A season is set for everything, a time for every purpose under heaven:
A time for being born and a time for dying; a time for planting and a time for uprooting;
A time for killing and a time for healing; a time for tearing asunder and a time for building;
A time for weeping and a time for laughing; a time for wailing and a time for dancing;
A time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones; a time for embracing and a time for shunning embraces;
A time for seeking and a time for losing; a time for keeping and a time for discarding;
A time for ripping and a time for sewing; a time for silence and a time for speaking;
A time for loving and time for hating; a time for war and a time for peace.
(from Ecclesiastes 3)
Rabbi Pamela Wax
May 26, 2013
Oberlin 30th Cluster Reunion Memorial Service
Paul Offenkrantz just sang for us a beautiful rendition of Ecclesiastes’ poignant poetry about there being a time for everything under heaven.
Which leads me to two questions: First, Is there, in fact, a time — a singular, unique time — for every purpose under heaven? And secondly, is there time — enough time, sufficient time — for every purpose under heaven?
The poet Yehuda Amichai, in riffing on Ecclesiastes, wrote (QUOTE):
“A human being does not have time to have time for everything,
does not have seasons enough to have a season for every purpose.
Ecclesiastes was wrong about that.
A human being needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes,
with the same hands to cast away stones and to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love.
And to hate and forgive
and remember and forget,
to set in order and confuse,
to eat and to digest
what history takes years and years to do.” (UNQUOTE)
In disputing those well-worn words from Ecclesiastes, Amichai reminds us of one of the first adult lessons of my life, perhaps of yours: to see gray where once I only saw black or white, to hold the dialectic gently in the palms of my hands, or to stand on the fulcrum of the see-saw, teeter-tottering between here and somewhere else, between this choice and that one, now knowing more clearly that either choice, either path, has its own delights, riches, heartbreaks, doubts, and sufferings.
And what Amichai says about history taking years and years to eat and digest events, to set them in order and make sense of them, we are here to do in but one short weekend.
How is it that we – who, but a blink-of-the-eye-ago — were in our early twenties with our arms wise open, our hearts timid but hopeful, our whole LONG lives spread out in front of us, seemingly FOREVER — how is it possible that we are here to commemorate the deaths of 65 of our classmates, equally young and immortal in our mind’s eye? How is it that we young’n’s — still wet behind the ears in so many ways — are here today to face our own mortality? How is it possible that we who have come here to Oberlin to celebrate, rejoice and remember the good, the joyful, the hopeful, are also necessarily called here to the underbelly of life, to “laugh and cry with the same eyes”?
Mind you, I do not speak only of the loss of 65 of our peers, but collectively of all of our incumbent losses – losses both physical and spiritual.
And I also speak of the loss of some of our beloved faculty members. Particularly in my heart this weekend is the memory of English professor Phyllis Jones, my advisor, who took her own life in the summer of 1982, just after I graduated.
I suspect that thirty years ago, the vast majority of us were innocents in regards to death, human suffering, and our own mortality. I imagine that many, if not most of us had healthy, if not vibrant parents. Many, if not most of us, had living grandparents. To what extent were you personally acquainted with the angel of death back then?
Thirty years later, the vast majority of us have likely glimpsed the Angel of Death up close and personal. Certainly grandparents have died, but so have many of our parents, aunts and uncles, in-laws, mentors and teachers. It is certainly imaginable that death has taken peers: certainly our 65 classmates, but also colleagues, cousins, siblings, friends, and perhaps spouses. Tragically, some may have lost children. Some in our midst are bereaved now at this very moment; some are suffering or have suffered some sort of illness, the loss of a marriage, the pain of being single, the stress of being of the sandwich generation, and all of us carry (we are Obies, after all!) the pain and suffering of the greater world. The world has become more real for us in the last 30 years. We feel young, yes, but our bodies are telling us we’re aging; we are each more aware of our own mortality.
Just as this college reunion itself is a touchstone of our past, helping us to integrate our younger selves with the early-fifty-somethings we’ve become , so is this memorial service a touchstone, healing us, I pray, “with the wisdom that death gives urgency to life”.
So well-captured by various verses in the book of Psalms are some of the spiritual truths of my existence, and perhaps of yours, as well: such as knowing that life is short, like a breath, like a fleeting shadow; such as knowing that I always walk in the shadow of the valley of death, but that I need not fear if I carry God and hope with me; knowing that the living, not the dead, have the exquisite duty and privilege to praise; knowing that there are narrow places, but that in trusting the Infinite One they often open up into wide, expansive places of the soul. These spiritual truths ground me in faith and hope, but that faith was hard-won, something I had, then lost, then rebuilt slowly and surely over many years.
I stand here and wonder about what has sustained each of you during this past 30 years, and what role Oberlin may have had in helping you to develop those inner resources.
There is a story about God’s adversary, Satan, (Sah-TAHN in Hebrew) who gathered his assistants one day to decide upon the most effective method of destroying the meaning of people’s lives. (That’s what Satan does, after all.) One demon suggested; “Tell them there is no God.” Another proposed, “Tell them their sins are so great that they’ll never be forgiven.” “No,” Satan replied, “none of these things will matter to them. I think we should simply tell them: ‘There is plenty of time.’”
Simply tell them, “There is plenty of time.”
There is so very little time; we don’t, in fact, have time to have time for everything. The best we can do is to love — deeply and well — all the holy things that death can touch.
Let us grab – SEIZE! — at what is left of the celebration of this weekend together, cognizant that at succeeding reunions we will assuredly be adding more names to the list of those losses our classes have sustained. Let us celebrate our 18, 19- and 20-something selves who once walked this campus, and may we horde the memories elicited by our visit here, our walks across campus, and share them with others, so that those memories may live beyond ourselves. May we deepen our ties to each other, sharing our melodies and the songs of our lives, so that our melodies, our songs touch others, giving us our immortality, our legacy. May our values live on, well beyond our own years.
And may we honor our 65 classmates and all our deceased loved ones through memory and through deeds of loving-kindness, perpetuating ideals important to them. So may their souls be bound up in the bond of life. May they rest eternally in dignity and in peace. And we say: Amen.