A colleague of mine called my attention to a rather strange disagreement found in the Talmud. Since the Torah sometimes says that “You shall observe a Festival to the Lord” and sometimes it says, “It shall be a Festival for you” the question arose as to how we should celebrate the holidays. Rabbi Eliezer says that clearly the Festival is our day with God. But Rabbi Joshua ben Hannaniya says that the Festival should be a day to celebrate with other people. Since the Torah gives conflicting answers, Rabbi Eliezer says that one holiday is for God and the next is for people. Rabbi Joshua counters that the Holiday should be split between God and people.
Rabbi Kerry Olitzky takes this argument and finds a different solution. Rabbi Olitzky notes that the rituals of the holidays are designed to enhance family relationships because the best way to draw closer to God is to nurture relationships between members of a family. According to Rabbi Olitzky, “(Rabbi Joshua) suggests that there are two parts to every celebration, that unlike large segments of our liturgy, holidays are not there just to provide another context for us to praise God. If our relationship with God is a partnership, then it makes sense that one half of our festival should be devoted to the self and the other half to God. Thus, in the case of Passover, we are reminded of our own journey – the one that is reflected in the journey of the Israelites moving from Egyptian slavery through the desert … But we are also asked to remember that it was God who mightily brought us out of that Egypt ….”
Rabbi Olitzky is only repeating what we read in the Haggada. The story of the Exodus from Egypt is not just the story of God saving our people, but it is the journey that begins the history of our people and it reflects our own journey through life. We all have things in life that enslave us. Habits and addictions, knee jerk reactions and auto responses that we need to overcome in order to be successful in life.
What made all of this interesting to me is the connection between past and present in this dual focus of Pesach. It is what God has done for our ancestors in every generation from that time until today. What happened to ancient Israelites is repeated in every generation. God saved our Grandparents, our Parents and God saves us. We may not know what the future may hold in our lives but we can chart the past. From our vantage point today, we can see how the hand of God shaped the lives of those who came before us.
As you know, I became a grandparent just six weeks ago. It does not take very much to get me to show you pictures of my beautiful and charming grandson. But when I went to his Brit Milah and held him before and after the ceremony, I realized that I now had an additional job. It is not just about spoiling a grandchild, but I have to also teach him about my father, his great grandfather. Little Jonah will only know my father through the stories I will tell him about my father’s life.
I am blessed with many wonderful memories of my father. There is hardly a day that goes by that I don’t realize that something I have done is something he taught me as I grew; (not the bad jokes, those I learned from my brother). The way he conducted himself in synagogue, (he was NOT a rabbi), the way he conducted his business and the way he organized his life are all still vital parts of the way I live my life. As we say in Judaism, his live has been and continues to be a blessing to me.
So in addition to being a new grandparent, I get to also be a storyteller. This also came to mind as I conducted my Sedarim this year. You see the Haggada makes everyone into a storyteller. We get to tell the story of the Exodus and you get extra credit the more you elaborate on the story.
The late Rabbi David Hartman, one of the great modern philosophers who lived in Jerusalem, once wrote, “My parents bring me into contact with my historical roots, with my grandparents and a world other than me. Whether it is relevant, the child will decide; but the parent must witness to a history and a memory that is needed in order to realize that there is a dimension to existence beyond the self. People who learn to honor their parents escape the narcissism and acquire a memory. The parents are the feeders of history. Parents should not determine their children’s future, but they must open for them their past.”
One of the things that young people often dismiss is anything to do with the past. They roll their eyes at a time where there was no internet, no cell phones and no Twitter. They have no interest in a world that had only three television stations to be viewed on small analogue screens where you had to get up from your chair to change the channel. They are grateful that they don’t have teachers who write on chalkboards, expect students to do their own math problems and grade students on their penmanship.
We, of course know better. We know better for two reasons. One reason is that we know that no matter how much the world has changed, some things never change. Matters of character and emotions are relevant in every generation. Learning who to trust and when to be careful never changes. Cars may be filled today with technological wonders but the most important part of the car is still the nut behind the wheel.
We also know the importance of learning our family history because parts of it are no longer open to us. Our grandparents are gone and many of us have lost parents and siblings. How we wish we could tap into their experience and gather their advice one more time. There was a classic television commercial where a wide variety of people gave their advice to “Call your mother”. The final shot showed the late legendary college football coach, Bear Bryant holding a phone and saying, “Call your mother” and then he added with almost a tear in his eye, “I wish I could call mine.”
What would we say if we could have one more phone call with those we love? What would we give to Skype with them one more time, to see their smiling face and hear their voice and sample their wisdom; a wisdom we have come to appreciate even more now that they are gone. Would we ask a question that has long puzzled us? Would we ask one more question about their life? Would we show them pictures of our grandchildren? Would we tell them one more time how much we loved them?
Long ago I found a book that was supposed to help teach about death to young children. In the book the Grandfather was dying and the little child was upset to learn that she would no longer have wonderful conversations with her Grandfather. He said to her, “Yes you can, You talk and I will listen”
And that is why we are here today. We have told the story of the Exodus from Egypt and expounded on God’s role in saving our people so long ago. We have dedicated part of our holiday to God, affirming that we rely on God’s saving power and that God’s presence in our life is a source of awe and gratitude.
We have also recalled the stories of our own families who left homes far away and journeyed to this country seeking freedom and safety. We have taken part of our holiday to recall our own past and those who were so vital to making our lives what they are today. Today is Yizkor, we can’t leave this holiday without pausing to remember parents, siblings, a spouse or yes, for some of us to remember a child. There were empty places at our Seder table. There was family history that was missing. Today we pause to be grateful from what we learned from those we loved who are now gone.
And somewhere in this Yizkor service, we will not only say a prayer for their souls but we will also pause to share with them what is happening in our lives, to ask questions that require their presence and to tell them one more time how much we love them. We will speak and they will listen. We may cry, but their memory will be a comfort to us.
The tears we shed are not tears of mourners. They are the tears that come as we remember how much we miss their presence in our lives. And we will take comfort in the memories that we have; memories that they gave us when they were alive. Memories that still guide our lives even after many years.
And we will be renewed in our duties to transmit to the next generation the stories that will guide them in their moments of doubt, no matter if we are still among the living or not. As long as there is love in the world, there will be room for the story of our lives and children with whom we can share the love. May God help us understand the blessings of memory and give us the time and strength to share it with those who we love. As we all rise for our Yizkor service…
Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Tuesday, April 18, 2017.