The everlasting flame - Elul and Memory
Last weekend, in the middle of the month of Elul, I found myself celebrating Shabbat at Limmud in the Woods. This is an offshoot of an annual winter conference which attracts 2,500 Jews to learn, eat and teach, pray, party and sing together for 4 days. This smaller version was 250 Jews (plus a Vicar and a Sheikh) under canvass, doing pretty much the same sort of things, with a focus on ecology and green living.
On Friday night Rabbi Rebecca Qassim Burke led a beautiful Progressive Kabbalat Shabbat service in a woodland space that had been designated as our 'synagogue' for the weekend. Just before the service when shabbat candles were lit, we were all invited to snap 'alight' our glow sticks, which each person had been issued with on arrival. So we descended into the forest with sticks of light around our necks or glowing through our pockets.
I could barely resist fiddling and playing with the soft glow as the darkness descended, so what hope did our younger members have? As we reached the Kaddish, the mourners prayer, two boys at the front of the congregation began avidly spinning their sticks around and around and around, creating beautiful circles of red and green light. One of their mothers had that moment that most parents experience in services, particularly around Kaddish; the horror that their child is disrupting proceedings and ruining someone's prayer experience. I wish parents didn't have these feelings but communities have instilled them with it as they try to tread the line of inclusivity versus decorum. I can only say that the boys made my heart fly through the kaddish, where it is usually tugged down with sadness, whether it is my allotted time to mourn or not.
As the light flew through the air, I was reminded of the glow each of those I was missing had left in my life. Having been told off, the boys glow sticks came to a stop, reminding me of the rest they have now earned, having done so much with their lives, cut short too soon.
During Elul it is traditional to visit the graves of our loved ones and pay our respects. I like to think we are encouraged to do this in the month before the High Holidays so that we will be inspired to remember to live as well as we can, in part to honour the memory of those who have helped make us who we are. I find visiting graves a bit of an anti-Climax - the people I love are never there, they are with me each day. Each Elul I find an opportunity to teach a ritual that helps bring this light and those memories together; known as Soul Candles (you can find out more here). While I also try to visit the graves, the making of soul candles gives me a quieter, more intimate and more creative way to remember, and to bring light. Judaism has always associated candles with mourning and remembrance, and sees the wick and wax as a symbol of the entwined body and soul, which may seem to burn away but in fact are transformed into something unseen.
So thank you for the glow sticks, and for the light. As we remember this Elul, may they be memories that inspire us to do good in the world, and to bring honour to those we remember, but to also leave a world in which those who come after us are also inspired to continue the work. Lo alechah hamlachah ligmor: it is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it! (Pirkei Avot 2:20)