SHAVUOT YIZKOR 5773
On Monday I attended the graduation of my stepson Ilan for an MBA from Emory’s Goizueta Business School. Cheryl and I were most proud of him as he graduated with top honors. The graduation was in 3 parts. At the 1st, there was a graduation ceremony for all the graduates from Emory in every school—almost 5 thousand in all. I must admit that some of the speeches did not grab my attention. So I found my mind wandering in thought, pondering about what was actually happening there that day.
A graduation is a moment of mixed emotions, for the student as well as for the parent. For us as parents, it means that our kids have achieved something significant—a milestone in their lives for which we rejoice. But at the same time we realize that they are now entering a new stage in their lives that may keep them even further away from us—and so our joy is mixed with a bit of anxiety.
And they too have conflicting emotions as they graduate. On the one hand, they throw their caps into the air with joy, and shout out: “hurray! We made it!” But on the other hand, they realize that a precious period in their lives is coming to an end. The undergraduates hug their classmates, knowing that this one will be going off to graduate school in the Midwest and that one in the Northeast…and from the masters and doctoral programs, this one will be taking a job in Los Angeles and that one in NY. The likelihood is that most will never see each other again.
What should you say when you bid a classmate goodbye, one with whom you have lived together for 2-4 years—one whom you have studied with, played with and partied with—whom you will probably never see again? The students write down each other’s email addresses and cell phone numbers as they promise to stay in touch. But they know—even as they make these promises—that they will probably not keep them. They may stay in touch for a while, but eventually they’ll drift apart. They know that they’ll each make new friends and have new experiences in their lives, and sooner or later the memories that unite them will begin to fade. So what should you say when you bid farewell to a classmate, knowing that your lives are now going off in different directions, and that you may never meet again?
I have 2 suggestions. One is a word that you all know, but that you have probably never stopped to think about the meaning of. And the other is a phrase that you have probably never heard of, but that I believe is worth using. The obvious word to say is: “goodbye.” Do you know the origin of the word “goodbye”? It’s a 16th century contraction of the prayer: “Gd be with you.”
I can understand why this prayer was said in the 16th century. If your friend was going to set sail on a boat, you hugged him and said, “Gd be with you,” because you knew that traveling on the high seas was dangerous. Storms could topple the ship, and send it to the bottom of the sea. Pirates could seize the ship, and capture its passengers and sell them into slavery. Contagious diseases could strike the passengers on board and bring them to their deaths. And so, with good reason, when you stood on the dock to bid farewell you said, “Goodbye: Gd be with you.”
Even if your friend was going to travel over land, you’d be worried as well. There could be robbers lurking on the roads—waiting to attack a passing caravan and rob its passengers. There were dangerous animals lurking in the forests that you would be traveling through. You could lose your way, and die of starvation. There were all kinds of dangers involved in travel in those days, and so, when you embraced your friend before he set forth on his journey, you said to him, “Goodbye,” meaning, “May Gd be with you.”
Travel may be much safer today than it was in the 16th century, but we should still not take it for granted. Our tradition is that when you come home after a journey overseas, or even after an airplane flight, you’re supposed to say the prayer, Birkat Hagomel, thanking Gd for having arrived safely.
We have all heard enough stories about cruises that became nightmares when an engine broke down, or when the power failed, so we know that sailing is not always simple or safe. We remember the stories of the luxury liner that crashed on a rock off the coast of Italy, or the luxury liner whose passengers had to endure horrible conditions, without food and without power for days, until their ship was finally towed to land this year. And we all have personal horror stories about spending hours on the runway waiting for a flight to take off or of having a flight cancelled and being stuck in an unfamiliar city overnight. And so saying, “Goodbye…May Gd be with you,” when you see your friend off doesn’t sound so naïve to me.
The problem with saying, “goodbye,” when you bid farewell to a classmate, as you go off to graduate school and she goes off to a job is that “goodbye” feels so final. It suggests that you don’t expect to ever see each other again. It suggests that your friendship is now over and that you are both going off to meet new people and to have new experiences, and, even if you should chance to meet again—at some class reunion or somewhere else, your relationship will never be what it once was. “Goodbye” is really a harsh word. It sounds, not just like the closing of a door, but like the locking of a door. And so, I wish there were a kinder word or phrase that we could use when we have to bid farewell to a friend.
I found such a word in an ancient custom. When one finishes a tractate of Talmud, the custom is to have siyum, a festive celebration marking occasion because it’s not a small thing. One would have studied this volume for many months—even years. I’ve been studying the tractate of Brachot in my Talmud class for about 15 years and I’m not even close to finishing. Usually a tractate is studied in companionship with a friend or as part of a group…and the commentaries consulted that are printed on both margins of the text, as well as in the back of the book, also become your friends.
When you finish studying a tractate of Talmud, how do you part company from a volume that has been a part of your life for so long? What should you say before you close this book and open another one? At the back of every volume of the Talmud is a prayer to be said on such an occasion. The name of this prayer is significant. It’s called a Hadran—which means “a promise to return.” And the key phrase in the prayer is, Hadran alach, “we will come back to you.” We may be moving on to a new tractate, but we here promise we will not forget you, and that we will come back to you again—perhaps to study again or perhaps to refer to some wisdom we have gained in its study.
Rabbi Jack Reimer suggests that this would be such a nice way to leave—not only a tractate of Talmud—but also a friend. Hadran alach, “we will come back to you.” This, Rabbi Reimer submits, in effect, says to a friend: We may be parting now; we may each be going on to new places and new experiences; but we promise that we will come back to you—if not physically, then at least in our memories. The things that we did together will not disappear. They will always remain a precious part of who we are and how we live. You are a part of me, and therefore the memory of you will travel with me wherever I go, and I hope that I am now a part of you, and that the memory of what we did together will be with you, wherever you go. Wouldn’t that be a powerful way to say goodbye when we have to part company with good friends who are now going off in different directions than we are?
Hadran alach, “we will come back to you,” is a kinder and a gentler way to bid farewell than “goodbye” because it points towards the future, and not just to the present and the past.
For those of us who have come here today to say Yizkor for those whom we loved, let me say this: Yes, we can no longer call them up on the phone—would that we could! Would that we could! But we can stay connected with them—by means of our memories and by means of what we do in their memory. We can consult them when we don’t know what to do by thinking about what they would have done and what they would have advised us to do. We can thank them when we have achievements that are based on theirs. We can bless them by continuing the values by which they lived. And if we do these things, then, Hadran alach, we will have returned to them. They are still a part of us, and we are still a part of them.
A friend and colleague, Rabbi Robert Pilavin, comments (Morashah email 6/18/09) on Maimonides’ teaching (Laws of Mourning 7:1) that tells us that if we hear delayed news of a close relative’s death within the Shloshim—the 30 days after burial—we should treat that day as our 1st day of shiva. The loss actually occurred earlier, but in this case we begin mourning later. Rabbi Pilavin learns from this that there is often a gap between the moment of loss and the moment when that loss “catches up with” or “is processed by” us.
This makes sense to me. My mother passed away August 5th, and yet for 6 months I still had her mobile phone number on my speed dial and her email address in my Outlook contacts. It was awhile till my father changed the phone answering machine using her voice.
Today we read the story of Ruth. Naomi urges her 2 widowed daughters-in-law to move on with their lives and not cast their lot with hers. Orpah kisses Naomi goodbye, while Ruth (1:16) tells her, “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go.”
Like Ruth, many of us find ourselves unwilling or unable to take our leave of a loved one—even after that person has passed on. And that’s not necessarily bad. It reflects the ongoing ability of the departed to nourish us with beautiful memories of kindnesses extended and lessons taught.
So let us take comfort for the memories that are embedded within our souls that enable us to stay in touch with those we loved who are no longer here among us. May their memories literally be a blessing to us, and through us, till the end of time. Hadran alach, “we will come back to you!” Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis