Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ
When we began Yom Kippur last night, we sang the words of Psalm 97, Or zarua latzadik uleyishrei lev simcha—light is sown for the righteous one, joy for the upright heart. But what does it mean to sow light? After all, light is not a seed: it cannot be planted in the ground in the hope that it will somehow flourish and grow. So how can we sow light?
In the Zohar, the soul-text of Kabbalah, Rabbi Isaac said: “The light created by God in the act of creation flared from one end of the universe to the other and was hidden away, reserved for the righteous in the world to come, as it is written ‘Light is sown for the righteous’. Then the worlds will be fragrant, and all will be one. But until the world to come arrives, it is stored and hidden away.”
Rabbi Judah responded: “If the light were completely hidden, the world would not exist for even a moment! Rather, it is hidden and sown like a seed that gives birth to other seeds and fruit. Thereby the world is sustained. Every single day, a ray of light shines into the world, keeping everything alive; with that ray God feeds the world. And everywhere that Torah is studied at night one thread-thin ray appears from that hidden light and flows down upon those absorbed in it. Since that first day, the light has never been fully revealed, but it is vital to the world, renewing each day the act of Creation.”
In other words, the light, the direct emanation of God in the world, is present every day in the world—but in a very thin stream. We cannot truly sense it, however, until we open ourselves up to words of Torah—or, perhaps, to the holy acts of human beings in our lives who carry forward the divine light that is inherent in our world, the Torah of good deeds and loving action that make up our holiest relationships.
Ner Adonai Nishmat Adam, the Proverbs (20:27) tell us: the light of God is the soul of the human being. And that light is here in our world in the sacred moments of the lives of those we love and of those who inspire us to live good and meaningful lives. Those lights, like the supernal light the Zohar speaks of, preserve the world. To paraphrase the Zohar, without the glow from those sacred lives our world would end. The light their souls shined into our lives was no less than the very or Adonai, the light of the Divine Holy One, the Shechinah, God.
So, when we come to a time to remember those whom we love who are gone, why do we often sense not light but darkness?
Why during Yizkor is it that it is so hard to recall just how much life and light our relatives and friends—our mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, brothers, sisters, grandmothers, grandfathers, our bubbies and zaides, our children—why is it so hard to remember the goodness and life and light they gave us when it is officially time to remember?
Why do we feel sadness, and loss, and pain—and sense darkness—so much more readily than the gratitude and light we are supposed to be feeling?
The act of remembering is supposed to heal, in Judaism. The process of recalling to mind those who are dead is designed to bring us to sense of the holiness of their lives and the great gifts they gave us, the ways in which their acts lit the way for us.
But many times, Yizkor simply fulfills a duty to remember. Sometimes it even opens up old wounds.
So how can we make that sadness and pain into a light?
The answer comes from bringing the best of the lives of those we love into our own life—from choosing to call to mind and heart the good and holy qualities of those we have loved and lost.
There is a phrase that has troubled me ever since I first heard it. It came from a man from Columbia, South America, named Hector Aristizabal, who suffered torture from the corrupt government there. The phrase is this: the blessing is next to the wound.
It is a strange concept, puzzling, paradoxical. That somehow, through the ordeal of loss and the pain of grief, we can find meaning in our lives.
The notion that experiencing these things—loss, illness, the death of a brother or son or wife or daughter or mother or father, even a grandson or granddaughter—that just next to that wound there is a blessing… it is very strong, and painful itself. But it can also be true.
Because the ways in which we best honor those who have died—of those who have died tragically and young in a car crash or of a heart attack, or of those who have died gracefully at a full age in the arms of those they love, those who have died in the COVID-19 pandemic, and everyone else and in between—is by remembering their life, treasuring it, bringing from it new lessons, new love. The blessing is next to the wound; if they had lived, we might never have known the depth of our love. We might never have learned these profound lessons of light in the face of darkness.
Perhaps this is a rationalization. But it feels true, if painfully so. If we look hard enough, the blessing is next to the wound.
It is not that we would not have preferred missing the wound altogether; but now that we know it is here, we also must know that near it, very near, is the blessing.
In the Zohar there is a concept that at the moment when light was created, darkness, too, was created. That at the very instant when illumination first entered the world, so too did its opposite, darkness.
Without darkness, no light.
It is in that paradoxical way that we come now to Yizkor, our service of remembrance. We come to Yizkor seeking solace, and comfort, balm for our wounds. But perhaps what we might find in its stead is blessing: the ability to take these wounds, and near them to find blessings that can sanctify our lives, and restore us to holiness.
That can illumine our lives in our darkness. If you can find that blessing, then, in the words of Rav Kook,
A holy light will abound
And all existence will whisper:
My beloved, I am yours.
And in your own life, light will truly be sown for the righteous—and you may, at last, be healed.