We certainly live in a world that is in need of redemption. We look to God, sometimes multiple times a day, to help us bring some kind of order and justice to the world. The Sages of the Talmud also looked for ways that ordinary people could act that would be of great help in making the world a better place.
In Massechet Megilla 13a Rabbi Eliezer says in the name of Rabbi Chanina, “One who teaches Torah in the name of the one who said it hastens the redemption of the world.” This is a maxim of the Talmud that every Rabbi is taught almost from the first day we arrive at Rabbinical School. Whenever we learn a lesson, when we teach it to others, we need to mention the name of the teacher who taught it to us.
I can also add here, that anyone who teaches at a University in this country, is also required to attribute every quote used in a term paper. To forget this important action, to quote a teaching without attribution, is to be guilty of plagiarism. It is a form of stealing an idea from someone else and trying to pass it off as one’s own thought. It is a cardinal sin in the University setting, just as stealing merchandise is a criminal activity and infringing on a copywrite is also against the law.
But the Talmud goes a step further than just making plagiarism a sin. It teaches us that speaking the name of your teacher is a way in which we bring about the redemption of the world. Rabbi Chanina must have something more important in mind than mentioning a teacher. Perhaps we need to look at this Mitzvah of attribution to see why it has such cosmic relevance.
Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, of Hebrew Union College, notes that mentioning a teacher causes us to reflect on where we learned a particular lesson. Sometimes we teach the same lesson so many times over and over again that we forget where we learned it and who taught it to us. The first problem here is that we may be remembering the lesson in a faulty way over time, letting ourselves slip into error by citing the lesson incorrectly. If we remember where and when we learned that lesson, we will also remember the details of what we learned to keep the lesson free from mistakes. Second we can forget who taught us and begin to think that we thought of this matter on our own and forget to give credit for the one who first taught the idea. We thus can forget all the teachers who have taught us important lessons in life. When we remember them and the impact that they had in our lives, we figuratively join hands with them in their quest to make the world a better place.
But Rabbi Olitzky goes one step further. If we wish to bring about the redemption of the world, we not only have to remember everyone who ever taught us a lesson, but as we reflect on our lives at the beginning or the end of a year, we need to go back and find that teacher, no matter if it is a school teacher, a colleague or a store clerk that said something we thought was important; we need to find that person and thank them for the change they have made in our lives. In this way others will turn and thank their teachers. Our example of gratitude will thus become a model for others to follow and when they follow our example, over a period of time, can change a community and bring about the redemption of the world.
Learning is thus an interactive activity. We receive and we give back in return. We pass on learning and we are grateful to our teachers, no matter their personal station in life. We can learn from everyone and through our gratitude, they can also learn from us.
There are people who think that Yizkor is about death, that it is a sad time in the service as we reflect on people we loved who have died. Funerals are such sad times because the pain of loss is real and immediate. Joyful holidays can become sad when we sit at our festive table and notice that there is an empty seat where once a parent, a sibling, a spouse or a child once sat. The pain of loss can strike at almost any time. I once knew a woman whose father was a graphic artist. After her father died, she could not look at a gum eraser without bursting into tears. All of us who have lost someone we love, even if the death was long ago, can point to triggers, a special song, a special color, a certain park around the corner, that remind us of who we have lost and that sadness can bring another tear to our eyes.
But Yizkor is different. Yizkor is not about the sad memories, it is a celebration of the lessons we learned through the lives we remember this day. Our character, our nature, the very essence of who we are, all this is due to the memories of the special moments spent with those whom we loved. In many ways, we point to our own lives and say, “My father made me into the person I am today,” “All that I have become I owe to what I learned from my mother.” “I have accomplished great things because of the support of my spouse, or my sister who believed in me when I had doubts.”
We are here today to affirm the lessons of life that we have learned and to acknowledge the names of the people who taught us those lessons. Our loved ones may not have their names in the footnotes of a book but their names are engraved in the footnotes of our lives. This service gives us the chance to recall the names of the teachers who have guided our lives, and who’s lessons continue to guide us long after the teacher is gone.
And if we are serious about what we have learned, we will use this time to pause and be grateful to them for having taken the time and made the effort out of their great love for us, to teach us what we needed to know about life so that we could be successful in all that we do. By keeping their memory alive, by teaching others in their name, we can bring about change in our family and in our community and bring about the redemption of the world.
Holidays come to an end. Sacred time, in the end gives way to secular time. Joyous celebration eventually returns to the mundane activities of living our lives. But each time we remember a teaching and remember the loved one who first brought that lesson into our lives, each time we attach their name to what we do and then offer a prayer of gratitude, we are not only affirming their love, but we are actively bringing about the better world of their and our dreams.
Yizkor, remember, to mention in each lesson of life, the name of the teacher, and so bring about redemption. May God bless the memories that we recall this day as we say … Amen and Hag Sameach
Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Thursday, October 12, 2017