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The phone of the wind

10/03/2021 01:29:50 PM


Below is the text of the sermon I presented at our Kol Nidre service last month.  I am posting it here in response to requests that I make it available. 

In Japan, the Phone of the Wind sits in a garden on a wind-swept hill overlooking the ocean.  A short path passes underneath a bell and leads to a simple, glass-paned booth. Inside the booth sits an old black rotary dial phone. The people who come to use the phone can look through the glass and see the ocean that violently breached the shoreline and swept away thousands of lives a decade ago in its tsunami. 

The phone is not connected to anything.  The wind is meant to carry the voices of the mourners to their loved ones swept away. 

In a scene from a documentary about the Phone of the Wind, an older woman dials the number of the house she used to share with her husband.  Both the house and her husband were swept away by the tsunami.  The woman stands silently in the booth.  She listens for a few moments, and then slowly hangs up.  

Others speak to their loved ones on the Phone of the Wind.    

A son says to his father:   "If you are out there…please listen to me. I just have one question for you.  Why did you have to die?  Why you?  Why me?"

A daughter speaks to her father, beginning with a halting apology: "Dad, I’m sorry…I’m sorry I always told you that you stink."  She waits a moment and then speaks again, catching him up with the news of her life since he died four years earlier.  She tells him "I am doing well in school.  I made it on the track team.  I’m really into boy bands now."

A husband reassures his wife: "I am doing all right.  You do not need to worry about me."

A mother says quiet words to her son.  After she leaves the booth, she tells her friends waiting outside:  He heard me, so I can keep on living.   Another woman emerges from the booth and says of the loved ones she has lost:  I speak to them because I cannot forget them.  Who would I be without them?

We are created to love others.  Throughout our lives, it is our relationships, the giving and receiving of love, that shape us into the people we are.  When loved ones die, this is not the end of them. We are still in relationship, bound to them by memory.  

Memory tugs at our hearts this time of year.  We saw the memorial flame kindled at the beginning of our service this evening. Tomorrow afternoon we will recite Yizkor, our prayer of memory.  Prior to the High Holy Days, some Jews go to cemeteries and visit the graves of their loved ones.

Last month, when I was in the Pacific Northwest, my heart urged me to do the same.  So I traveled to the town in which I was raised to visit the grave of my mother. 

In the past I have joked that I grew up in the only ugly part of Washington State, an arid landscape of sagebrush and tumbleweeds, where the wind always seems to be blowing dust.  But the place also has its own kind of beauty, beauty given by the wide, blue, Columbia River.  Along its banks grow small trees and green brush providing relief from the desert sun. 

When I was very young, I used to walk with my mother along the banks of the river.  Returning to the river last month felt like coming home.  I smelled the familiar scent of river mud and plant decay and heard the quiet lapping of the water against the shore. I took it all in.  Then I began to look for the right stone to take to the cemetery the next morning. 

The next morning, I stood with the stone in my hand at my mother’s grave on a windy hill.  I began to speak into the wind. “Mom,” I said. “I don’t know if you can really hear me, but I am going to say this anyway. I am going to put a stone on your grave.”   I paused.  I had never thought to speak to her before and it felt a little strange.  But I kept going.  “I found this stone by the river where we used to walk.  It’s broken in half because your life was too short. I picked it up near a beach where children were playing in the water.  You would have liked to watch them play. I remember how much you loved children.”  

No more words came to mind so I stood in silence for a moment. I did not feel sadness or separation from my mother. Instead I felt a great moment of connection:  connection to her and to the many others who loved her.   Her life was too short but she lived it so lovingly and so well.  For that I felt grateful.  I stood quietly, and then I knelt and placed the stone on her grave. It felt exactly right.

Did I really believe that the wind carried my voice to my mother? It hardly mattered. I said those words for myself just as much as for her.  I placed the stone to meet a need I felt.  As the woman at the Phone of the Wind said:  We cannot forget our loved ones.  Because who would we be without them?  If we forget them, we are broken, incomplete, like the stone I placed on my mother’s grave. 

We each have a Phone of the Wind, a means of ongoing relationships with loved ones we have lost.  This connection to them is found in the recognition that the color of their eyes is reflected in our own.  It is found when we awake from a dream, smiling at having seen their faces once again.  It is found in recalling their words of wisdom, and in repeating those words to others. 

The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai wrote:

When someone dies they say of him, he is gathered to his ancestors. All the time that he lives, his ancestors are gathered in him, every single cell in his body and his soul representing one of tens of thousands of his ancestors since the beginning of all generations.

We are part of something eternal.  On this most sacred evening, in this quiet moment of reflection, we may sense the souls of those whose love shaped our lives.   What a comfort to know that we are part of an eternal love.  We are part of a love that will glow in the hearts of others long, long after the moment we draw our last breath, when the wind carries the voices of our loved ones across the divide. 


Thu, June 30 2022 1 Tammuz 5782