Mourners Share Powerful Experience on Shavuot

Is there a statute of limitations on mourning? I wavered as I sat in my car in the temple parking lot. It was 8:45 a.m., and for the first time, I planned to attend a Yizkor service on Shavuot, a Jewish holiday I usually ignored. There was one other car in the temple lot. Perhaps I should just drive away, run errands, and get my daily overpriced cup of iced chai at Starbucks. My brother died nearly 25 years ago. Did I belong among the mourners that would gather in just 15 minutes?

I was skittish, but also curious. Would the people at the service be mourning a new or old loss? More cars arrived. Occupants, ranging in age from 40s to 70s, got out of the cars.

A sense of deep intimacy in our worship. A particularly beautiful opportunity to reflect on the legacy of those who no longer walk amongst us, and how much they continue to be an important part of our lives. With those words in a temple-wide email, our rabbi, Howard Jaffe, drew me here. The cantor, who I knew well, got out of her car, and I followed her into Temple Isaiah.

We gathered in the chapel, the small worship room. Roughly 20 of us were there. Cantor Lisa Doob began the service with a song she composed about praising God from generation to generation. She taught us the words, and we chimed in on her cues. I looked around and recognized familiar faces. My skittishness disappeared. This was my temple. This was home.

We sang Mah Tovu, a prayer about how good it is to dwell in this house of worship. It was a prayer I first learned in 2006 – the year I celebrated my adult bat mitzvah. I now felt a sense of intimacy. There were so few of us – yet enough of us – that we felt comfortable looking at each other as we sang. One woman, who was babysitting, sat with her 10-month-old granddaughter. The rabbi urged the grandmother not to feel compelled to take the baby, who occasionally babbled, out. The baby, he said, reminded us of life.

Rabbi Jaffe, commenting on how he could rarely do this at a regular service attended by 100 or more people, asked each of us to share two thoughts. One man said what I was thinking: This felt like home. I spoke about my earlier hesitation, and how seeing familiar faces helped. I also talked about how coming to this service was a part of my journey of getting closer to my faith. Others spoke about the person they were there to remember. A woman remembered her husband, and her two grown daughters talked about their father. Another woman had just lost her father and marked the end of shiva; her husband, who had lost his mother years before, remarked how he no longer felt alone while saying Kaddish. Some losses were a week old, and others years old. Most of us showed our emotion. “I see tears,” Rabbi Jaffe said, “and I want you to know, that is good.”

I have long been on two journeys – one away from grief and another closer to my faith. This service linked both journeys. It was about mourning, and it was about Shavuot, a holiday I was just learning about. Shavuot marks the time Moses revealed the Torah to the Jews at Mount Sinai. The daughters who had lost their father shared the honor of opening the ark. Another congregant undressed the Torah. Rabbi Jaffe urged all of us to gather close around the Torah so we could see as he touched the Yad to each of the Hebrew words, which made up the Ten Commandments. The thrill I felt came close to my elation of four years ago when I chanted from the Torah. I was able to read along to myself as the rabbi chanted.

Our loved ones, a congregant commented, taught us about Shavuot and the commandments the Jews received. My brother did teach me a lot about how to live life to its fullest. Kevin, two years older than I, was full of life, the eternal optimist. He could be bitingly funny, but always looked for the good in others. He was, many said, the type of person who walked into a room and lit it up with his gigantic smile, his visible joy for life.

Cantor Doob asked those who wanted to remember someone to say the person’s name when her eyes found theirs. As her eyes reached mine, I said, “Kevin, my brother Kevin,” softly. Yet, it felt as if I were shouting. I so rarely say my brother’s name aloud nowadays that when I do it is as if I was out of practice. Together, we said the Mourner’s Kaddish, and many of us clutched soggy tissues in my hand.

There is, of course, no statute of limitations on loss. The Yizkor service was moving and special. I will return next year. We were, as one of the congregants remarked, a community within a larger community. With our voices in unison and our shared sorrow, we gave each other a warm embrace.

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