During the upcoming holiday of Sukkot, our sages give us the book of Ecclesiastes to read. I thought I might share with you a passage from Ecclesiastes today because I think it can open a doorway to our mourning, our losses, and our feelings of grief that we need to let happen at this time.
Ecclesiastes wrote the famous words, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. A time to be born; a time to die; a time to plant; a time to pluck up that which is planted; ….a time to break down, a time to build up; a time to weep, a time to laugh; a time to mourn, a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together.”
The words of Ecclesiastes give a sense of the truth, of the way things really are: if there are highs then there are lows, if there love then there is loss, if there is life then there is death. When reading these words, there is no hiding from his unvarnished, ever balancing out view of the world.
But one verse in the passage I quoted has always troubled me. What does it mean to cast away stones, to gather stones together?
The best interpretation I’ve heard was that this line in Ecclesiastes is meant for mourners. The time when we gather stones together, is the time we go to visit the graves of our loved ones.
Every time I visit my family plot at Beth Moses cemetery, I spend some peaceful time there. I am never in a rush. I usually begin by searching slowly and carefully for a bunch of stones–whichever ones strike me. I pick up a bunch at first, even though I will only put one on each their graves. I do know that the stone I will choose for my mother’s grave will be the smoothest and the prettiest; The stone for my father will be bigger but not too jagged. The graves of my parents, Richard and Judy Chizner, z”l, lie side by side.
I take my time, walking slowly picking up as I go along. When I am ready with my handful of stones I crouch down, positioned between the footstones of each of their graves.
I can see the area so clearly in my mind right now. I know exactly what I would do next. With my free hand I pick off any leaves. I then let my fingers run over my mom’s name and I bring my fingers to my lips and I touch her name. Then to my father’s. I touch my fingers to my lips and touch his name, and always this brings tears to my eyes. There is something in that motion of bending down and kissing that floods me with memories. Inevitably, my mind reverses the image. In my mind it is they who are bending down to kiss me. An image of my father tucking me into bed, kissing me on my forehead, my mother sending me off to school zipping up my coat, welcoming me home, congratulating me, embracing me when I was sad– snapshots of kisses come flooding back. But, it’s so much more than two-dimension images. When I allow these memories to happen–when I don’t try to push them away–I can feel them, actually feel my parents kissing me on the cheek or the forehead. I can feel their love–that sweet feeling of all encompassing love –surrounding me, unlike any other love, so complete and so real. The tears roll as I painfully miss their physical and emotional presence–but in those quiet slow-paced moments of gathering stones, I always allow it; I don’t stop the flood of memories.
In a way, I gather the memories too just like I gathered the stones, knowing I will pick one out, the right one. I then open my hand and carefully find the perfect stone for my mom and I place it gently down. I hold my hand there for a moment and I choose one of memories that came to me and I hold on to it for later. I do the same with my father. I choose the stone, place it down and choose one of the memories.
As I leave the cemetery, I take with me those two perfect memories. I will hold on to them that day until I see each of my children. They may not know what I am doing at first. They may wince a little as I cup their faces in my hand and kiss them on the forehead. But I will tell them: this is how my father used to kiss me . I press my cheek up to theirs and feel each child’s essence and say: this is what my mother did when she embraced me. Then and only then do I understand the second half of Ecclesiastes’ words. Like casting stones, I cast away my parents’ kisses directly into my children. For me, that’s why we use stones. Just as stones are eternal, so are loved ones’ embraces when we give them to others.
Today, as you think of your loved ones, maybe when you think of being at their graves, gather those memories, pick a couple and hold them clear in your mind. Then later today, cast them off to your loved ones through your kisses and embraces. May their memory be for a blessing and may we always know that their love lives through us.