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The Dead Support the Living – Yizkor / Shavu’ot 5780

You may know that I love to hike, and during this pandemic, I have been spending more time walking outside than I ordinarily do, particularly in the heavily-wooded Frick Park. That’s a good thing – particularly now that the weather is nice. Good for the spirit, good for the body. 

Red-tailed hawk in Frick Park (photo credit: me)

Judy and I were in the park a few weeks ago, and we noticed a couple of tall trees that looked dead, sort of intertwined with each other. And upon looking closer, we saw that the situation was much more interesting: one of the trees, standing upright, was clearly dead – no leaves, no bark in many places, minimal branches still remaining on its tall trunk. But the other tree was leaning over heavily onto the dead one, and it was still alive. It looked as though the live tree had been knocked over in a storm, and the dead tree had somehow “caught” it, and prevented it from falling.

The dead tree was actually holding up the living one.

We generally think of dead natural things – trees, animals, etc. – as being past their point of usefulness. That is, they are no longer part of the system. But of course that is not true. On the contrary: as you walk around a forest, for example, and you see plenty of dead things on the ground – leaves and tree trunks and occasionally animal carcasses – it is worth remembering that those things are essential parts of the circle of life. They serve as homes to insects, food for fungi, and of course when they break down into nutrients and reenter the soil, they continue to nourish the living plants around them by fertilizing the ground once again.

That is the cycle of life. Life yields death, which yields life again. 

And, in some sense, the same is true for people. Not in physical sense, of course, and not in the sense of death and resurrection, although for sure there are some Jews who believe in that sort of thing. But rather, I would like to propose that the dead nourish and sustain the living, sort of like that dead tree holding up the live one.

How can that be? Lo hameitim yehallelu Yah (Psalm 115:17), we chanted in Hallel earlier today. The dead do not praise God; that is only for the living. Being able to sing words of praise together with our community, that is a sure sign of life.

And yet, those of us who have passed from this world into the next are not only very much here with us, but they support us, the living as well. Let me explain, with an assist from the following midrash:

Moshe Rabbeinu is at the end of his life, and has ascended Har Nevo (Mt. Nebo), as God instructed him to do. God reminds Moshe that, even though he will not enter the Promised Land, he can see it from the mountain.

Moshe appeals to God, saying that it is not fair that he, Moshe Rabbeinu, who took the people out of the Land of Egypt, bringing them forth from slavery, cannot enter the Land of Israel. “I should be the first to cross the Jordan River,” he pleads. “I should lead them into the Land. Why won’t you let me? Why do you not favor me with love, as you favor the rest of Benei Yisrael (the Israelites)?”

“I have favored you with love,” says God. “I gave the Aseret HaDibberot, the Ten Commandments to the people through you. I gave the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, to them through you. That is how I have expressed my love for you.”

“Who, then, will lead the people, if not me?” says Moshe.

“Yehoshua (Joshua) will lead them. It is time for the people to find the courage to travel on without you, Moshe. But you will die knowing that they will never forget you. You will always be an essential part of them. You will be constantly invoked, in song and story, in learning and teaching, in repeating the words of Torah for millennia to come. You will continue to support them after you die, and your words will bring them strength.”

Moshe thinks about this, and then goes back down from Har Nevo to give a final blessing to Benei Yisrael. He climbs the mountain a final time, and, as he is looking out over the Land of Israel, spread out before him to the west across the Jordan River, God kisses his soul, taking his life. 

As a final act of God’s love, God buries Moshe on top of Har Nevo, in a location that has remained secret to this day.

***

How do the dead support the living? In the same way that Moshe Rabbeinu does: through the words that they said; through the actions that they took to sustain us in life; through the inspirations and memories fixed in our hearts and minds, that lead us to seek peace between people and care for those in need and comfort those who grieve. 

We carry them with us, just as we carry with us the Torah that Moshe gave us. When we get to Simhat Torah, the other celebration of Torah, half a year away, we will read, “Torah tzivvah lanu Moshe; morashah qehillat Ya’aqov.” (Devarim / Deuteronomy 33:4) Moses charged us with Torah, as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob. Our heritage includes not only Torah, but also the pieces of our ancestors that we contain: their good deeds, their wisdom, their reputations.

And how will we, the living, support those who will someday remember us when we are gone? By being the best people that we can be in life. By drawing on the Jewish values of learning, of compassion, of gratitude, of community-building, of remembrance. By fulfilling the mitzvot, the holy opportunities communicated to us through Moshe Rabbeinu and upheld by generations. By committing ourselves, every day, to making this world a slightly better place.

Three times a day in Jewish life, and sometimes four, we recite the berakhah Barukh Attah Adonai, mehayyeh hameitim.” Praised are You, God, who gives life to the dead. I know that it’s a not-so-coded reference to the Messianic resurrection of the dead that our ancestors yearned for. The Amidah (standing, silent prayer that is a part of every Jewish service) says, God keeps faith even with those who sleep in the dust: umqayyem emunato liysheinei afar, we sing ever-so-joyously. (BTW, that well-known melody, ubiquitous in American synagogues, was written by Cantor Max Wohlberg for a Junior Congregation service in the middle of the 20th century. He later regretted its spread to the entire Jewish world, because it just did not quite fit the meaning of that paragraph.)

But the berakhah is incomplete. It was liturgy that served a particular purpose at one time, and there are some who feel it has outlived its usefulness (the Reform and Reconstructionist movements changed the language; the Conservative movement left the language but tinkered with the translation). 

How it should be read is not only about God giving life to the dead, but also as the dead giving life back to us. Mehayyeh hameitim. We are in a circle of mutual support: God sustains the dead, who sustain us, who praise God. It’s an eternal loop of life. 

I would be remiss not to mention today that we passed an abominable statistic in America this week. The number 100,000 means nothing in relative terms; our per capita death rate in America due to the coronavirus is lower than many nations. 

But in very real terms, it is a staggering number, more than the number of American soldiers who died in the Korean War and Vietnam conflict combined, and all in the space of a couple of months.

I find myself coming back to the words of President Abraham Lincoln, delivered a little to the east of here, after the battle at Gettysburg in 1863:

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…

We the living, said President Lincoln, continue the work of those who gave their lives to give us life. They sustain us through their devotion. And as we recall not only our parents and grandparents and spouses and siblings and children who are no longer with us, we also recall those who gave up their lives to this disease, and we too resolve that they shall not have died in vain.

The dead give us life. They hold us up like strong, tall tree trunks. And we continue to remember them, to live their words and their deeds and their wisdom. That is the cycle of life, in which we are all bound.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning / Second day of Shavu’ot, May 30, 2020.)

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