Finding Comfort in Unexpected Places: A Passover Yizkor Sermon

There was once a boy named Paul who was quite young, his family had one of the first telephones in his neighborhood, a polished, old case, fastened to the wall. The shiny receiver hung on the side of the box. He was too little to reach the telephone, but used to listen with fascination when his mother used to talk to it.

Then he discovered that somewhere inside the wonderful device lived an amazing person. Her name was “information please” and there was nothing she did not know. “Information please” could supply anybody’s number and the correct time.

His first personal experience with this genie in the bottle came one day while his mother was visiting a neighbor. Amusing himself at the tool bench of the basement, he whacked his finger with a hammer. He walked around the house sucking his throbbing finger, finally arriving at the stairway. The telephone! Quickly, he ran for the footstool in the parlor and dragged it to the landing. Climbing up, he unhooked the receiver in the parlor and held it to his ear.  “Information please,” he said in to the mouthpiece just above his head. A click or two and a small voice spoke into his ear.

“Information.” “I hurt my finger…” He wailed into the phone. The tears came readily enough now that he had an audience. “Isn’t your mother home?” came the question. “Nobody’s home but me,” he blubbered.

“Are you bleeding?” the voice asked. “No” he replied. “I hit my finger with the hammer and it hurts.” “Can you open your icebox?” she asked. He said he could. “Then chip off a little piece of ice and hold it to your finger,” said the voice.

After that the boy called “Information please” for everything. He asked her for help with his geography and she told him where Philadelphia was. She helped him with his math. Another day he was on the telephone. “Information Please.” “Information,” said the now familiar voice. “How do you spell ‘fix’?” he asked.

Then there was the time that Petey, his pet canary died. He called “information please” and told her the sad story. She listened, and then said the unusual things grown-ups say to soothe a child. But he was unconsoled. He asked her “why is it that birds should sing so beautifully, and bring joy to all families, only to end up as a heap of feathers on the bottom of a cage?” She must have sensed his deep concern, for she said quietly, “Paul, always remember that there are other worlds to sing in.”

Eventually Paul’s family moved away, and he slowly forgot about his childhood “friend.”

Many years later, on his way west to college, his plane put down in Seattle. He had about a half an hour or so between planes. Without thinking he dialed his hometown operator and said, “information please.” Miraculously, he heard the small, clear voice he knew so well. “Information.” He hadn’t planned this, but he heard himself saying, “could you please tell me how to spell fix?” There was a long pause. Then came the soft-spoken answer, “I guess your finger must have healed by now.” He laughed. “So it’s still you,” he said. “I wonder if you have any idea how much you meant to me during this time.” “I wonder,” she said, “if you know how much your calls meant to me. I never had any children and I used to look forward to your calls.” Feel free to call anytime, and if I don’t answer, just ask for Sally.

Three months later, he was back in Seattle and tried again. A different voice answered. “Information.” He asked for Sally. “Are you a friend?” she said. “Yes, my name is Paul, I’m a very old friend,” He answered. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” she said, “Sally had been working part time the last few years because she was sick. She died five weeks ago.”

Before he could hang up she said, “wait a minute.” Did you say your name was Paul?” “Yes” he responded. “Well, Sally left a message for you. She wrote it down in case you called. Let me read it to you. The note said, “tell him I still say there are other worlds to sing in. He’ll know what I mean.” He thanked her and hung up the phone. He knew what Sally meant.

When many of us sat down at our Seder meals last week, we looked around at the friends and family gathered in front of us. Even as we were excited and happy to be sharing our traditions with people we love, we may have paused and noticed that there was an empty seat at the table. Someone who usually sat in a certain location or read a certain part of the Haggadah was not with us this year. They may have been gone for a long time, they may have moved away, or this could have been our first holiday gathering without them. As we ate our matzo and sang Dayeinu, we were painfully aware that our joy was not as full as it once had been. Someone, like Sally, had always been there when we needed them and now they are missing.

We are supposed to ask many questions on Passover and we’re supposed to sing as well. When we are faced with loss we might struggle with the un-answerable questions like our little boy Paul. How do we make sense of life through the pain of loss? Seder always evokes memories of my grandfather, who used to sit at the head of my Seder when I was a little boy, his oldest grandson sitting next to him. I did not know that those Seders were my first lessons on how to be a rabbi and lead people in prayer. My grandfather used to read through the Baskin Haggadah, the same one we use at Temple. Even though I never understood a word of what was said, I found comfort in his presence and the sound of his voice as he read and sang. I can still vividly picture the dining room, the table set and surrounded by family, the smell of chicken tempting us from the kitchen, and the sound of his voice. I still love Passover and each year I always pause at the beginning and think about my grandfather.

Remembering our favorite memories from the people who we loved the most may bring a mixture of pain and joy. The pain reminds us how important they were to us, and the joy allows us to feel gratitude for the time we shared and for the memories that we have. Our loved ones live on in both our memories and when we act in their name. My father always takes pride in researching, planning and leading a wonderful Seder in Cleveland. He honors his father every Passover by continuing this important tradition.

During Passover Jews engage in the tradition of reciting Hallel, psalms of praise that we recited briefly before yizkor. Only on Passover do we find one of Judaism’s most honest traditions – because the Egyptians died during our liberation, we do not recite a full hallel throughout the week. Our joy is diminished because lives were lost, and sitting here this morning we might be feeling the same because someone we love is no longer able to sit next to us.

Whenever we sit down to seder, or do something else that reminds us of the departed, no matter where we are, we will always remember them. Just like Sally told the little boy, we know that there are other worlds to sing in.

Zichronam livracha, may the memories of those who have died forever be a blessing.