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Shemini Atzeret 5783       October 17, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Hag Sameach

     After a series of important holidays, the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, where we look into every aspect of our lives and look for ways to improve the essence of who we are; after Sukkot the Harvest Festival, where we show our joy and gratitude for the bounties of nature and food security for the coming winter, we have Shemini Atzeret. Why do we have Shemini Atzeret? We really don’t know. It seems that there was some kind of a custom to take long holidays and add just one more day of sacrifice and celebration to mark the end of the sacred time. The Sages have several stories they tell as to why this holiday is so special, but the reality is that the meaning has been lost to history. Shemini Atzeret, and to a certain extent Shavuot, also called the Atzeret to Pesach coming not after seven days but seven weeks of the Omer, also has several stories that try to make the day relevant. It is always nice to have a holiday where we can gather with family and have a celebratory meal. It is also a chance to notice the empty chairs, the loved ones who once celebrated with us but who are now gone, to remember them and say a few prayers in their memory.

     Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie is not only a rabbi but an actor, artist, and promoter of social justice. You might expect that such a collection of activities would get him into a lot of trouble, and you would be right. He is not a pulpit rabbi; he created an organization called, “Lab Shul” where they try out different ways to pray and teach Judaism. Like many artists, some people are excited by what he experiments with in Judaism and some people can’t figure him out. I am kind of in between. Some things he does are amazing, and some are not my style.

     And yet he wrote a very moving essay for Jewels of Elul, a spiritual calendar to help us get ready for the Days of Awe. This is what he wrote: I inherited my father’s prayer shawl on the first day of Shiva, a few hours after we buried his body in Jerusalem. There it was, orphaned on the shelf in the living room, in its familiar blue velvet bag with his initials embroidered in faded gold Hebrew letters.

     I took out the woolen fabric, blue stripes, worn fringes and when I wrapped it around my face, I inhaled his smell. Sometimes I still can. From that day on I’ve been beginning each day with wrapping it around my shoulders just as he had done each morning until his last. A daily hug from the ancestors, the weight and love, the loss and hopes of generations. I whisper words added to the liturgy: ‘Boker Tov Abba’- Good morning, Father.’

      Seven years later my son came of age and on the eve of his Bar Mitzvah celebration we went to pick up the prayer shawl we had designed together. He had been sitting with me during my morning meditation routine, watching how I wrap and wear the shawl, witnessing the words I say.

     On his brand new Talit, my son surprised me - he had those same three words in Hebrew embroidered as a blessing to be wrapped around his shoulders. Boker Tov Abba. Hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder we wrap ourselves in memory, reclaim and reinvent the meaning of mornings, and mourning, and what it feels to be alive.”

     This is the second day of Yizkor this month. We all gathered on Yom Kippur to mark that holy day with the memories of those we love. With their death we forgave them all the petty infractions we frequently complained about and enter Yizkor with the prayer that they have forgiven us as well. It would not surprise me that there are many here who would give almost anything to be “annoyed” by their parents one more time.

     But Rabbi Lau-Lavie has us turn our memories into a different direction. How much of how we live our lives today reflects not only what we have learned from our parents and other loved ones, but how much of it stands on their shoulders? What actions do we take that we perform in memory of our parents? Think of all the times when we looked back on what was accomplished and said to ourselves, “Thanks Dad” or “Thanks Mom” for giving me the strength, for giving me the knowledge, for giving me the memory to help me through this part of my life.

     My father was a real estate broker, and he closed many real estate transactions. Some of them others had declared to be irrevocably impossible. And yet, my father never really considered any contract impossible, it was just a matter of finding the right compromises to seal the deal. Certainly, there were plenty of buyers and sellers who walked away from a closing, but my father always believed that given more time and patience, the deal could be closed.

     To this day, when I hear the words, “that’s impossible” I take it as a personal challenge. I puzzle over the issues; I think about the people involved; I look to see what a final resolution could look like. I don’t sell real estate, but I still work with people with strong feelings and strong emotions. Every time I find a solution to an impossible situation, I look at my father’s picture in my office and say, “Thanks Dad.”

     My parents were always proud of their children. They took great pride in our accomplishments partly because their own lives were so limited by the Great Depression and their own family difficulties. And if they loved their children, you should have seen how proud they were of their nine grandchildren. I think you can understand that. Who here has grandchildren that are not the most wonderful grandchildren in the world? I really am not bragging, but I have to share that a week ago, President Biden held a Rosh Hashana ceremony in the White House. My daughter, Ashira, who is now the second highest ranking executive in Conservative Judaism, was invited to the White House to be a guest at this ceremony. Look, I’m proud of all my children and all their accomplishments. But I looked at my parent’s picture in my office and said, “Did you ever think that one of your grandchildren would be invited to the White House?”

     All of us have pictures of those we love in a place where we can see them often. All of us have reminders of their lives that sit in prominent but private parts of our homes or offices. And I am sure that, from time to time, we look at the picture, pick up the reminder and offer words of gratitude and love. We say it all the time but for those of us who have suffered a loss, we understand, our loved ones are not really gone at all. Our love for them and their love for us still fills our lives and still fills our hearts with gratitude.

     And if we are really lucky, one of our children has seen the love that still lights up our hearts and has let that light into their heart as well. No two lives are exactly the same and we pass on the wisdom of our ancestors in many different ways. But sometimes, there is a direct connection, and we understand that this is not just a connection in a family, but an heirloom of love that we have passed on to those who will live on after we are gone.

     There are physical heirlooms in every house. Most of the chachkas on our shelves at home are really just reminders that Michelle and I have kept from favorite moments in our lives. They will have no meaning at all for our children. But among the clutter are some that have greater meaning. My bar mitzvah kiddush cup is there. So are the candlesticks of Michelle’s grandmother. My own mother’s Shabbat candlesticks are already being used by one of my children. It lights up my heart to see it in use.

     But even more than that, to see my children appreciate what they learned from their grandparents, is even more exciting. They sometimes ask me to help them understand better the lessons they learned. “What did Safta mean when she said this?” “Do you think that your father would understand what decision we have made?” “After all, there is a family tradition that we have to carry on.” There is no doubt in my mind that my children have their grandparents all figured out and the lives of those who are now gone live on not just in my heart but in theirs as well.

     These are only my examples. I am sure that each of us have many examples in our lives of how love has been transferred from generation to generation. There are some of us who already have children who have thanked us for the lessons we taught them. In fact, some of those lessons we thought were trivial and long forgotten have stayed strong in our children and grandchildren. Sometimes they surprise us with a memory that goes so far back we actually think, “I really said that??”

     We are here, for the second time this month for Yizkor. Not as many people come out for this second, less remembered holiday. And it just may be that we are here because we remember our parents used to be here on Shemini Atzeret and we honor them by remembering their dedication and their attendance on this holiday. But we just don’t follow in the footsteps of loved ones out of a sense of habit. We don’t follow their example because we have nothing better to do. We remember them and we remember our love for them and how that love shined through when they practiced their faith, when they taught their families, and we remember them in the way they always looked for more ways to share their love with us.

     Yizkor is our way to say “Thank you” for all that you have given us. “Thank you” for all the examples that still guide our lives. This service is one of gratitude for the lives we live and that we modeled after their own lives. Yes, we may shed a tear or two. Tears are the way we show our love, the love that has never ended. And in their memory, we ask God to remember them as well, and to protect their souls under God’s own divine shadow.

     Let us rise at this time for Yizkor - to say, “Thanks Abba” Thanks Dad, Thanks Mom, Thanks to all our relatives who taught us the lessons that still guide our lives.       

Tue, November 29 2022 5 Kislev 5783