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A Sense of Tragedy

Yizkor, 1997

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) avoid pain.

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," or “apathy.”

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 and meaning.

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 resignation.

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 play.

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 remains."

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 remains.

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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Sat, June 22 2024 16 Sivan 5784