Gemar Tov – may we have a good finish to our fasting this day.
Yizkor, – Memory, this is the service of memory for those who have died. The very word Yizkor can bring Jews back to the synagogue when all other reasons for return are forgotten. When I was a child my Rabbi told a story about a man who complained that every time he came to shul, the Rabbi was asking for money. The Rabbi replied, maybe you ought to come to shul on days other than Yizkor. Why not try Simchat Torah, Purim, Shabbat, the happy days of the calendar? And we don’t ask for money either.
Every year at this time we read in the news about Jews complaining that they need a ticket to attend on the holidays. Most of the time tickets are for security or logistical reasons. The shul is open for free 362 days a year. On every other day, you don’t have to pay to pray. Trains are allowed to charge more for peak periods during rush hour. If you don’t want to pay the extra fare, why not travel during non-peak hours? If you don’t want to buy a ticket to the synagogue, why not attend shul when there are no tickets and plenty of empty seats?
Yizkor – Memory. I got a call from a member who was on my list to check in with because of an illness. He told me to stop calling him. He knew that I was calling because I was concerned for his health and his welfare but the calls reminded him that he was sick and he wanted to forget. And yet, I reasoned with him, who wants to be forgotten? Especially when one is ill?
Yizkor – Memory. I have a colleague, a Rabbi who told me that he does not visit his members when they are in the hospital. His brother died of cancer in a hospital and whenever he is in a hospital, he remembers the painful, lingering death of his brother so he does not go to hospitals anymore. I am glad that I am not him. My father and brother died in hospitals as have many of my friends, but I have seen many miracles in hospitals and many people I know were cured of severe injuries and sicknesses in hospitals. I visit them and I bring my patients blankets from our Knit and Kvetch group. I look to help make every outcome a happy one when people are in the hospital.
Yizkor-Memory. What is procrastination but people trying to forget what they know they should do. As if forgetting might give them a reason for not getting it done.
Yizkor-Memory. Sure, we would love to forget our sins at this time of year but if we forget them how can we ask others for forgiveness? It is easy when we have a big sin that needs forgiving, we can find the person we have harmed and tell them that we regret what we have done. But when our lives are filled with small sins, sins easily forgotten, how can we hope to find all the people hurt by our actions to ask to be forgiven?
My philosophy professor in Rabbinical School, Dr. Neil Gilman has written in his book, Traces of God: “We have to remember that everything we say about God is taken from our own human experience. … That is why on Rosh Hashana, we need to tell God precisely what it is that we want God to remember. What we are jogging is not God’s memory overall but rather the selective dimension of God’s memories. We want God to forget some things – the rough spots – and to remember only the golden years. There is a delightful irony to the liturgist’s including Jeremiah 2:2 in the list of God’s memories. It is about how God remembered our ancestors as they travelled across the desert to the Promised Land. The writer of our Machzor knew full well that the verse distorts what really happened in those desert years. That’s precisely why he put it there. Indeed, the entire list is selective; it deals only with happy memories. The last thing we need, on this day above all, is for God to recall the problematic ones.”
In the Zichronot service we recall the time God remembers Noah in the Ark, not the reason for the flood, but God’s compassion for those tossed about by the storm. We recall the time God remembers our ancestors when they were slaves in Egypt, not the sins of our patriarchs but the suffering we endured in God’s name and how it aroused compassion in God. We recall the exile in Babylonia. We don’t ask God to remember why we were exiled; God knows why we were in Babylonia, but we want God to remember the compassion God felt for our exiled people when God returned them to our land in Israel.
Yizkor is not about bad or difficult memories. We are here to remember the joy of life when we were with our loved ones. We are not here to remember the pain and grief of their death. The bad times we quickly forget and in our nostalgia, we recall only the happy and warm days when we were together. We remember lessons of life we learned from those who are in our memories, and the painful moments are no longer needed.
Yizkor – Memory: Many of you know that I practice Mindful Meditation. It is a spiritual practice that helps me live mindfully, instead of mindlessly. I am training myself to be mindful of all the experiences I encounter. I have learned that most things that happen in life are neither good nor bad. That life is filled with experiences that make me comfortable, uncomfortable or they are neutral. Mindfulness reminds us of the transitory aspect of life. Nothing is forever. Good and bad moments arise and fall and are gone. This is important to remember. I have learned that we should not get too attached to any one thing that happens in life because it will come and it will go, as the Rabbis teach, Gam Zeh Ya-avor – This too shall pass. There are times we will feel happy and times we will feel sad, but both times will come and go, and we have to be ready for what will come next. In the end, we just have to remember to appreciate what we have when we have it knowing that it will someday be gone.
In the movie and the play, The Lion King, the father reminds the son to “never forget who you are”. The story is about how the young lion learns to remember his noble heritage. The Hasidic Sage, Rabbi Shlomo of Karin teaches, “What is the worst thing that the Yetzer HaRah, the evil inclination, can do to us? When it makes a person forget that we are the children of a king.” We are children of a king, the King of all Kings, we are children of God, and our lives are infused with divinity. And yet … We get so bogged down in the details of life, so put down by our failures and our disappointments, that we forget that we are children of a king, that nothing can keep us down forever. Why is dementia the most feared disease? Because it robs us of the memories of our past, our heritage, of the loves and joy of life. Yizkor can be or maybe should be, the time we remember our heritage, when we remember “Who we are”.
Nahum Sarna, in his commentary of Exodus 2:24 writes, “The Hebrew root, z-k-r connotes much more than a recall of things past. It means, rather, to be mindful, to pay heed, signifying a sharp focusing of attention upon someone or something. It embraces concern and involvement and is active not passive, so that it eventuates in action. As (the Talmud in massechet) Menahot has it; “Looking upon” leads to “remembering”, and “remembering” leads to “action.”
Yizkor – Memory: Our question is not as much as what we are remembering today, it is also about what we are going to do with our memories. What action will it lead us to? Do we just sit and cry over our memories of the past, or will they lead us to make changes in our lives to make life better for us, for our family and for the world?
It has been a long time since I have seen people so despondent over what is happening in the world. We are on the brink of war with North Korea of all places. We have endured floods as close as Texas and as far away a Mumbai that have killed hundreds of people. People in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are suffering severe deprivation after the destruction left by a hurricane and Mexico City is struggling to clean up after a deadly earthquake. The Rohingya are being forced from their homes in Thailand and they have endured violence, hunger and hardship as they escape to Bangladesh. Refugees from Syria languish in refugee camps. Hatred against Immigrants, Jews, Arabs and Blacks seem to be in almost every city. Climate change is bringing severe weather and yet people don’t want to hear what they may need to do to reverse the danger. We are looking for solutions and the solutions are hard to find.
Israel too is engaged in an ongoing debate that traces its roots back to the Six Day War that was fought 50 years ago. Do we exchange land for peace? Do we have a partner for peace? If we can’t negotiate a two-state solution will that be the end of Israel as a Jewish and Democratic country? If Israel is not built on an ethical foundation it will become a pariah among the other nations. But the danger of a Hamas run territory on the hills overlooking Tel Aviv is a real danger. These are all not easy questions to answer. In Israel, the left and the right can be found literally shouting at each other on the television talk shows. There is a lot of heat and flame but not much progress in the way of solutions.
We get caught up in the arguments to solve the world’s problems between the right and the left. Both sides have essential truths that can help us face the world and all that is happening in it. What we have to remember on this day is that a crisis is not about choosing sides. Yossi Klein Halevy, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute wrote recently, “This is why … I define myself as a centrist.. … My point … is to advocate the center as a sensibility. Whatever one’s politics, a centrist sensibility requires profound grappling with the commitments and fears of the other camp. The goal of this process isn’t to necessarily change one’s politics, but to soften them, the challenge of a centrist sensibility isn’t ultimately political but spiritual, an invitation to humility.” A bit of humility would help us turn to our collective memories to learn the lessons we need to help us find our way to a better future.
Spirituality does not solve problems, but it reminds us to have hope. Spirituality does not have all the answers, but it creates the conditions to help us work through the problems. If we forget that we are children of the King, then we can only despair. If we remember “who we are” then we can begin to find our way forward.
Yizkor – Memory. Can we remember when we were teenagers and we were so sure that we were right and our parents were wrong; that we had the answer and our parents were clueless? Can we remember when our children were teenagers and they were so sure that they had all the answers and that we were clueless? Humility would tell us to go to our parents and apologize for our brash behavior. And they would tell us that they understand, that they were teens once. They learned from their parents as we have learned from ours.
We are here today to face our memories of our parents and our memories of the other people in our life that we loved. Not just because we miss them but because the lessons of their lives can become the way forward in our lives. We are very foolish if we think that our lives are so different from our parents’ lives that they have nothing to say to help us in our hours of confusion and insecurity. I was lucky enough to be able to consult my mother when I found myself so unhappy with the results of the last election. At 97 years old, she replied to my anger and frustration by dismissing me with, “It is only for a few years, and then things will change”. Gam Zeh Ya-avor – This too shall pass. Life goes on, the world goes on, the sun rises and sets each day. Problems come and then they go, new problems arise, and then they are gone.
Yizkor – Memory, don’t try and forget. It is in our forgetfulness that causes our minds to lose our focus on what we need to do. It allows our minds to wander away when we need to find real solutions. It allows us to forget our humanity and our humility as we struggle with the difficulties of life. We have to remember who we are, the many golden moments and the many awful mistakes. We need to remember what God wants us to do in the face of the rough patches in life. The prophet Micha told us long ago what we need to do to keep our lives in focus, We need: “To do Justice, to love Mercy and to walk humbly with God.
Let us see past all the sound and fury. As Shakespeare says, “it signifies nothing.” Let us be mindful of where we are, let us remember who we are and may our memories inspire us to action, the kind of action that can change the world. We don’t forget mistakes, we use them to learn lessons of living, we use them to make better decisions, we use our mistakes to judge ourselves if we are living up to our dreams and hopes for the future. Let us remember also that we can be better. That there is a touch of the divine in each of us. Let us put our memory to good use, to humbly point the way forward in life.
As we approach the time of Yizkor, As we approach the hour given over to our memories, May God be with us, guiding us, to find our way through the clouds and fog that keeps us lost and confused. May God help us to always rise above the darkness and help us find our way back to the bright sunlight where past and future meet as we say … Amen and Gemar Tov.
Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, September 30, 2017.