Believing the Impossible

Delivered at Yizkor Service on Yom Kippur Day 5771 – September 18, 2010

by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

In Wonderland, Alice recalls her father’s teaching: “Believe seven impossible things each day before breakfast.”

We who have walked through the valley of the shadows have a profound need to believe. We have been forced to accept the worst. Whether we were suddenly stricken by tragedy or we struggled for years with a loved one’s declining health, we eventually turned from denial; we reluctantly accepted our sad new reality: A loved one is gone from this world.

Our losses are profound, often more than we can bear. We come together this afternoon hoping against hope: Is comfort even possible?

In the quiet of this majestic Sanctuary, we may feel closest to our departed, even as we experience their absence most keenly. Today, let us embrace the impossible: Our beloved dead are right here with us.

Rabbi Amiel Wohl has taught: “There is a belief that the beloved departed descend from on high on Yom Kippur in order to participate in the prayers of their dear ones. . . . So dear parents, mates, husbands, wives, [children] are joined with loved ones who [pray] in their memories. Tears . . illuminate the way for the souls to descend.”

Let us affirm that, even though our loved ones have died, they are yet present in our lives, in the Temple today, and along our paths every day. Oh, how we miss their kind words. Yet when we recall that loving voice, we experience a profound and living presence. We may speak kindly to others because of the way they once spoke to us. Yes, we miss the unique personality. And yet, when we are reminded of some aspect of that character, we may still chuckle. We may develop our own individuality because we meditate on theirs. We miss our dear ones’ wise counsel. Still, when we recall good advice, we nod our heads knowingly. Their righteousness influences our own behavior even now. Our Yom Kippur repentance is more complete when the goodness of those who went before us inspires us to change our ways to theirs. Our beloved dead are right here with us, making us better people, even now that they are gone.

The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber taught that we truly live when we interact meaningfully with others. What a revelation, then, when we come to understand that we still share relationships with our dear departed. I know more than a few people who regularly go to the cemetery to visit with their loved ones. They hold conversations. No, these people are not delusional. They know their loved ones are dead, not a living presence in the cemetery. Still, they experience the awareness, and the influence, of their dear ones at that place of mortal finitude. We begin to believe the impossible: We share important, ongoing relationships with our loved ones, even now that they are gone. In our lives, they are still very much alive.

And faith offers us still more possibilities. Searching for comfort when a loved one dies, we would like to believe that our departed are reunited with one another, that they share life after death with loved ones and friends who have also left this world. Why not believe it? The last Hebrew letters on many Jewish headstones constitute an abbreviated prayer that the soul is bound up in the bonds of life eternal:” “bound up” . . . together. We pray that our loved ones are not lonely in death. As much as we miss them, they are reunited with those who went before.

Yes, many will insist that death is the end. They claim that any belief in life after death is superstition, that there is nothing to human life but a body, animated by chemical processes that provide our personalities, our thoughts, our feelings, chemical interactions that stop forever when we die.

And who can say they are wrong?

Still, as Rabbi Wohl reminds us, we moderns know that “there are colors and shapes to viruses and genes that we do not see. There are sounds we cannot hear. Shall we say that if we cannot personally experience or understand it, touch it or feel it, [then the immortal human soul] does not exist?” Let us permit ourselves to harbor beliefs that bring us comfort, “impossible” products of a faith that cannot be disproved, theories not supported by science but not contradicted by it either.

But what is a soul and where does it go? The soul is the part of us that makes us human, connecting us to God. The soul is the heart of our consciousness, the indescribable piece of us that isn’t dependent on chemicals and physical properties. Each of our human lives is a unique, loving gift from God. Something of us can never die. Our souls return to God Who gave them.

My own religious imagination resonates to the comparison of our souls to drops of water returning to a reservoir. When we die, our souls return to that great lake, mingling and becoming one with the souls of all who have gone before. Let us find comfort in the “impossible” faith that those who have died are now part of something much greater even than themselves.

The ancient rabbis gave us further hope. They taught that death itself will die one day. When messianic redemption comes, nobody will die; and those who have already died will live again, souls reunited with bodies for life eternal here on Earth.

Even though our Reform forbears turned away from such a teaching, we still affirm it every year on Passover, even in our Reform Haggadah. We recite Had Gadya, and we intone the words, “Then came the Holy One Blessed be God, Who destroyed the Angel of Death.”

But who can believe such a thing? If death teaches us anything, we ought to learn humility. None of us is God. No mortal can reconstitute life out of death. Only the Holy One has the power to reverse death’s severe decree. No scientist can tell us how. No true prophet would dare predict when. A believer, though, may think even the impossible. Let us embrace a Jewish faith that Longfellow likely didn’t know when he wrote: “The grave itself is but a covered bridge leading from light to light, through a brief darkness.”

Faith is difficult for us moderns. But we are the Children of Israel, Yisrael, a word meaning that we are a people who struggle with God. On this Yom Kippur, let us strive to believe. Let us embrace the Wonderland counsel of Alice’s father, that we “believe seven impossible things before breakfast.” Today, in the late afternoon but still before breakfast, as our heads hurt and our minds swim, as we have denied our physical bodies on behalf of our souls, let us suspend our disbelief. Let us imagine the afterlife of our dreams, a perfect and joyous future for our loved ones and for us.

Then, may we find comfort, penetrating even the most painful loss.

Then, may we believe the impossible.