Faith in the Face of Death

Sermon given on Yom Kippur Day – Yizkor – Memorial Service, 5765, September 25, 2004, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

More times than I can count, I have sat with you, dear friends and members of Temple Beth-El, at your hours of loss. I have shared your pain, and I have joined you in sadness. Sometimes, I do not know the person who has died, and yet I may be deeply touched by the grief of those who are left behind. More frequently, I feel almost as one among the mourners, for I experience a personal loss of a dear friend, the absence of a personality so central to the life of our congregation and community.

This year, our Temple family was again bereaved. Time and again, we were shocked at the death of a person who meant so much to us. On other occasions, more frequently, we were less surprised by the person=s passing, but still taken aback by our sadness at the loss of a dear one, even in the fullness of years, even at the end of a long and good life, even when death came as a friend, bringing an end to illness and suffering.

Acquainted as I am with death and mourning, I often marvel at the ability of family members and the closest of friends, who somehow summon the courage to live on, in the face of devastating losses. Death is no stranger to me, and yet I am amazed by the courage, yes, the faith, of you, the mourners.

This year, death came home to me, as it never has. As most of you know, my beloved grandmother, Sabina Loewenberg Block B AYaya,@ as my sister and I called her B left this world at the age of 96. Her death was not tragic, and her dying was not particularly painful. The folks at Golden Manor and VITAS Hospice ushered her from this world with care. The professionals at Porter Loring went beyond the call of duty, traveling to Houston with us, and handling the details in their usual gracious and compassionate manner. Our family came together, with loving friends, both in Houston and in San Antonio. Rabbi Stahl eulogized my grandmother straight into the hands of God. My sister Alison spoke personal words that touched every heart.

Meanwhile, I, the Rabbi/grandson, kept silent at the funeral. I stammered out a few words, as we lit the memorial candle at the meal of consolation, but only barely. I would have felt too much like a Rabbi, and too little like a grandson, had I offered a eulogy. Today, I shall not eulogize her, but I hope to share the faith I experienced, in the face of her death, the same faith I have so often witnessed, but struggled to explain, in your hours of loss.

After my grandmother=s death, many of you remarked on the stories I had told about her, in humorous introductions to sermons over the years. You knew about her Mississippi Jewish heritage; you knew that she thought her only grandson could do no wrong. Some of you met her when she visited in years gone by, or at the end of her life, at Golden Manor. Yaya played an unusually significant role in my sister=s and my upbringing. She was the rock of our childhood, the person who stayed with us when we were sick. Her love was always, and so clearly, unconditional.

Because of the way she lived, because of the profound ways in which she touched my life, my grandmother=s death was hard for me. I cried like a baby, like the little boy I still was in her presence, as I leaned over and kissed her lifeless body, in the moments after her death.

And yet, as the hours turned into days, I found myself drawing on the same faith I have seen in so many of you, in your bereavements: faith in life, faith in love, faith in God.

When a eulogy is offered at a funeral, its central purpose is to affirm the eternal meaning of the life that has now ended. We need that affirmation, for when a person dies, we are harshly reminded that life is not permanent. We can easily turn to despair, asking what meaning life can possibly have, for we are forced to confess our awareness that each of our lives will end so soon.

Like most people, my grandmother=s life did not make a difference to most of the world=s population. Like the majority of those who pass through this life, her accomplishments were neither public nor far-reaching. And yet, she mattered a great deal, to her many dear friends, to the family she cherished. Her life, like the life of each human being at whose funeral I have officiated, had a deep and lasting effect on the people around her, an impact that will continue for generations beyond her death. Rabbi Stahl reminded us of the meaning of her life magnificently. My sister spoke of wanting to be called AYaya@ when she becomes a grandmother, decades from now. My father, Grampy, is already a grandparent in the mold of his own mother; his grandchildren are as blessed as Alison and I. My faith is strengthened, even in the face of death, because I know that the life, now ended, has significance that shall live on this Earth, even now that she is gone.

ADeath,@ wrote Rabbi Steven Weisberg, Ais not an end to love.@ So often, I have wondered how a husband will live on without his beloved wife, how a wife will endure without the husband to whom she has devoted her life. I have worried about children, bereft of the parents upon whom their very lives seemed to depend. I have been concerned about friends, suddenly without a central part of their existence.

Admittedly, I had lived without much of my grandmother=s active participation in my life, for almost seven years before her death. Right before her 90th birthday, something suddenly happened, removing a great deal of what she had been from this world. Perhaps, then, it was before her death that I learned a new faith in love. My grandmother=s love for me, indeed for all the family, transcended her inability to be the person she had always been.

Many times, at funerals, I share those words of Rabbi Weisberg=s. He was right on the mark. ADeath is not an end to love.@ As I have seen in so many of you, I continue to feel love, so much stronger than death. I have faith, faith that I share with you, faith in love that endures beyond the grave.

Last year, at Yizkor, I spoke, perhaps too theoretically, about Jewish faith in life after death. We Jews struggle to believe that our lives continue, in the presence of God, after our earthly course is complete. Our religion lays out no dogma, easy for us to grasp and quick to our lips. We tend to be skeptics, even cynical rationalists, when it comes to life after death.

For example, I am not easily persuaded of the significance of Anear death experiences.@ I doubt that anything is much like death, which is final. By definition, nobody has returned from death to tell us what it was like.

And yet, as I sat at my grandmother=s side, in her final days, I came to believe that the folks from hospice were not talking nonsense when they said that she was on a journey. She called out, repeatedly, AMama, Papa,@ as do so many people, at life=s end. Her father has been gone for almost 90 years, but he was right at her side, ushering her from this world, together with her mother, who was the rock of her life, well beyond her own death, 38 years ago.

I believe that, in some mystical way, my grandmother=s soul, and the souls of those who went before her, even the spirits her beloved parents, live together, forever, in the presence of God. A faith that I have so often heard you utter is now very much my own. I do not know the form in which she lives after death. Indeed, Judaism teaches us not to concentrate too heavily on the specifics of life beyond the grave, for we have much to do in this world. And yet, we are taught that God Who gives us life, and sustains us, does not abandon us in death. God is good. Whatever God has stored up for us after our lives on Earth can not be bad. We live with this faith: While our bodies return to the Earth, our souls return to God, Who gave them.

We have gathered today, as a community of mourners. Though each of us sheds our own tears, grieves our own losses, we mourn together. As your Rabbi, I have learned much from you, in your bereavements. You have looked to me to sustain your spirits, but in so many ways, you have been my teachers in faith. At this, our hour of painful memory, may God sustain us in faith, faith in life, faith in love, faith in God, together, forever.