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Bamidbar: Shavuot.  June 8, 2019

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Hag Sameach

There is a very interesting explanation about parshat Bamidbar, the parsha read a couple of days ago. There is a small repetition in the text, when the People of Israel are instructed on how they should march in the desert on their way to the Promised Land. The Torah tells us that God commanded each tribe to set up camp around the flag and the sign of their ancestral family. In the Tanchuma, the very last of the Midrashim, on Parsha, Bamidbar, it says: “The verse only needed to say “Each person shall camp by his flag.” What does it teach by adding, “with signs”? When the time came for the patriarch Yaakov to die, he instructed his children, “Judah, Issachar and Zebulun, you will carry my coffin from the East: Reuben, Shimon and Gad will carry it from the South: Dan, Asher and Naftali will carry it from the North and Benjamin, Ephraim and Menashe will carry it from the West. And if you follow my instructions, the Holy, Blessed, One will establish you flag by flag.”

When Israel left Egypt, the Holy, Blessed One said to Moses, Configure the camp according to their flags for me. Immediately Moses became distressed, saying, “Now there will be strife among the tribes! If I tell Judah to camp in the East, he will say to me that he wants to camp in the South. And similarly, for every tribe!” The Holy, Blessed One said to Moses, “Moses, this is nothing you need to be concerned about. They do not need you in this matter. They will recognize their place in the camp on their own. Why? Because the will of their father is in their hands instructing them how to fix their flags. … They will surround the Mishkan in the same way they once surrounded the coffin of their father.”

If we know anything about our ancestors, when they were in the desert on their way to the Promised Land, we know that they were a contentious lot. The Israelites LOVED to complain. [Of course, in our modern world Jews NEVER complain anymore, right??] When God commands Moses to assign each tribe a place in the camp around the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that was at the heart of the camp, Moses was sure that each tribe would complain that they wanted to be on some other side of the camp and they would argue and complain about the assignments that Moses gave them.  Who can blame Moses for thinking in this way? In fact, we are the ones who should be surprised that Moses makes the assignments for each tribe and there is not one word of complaint or concern. Each tribe goes quietly to the place they are given.

What Moses does not know is that they have had these assignments once before and they are not new at all. Jacob, the patriarch once gave them these assignments and they obeyed their father. Now they will follow Moses because they understand that each tribe’s assignment is based on ancient precedent. Rabbi Dena Weiss of Machon Hadar writes, “Bene Yisrael won’t complain about the not-new, because what they are looking for is not-new. After having lived at the whim of the Egyptians, even living at the whim of God’s pillar of cloud is destabilizing. In the ownerless wilderness, what Bene Yisrael want most is something that feels inherited, ancestral and theirs. God is telling Moshe, ‘I am being sensitive to their needs by fixing them somewhere. I’m giving them a sense of permanence and a sense of belonging. This will feel familiar and therefore they will be happy with it.’”

Each day we are all called upon to make difficult decisions; decisions that will affect the future course of our life, our children’s lives, our grandchildren’s lives. Sometime the decisions seem easy; should I buy the red shirt or the blue shirt? Other times the decisions are harder; should I change jobs or stay at this one? Should I retire or go on working? And there are the decisions that are almost impossible; she has been sick for so long, perhaps we should stop the machines and let her die? Does my life have meaning or not?

And yet, through all the decisions, large and small, there is a certain familiarity that sits in the back of our minds that keeps our lives from spinning out of control; that bit of familiarity that comes from our family. From the examples left to us from parents, from siblings and from a spouse who may be gone from this world but whose influence continues to guide our lives. We often know what we should do in many situations because we watched those who came before us make identical or similar decisions and so we know what is expected of us as the descendants of our ancestors.

We learned how to care for aging parents by watching how our parents cared for their parents. Our children will learn what they will one day do for us by watching how we care for our parents. Someone once said that as long as someone who is alive remembers the dead, then the memory of that life cannot die. I don’t think that this is entirely true. As long as someone remembers what was taught in a previous generation, even if they don’t know that what they do has been handed down for hundreds of years, as long as the teaching is remembered, the teacher lives on.

This is certainly why we are here for Yizkor today. We can think back over the lives we remember and know that this is what our loved ones did for those that they remembered. Therefore, it feels right to be here, to say the prayers that have been recited for generations. Yizkor is less about being religious than it is about being true to our memories. This is not just about the love we have for our parents either. It is just as important to recite the prayers of Yizkor for other family members even if the only reason is that if you would have died first, they would be saying these prayers for you.

Just like Jacob told his children where to stand at his funeral, so too do our ancestors tell us where to stand when the time to remember comes around. God is making permanent the lessons we learned so long ago at the side of those who have now died. We carry these lessons with pride, and they help direct the path of our life every day we are alive.

I am aware that for some people such memories are a burden. Sometimes people wish they could be free of their memories. Sometimes the memories are filled with hurt and pain. Sometimes the memories are dark and fearful. Sometimes we have been assigned a responsibility from the past that we wish we would no longer have to carry.

And yet, my colleague, Rabbi Noah Farkas from Los Angeles says, “There is no encounter with another human being that does not have a spiritual element. Every encounter is freighted with the presence that rests between you. In every conversation you have there is more at stake than just what is being said, there is more than the message and the messenger. There between two souls rests eternity. God and we are interlaced, and we cannot talk about one without referencing the other.”

What drives our memories is that in each encounter we remember this day, we also find a spark of divinity. It is not just the voices of our ancestors from the past that calls us, it is also the voice of God that brings us here. Yizkor does not just feel right because we know that our parents recited it for their parents. Yizkor is our answer to the call from the past. Memories of those who are gone call us, and in that call we understand what God has been trying to tell us for our whole lives. In this call is the call to do what is right and good, the call do build up that which has been torn now. The call to take the tools our ancestors gave us and build something even better in our lives, something beyond what our loved ones could have dreamed to do in their own lives.

If we feel that our lives have become heavy and stuffy. If we look at what we are doing and realize that the dreams we once had have been extinguished by things we needed to do. If we find that we are unhappy with all that our lives have turned into, then the call of the past is also a call to the future. The message from the past is not one that keeps us away from the possibilities of the future. These memories are what remind us of who we are and where we have always wanted to go. The voice of the infinite One, the Holy, Blessed One, is there in the relationships we remember and can give us the faith and courage to go back and make all of our dreams come true.

Rabbi Farkas writes, “A holy life … is not a perfect life. It’s not a richer life. It is not a more glamorous life. A holy life is a free life. Free to wonder, Free from oppression, Free to mess up, Free to be you.”

Let us not use this time of memory to try and be like those who have gone before us. Let us aspire to grow our lives beyond their memories. We may know where to march because of the lessons of our ancestors, but we still must point our feet toward the promised land. This is what the call of their memory means. Not just to carry their memory, but to carry it forward to where God wants us to go.

We have received the Torah on this day which is the roadmap of our lives. We have touched the memories of loved ones to know that the future is not a wilderness but a place that is familiar to us, a place they once walked and a place they taught us how to navigate. And this day we renew our commitment to building the better world, the promised land, the place where we can be free to bring blessings to our families and to others. And we walk in a place that one day we will bequeath to our children and grandchildren, a place where they will know that even they can dare to dream.

Let us rise for our Yizkor service to hear again the voices of those we love in the still small voice of God, the voice of hope, of peace and of love. As we say… Amen and Hag Sameach

We rise at this time for Yizkor.



Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, June 8, 2019.

Mon, August 3 2020 13 Av 5780