A Sense Of Tragedy
by Harold M. Schulweis
There was a time when we used to
chide the “Yizkor Jew,” the one who came four times a year to the synagogue to
recite his prayers in memory of the deceased. There was a time when we were
critical of the “Yahrtzeit Jew,” who came to the Synagogue to recite the
Kaddish on the anniversary of the death of a parent.
But there is no more criticism,
because the Yahrtzeit Jew and the Yizkor Jew no longer come. There are times
when the rabbi reads the list of the yahrtzeits, and the list is larger than
all the worshippers present in the congregation.
So what has happened to Yizkor? I
think that the falling away of Yizkor is related to the loss of the sense of
tragedy in our society.
Yizkor is not fun. And our society
is predominantly hedonistic. Hedonism is the common philosopher of every man.
Hedonism is the bottom line. Hedonism rests on two goals for life: (1) pursue
pleasure, and (2) avoid pain. It is the
philosophy is which the twin goals of life are (1) pursue pleasure and (2)
Hedonism is not a new philosophy.
You cannot blame it on modernity.
It is as old as human nature. The prophet Isaiah puts it clearly when he
identifies hedonism as that voice that cries out to “eat and drink for tomorrow
you die.” In the Bible, Ecclesiastes
also understands the hedonistic impulse: "Then I commended mirth because
there is nothing better under the sun than to eat and drink and be merry."
So hedonism says: Live it up without tears, regrets, recriminations, concerns,
care, commitment, pity or compassion.
Greek stoicism, and our own Baruch
Spinoza, claimed that suffering, grieving and pitying were all passions that
weakened our will to live, and that what is required for a good life is to
develop "ataraxia," which
means “imperturbability.” It means not to get excited. It means peace of mind.
It means to control your passions, a term that comes from a word "pathos," which means “suffering.”
You control your passions by developing "apatheia,"
Pursue pleasure and avoid pain.
That is the philosophy of hedonism which we accept. Just look at the sacred ark
in our homes. Look at the medicine cabinet and the liquor cabinet. The medicine
cabinet is a pharmacopeia of pills and potions. Twenty billion dollars a year
in this country are spent for sleeping pills, stomach settlers, analgesics,
amphetamines, stimulants, barbiturates – Dexadrine, Valium, Restoril, Halcyon –
that is the prayer we recite in the morning and the evening. It is the pill
prayer: "Cause us, O Lord, to lie down again in peace and raise us up
again unto life.” Spiritual salvation is just a swallow away. Hedonism is aided
and abetted by better living through chemistry. Religion is the opiate of the
people, but opiates are the religion of the people.
And Yizkor is no fun. It conjures
up memories of the past which include sufferings, angers, sicknesses, dying,
deaths, pity and sorrow. So what's the draw of Yizkor or Yahrtzeit in a society
of hedonism? In my younger days in the rabbinate, I wanted to make it as easy
as possible for mourners to help them avoid pain. I told them that I would
remain with the casket so that they could leave for their cars before the
casket was lowered into the ground. For that was a painful thing. For many of
them this was a great relief. They would not have to stoop to take some earth
in their hands with a shovel and spill it on the casket. But I watched them as
they returned to the car, and then turned their heads backward, recognizing
that somehow or another their place was not in the car but along the graveside,
amidst the dirt and tears. What about pleasure and the avoidance of pain? There
was a need to confront tragedy, to see with their own eyes the lowering of the
casket, to feel in their own hands the earth, the stones, the dust and place it
upon the casket.
The issue rises when the question
is whether or not children should be taken along to the funeral. Again,
hedonistic wisdom says “why should the children be exposed to the crying, to
the somberness of the funeral? Why not spare them the grief, avoid the pain?” But some of the parents speaking with their
children came to the conclusion that the hedonistic logic was unwise, that the
child had a right to be at the funeral, that the child had a right to feel,
that the child had a right to be sad, that it was a mark of mentshlekeit. Should the grandchildren
know Zayde and Bubbah and love them only around Afikomen, gift time or Chanukah
time, and not in sorrow and in sadness? Is their loss not real? Hedonism robs
the child and the child in us of menschlekeit
Hedonism exacts a terrible price
on us to avoid pain. It dries up our tears, it stifles our sobs, it
narcoticizes our feelings, and it leads to a result that is increasingly
reported: People who complain that they
feel nothing, that they experience neither sadness nor joy; people who
deliberately do harm to themselves, cut their wrists, in order to feel
something real. When there is no sense of tragedy, when there is only the
pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, a vacuum is created, one of
emptiness and boredom and of meaninglessness.
There is a deep lie in hedonism.
If life is the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, why not practice
lobotomy? Why not the severing of some nerves? I assure you that you will not
cry anymore nor be anxious or fearful.
You don't have to practice real
lobotomy. You can anesthetize yourself. You can avoid living, avoid loving,
avoid commitment, avoid pursuit of purpose.
You can play possum and pretend
that you are not alive. You can also pretend, therefore, that you are not hurt.
But you will not learn without
suffering. You will find little meaning without suffering. As the poet put it,
"He who learns must suffer and even in our sleep pain that cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our despair, against our will, comes
wisdom to us by the awful grace of love."
Yizkor is not fun. But whether we
know it or not, we will come to know that we want from life not fun – we want
from life meaning, and meaning involves suffering, pain, feeling and a sense of
tragedy. Is there anything that I love? anything that rejoices my heart?
anything that is dear to me that does not involve pain and suffering? Is this
not a remarkable lesson that we learned from the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve's eating of the Tree of
Knowledge? Is it that there is no creativity without suffering, that there is
no ecstasy without agony, that there is no birth without labor pains?
This is not an argument for
masochism. This is not a rationalization or justification for suffering. But it
is a sense of reality. Meaning is to struggle and have pain, and one more thing
which hedonism will not appreciate. Meaning has nothing to do with success or
victory. Hedonism may be willing to go along with my notion of struggling, but
hedonism will not tolerate defeat.
Note, for example, that the
"Rocky Balboa" films are perhaps the most popular of all mass media
movies. Rocky will be hurt, his eyes are swollen, his lips are bleeding. When
his eyes are closed he asks his trainer to cut the eyes open with a razor
because he is in a fight for his life. But for hedonism, it is significant that
Rocky never loses. He must win because that is the bottom line is hedonism.
Nothing is more terrifying in our culture than be told that you are a loser.
And after the battle between two great pugilistic contenders, the camera will
focus only on the champion, only on the winner. The loser disappears in the
crowd and often is not heard of again.
That is another lie of hedonism,
because meaning has nothing to do with victory. And suffering does not mean
We have all seen or heard the
great Israeli violinist Itzchak Perlman who, as you know, suffered polio as a
child, and who has braces on both legs and walks with two crutches. When you
see him, whether in person or on television, crossing the stage it is both painful and
slow. Perlman comes out to the center stage, takes a seat, reaches down and
unhinges the clasps on his legs. Tucking one leg back and extending the other
he takes his violin in hand and laying his crutches on the floor, he begins to
On one occasion at a concert at
Avery Fischer Hall in New York City,
one of those marvelous violin strings broke on his instrument. It went off like
gunfire across the room. It was reported that the audience started to applaud
softly and louder waiting for him to leave the stage. But Perlman did not
leave. He signaled the maestro and the symphony started to play. Yitzchak began
to playing again, with such power and intensity, with three stings. That is
impossible to do, but he was modulating, changing, recomposing the piece in his
head. On one or two occasions, it looked as if he deliberately detuned the
strings to get different sounds or tune them upward to get other sounds. When
he finished, it was an extraordinary awareness. The audience screamed and
yelled to express their appreciation. When they quieted down Perlman said,
"It is my genius as well as my heart to make music with what
There was anguish, anxiety and
suffering. Perlman did not give the best concert he had ever given, and in one
artistic sense he had failed, but he had won because the importance was not
winning. The importance was the meaning, the effort to make music with whatever
Certainly those who attended the
concerts of Mr. Helthgot, who was dramatized in the movie "Shine,"
did not hear an expert rendition of Rachmaninoff. But did they expect to hear a
musical genius? I think not. I think they came and applauded and gave him ovations
aware of the tragedy and the defeat and appreciative of the struggle and the
suffering of the heart and soul. It was to make music with what remains.
We who face tragedy, who come at
Yizkor to remember our sadness, do so out of respect for the spiritual victory
in defeat. "We who come as mourners do so not only for the lives of other
people whom we recall but perhaps for the defeats and failures of our own lives
and our resolution to make music with what we have left."
Yizkor, yahrtzeit, kaddish, and the
El Moleh are not fun. But they are the way that the wisdom of memory finds
meaning in life. In our society one praises a person for having a great sense
of humor. I think there should be recognition for the value for a person who
has a great sense of tragedy.
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