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Crafting Your Legacy: Kol Nidre 5776 - September 22, 2018

Rabbi Richard Plavin

People see things from their own perspective. If you are a habadasher, you look at someone and size up the kind of suit they are wearing. A psychologist will look at your body language speculate on what kind of relationship you had with your mother. A plastic surgeon will consider how great you could look if only she could get you into the operating room.

Now, I have to tell you something I hope doesn’t make you too uncomfortable. I think about eulogies. It’s a terrible reality that in my particular vocation, I often get to know people when it’s too late. Just when I find out that this is the kind of guy I’d like to spend some time with, he is no longer in a position to spend time with anyone.

This has been quite a year for eulogies - the deaths of Oliver Sacks, Mario Cuomo, Leonard Nimoy and Beau Biden immediately come to mind. These people well deserved all that was said about them. And in our own congregation we’ve lost stalwarts who were taken too soon and dear friends who suffered for too long.

We have all heard eulogies; too many in too short a time. What goes through your mind when you listen to a loved one or a business associate eulogized by the rabbi? Of course, one possibility is that you think, “Boy did they sell that rabbi a bill of goods. Harry should have been half the man the rabbi is describing.” There is an often told story about a large mortuary in New York where multiple funeral services are conducted each day, much like movies in the multiscreen theatres. A widow and her son came to attend the service for their recently deceased loved one. After listening to the hired rabbi heap words of praise on the deceased, the woman turned to her son and said, “Go out and check the board again. Are we in the right chapel?”

But another possibility looms large. Perhaps you are thinking, as I often do: What are they going to say about me? What will my family tell the rabbi when it’s my turn to be in the front of the room, in a horizontal position - not standing on the bima?

The word eulogy means ‘words of praise.’ So it was not incorrect, at a recent board meeting, when one of our vice presidents said, “It’s difficult to eulogize a rabbi when he is about to retire.” I was a little taken aback by his choice of words, but it certainly focused my thoughts. 

How will you be eulogized? I don’t mean to be grim as we start a new year, but its a worthwhile question to give at least a few minutes consideration, and what could be a better time than this season of chesbon hanefesh, spiritual accounting and soul searching.

We all know the famous story about Mark Twain, who saw his obituary in the newspaper and quickly called the editor to say, “Rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated.” I wonder if he also considered the content of that obituary? Was he satisfied with the newspaper’s summary of his life?

Alfred Nobel, who won his fortune as the inventor of dynamite, had an experience similar to Twain’s and did take it as an opportunity for change. When his brother died, a Swiss newspaper made an error and printed the obituary for the wrong man, which they already had on file. It started out, "Alfred Nobel, who invented a way to kill more people faster than anyone in history, died yesterday a wealthy man." When Nobel read that report, he said, "That's not how I want to be remembered." With that, he established the Nobel prizes in various fields and devoted his entire fortune to funding them. Today, everybody associates him with the prizes celebrating the betterment of humanity and scarcely anyone remembers him as the inventor of dynamite.

Few of us, thankfully, have had such an experience as an impetus for life change. But there should be some catalyst, because to never change, is to die before your time. A sage once said, “Even if you are on the right track, if you just stand still, you are going to get run over.” Stephen Covey, who wrote Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, refers to such experiences as ‘wake up calls.’ He writes, “In the absence of such wake up calls, many of us never really confront the critical issues of life. Instead of looking for deep chronic causes, we look for quick fix Band-Aids and aspirin to treat the acute pain. Fortified by temporary relief, we get busier and busier doing (quote) “good” things and never even stop to ask ourselves if what we’re doing really matters.”

Friends, these holy days are a time for you and for me to stop and ask that question.

Sometimes the wakeup call can be a vision of what we are becoming.  Rabbi Harold Kushner called that “The Schindler Paradigm.” Oscar Schindler recognized himself as a hedonist who disregarded the feelings of other people. He saw that he had become a part of the Nazi destruction machine, and he recoiled in horror. That vision changed his life.

My teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, alav HaShalom, told this story. Once there was a man who was very forgetful. When he woke up in the morning, he could never remember where he had put his things the night before. One night, he worked out a plan. He took a pencil and a pad, and as he got undressed, he wrote down exactly where he put his clothes. Then, the next morning, when he woke up, he took the piece of paper and read the list. “My cap is on the dresser,” He went over to the dresser, and sure enough, there it was. So he put it on, and made a checkmark on the pad of paper. Then he looked at the paper again. It said, "My pants are on the chair," and so he went to the chair, and there they were. Then he looked at the paper again, and it said, "My shirt is on the table," so he went to the table, and there it was. And so it went until he was fully dressed, at which point he said, "This is fine . . . but where am I?"  He looked and he looked, but he could not find himself.  

This is the season for trying to find ourselves, for considering where we are and where our lives are going. For thinking about the very difficult and perhaps painful question: How will I be remembered?

This past April we had a most inspiring speaker for our annual Sandals Lecture. Rabbi Daniel Cohen of Stamford spoke to us about the book he just published, “What Will They Say About You When You Are Gone? Seven Principles for Reverse Engineering Your Life.” The book discusses tactics for living an ideal life, the type that would make you smile reading your own obituary. Don’t you wish you could be there to enjoy your eulogy?

Let me share a little personal story. My father-in-law, whom many of you knew and loved, Rabbi Jeshaia Schnitzer, was a saintly man. He died in our living room just short of 16 years ago. When it became apparent that his end was near, his family traveled here from far and wide to say their final goodbye. His sister Rosie came up from Wilmington, Delaware. In the course of their conversation she told him how lucky he was since unlike plain folk like her, he had been the honored guest at many tribute dinners and had heard many laudatory speeches about his accomplishments. She might get a talk like that at her funeral, but it would be too late for her to enjoy it. Hearing that, Rabbi Schnitzer jolted up with a sudden surge of strength, put his arm around his sister, and said, “Rosie Harad, here is your eulogy.” He went on to regale her with accolades and praise for her upstanding life as a Jewish wife, mother and caregiver extraordinaire. That was really something to behold.

Not everyone has a brother with that talent, and very few of us are celebrities. The paparazzi don’t loiter at the door of BSBI when the holiday services let out. By and large, we are plain folk, but each of us can be a hero. The deeds that we perform in this world are often of a valiant nature, and if they are not recognized in the press, we can feel secure in the knowledge that they are recognized on High. In our prayers we say of God, “Ke zocher ha nishkachot atah.” “For You recall that which is forgotten.” Nothing goes unnoticed by the Almighty, and it is God who will write our ultimate obituary.

The real question we must ask ourselves is not about notoriety or fame but rather is how many moral gold medals did we earn. Many of us here have performed significant deeds of kindness toward parents. Others have sacrificed mightily for children. Many have gone out of their way to do deeds of Chesed - loving kindness - by visiting the sick, or driving someone for a doctor’s appointment or a cancer treatment, or comforting the bereaved.

But we know that we have also fallen short; where have we failed to take into account the emotions of others; where have we spoken too quickly, hurting someone’ feelings or damaging their reputation? When have we been in too much of a hurry, not listening to the friend who really needed to unburden her heart? How many of us gave a gift to tzedakah, and truly could have given much more? Who among us was asked to take a position of leadership in the synagogue, and said that there were too many other responsibilities, that someone else should do it.

Dr. Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist who was a Holocaust survivor, wrote that the only meaning he could find in his existence in the concentration camp was in reaching out to help his fellow prisoners. This is how he said it: “We had to learn ourselves, and furthermore we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life but instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life, daily and hourly.”

There are people in the world today suffering unspeakable tribulations. I hope there are among them people as wise and caring as Viktor Frankl. While we may not be facing that kind of suffering, the Frankl approach can be applied to any life, since every life has its challenges day in and day out.

Let me tell you about another Fraenkel from whom we can all learn an amazing lesson about survival. I am referring to Rachelle Frankel, a Jewish mother that very few people heard of before last summer. I am sure you recall the terrible time the people of Israel and the Jews of the world suffered when Eyal, Gilad and Naftali, three teenagers on there their way home from school for Shabbat were kidnapped in Gush Etzion, the area just south of Jerusalem. The search for the boys was intense, but ultimately they were found to have been murdered. Rachel Frankel, Naftali’s mother, became a spiritual hero. I heard her speak toward the end of last summer, just two months after her son was killed and a few days before Rosh Hashanah. She referred to the day immediately following the kidnapping while the search was under way. She said it was an amazing time, that people from all over the world, from Capetown to Katmandu, demonstrated on behalf of the boys and sent messages of love to the stricken families. They said, ‘they aren’t just your boys; they are our boys as well.’ She quoted the Biblical question that Cain poses, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and said that the strong response from the Jewish world to that question was “Yes, we are our brothers’ keepers.” She suggested that our response to that tragedy last summer should be this: every person should choose an act of Chesed, of kindness, and perform it in memory of these boys. She concluded, “We went out looking for the boys, and we found ourselves.” I was in utter awe as I witnessed her strength of character in the face of sorrow that would have crushed most parents.

From Viktor Frankl in the concentration camps to Rachel Frankel in the Gush, we can learn lessons about survival in the worst of circumstances, and finding ultimate meaning in life.

Each of us has the power to find meaning in our lives, and in so doing, affect the lives of others. But we do even more than that. In undertaking to change our lives for the better, we take a hand in writing our eulogies. And lest you think I am being morose, let me remind you that in truth, eulogies are not about death. They are about life. Indeed, when we write a line in our Sefer Hachayim, our Book of LIfe, we are creating a footnote for our own eulogies. The text in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer says it clearly. “V’yad kol adam chotem bo.” “The hand of each person writes in that book.”

When do we begin this worthwhile task? My suggestion would be ‘yesterday.’ But short of that, how about right now? Years ago, before we used this wonderful Machzor, we had a booklet of contemporary readings. One of those reading was called “We Wait Too Long.”

“We wait too long to do what must be done today, in a world which gives us only one day at a time, without any assurance of tomorrow. We frequently lament that our days are so few; and yet, we procrastinate as though we had an endless supply of time.”

It goes on:

  • “We wait too long to show kindness. And often we thereby lose the opportunity. How many lines of thanks or encouragement are waiting for us to be written? How many words of solace are waiting for us to be spoken? We wait too long to be charitable. Too much of our giving is delayed until much of the need has passed and the joy of giving has been largely diminished.”
  • That reference to doing kindness brings to mind a suggestion by a college professor in California, Chuck Wall, that we commit “random acts of senseless kindness.” He gives some specific suggestions.
  • Write a note of appreciation to a teacher, secretary, nurse, custodian.... or just about anyone who usually goes unnoticed or is taken for granted.

I know a family whose parents died at the Hebrew Home after years of illness. Following the Shiva, the brothers went to the home and stopped to see each of the people who had in any way served their parents - the cleaning people, the nurses, the food service help, the physical therapists, everyone - and told them how much they appreciate what they did for their parents, and gave each of them a generous gift. That is the kind of kindness Chuck Wall was suggesting.

And his list goes on.

  • Help an elderly neighbor with grocery shopping.
  • Tell a cab or bus driver how much you appreciate the ride.
  • Take flowers to a shut in.
  • Leave a fresh wrapped bagel in the mailbox for your mailperson - no stamp necessary.
  • Drop off some cookies at the fire station.
  • Pay the toll for the person behind you on the highway.
  • Let the other driver have the parking space.
  • These were Chuck Wall’s suggestions. I have a few of my own.
  • Take on one more night a month for Jewry Duty, not because we need you for a minyan, but because minyan can mean something to you.
  • Find a shortcoming in the life of this congregation and do something about it.
  • Form a committee and make this an even better congregation. Do you think we should have more social programming? Do it. Do you think our dues are too high? Get a group together a run another fundraiser, or help us find new members.

Our tradition tells us that no mitzvah is unimportant. The smallest deed can profoundly affect the course of history. In the coming year, try one of these suggestions and we’ll see how significant the result can be.

It is not easy to change society, but in any case, making the attempt will make a change in you.

In this new year 5776, may we see the beginning of a change for the better for all of us. Procrastination will do us no good. As we have been told, “God is waiting - waiting for us to stop waiting, and to proceed with all haste to do now, all the things for which this day was made. AMEN.

Wed, January 23 2019 17 Shevat 5779