Passover Yizkor Sermon

One of my favorite television shows growing up was Boy Meets World. The show featured the middle-school antics of Corey Matthews and his friends. They would inevitably find themselves in need of the wise guidance of their teacher Mr. Feeney, played by the actor William Daniels.

I remember one such valuable life lesson from the show, made memorable by the clever use of a metaphor. In that particular episode, there had been some breach of trust between two of the main characters. One of the young students sought the advice of his beloved teacher. Mr. Feeney pulled out a roll of canvas cloth, which he had on hand for his painting hobby. “Very strong material; difficult to rip,” he told the student. He then produced scissors and made the smallest of cuts in the canvas, saying:  “Of course, rugged as it is, even the smallest snip and…” Rip. The previously resilient fabric easily tore in two. “Once the integrity has been breached,” he concluded, “even the strongest fabric can unravel.”

Perhaps our own lives and relationships can feel like that piece of canvas. The people we love are woven in to the warp and woof of our lives. Our lives are bound up with others’, much like the threads in a piece of canvas. And like the canvas, we are stronger for it. Our beloved family and friends can sustain and support us as we go through the ups and downs our lives. Just as canvas keeps out the wind and rain, our loved ones can help shield us from the unexpected things life throws our way. And just as canvas can hold a beautiful painting, our loved ones help create the platform for something beautiful to emerge. What a blessing it can be to live an interwoven life.

But of course, this can all unravel in an instant. For if we love, we will inevitably experience loss. The strongest of canvas can easily be torn asunder, never to be reunited. This is true even when those we love—our parents, siblings, spouses and partners, our children, other relatives and dear friends—are with us for a full lifetime. All the more so, when our loved ones leave us before their time. And when we have strained or disappointing relationships with our relatives, their passing can leave us in mourning for what might have been.

Perhaps this is the symbolism of k’riya, the ritual tearing of garments usually performed just prior to a Jewish funeral. The custom of tearing garments in response to a death is ancient. In the Torah, both Reuben and Jacob tear their clothes in response to hearing that their brother and son Joseph is dead. (Of course, the death was faked and Joseph was very much alive.) King David also tore his garments upon hearing of the death of King Saul and his son Jonathan, with whom David had an especially close friendship.

The symbolism of these acts is fairly obvious: something which previously had held strong has been destroyed. Traditionally, those ripping their clothes would even expose some skin as a sign of grief. We do this so to have a tangible sign, both to ourselves and others, that we have lost someone we love. It provides a sense of catharsis of the intense emotions of grief. As Rabbi Joseph Ozarowski writes,  “the healing process cannot begin until one has confronted the fact that loss has occurred. By acknowledging what has befallen through the ripping of clothing … we begin this process as we address our deepest psychological needs as a mourner.”

So this kind of k’riya, tearing, is a sign of what has been lost. But there is another kind of k’riya that is a sign of possibility for the future. On these final days of Passover, we commemorate the splitting of the Red Sea, an event our tradition calls k’riyat Yam Suf, using that same word for tearing or splitting.

We know the story well: Pharaoh and the Egyptian army chased the freed slaves out of Egypt, cornering them at the Sea of Reeds. Behind the people was a seemingly un-crossable sea, in front of them, an army of horses and chariots. The situation looked hopeless. But then a great miracle occurred: the sea split, the people crossed on dry land, and then the sea drowned the pursuing Egyptian army. Having feared for their lives, the people sang out joyously on the other side: “I will sing to the LORD, for God has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver God has hurled into the sea. The LORD is my strength and might; God is become my deliverance” (Exodus 15:1-2).

So perhaps the torn garment, in a way, might also evoke this triumphant moment. Yes, when we lose someone we love, there can be a sense of irreparable loss. But the tearing of the cloth, like the tearing of the sea, might also symbolize a previously unimaginable future, a new beginning, a new wilderness in which to wonder. The rupture might point the way forward toward a new reality, a reality in which we can become liberated from whatever previously constrained us.

We live with our losses. Even when the rips are sewn back up, we can still see that they were once there. But the rupture of loss might also allow us to enter a new future. We may even find ourselves singing a new song to God.