Somebody Who Got Me—A Yizkor Sermon
April 4, 2021
Author(s): Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz,
Pesach, Day 8
April 4, 2021 — 22 Nisan 5781
Somebody Who Got Me—A Yizkor Sermon
by Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz
Temple Emanuel, Newton, MA
You do not have to be Jewish to love Shtisel, the fabulous Netflix series about a Haredi family in Jerusalem. While this family is Haredi, their problems are human and universal. Anyone can relate to them. Season 3 was just released, and one vignette is so poignant it captures the complexity of saying Yizkor.
Shtisel, the family patriarch, has been a widower for seven years. One day he experiences heart pain. He calls the number of his kupat cholim, his medical network in Israel.
Again, while it’s about Israel, and the dialogue is in Hebrew, the story connects with any human anywhere who has ever been caught up in electronic phone hell and cold bureaucracy. First comes the electronic recording, your call is very important to us, then comes the Muzak, then comes the delay in getting a human being to speak to, then comes the sharing of his Israeli id number, then at last comes the bureaucracy. Shtisel tells the person on the other end of the line that he has sharp chest pain above his heart and is worried that he may be having a heart attack. The bureaucrat offers him an appointment in two months. Two months? Shtisel is incredulous. And furious. I’ll be dead in two months! I need to see a doctor now! Let me speak with your supervisor! He is working himself into a rage. Just then, the supervisor gets on the line. Shtisel goes through the whole ordeal again, but now he is emotional, angry, from the outset.
At which point the most unexpected thing happens. The woman on the other end of the line, the supervisor, is sympathetic, a soft, human voice, not a cold bureaucrat. She says give me a minute, let me see if I can find you an appointment. And then she begins to weep. You can hear her crying on the other end of the phone. Shtisel apologizes for his emotion. She explains no, it’s not anything you did, it’s just I’ve had a loss, my husband died recently, and life
is hard. At last she finds him an appointment with the cardiologist that very day.
That vignette embodies the pathos of life, and the pathos of this moment. It’s a big, cold world out there. Much of the world does not see us. Does not get us. Does not love us. Much of the world is Muzak and delay and non-responsiveness. You’re having a heart attack? We can schedule you an appointment in two months.
But then, in the midst of this cold and impersonal universe, there are a few people who see you. Who get you. Who love you. Shtisel’s wife saw him. Got him. Loved him. But she is gone. Is there anyone else now who sees him, gets him, loves him? It was a measure of his desperation that the best he could hope for was a caring voice on the other end of the phone call with the kupat cholim.
If we are truly blessed, there will be a few people who see us, get us, love us. If we are truly blessed, our mother, our father, our siblings, our spouse, our children, our grandchildren, a truly close friend for the decades will get us. How many is that? Not many.
Part of the pathos of Yizkor is that today we mark the people who got us, who saw us, who loved us, but who are here no more. The pathos includes the fact that you can’t replace them. When your mother or father dies, you can’t replace a parent’s love. When your sibling dies, that’s the person who has known you longer than anyone else, longer even than your spouse, they go way back to your childhood, their life is intertwined with your whole life. You can’t replace that continuity and connection. When your child dies, there are just no words. When your spouse dies, when the love of your life dies, the person who most got you is no more, and there is no replacing that.
I was once at the bedside of a grown man who was deeply emotional when saying farewell to his mother. After the vidui was over, after we had said shema, he walked me out to the elevator. He said something to me that I’ve never forgotten: My mother was the only person in the whole world who called me “shefelah,” a Yiddish term of endearment. I love my father, my wife, our children, but nobody else in this entire big universe calls me shefelah. When my mother passes away, no one else ever will.
That’s the pathos of Yizkor. Is there some way to take the deep emotion of this moment and convert it to a positive and redemptive energy? That’s where the magic of the Yizkor prayer offers a modicum of healing. In a few moments, after we say the names of those who saw us, who got us, who loved us, and who are here no more, we say a powerful phrase in Hebrew. Hineni nodeiv tzedakah b’ad hazkarat nishmato, here I am, Hineni, that is the language of being called, that is the language of Abraham answering God’s call, Hineni, here I am.
Hineni, here I am, I didn’t give up on life.
Hineni, here I am, I didn’t spend the day in bed with the quilt over my head.
Hineni, here I am, I am not living in the past. I am forcing myself to live in the present.
Hineni, here I am, ready to be a force for good in the world, pledging to perpetuate the ideals of the people I am remembering.
Yizkor does not end in lament. Yizkor turns lament into resolve.
Which brings me back to Shtisel. He sees the cardiologist and gets treated for his medical heart malady. But his real heart malady is not medical, it is loneliness. The night he gets back from the doctor, he sits out on his balcony, and keeps calling the kupat cholim, again and again, in search of the soft, kind, human voice of the supervisor. To no avail. Every bureaucrat who picks up the phone was not the woman he was looking for, and he hangs up. To have somebody really get you is rare. But the story doesn’t end there. Just like Yizkor doesn’t end there.
Shtisel channels his loss into repair. His son Kive is a widower as well. His wife had passed at a young age. Shtisel tells his son: find love again now, find love again while you still can.
That is the Yizkor move. We do not let our pain go to waste. We do not let our pathos go to waste. We turn our pain into insight. We turn our pathos into the promise of something beautiful yet to be.
Please rise for Yizkor on page 330.