A Time To Gather Stones: A Yizkor Sermon

A Time To Gather Stones: A Yizkor Sermon

Each of us walks through life dropping stones. Each stone contains a particular virtue, a story from our life, preserved in the great sandstones of time. Each stone contains tales of seemingly insignificant kindnesses, insurmountable struggles, and mundane acts of yesterday. On them are written the stories of our days.

These stories are all too familiar yet no less important….

A father opens his heart to his daughter, comforting her when a nearby storm rouses her from her bed in fright

A mother sits down with her son to study for a test in a subject in which he struggles, guiding and cajoling, encouraging and inspiring.

A friend rushes from a long day at work to meet her neighbor for dinner, knowing that in her loneliness this person needed her more than she needed a few hours of downtime.

A cousin stands beside a man at his father’s funeral, sending the quiet message that if his legs should give out in sorrow, he will be there to catch him.

At each of these moments, our parents, friends, sibling, and lovers dropped stones. And on them were etched these stories.

He cared for you when you stayed home from school as a child, sick with the flu. He drops a stone.

She brought you lunch when as a forgetful child you left it on the kitchen counter in a mad dash to the school bus. She leaves a stone behind.

He flew across the country to help you move apartments as you entered into adulthood. The stone still sits in the midst of that apartment.

She stood beside you at your wedding, placing a reassuring hand on your shoulder before you walked down the aisle. Standing together, a stone falls from her pocket.

Our deeds are a series of stones, markers left behind at life’s most tender and painful moments, dropped unknowingly as our actions are preserved in memory. As we live our lives, we toss these stones indiscriminately outward. It doesn’t matter where they land. We are too busy to care.

Yet when we pass away, these stones become priceless. Death is the great philosopher's stone. Suddenly, rocks that were no more important than lead become as precious to you as gold. You mine your memory to collect them. You search the recesses of your mind to find them.

Where is the stone that marks my 10th birthday party? Our 20th wedding anniversary?

What did he say to me when I graduated?

What made her apology so special so many years ago?

Where did that concert take place?

Who came with us, on that cold December day?

If only we could gather these stones together, we could resurrect a sculpture of memory and time. If only we could find every stone, then we could bring back back those we love.

Yehudah Amichai understood this. Writing about our search for these stones, the Israeli poet penned the following poem:

On my desk there is a stone with the word “Amen” on it,

a triangular fragment of stone from a Jewish graveyard destroyed

many generations ago. The other fragments, hundreds upon hundreds,

were scattered helter-skelter, and a great yearning,

a longing without end, fills them all:

first name in search of family name, date of death seeks

dead man’s birthplace, son’s name wishes to locate

name of father, date of birth seeks reunion with soul

that wishes to rest in peace. And until they have found

one another, they will not find a perfect rest.

Only this stone lies calmly on my desk and says “Amen.”

But now the fragments are gathered up in lovingkindness

by a sad good man. He cleanses them of every blemish,

photographs them one by one, arranges them on the floor

in the great hall, makes each gravestone whole again,

once again: fragment to fragment,

like the resurrection of the dead, a mosaic,

a jigsaw puzzle. Child’s play.

When we lose someone, we become collectors of stones, like the “sad, good man” of Amichai’s poem.

How many embraces can we find?

How many loving colloquies?  

Which heartfelt apologies?

Which exasperated pleas?

There is so much wisdom in Amichai’s poem. Together we too sit on the floor in the great hall, seeking to build a jigsaw puzzle, the mosaic of a person’s life. We hope that through memory, we might bring at least a piece of them back. Perhaps we will resurrect what we miss most.

Yet, Amichai was wrong in one respect. Memory is not child’s play. It is serious business, the hardest thing we do.

Memory is never complete. It is the jigsaw puzzle where the last piece is missing, the Swiss cheese mosaic, a building without its cornerstone.

And the closer we get to a complete picture, the harder each gap is for us to stomach.

Yizkor is a time for gathering and cataloguing stones. It’s a four-fold moment throughout the year, when we are encouraged to excavate, to find the forgotten pebbles, those fleeting moments that could have passed us by and to arrange them together into a coherent picture.

Take time to assemble these stones.

One remembered kindness, one piece of wisdom, one story of presence does not chronicle a life. It describes a moment. But many kindness, much collect wisdom, lifetimes of presence, these together reconstruct a person.

Look within and collect your stones. Bring them together and build something greater.

It’s Sukkot, and this past Shabbat we read the indelible words of Kohelet:

There is a time for everything and a season for every purpose under heaven

A time to be born and a time to die

A time to plant and a time to uproot,

A time to kill and a time to heal

A time to tear down and a time to build

A time to weep and a time to laugh

A time to mourn and a time to dance

A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them...

Yes, there is a time to scatter stones. We do it with each act, large and small, that total the experiences of our lives. Yet, when we die, we pass on the sacred act of gathering them to those we love and who love us.

There is a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them

Now is the time to gather them

May you find fulfillment in your search, comfort in your exploration, and purpose in your assembling.