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The following is a very moving sermon I came across in researching online for a talk on grief during the holidays.  The sermon was written for Yizkor on the Eighth Day of Passover and it relates the four sons found in the Haggadah to the process of grief.

PAS Home · The Four Children…of Grief and Recovery

The Four Children…of Grief and Recovery

April 06, 2010
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove

Passover 5770, Eighth Day

In every generation, at every Passover seder, we return to the iconic passage of the four children. Four children: wise, wicked, simple, and the one who does not know how to ask. In every reading, we know that these children represent far more than first appears, and have been interpreted differently throughout the ages. Some interpretations draw on educational theory – that the four represent four Jewish approaches to learning: a posture of submission (the wise child), of criticism (the wicked), simplicity, and ignorance. Rabbi Yoseph Schneerson once explained that the four children represent four generations of the American experience: the wise child with roots in the European shtetl; the wicked child brought up in the American melting pot – cynical to his parents’ generation; the next generation, confused by his grandfather’s reverence and father’s irreverence, and then the fourth generation who, as a consequence of his mixed-up pedigree, has woken up not even able to formulate a question. Israeli Haggadot have similarly adopted the template of the four children with respect to attitudes towards the Zionist dream; women’s Haggadot have used the iconography of these children to portray the changing face of feminism. A simple passage, but not so simple – one that continues to resonate to different effect year in and year out.

This morning, as we arrive at Yizkor, reflecting on the absence of our loved ones and the storehouse of memories that we are about to open, I want to draw on the image of the four children one last time during this festival. Not as a meditation on assimilation or feminism, but on the process of loss and recovery, how a person receives the blow of the death of a loved one, and then journeys forward. I want to share with you a modern midrash if you will, as to how the four children represent the manner by which we may reconstitute our own lives in the face of grief, as we walk through our own valleys in the shadow of death.

We work backwards from the fourth child, the one who cannot speak. When death occurs, this is the first step. The punch to the stomach, the gasp for air, the realization that our father, our child, our brother or sister or life partner has died. There is a numbness. As in Edvard Munch’s famous painting “The Scream,” we open up our mouths, but nothing comes out. At the moment when Aaron received the news of the death of his sons, he did not cry, yell, or scream, he was silent: Vayidom Aharon. The tradition notes the similarity between Vayidom and the Hebrew word for blood, dam, explaining that upon hearing of their death, it was as if the blood was drawn from him. He was cut loose from his moorings, hit by a tidal wave of despair. So many questions. Why? How could such a thing come to pass? Why not me? According to Jewish law, you do not become a mourner, an avel, until after burial, only then do you say kaddish. The period from the news of death until burial is called aninut. Catapulted into death, you cannot be consoled, grief is inexpressible – comfort or healing is altogether premature. This is the one who cannot speak. This is the bottom rung from which we must climb.

And climb we do, because however painful, whether death happens suddenly or after prolonged illness, all of us know, on some level, that we are mortal. Even as we rend our garments, feeling that which is dearest to us being torn away, we know that there is a simple truth, the third child, embedded somewhere in our collective consciousness. From dust we come and to dust we go. Everyone has a limited number of years on this earth. We realize that we are not the first to have lost a parent. There is another who has felt this pain – mourning after all is one of the very few experiences shared by all of humanity. So we allow for a hug, we allow for a kind word, we are brittle, but we are willing to let ourselves be touched by our family, by our community, for in that contact comes the restorative reminder that we are still alive. It is actually Jewish law that when you return from the cemetery you must eat a meal. Why? Because it reminds us that we are still alive. We are not yet ready to move on, we hurt, but we must recognize that it is not we who have died. Our questions are simple, fumbling inklings that we are aware of our world. Mah zot? What is this? What is this world that we have woken up to – as a widow, as an orphan? There are questions to which we know we will never receive full answers, but at least here and now, in this stage, we are able to find our voice, to shed tears, tears that may just plant the seeds for fruit to be reaped another day.

As anyone who has grieved will tell you, however, just as there are steps forward, there are steps backward. As Elizabeth Kübler Ross explained in her book On Death and Dying, there will be a time for anger, resentment, and depression. The second child comes in all forms, but it all reflects the same impulse – a refusal to accept this narrative as your own. This is not the story as it should have happened; it wasn’t supposed to be this way. We say: “The physicians didn’t do enough. Maybe I didn’t do enough. The rabbi wasn’t there when I needed him. My loved one didn’t hold on long enough. Where are my friends now? Where did everyone go after shiva ended? How dare people plan their future when I can’t see the next day? The resentment of the second child is not good or bad, wicked or otherwise, it is just resentment, pure and simple. We are frustrated, we are alone, we are in pain, we are alienated from everyone who doesn’t know our hurt and we are angry. As the poet wrote: “We read the world wrong and say that it deceives us.” (Tagore, Stray Birds, LXXV) We are the second child.

The stage of the second child may last for a long time or for a little. Our constitutions are inherently different, loss follows no set recipe. Each of us proceeds at his or her own pace. But we know, here on Yizkor, that we aspire to be the wise first child, with the possibility of acceptance, the child of hope. Haham, “wise” is a carefully chosen word. Nothing is whitewashed, our grief remains, but somewhere along the way we have chosen to leverage our loss towards understanding and growth, towards asking the questions that we couldn’t ask upon the news of death, that can’t be asked simply, that we rejected in our anger. Now we know that we must learn to reflect on legacy, to think back and consider how the values, qualities, and high ideals of our loved ones transcend death and how they inform our lives. We wonder how we are shaped by them, as an extension of and reaction to the generations that came before. It is not for any of us to change the past; our relationships with our loved ones had their strengths and weaknesses. But we the living have been entrusted and empowered to craft and draft our own narratives of memory, to tell the story to ourselves and to those around us – after all, it is Passover. The wise child knows that given the fragility of life, the acute awareness of our mortality wrought by the loss of those we love, we here in this room must live lives worthy of remembrance. The stage of wisdom is hopefully not so much any one stage or destination, but rather a philosophy of existence reflecting resignation and acceptance, anchors of memory and breezes of hope all mixed together.

Anyone who has studied the Haggadah knows that ultimately, the most important thing to say about the four children is not about one or the other, but about the four of them together. They are not necessarily discrete individuals; rather they are four aspects of all of our beings. Each one of us has elements of the four. The point, we know, is that no matter how wise, how wicked, how simple, or how introverted, each one has a place at the table, and they are all seated at the seder.

It would seem that what is true for the seder table, is true for this moment of Yizkor. We who are gathered here recognize the continuum of grief. On any given day we may find ourselves to be at one stage or another. But when we say Yizkor, every emotion is present and accounted for. We are at a loss being reminded of the death of our loved one; we grieve in the context of a community, finding comfort in the knowledge that we are not alone; we resent, as is our right, our losses; and we are not afraid to bring that emotion into this sanctuary. We also seek wisdom – to draw from the well of memory in hope that it provides sustenance for the years ahead.

One final thought – perhaps unexpected but also a bit inevitable. Maybe, just maybe, the point of the four children is not the children themselves, their qualities, and what they represent. Maybe the point is the one thing, or better yet, the one person, that all of them have in common – the parent who greets them all at the seder table. I have often thought that the real lesson of this passage is to reflect on the role of the parent, that divine personality, who created a seder table capable of seating everyone, responding to everyone, no matter who they are and what burdens they bear. So, too, for our service of Yizkor. We sit at this seder of Yizkor with our Father in Heaven, avinu sheh-ba-shamayim, at its head. None of us are the same, nor need be. Though joined by loss, each of us exists somewhere different on this path of grief and recovery. The promise of Yizkor is the promise of the seder; no matter who we are, there is a place for us waiting, a makom with our name on it – barukh ha-makom – a blessed God of nehama. Hamakom yenahem etkhem. The table is set, the moment of Yizkor has arrived.