom Kippur Sermon)



Rav Levi of Berdichev would constantly challenge God to see the greatness of His children. One Yom Kippur, Rav Levi overheard the tailor in the corner of the synagogue doing a spiritual accounting before God. The tailor conceded he had done some misdeeds in the previous year. But then again, so had God; He had allowed some terrible injustices to occur. So the tailor looked up to God and said: “God, you have done things wrong, and I have done things wrong; why don’t we just forgive each other and call it even?”. Upon hearing this, Rav Levi couldn’t contain himself, and shouted out: “Why did you let God off the hook so easily?”

I wish we had Rav Levi here today. Most Yom Kippurs we ask questions of ourselves, but this year our community has many questions for God. In the past year, we have experienced the heartbreaking loss of 4 young people.

Maybe Rav Levi could explain to God that we cannot let Him off the hook this year.

With broken hearts, we must wrestle directly with God. And that is very difficult for man to do; we wonder if in the heat of battle we will let go of our faith, or if in response to a heretical maneuver, God will push us away. However, some have wrestled with God and never let go of their faith. Elie Wiesel wrote the following words to a Cantata entitled “Ani Maamin”:

I believe, Abraham,
Despite Treblinka.
I believe, Isaac,
Because of Belsen.
I believe, Jacob,
Because and in spite of
Majdanek.

Elie Wiesel is engaging in Rav Levi’s type of wrestling, where one contends with God but never lets go of Him. This type of wrestling that is worthy of the descendants of Jacob, who strove with God and prevailed.

But the grief stricken don’t just wrestle with God; they wrestle with life itself, and question if they can recover from their loss. The words from Psalms (147) declare: “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”. But tossing and turning in bed late at night, the broken hearted wonder: when will my broken heart heal?

Some think that “closure” can heal the broken heart. The term “closure” first originated with the Gestalt school of therapy in the early 1900’s, and specifically applied to resolving incoherent feelings into stable mental patterns; today, closure is catch phrase for rapidly ending all types of pain, including the pain of mourning.

I have a problem with closure. Acquaintances with good intentions badger mourners in the name of closure, telling them to “move on”. This has the contrary effect of making the mourners feel even worse, because they now are both grieving and embarrassed by their own grief. (This actually happens; I have seen people turn to the mourners on the first day of shiva and say “you know, you will have to move on”).

But closure is not just misused; it is a lie. At best, closure is an elaborate self deception encouraged by a societal aversion to grief. For the truly broken heart there is no closure. In my previous synagogue there was a Holocaust survivor named Shulem who had lost his first wife and children during the war. He eventually made his way to Montreal, remarried, and had two more children. Yet he would come to synagogue on the yartzeit of his first family and would speak with me about their deaths. It was clear that even 60 years later, even after rebuilding his life, Shulem still carried painful wounds. There was no closure for Shulem.

Instead of closure, the Jewish tradition embraces memory, even memories of loss. At weddings, there is a custom to break a glass, so that even at the happiest of times the destruction of Jerusalem is still remembered. And it is often at the best of times, at celebrations and holidays, when the comfort we experience becomes undone. We hit the heights of joy, only to recall who we can no longer share this joy with; and we immediately feel the pain of loss once again.
Shulem taught me that closure is impossible; but his willingness to rebuild offered me an insight into a passage in the book of Job, and in turn, an insight into what it means to live with a broken heart.

The storyline of Job is a test of faith; God takes away Job’s wealth, livestock, and afflicts him with boils; tragically, Job loses 7 sons and 3 daughters in a house collapse.

Yet after these tests, despite having to endure the sanctimonious preaching of friends, Job holds on to his faith. In return, at the end of the book, God decides to reward Job with twice his previous wealth. Not only that, Job is rewarded with another 7 sons and 3 daughters.

Since meeting Shulem I started to wonder about this text: How is this closure for Job? Twice as many animals as a reward?; that I understand, OK. But replacement children as a path to closure??? How can that even be suggested?

I would answer that the new family isn’t a reward for Job; actually it is his most difficult test. Job has proven he has faith in God; what remains to be seen is if Job can maintain his faith in life. Sometimes resignation offers the greatest comfort to those hurt by tragedy. Yet Job refuses this path to comfort. Instead, he teaches us one last lesson of faith: don’t lose faith in life itself. Even after disaster, one must live. To do so is an act of defiance, a refusal to give in to the angel of death.

Closure is the false refuge of emotional weaklings, while defiance is the heroic willingness to live with pain.

When in pain, there is a howling sense of injustice. We are angry at God, yes, but even angrier at the angel of death. Rav Soloveitchik explains that defiance is the only Jewish response to evil: “one must never acquiesce in evil, make peace with it, or condone its existence. Defiance of and active opposition to evil, employing all means that God put at man’s disposal, is the dominant norm in Halakhah (Jewish Law).” This defiance is present, even at the funeral. The Mourner’s Kaddish, and in particular the version of Kaddish recited in the cemetery, focuses on redemption and peace. Grieving at graveside, we turn to the angel of death and defiantly proclaim that we will never lose faith in life.

Yet defiance is an act of courage, not consolation. On the contrary, an enduring grief can disrupt the joyful moments of life with tears and sadness. And one is still left to wonder: what type of comfort is available without closure?  

Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Priest, wrote an essay in 1979 entitled “The Wounded Healer”. He found the inspiration for his title in a passage in the Talmud Sanhedrin 98a that speaks about the Messiah:

“R. Joshua b. Levi met Elijah standing by the entrance of R. Simeon b. Yohai's tomb…. He then asked him, 'When will the Messiah come?' — 'Go and ask him himself,' was his reply. 'Where is he sitting?' — 'At the entrance of Rome.'  And by what sign may I recognise him?' — 'He is sitting among the poor lepers: all of them untie their bandages all at once, and rebandage them together,  whereas the Messiah unties and rebandages each separately”

The Messiah is sitting at the epicenter of exile, the city of Rome, and sitting with those exiled from the city, the lepers. He himself is hurting, wrapping and unwrapping bandages; the only difference is he does them one at a time, in order to remain ready to bring redemption at a moment’s notice.

Inspired by this passage in the Talmud, Nouwen emphasizes that the Messiah is wounded himself. But what makes the Messiah different is that he sees beyond his own pain and is ready to help others.

This ethos is deeply embedded in the Jewish way of seeing life. We view exile as the basis of an obligation to love the stranger; we see a history of loss as a reason to stand up for other losers.

Wounded healers defy the cruelty of fate with compassion, the pain of loss with love.

Jews have always been wounded healers. Actually, we have gone a step past the Berdichever Rebbe: Not only have we not let God off the hook; we have not let ourselves off the hook either. With tears in our eyes, we insist on making the world a better place.

In 2004 years ago, I visited Beersheva in the aftermath of a terror attack. We visited people who had survived a bus bombing at Siroka hospital, and were taken on a tour of the emergency room. Outside, there was a Magen David Adom ambulance. I was moved to tears by the inscription on it which said:

“Given by the wife and children of Benzion Rosenswajg, of Melbourne, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, 6 August, 2004. And in memory of his wife Sarah Chana, children Yechiel Shlomo and Yitzchak Meir and siblings, Nathan Moshe and Feige, who perished in the Holocaust.”

Here was a man like Shulem who had lost a wife and children; he too had rebuilt his life and started another family. And that family was inspired to generously give an ambulance to heal others.

This ambulance proclaims the philosophy of the wounded healer; One can grieve and love with the same heart, one can remember and repair at the same time. The broken hearted can lead the way to redemption.


As we start the New Year I pray: May God give us a year of blessing and happiness.

And may God inspire our hearts, the broken ones and the whole ones, to fix this world, bind the wounded, and heal the broken hearted.


1 comment: