Yasher Koach and Tear Soup - Yom Kippur 5776
Over the years, I’ve asked you some difficult questions. I’ve asked you to wrestle and struggle with some of the most complex emotions. Today, at this sacred moment, I want to ask you perhaps the most painful question of all: “How many times in your life have you really grieved?”
I know that people have died and you have felt sad, or angry, or confused. But it didn’t take long, a few days, or at most a week, and you were back to normal, absorbed in your regular tasks and enjoyments. You might not have admitted it to anyone, even yourself, but you coped, you went on, you were ok.
I’ve asked a lot of people this question, in the privacy of a personal conversation, and every person has been amazingly honest and quite able to answer, without prompting, differentiating immediately between sadness and real grief.
Here is what I call real grief: even years later, you find yourself staring at the wall or out the window and you don’t even know where you are or what you’re doing; deep, wrenching grief. You’re crying and you don’t even know it. You look at photographs with a lump in your throat. Years after their deaths, you look at everyone sitting at the Pesach Seder table and all you want in the world is for that loved one to be there, just for one night, even if it means they’d criticize the matzoh balls for being too light or too heavy.
Maybe you’ve never had that kind of mourning, and if not, you’ve been lucky.
But if you have had one or two or a few times in your life when you were destroyed by a person’s death, then I want to tell you a story from a book, and then I want to say something weird and strange.
I want to tell you about a book given to me by a friend of mine who has suffered through a lot of real grief. The book is called Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss by Pat Schwiebert and Chuck DeKlyen. Here is the story.
There was an older woman named Grandy. The child of one of Grandy’s friends died and that friend made tear soup from scratch. For many years, the custom of making tear soup had been forgotten. People found that it was easier to just take a can from the shelf and heat it up.
Grandy went home and pulled out a big pot, big enough for all of the memories, all the misgivings, all the feelings and all the tears she needed to stew in the pot over time. You see, grief takes longer to cook than anyone thinks it will.
She put on her apron because she knew it would get messy. Grief is never clean.
And then Grandy started to cry. She sobbed. She wept quietly, and sometimes, when she was alone in her car and no one could hear her, she wailed.
She needed to make the tear soup by herself. People have a hard time seeing tears.
But when she tasted a sip of the broth, all she could taste was salt from her teardrops. It tasted bitter. Some of the memories she stirred in were bad and sad, but some of them were good or even silly.
Over time, she stirred in all the different memories into the pot. But then she ran out of things to add. And in a way this was worse. She felt cold and empty; the pain she was feeling was indescribable.
What was strange to her was that when she looked out the window, she was surprised to see how the rest of the world was going on as usual while her world had stopped.
Grandy had friends who meant well, but in a way they were afraid of her, they didn’t know what to say. Sometimes she would ask people, “Care to join me in a bowl of tear soup?” But they wouldn’t want to go near it. People who passed her house smelled the aroma of tear soup, just kept going and hurried past her door. At most, a few people could have a cup of tear soup. Only a few of her friends could join her in a whole bowl.
There was a friend name Midge who admitted that she didn’t know what to say but was glad that Grandy had made such a big pot of soup. Grandy said to her:
“I feel like I’m unraveling. I’m mad. I’m confused, so I can’t make any decisions. Nobody can make me feel good. I’m a mess. I just didn’t realize that it would be this hard.”
Midge said they should go for a walk. Grandy knew that exercise was good but she felt like she had concrete blocks strapped to her legs.
Grandy kept praying even though she was mad at G-d. She realized that while some people think that faith can spare you from sorrow and loneliness, she was grateful for all the emotions that G-d had given her.
People would ask her: “Is it soup yet?”
Or they would say: “It’s time to get out of the kitchen.” She knew they meant well, but they just didn’t get it.
One of the hardest moments is when you decide that it’s okay not to eat tear soup all the time.
But she also realized that you’re never really finished eating it.
That’s the book Tear Soup.
Tom Hanks said that there’s no crying in baseball, but there’s a lot of crying in Judaism. There is crying from grief, like in this book, and there is crying from joy. At Yizkor, a lot of us taste tear soup.
To those of you who have been there, who can relate to the idea of tear soup, of major grief, I want to say something that may sound strange: Yasher Koach.
In case you’re not familiar with this phrase, let me explain. When you participate in a service, chant the blessings for an aliyah, lift the Torah, open the Ark, you may find people are sticking their hands out to you and saying “Ya-sher KO-ach!” with great enthusiasm. This custom has really taken hold in our daily minyans, our daily services, where if you do anything at all, you have to shake the hand of every person in the room. For example, if you are Gelilah, if you tie and dress the Torah well, you are treated like a war hero.
They’re congratulating you on a job well done. The word Yasher comes from the Hebrew word ishur which means to “approve” or “sanction” and koach means strength. “Yasher koach!” translates, literally, “May your strength be firm!” but it’s an idiom, meaning, “More power to you," or “Good job!” It carries with it the hope that this mitzvah will give you the strength to move on to future mitzvot. Without going into the proper pronunciation and grammar, I’ll just mention that the polite thing to say in return is “Baruch Tihiye” which means “blessed you will be,” which might translate as, “Back at you!”
I am discussing Yasher Koach because this is the strange and weird thing that I want to say to those of you who know what tear soup is.
Yasher koach, because somehow, despite the dreams and nightmares you had during the night, or despite the fact that you didn’t sleep all night, you get up in the morning.
Somehow, despite a grief that never goes away, you go to work or go out to lunch with friends and smile, even when they’re talking about nonsense.
Somehow, despite a pain that always, always hurts, you go on with your life.
And that’s one of the reasons why I want to say Yasher Koach, May you be strengthened. May G-d help you to keep going.
But mostly I want to say Yasher Koach because you loved someone so much, so intensely, so deeply, that the person’s death wrecked you. In the last of the three overblown Hobbit movies, one of the characters, deep in mourning, cries, “If this is love, I don't want it! Take it from me. Why does it hurt so much?” And the answer comes back:
“Because it was real.”
If you are still in grief, years later, it means that you are a real human being, a human being with depth and levels and a real heart.
Yasher koach that you have loved so much that you are decimated.
Do you remember that Tina Turner song, “What good’s a heart, if your heart can get broken?” I would put it very differently: Your heart can’t be broken unless you have one. What’s love got to do with it? Everything.
So if you still mourn, Yasher Koach.
And in summarizing what I’ve talked about on these High Holidays, let me shout out a few more Yasher Koachs.
Yasher Koach to those of you who have found what you had lost
Yasher Koach to you who look at America and see a great country that strives to be even better
Yashe Koach to those of you who strengthen the
State of Israel, a great country that strives to be even better, a country that simply wants to be a country like every other country, where people live in peace and security.
Yasher koach to you who are not Alldones but know that you are Halfies who still have to do work on yourselves, to keep painting yourselves, and to have compassion for those who are not as well drawn as you are.
Yasher koach if you remember the people everyone else has forgotten
Yasher koach if you look on life as an adventure
It occurred to me recently that Judaism does not try to make evil people good. Evil people have no conscience and they don’t care about religion or morality anyway. Judaism tries to make good people better.
Yasher Koach to you if you are a good person who strives to be even better.
So here we are at Yizkor and we remember a lot of people who have passed away. But mostly, we think about the one or two or three people who we miss all the time, who we eat tear soup for, even on a fast day.
The terrible news, of course, is that they died, and often we have horrible memories of the way they died, or when they died, or why they died, or how they suffered.
But the profoundly wonderful news is that if you are someone who eats tear soup for someone who died, you have really lived.