Tag Archives: Yahrzeit

Aligning and Attuning on the First Yahrzeit of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s Passing

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2:22 am, June 23, 2015. Sleep not happening, at least not much, right now. I’m vibrating at a pretty intense frequency. Full of feeling and energy. On this journey from my home and life out to a new solo adventure, I’ve found myself moving backwards across the landscape of my life and across the geology of it as well. I left California on June 14th, nine days ago. I planned for some time here, in Colorado, where I am now. I lived off and on in Boulder from the time I was six months old until I was twenty-two. I’m headed to Paris in thirteen days, where I was born over fifty years ago. Going backwards in time and space and encountering myself in all these places is quite a voyage.

On Sunday evening, June 21st, as the long day of Solstice wound down, I joined with Holy community here in remembering our beloved Rebbe Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. The fifth of Tammuz, which this year corresponded to the 21st of June, marked the one year anniversary of his death. In the Jewish world, this is called a Yahrzeit. We remember our beloveds on the day they left the earth in various ways, with prayer, with candle-lighting, with stories and gathering together. We say their names out loud in our congregations and stand to say the Mourner’s Kaddish, while the community supports us. We never forget those we love.

When a great teacher dies it is a huge parting and loss for the whole world. A great teacher hopefully leaves behind a legacy of teachings, works, and folks who can carry on the Light and Wisdom that this individual teacher managed to shine on all around them. Our Rebbe, was one of these kinds of teachers. He left behind and empowered huge numbers of people to carry on the work, and still, there was no one like him and he is and always will be missed.

So, we gathered in Boulder at Nevei Kodesh, with Rabbi Tirzah Firestone and Rabbi Mark Soloway for a Zikr in honor of our teacher, Reb Zalman. Zikr/Dhikr is an Arabic word similar to the Hebrew word Zahor, for remember. In a Sufi Zikr practice you chant the name of the Divine and move in simple steps. This practice is a physical way of connecting ecstatically to the Divine. Rabbi Mark shared a teaching about sunflowers and their aligning/turning towards the sun. He spoke about how our teacher was someone whose love-affair with the Divine was so great that it made him shine. This was so true. Rabbi Mark also talked about a Zalman teaching about how all of us are like sunflowers turning towards the light of the Divine in our hearts and souls. Some folks forget this or they do not realize that their purpose is to grow like a sunflower, towards goodness, towards Light, towards nourishing all we encounter.

Rabbi Tirzah, along with a gifted group of musicians, led us so sweetly and beautifully in several hours of chanting and movement to lift up our spirits on this sad day of remembrance, but also to align ourselves with Holy purpose, prayer and connection to the soul of our teacher as he joined and became a luminous link on his ancestral lineal chain. Lineage is something, in the United States and the modern world, we don’t talk about so much. There is a kind of bias here against having a lineage, as if being a free agent without adherence or obligation to our ancestors or the past is some kind of blessing.

Lineage, in a religious realm, is very significant and it isn’t just about your blood or ancestral line. I am now aligned with Reb Zalman’s lineage because he was my teacher, he is my teacher still, even across the territory of death. And, his ancestral and spiritual lineage has merit and meaning. Who he aligned with and learned from, who his parents were and who their parents were back to the beginning is present in him and in his teaching. This is true for all of us and becomes real for us when we remember to engage with lineage and with the meaning of Zahor.

Zachor #44 by Mordechai Rosenstein
Zachor #44 by Mordechai Rosenstein
When I visit and share with child-prisoners in the penal juvenile “justice” system, I often talk to them about the fact that they are the product of thousands of successful heroic ancestral survivors making it across the ravages of time. Most often these children think of themselves as failures and since many of them have been brutalized by their families of origin in one form or another, trying to get them to see or find merit in who they are, at their core, is important. One of the ways I try to do this is to remind them that they are already miracles, just by virtue of being alive.

If you are awake and present on the planet now, no matter where you are, your ancestors survived plagues, wars, ice-ages, volcanoes, tidal waves, epic catastrophes and all kinds of crazy stuff to make it to this moment. It’s extraordinary that any of us are here. If we are here, it’s significant and not something to be wasted or ignored.

We don’t have to reproduce physically to create lineage, we only have to align with goodness and great teaching and embody those things. You can’t help being part of a lineage that you were born from, you can choose which lineage you want to align with as you move through your life. This choosing is a fundamental step in making connection to Holiness. You might be lucky enough to come from an ancestral lineage that is full of great teachers that you know about and have ready connection to.

You might be adopted and not have any idea who your grandparents or great-greats were, but no matter what, you have lineage and you can connect and adhere to the lineage of those you love, those you find home with emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.

As we chanted and moved in our Zikr for Reb Zalman, Rabbi Tirzah invited us to concentrate on the world we wished to see and to find a specific prayer to offer up along with our bodies and voices. The merit inherent in this communal practice connected to the Aliyah (rising up) of our teacher’s soul would add ummph and power to our prayers. This was palpable. So, while we all moved and swayed, we also were praying. We were praying for peace on this earth, for healing of the planet, for tikkun olam, for personal well-being or personal familial reconciliations. We were praying with our bodies, breath, hearts, minds and feet. No matter what our individual internal prayers were, we attuned with Heaven in our joining together in honor of our teacher. This practice will help all of us and the world move through our wounding towards healing.

After our movements and singing we said Kaddish for Reb Zalman and then we were invited to visit his gravesite where his headstone was now in place. We were asked to do this after his family had their own smaller private ceremony in the morning. So, throughout the day, various folks gathered at the grave of our teacher. We brought stones and stories, tears and songs, silence and sitting still to listen. There were birds and a bunny that kept hopping by, I saw dragon-flies and so many kinds of birds wheeling about. The fellowship and communion continued for us as we sat on the ground surrounding the body of our beloved teacher. 

 My tears and my prayers continue to flow and I hope align with the millions and billions of others on this spinning orb dedicated to tikkun olam, to mending and working to repair what has been destroyed and what is wounded. I feel so un-alone, so completely held within the lineage of my teacher, the communities I belong to, the family I was born from, the friends I cherish, the people I encounter and all the angels in my life who continue to give me hope and help.

As I move backwards through my life and towards being alone and truly not surrounded by physical community, I am awed, once again, by the Great Mystery of Life, the Ein Sof, who placed me here, in Boulder at this moment of connection so that I could carry this feeling and this reminder with me.

I am not alone, I have never been alone, I will never be alone.

I am and always have been surrounded by the luminous beings whose presence lives in my blood and body and also by all the words and teachings and songs which dance through my heart and mind.

May you find your lineage and connect to it with passion and may if uplift and support you in all the work you do. May you remember how uniquely and magically and wondrously created and beauteous a being you are and may you find a way to know in your bones how truly un-alone you are.

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from http://www.newkabbalah.com/images/ein.jpg
from http://www.newkabbalah.com/images/ein.jpg

More than One, Fifty years since my sister Paula’s Death, I remember….

Me, at the age, my sister Paula, died next to her grave in Boulder Colorado
Me, around the same age as my sister Paula when she died. I am sitting next to her grave (called the Lollipop grave) in Boulder, Colorado. This gravestone was commissioned by my parents, because while holding Paula they saw her interest in one of  DeWain Valentine’s watercolors, a heart shaped abstraction hanging in his studio. “Paula pointed to it with great animation and when we recalled that, after her death, we decided to commission DeWain to make it into a sculpture to mark her grave.”

 

Today, May 16, 2014 marks 50 years since my sister Paula died. I was inside my mother’s womb three and a half months from being born on that day. In this picture I am somewhere between two and three. My sister died three months short of her second birthday. Her death has marked my life as well as the lives of all our family. Death is a certainty for all of us, but no one wants a child to die or expects it.

I am truly a child of death, born into the grieving arms of my amazing and brave parents, who had to find love and presence to give me while being devastated about the loss of their firstborn beautiful child.

Every year at this time I light a Yahrzeit candle for her and remember her physical presence on this earth. This Jewish practice is so important to me and gives me a comfort that is beyond words. I feel connected to my sister across time and space and I remember her and honor her and recognize that her short time on this earth was real and deserves honoring.

Yahrzeit Candle and memory altar for Paula on anniversary of her death.
Yahrzeit Candle and memory altar for Paula on anniversary of her death.

My parents have gone through various different ways of mourning her over the last fifty years. There is no way to navigate the territory of the death of a child right or wrong. It is all wrong.

Everything about a child dying feels wrong and those who have to cross that territory know this in a way that others who have not cannot really speak to. I have not lost a child to death and I pray I never do, but that is not within my control. Death is a certainty, there is no way out of it.

The mainstream culture runs kicking and screaming from this reality, racing as fast as they can from the idea that we all have a date stamp on us, one that we don’t know and cannot see.

If you are a practicing Buddhist, you spend a very long time imagining and looking at your own death in all kinds of different scenarios. If you are a Tribally aligned person, from anywhere around the globe, you recognize that the spirits of those who have died are here on this earth either to help or teach or hinder us based on many different factors. If you are an African Dagara Shaman like Malidoma Patrice Somé , you have a frame-work of belief that holds you, as the progeny of an ancestor, responsible for their wrong actions and the beneficiary of their good actions. If you are Hindu, you are engaged in a circle and chain of lives lived across space and time over and over in various forms. If you are Mexican you will make a feast and an altar of memories and offerings for your dead once a year and recognize and remember them together. Here, we just foolishly hope death will go away and try to avoid the topic. I’m summarizing very deep and profound beliefs here and could write many long essays on each of these, and perhaps I will, or as we say in my tradition, “go and study.” If something here stimulates you to learn more or go deeper, maybe even into the burial root ground of your soul.

I have studied and do study death more than most folks in our society. I am a co-founder of our community’s burial society called a Hevra Kadisha. I prepare folks for burial according to Jewish tradition. I have been called by death from within the womb-safe belly of my mother. I met my sister in that liminal space between, before my birth and after her death.

She was my angel in all the dark nights of my childhood, a sweet presence that helped me find hope, or pointed out the right direction.

I visited her grave as a child and have always held a place for her in my heart.

Memoriam Collage by Helen Redman 1995
Memoriam Collage by Helen Redman 1995

When I was a teenager I would visit the graveyard with my friend Gretchen Reinhardt and we would attempt to rescue or put back together gravestones that had been vandalized.

I was never afraid in that graveyard. All those dead were my friends. It was a quiet, calm place where I didn’t have to feel all the pain of those around me. No one was teasing me or hurting me and I never felt like an alien in the cemetery. I was at home there, I still am. Death and I have always been in relationship.

Which is why everyday of my life feels like an amazing gift that I need to live fully and well. I am not running away from the knowledge that I will die, that all those I love and cherish will die. I am acutely aware of this and I know it in my cells and in my blood. My umbilical cord blood was saturated with the pain of my sister’s passing, my very core has been colored by her passing. This is not a sad story though, while at the same time being the saddest story.

I am more than okay now as I round the corner towards fifty and I pass this spot on the calendar and I touch her once again in the cycle of remembering. I know that there is more to death than an end. I know this in my body, heart and mind, in my Lev (Hebrew for Heart/Mind)  and in my soul and it is not just a comfort to me, it is a lifeline and a guiding force in my life.

I know this post will make my mother cry, but she and I have a long and deep understanding about honesty and truth-telling and being real with each other. We both have made and will make mistakes, but we are linked so very deeply in our connection to dealing with death honestly and with whatever we have to bring to the table around it. Others in my family do not often want to talk about Paula, but perhaps they will read this or maybe they won’t. My father used to take me to her grave as a child, this was not something I did with my mother. As an adult when I am in Boulder I visit her grave and place a stone on it.

Jewish folks bring stones to a grave, stones to mark that our memory for those who have left this earth is as long and durable and tangible as that of a stone or a rock. A rock has been around for millenniums and this symbolic act is our way of saying, “YOU are present for us still today.” It reminds us to do good and enact justice for those who are living. It reminds us to not throw stones, but to remember that everyone is precious and will be mourned by someone, so we shouldn’t go around killing folks EVER!

A rock says, I silently mark this territory and bear witness for you, even when you are in the ground yourself, I will still be here as a reminder of your presence on this planet, at this place.

Visiting my sister's grave October 2014, leaving stones and saying prayers and remembering.
Visiting my sister’s grave October 2014, leaving stones and saying prayers and remembering.

I have a mother who is an artist and who has been marking my presence and journey on this earth since before I was born into it. She has marked me with paint and pastel, with pencil and with cloth. Reminding me and anyone brave enough to visit this place of pain, death and life that we are always MORE THAN ONE.

We are all connected one to the other, now and forever and always and always.

I love you mommy and I love you Papa. I grieve for your loss, even still and especially, today fifty years later.

Thank you for loving me so deeply and magnificently!

Here I am, inside my mommy, right before I was born, more than one always!

More than One by Helen Redman, 1964
More than One, by Helen Redman, 1964