I heard a particularly inspiring story recently. It is the story of Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds, from Knoxville, Tennessee, who enlisted in the United States Army in 1941 and was sent to serve in Europe in the 106th Infantry Division. During the Battle of the Bulge in December, 1944, Sgt. Edmonds was taken by the Nazis as a prisoner of war, along with over 1,200 other American soldiers. As it turns out, Edmonds was the senior non-commissioned officer in the group, and was therefore the leader of the prisoners. The Battle of the Bulge, for those who do not know, was the Nazis’ last major offensive, and from the American perspective was the largest single battle in WWII, yielding 89,000 casualties, including 19,000 deaths over a period of about 6 weeks.
Late in January of 1945, when the Nazis saw that they were losing the battle, the prison camp commandant instructed Sgt. Edmonds to order all the Jewish American soldiers to appear outside their barracks the following morning. The next day, all 1,275 American prisoners of war in the camp assembled outside the barracks.
The commandant was furious, and held a gun to Sgt. Edmonds’ head, demanding that he identify the Jews. Now, Jewish soldiers had been warned that if they were taken prisoner, they would likely be separated from the non-Jews and sent to death camps or slave labor camps, so they should destroy their dog tags if captured. Edmonds, knowing that if he identified the Jews, he would be signing the death warrant of up to 300 American Jews, responded by saying, “We are all Jews here.”
The Nazi commandant pushed him again to reveal the Jews, claiming that they could not all be Jewish. But Sgt. Edmonds knew that the Geneva Convention required that he give only name, rank, and serial number; religion was not a piece of information he would volunteer. He responded by saying, “If you are going to shoot, you are going to have to shoot all of us because we know who you are and you’ll be tried for war crimes when we win this war.”
Roddie Edmonds was a humble man; he never told his family this story, but made a brief mention of it in his own diary. After he died in 1985, his son, a Baptist minister, discovered the entry, and managed to get in touch with a few of the Jewish survivors of the POW camp to uncover the whole story.
In 2015, Edmonds was posthumously honored by Yad Vashem as the fifth American, and only American serviceperson to be dubbed one of the Righteous Among the Nations, the title bestowed on non-Jews who rose above the Nazi horror, putting their lives at risk to save members of our tribe.
If you imagine yourself in Edmonds’ place for a moment, you have to wonder: Could I have been so brave? Could I have done the same thing? Would I have dared the Nazis to kill me to save a few of my comrades?
In that moment, he must have contemplated his own death. He must have thought, “I am ready to die to protect my Jewish fellow soldiers, who have put their own lives on the line for our nation. I will take this Nazi bullet if I have to, in order to save their lives and my own dignity.”
And of course, Sgt. Edmonds made the honorable choice.
How many of us have thought about our own death? I certainly have. Not in a bad way, mind you, but more from the practical perspective. If, God forbid, I were to be taken from this world tomorrow, how would life change for my family? What would my funeral look like? What would be my legacy on this Earth? Will somebody post something on my Facebook profile explaining that I will no longer be responding to direct messages? Will Judy find a new home for all of my suits?
Will my children remember me by reciting Yizkor prayers on the second day of Shavu’ot?
There is a Bhutanese folk saying that in order to be a happy person, you must contemplate your own death five times a day.
In order to enjoy the present, we have to remember that life is a finite gift. We only have so many days on this Earth, and it is up to us to use them as best we can. We only have so many opportunities to connect with others, to share our love with family and friends, to do good works in our community and for the world.
We only have so many opportunities to save a life.
We have to remember that we are going to die, so that we can appreciate the precious few years we have been given.
In a few minutes, we will recite one of the key passages of the Yizkor service, Psalm 16:8-9 (p. 331 in Lev Shalem):
God is always before me, at my right hand lest I fall.
Therefore I am glad, made happy, though I know that my flesh will lie in the ground forever.
We tend to think of Yizkor, more properly called Hazkarat Neshamot, remembering the souls, as recollection of those who have passed. But it is just as much a recollection of our own souls; a reminder to those of us who are alive that we can be happy now despite our mortality. Just like the Bhutanese, who derive their daily happiness from contemplating death, we, the Jews, understand that life is meant to be enjoyed, and that joy is heightened by its natural limit.
The quote from Psalms compels us to consider our mortality in a healthy way. And as we remember our parents and grandparents, spouses and siblings and children and aunts and uncles and cousins and dear friends whom we have lost, we have to remember the ways in which they used their time not only to give us life, but to make our lives better, to make our world better.
There has been, of late, a lot of public death and mourning in the news; three major mass shootings in three weeks, and a great deal of soul-searching and of course posturing about how to respond.
If I had one wish for our society, it would be that we value our precious few moments of our collective life so much that we do everything in our power to prevent others from taking it away. I will know that God truly is at my right hand if, when we as a nation stumble, we remember that our first task on this Earth is to do no harm, and indeed to stop others from harming if we can.
And perhaps if we remember God’s presence, if we can center the imperative of, “Va-anaḥnu kore’im umishtaḥavim umodim,” that we bow, bend our knees in solidarity, and give thanks before the King of Kings, or Ruler of Rulers, and we recall our essential duty to conserve the life we have been graciously loaned from on high, we might as a society be able to pull ourselves out of the depths.
As we turn now to the service of Hazkarat Neshamot, of recalling those souls, I call on you now to reflect not only on those who gave you life, on those whom we remember, but also to take this opportunity to reflect on our own mortality, to remember our holy imperatives given to us by God, to remember the heroism of those who have saved lives, and of course to consider how we might save even more.
I saw a particularly moving video this week. It captured an installation by the artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg that appeared on the National Mall in Washington, DC last fall. It included 143 square sections of ground in which a total of 620,000 small white flags had been planted, one flag for each of the 620,000 Americans who had died of Covid-19 as of September, 2021. (You may be aware that we are now approaching 1 million official deaths, although the actual toll is surely higher.)
The video showed people strolling through this huge field of flags, writing names of loved ones they lost and messages about them on the flags, reflecting on the immensity of grief, hugging each other and crying and trying to make sense of it all. It was quite painful and very moving. (It might have been coincidental that the installation opened to the public two days after Yom Kippur, and remained open until just after Shemini Atzeret, two days of the Jewish calendar on which we remember those whom we have lost with prayers of Yizkor, prayers of remembrance for those who are no longer with us. But maybe it was not a coincidence.)
For a long time to come, we will be trying to wrap our heads around these two years of grief and pain and loss and anxiety and sickness and death. We will continue to feel the after-effects – the economic fallout, the political consequences, the social ills – perhaps for decades.
But those whom we have lost will always be remembered. We, the Jews, are good at memory. We are especially good at navigating the moments of grief that we face; through mourning and bringing comfort; through the framework of our tradition, our liturgy, our ancient texts.
And we remember those who gave us life by completing their work on Earth, by honoring their best qualities, making them our own.
My grandfather, my mother’s father, grew up in poor circumstances. His father abandoned him and his brothers, and his mother was sickly and not capable of caring for them, so my grandfather was taken in by a foster family. He worked a couple of different jobs in his life: at various points he drove a taxi, worked as a salesman, and during the Depression he had a candy store, which he lost (according to my grandmother) because he would give away freebies to every soul who came in with a sob story.
Despite the hardships he faced, my grandfather was a sweet man who never let his circumstances bring him down. And my mother reminds me occasionally that he always complimented my grandmother after dinner. She had not always been a great cook, but no matter the quality of the meal, my grandfather, without fail, had words of praise for his wife.
It’s a small thing: consistent gratitude. Everyday thankfulness. A simple, “That was wonderful, dear! Thank you.” My grandfather knew that, although he did not have a lot, he certainly appreciated what he did have.
And it is a lesson that I carry with me, even though my grandfather passed away 16 years ago, even though the last years of his life were marked by dementia, during which he did not even recognize his own family. I try to uphold that consistent sense of being grateful for what I have.
Back in January I was at a rabbinic retreat, and learned about a so-called “story cycle” in the Talmud (Moed Qatan 28a) about ancient rabbis trying to avoid the Mal’akh haMavet, the Angel of Death. A story cycle is a collection of related stories which are collected in one place in the Talmud. Sometimes they are the same story retold multiple times with different details and elaborations in each version; sometimes they are only loosely connected with a shared theme.
Most of us probably think of the Mal’akh haMavet in the context of the Passover story, which we all reviewed a week ago for the first nights of Pesaḥ: for the tenth and final plague to which the Egyptians are subjected, the Mal’akh haMavet passes over the homes of the Israelites, on the way to take the first-born children of the Egyptians, including that of the Pharaoh himself. (That is, of course, where we get the name “Passover.”)
But the Mal’akh haMavet is a familiar character in rabbinic literature, appearing in many places. And in this story cycle, it is clear that he has a certain code: he cannot take the souls of people who are engaged in righteous acts. So, for example, Rav Ḥisda is so pious that the words of Torah never depart from his lips; he is constantly studying and reviewing and repeating our ancient holy texts. And so when the Mal’akh haMavet comes to take him, he is foiled by the continuous flow of holy words from Rav Ḥisda’s mouth. So the Mal’akh haMavet sits down on a cedar bench nearby, and the bench cracks, making a loud noise. Rav Ḥisda is momentarily distracted, pauses in his recitation of holy words, and so the Mal’akh haMavet takes his soul.
Other stories on the page make it clear that all the ancient rabbis for whom the Mal’akh haMavet comes are trying to avoid death. And even though one, Rav Naḥman, concedes that death is painless, nonetheless Rav Naḥman also adds that the living world is better, because, in his words, in the world-to-come,
Rav Naḥman said to Rava, “[In the world-to-come], who is important? Who is honorable? Who is complete?”
Put another way, we are all equal in death, and the world of the dead is unremarkable. Life is where it’s happening; all of the good stuff is here on Earth, not in the afterworld.
Now that is interesting, because some religious traditions, and even some Jews, think that the afterlife is the goal. That better living in “Olam haBa,” the world-to-come, is our goal here on Earth. That the reason we keep the mitzvot, the 613 holy opportunities of Jewish life, is so that we can merit a place in Olam haBa.
So one implicit message of this passage is, “not so much.”
Truth is, normative Judaism does not have a lot to say about Olam haBa. Yes, it is certainly mentioned as a desirable destination. But let’s face it folks: the bottom line of Jewish living, of the mitzvot and our rituals and our dietary guidelines and our holidays and our prayer and our values is to ensure that we act as holy people, that we elevate the holiness in all our relationships right here on Earth, in the world of the living. We learn Torah and act on its imperatives for Olam haZeh: this world. Not for Olam haBa, the world-to-come.
To paraphrase Rav Naḥman, it is in this world that we can be important, honorable, and complete. In this world we can attain these things by valuing what is truly important, by maintaining the honor of others, by helping to complete God’s work here on Earth.
And how do we do that, exactly?
We do it by remembering.
We remember our story. We tell it over and over to our children, just as we all did one week ago at the Pesaḥ seder.
We remember our ancestors, Avraham and Sarah, Rivqah and Yitzḥaq, Raḥel and Ya’aqov and Leah, and Moshe Rabbeinu and Miriam haNevi’ah (the prophetess) and Eliyahu haNavi and on and on. We remember their values and deeds, and we act on them.
And we remember our parents and grandparents and spouses and aunts and uncles and cousins and children and teachers and friends and neighbors. We remember what they taught us. We remember what they valued. We even remember when they failed us, because we learned from those failures as well.
You know why life is better than death? Because we carry all of those things with us, and we can act on them. We take the wisdom of those who came before us to help improve ourselves, to intensify the holiness in our marriages, to teach our children to be better people, to do good works for others.
We, the living, remember those who came before us so that we can carry out the good deeds of the dead. We live to maintain their honor. We live to complete them. To express gratitude; to praise others; to be friendly and personable and affectionate; to pick up others when they fall, and occasionally to right their wrongs.
To be alive is to remember, and to act on what has been handed to us.
And so we remember, and we live for them.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning / eighth day of Pesaḥ, April 23, 2022.)
As I have shared with you on multiple occasions, I am an optimist. And yet, these 18 months of pandemic have tested my optimism severely.
At one point during the last eighteen months of pandemic-induced isolation — it was sometime last winter, during the coldest, darkest, most isolated period — I found myself looking for a good recording online of a song that I had once sung for a concert with my synagogue choir at Congregation Brith Shalom in Houston when I lived there in the late 1990s. The song was “Make Our Garden Grow,” the finale of Leonard Bernstein’s operetta, Candide, which was based on the novel of French writer and philosopher, Francois-Marie Arouet, best known by his pen name, Voltaire. I probably spent 45 minutes listening to various versions.
And I found myself crying.
Crying from the pain of isolation, from the gnawing feeling of all of the missed opportunities for teaching, for celebrating together, for being unable to gather our community in person for all the things that we do. I was crying for what seemed at the time a lost world.
And the song is just so darned beautiful. If you are unfamiliar with Candide, you might want to check it out:
And you know how some songs are just so appealing, so powerful that they give you the shivers, or that they make you cry? Well, I’m a sucker for a gorgeous song.
But even more so, what got me more than Bernstein’s music (the sextet, choir, and orchestra) was Voltaire’s message. Candide, published in 1759, was primarily a rejection of the philosophy of optimism, and in particular the school of thinking headed by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the German Christian polymath of the late 17th / early 18th century. Leibniz believed that we are living in the best of all possible worlds that God could have created. Voltaire clearly abhorred this philosophy, and set out to lampoon Leibnizian optimism by making Candide and his teacher, Dr. Pangloss, seem like utter fools for believing in it. As the book draws to a close, they realize the error of their ways. And so the operetta concludes thus:
Let dreamers dream What worlds they please Those Edens can’t be found. The sweetest flowers, The fairest trees Are grown in solid ground.
We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good We’ll do the best we know. We’ll build our house and chop our wood And make our garden grow. And make our garden grow!
“Let dreamers dream what worlds they please / those Edens can’t be found.”
The lyrics, written by American poet Richard Wilbur, include what might be a hidden nod to a well-known midrash about Creation: that God created and destroyed many worlds before creating this one. That is, the creation of the world that is described in Bereshit in the story which we will read tomorrow morning as we start the cycle of Torah once again is only the last one in a whole line of less-than-perfect worlds. (I do not think that Wilbur was Jewish, although of course Bernstein was.)
A few chapters later in Parashat Noaḥ, God acknowledges that life on Earth has become corrupt, and destroys virtually all living things in the flood. The implicit message of the midrash and the subsequent flood story is that, although many worlds came before and God settled on this one, the world that we are in is clearly NOT perfect. We cannot be living in the best of all possible worlds, but God had effectively given up on trying to create that world.
Dr. Pangloss, and hence Leibniz, were absolutely wrong, in Voltaire’s opinion. And so when Candide and his friends sing these words at the end, they are confessing to the failure of optimism. We do not live in the best of all possible worlds, but we have this world, and it is up to us to live and do the best we can, given that reality. We should, therefore, build our house and chop our wood and make our garden grow, and not be deluded into thinking too optimistically about our lives. Life is ultimately about the hard work of taking it day by day, of not necessarily expecting the best possible outcome, but rather accepting the routine ups-and-downs.
Voltaire’s language even echoes that of Bereshit / Genesis 2:15, which tells us that God put humans in the Garden of Eden le’ovdah ulshomerah, to till it and to tend it, or in Latin, ut operaretur.
“I know also,” said Candide, “that we must cultivate our garden.”
“You are right,” said Pangloss, “for when man was first placed in the Garden of Eden, he was put there ut operaretur eum, that he might cultivate it; which shows that man was not born to be idle.”
“Let us work,” said Martin, “without disputing; it is the only way to render life tolerable.”
This conclusion is not far from that of Qohelet / Ecclesiastes, which we read on Shabbat morning. And I suppose that is why it was so cathartic when I played and replayed Bernstein’s musical take on Voltaire’s rejection of optimism.
The holidays of Tishrei run through a whole palette of emotions: from the foreboding and triumphant grandeur of Rosh HaShanah, to the gravitas and genuflection of Yom Kippur, to the pure family-centric joy of Sukkot, to the statement of vulnerability as we beat willow branches on the floor Hoshana Rabba, to the wild dancing and singing with abandon of Simhat Torah. Oh yeah, and then there’s Shemini Atzeret, whatever THAT’S about.
Well, actually, although the origin of Shemini Atzeret is as the eighth day of Sukkot, it is probably most associated today as a day of Yizkor, a day of remembrance of those whom we have lost. This is, of course, a Yom Tov day, a day of happiness and family meals (although eating in the sukkah is considered optional today), but the inclusion of Yizkor guarantees that this is a day of reflection, of perspective.
For Shemini Atzeret and Simḥat Torah, at the very end of a long and grueling holiday run, I often find myself feeling a lingering sense of eternity, of looking at this snapshot of our lives as we begin 5782, and thinking, where was I last year, spiritually speaking, and what does this year hold for me? And it makes sense that on this day of reflection, we might flip back in our minds to both the good and the not-so-good times.
That is why tomorrow, just before Musaf, when I chant the Ḥatzi Qaddish, I will use melodies from throughout the Jewish year in a relatively obscure, yet interesting cantorial tradition known in Yiddish as the Yahres Kaddish, the Kaddish of the full year. It is a reminder not only of these holidays, but the entire spiral of the Jewish year, as we continue onward and upward, around and around as we grow and mature and learn and fail and succeed.
These are days on which we remember not only grief and loss, but also joy and happiness and celebration. And we also remember to keep in perspective what enables us to keep going around in that upward spiral, that sense of taking each day as it comes, trying to do the right thing for ourselves and each other, working and learning and playing and spending time with friends and family. Good things will happen in the coming year: people will get married; babies will be born; children will graduate from high school; there will be moments of joy. And so too will beloved family members die, and get divorced, and projects will fail and people will have financial hardships, and there will be bored moments and suffering and of course more disease and corruption and malfeasance.
And all those things are features of the jumble of our lives. As Qohelet / Ecclesiastes (1:9) tells us, “Ein kol ḥadash taḥat hashamesh.” There is nothing new under the sun. Put another way, Pirqei Avot (5:22) says, “Hafokh ba vahafekh ba dekhola ba.” Turn it over and over, because everything is in it. “It” of course, is the Torah, but Torah is likewise a reflection of the complex tapestry of our lives.
On this day of Yizkor, this day of remembrance, let us not forget that those whom we remember in these moments, who gave us life and nurtured us and gifted us their talents and wisdom and yes, sometimes even their flaws, are still a part of the weave of that tapestry.
And as we conclude this holiday season, we also remember that, in the words of Candide, we’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good, but we will do the best we know. We will try to be satisfied with sacrificing the perfect for the sake of the good enough. And that is perhaps the most valuable message we might take away from right now, as we add another year, another layer.
Do we truly understand the value of life? The value of our lives? Do we really appreciate the gift we have been given, while we still have it?
One of the things that the pandemic has taught is just how frail we all are. Think about this for a moment: millions of people around the world taken too soon; young, healthy people suffering from virus effects long after regaining health, the so-called “Covid long-haulers;” the economic fallout – the jobs lost, the industries disrupted, the evictions and lives put on hold, and so forth. All of this due to a tiny piece of RNA wrapped in a protein shell. This microscopic thing, which can barely be called alive, has caused so much damage. It is hard to wrap your brain around.
And the fallout that it has caused is primarily due to fear of death. We have spent 14 months staying away from people – from loved ones, from strangers in the supermarket, even passing people on sidewalks (I have found myself walking out into the road, perhaps unsafely so, many times) – out of respect, yes, but more essentially out of fear.
And with good reason, of course. 14 months later, nearly 600,000 of our fellow citizens are confirmed to have succumbed to that strand of RNA, and perhaps the figure is even closer to one million. Based on CDC statistics, this virus is about as deadly, per capita, as heart disease and cancer, and far more deadly than auto accidents and Americans with guns. Somehow, however, death seemed so much more close this year, so much more present.
And we fear death.
A congregant who recently lost his grandfather (not due to COVID-19) asked me for suggestions on the topic of books that deal with death from a Jewish perspective. I came up with a few myself, but I also posed the question to fellow Conservative rabbis, and one suggested the 1997 memoir by Mitch Albom, Tuesdays With Morrie, a book that was on best-seller lists for four years. Probably some of you have read it. I never had, until I stumbled across a copy in one of the Beth Shalom libraries a few weeks back. I figured, maybe I should read this.
In case you do not know, the book is about Brandeis sociology professor Morrie Schwartz, with whom Albom had a close relationship while studying there as an undergraduate. Upon graduation, Albom wandered off into the world to seek his fortune, and did not stay in touch with Schwartz. Instead, he worked hard at building a career as a sports journalist, until one evening he was watching Nightline, and he saw his old professor and friend being interviewed by Ted Koppel (remember Ted Koppel?) about dying of a terminal disease. Morrie had ALS, and was at that point already unable to move his legs. Albom reconnected with him, and then went to visit him at his home outside of Boston over a series of 14 Tuesdays. During each of his visits, Morrie Schwartz unloaded wonderful bits of wisdom – about death, yes, but all the more so about life.
Although Albom is Jewish and so was Schwartz, the book is not really drawn from traditional Jewish ideas about death. While there is one brief moment in which Schwartz, a self-declared agnostic, looks heavenward and suggests that his life is in God’s hands (“I’m bargaining with Him up there now,” he says, p. 163), there is otherwise no reference to any of the things that Jews associate with death and mourning. Nonetheless, it is a very Jewish book, primarily because Morrie’s approach to dying of a terminal illness is to talk about it, to make Albom and the reader aware of their own mortality.
That is what we do. We are not only the people of the book; we are also the people of the schmooze. (Most of you know that I grew up in WASPy, stiff-upper-lip New England; I have never been much of a talker. Somehow, going to rabbinical school changed all that.)
You might make the case that Morrie’s essential argument is that we have no need to fear death, because we are all going to die. Death is an essential feature of life. During one of their early visits, Morrie offers one of his most impactful statements. “The truth is, Mitch, once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.” (p. 82) What he means by “learning how to die” is to be prepared for it, to be aware that it is coming. Once you have done that, you can appreciate life in a much more complete way.
I became aware just this weekend, through an article in the New York Times about a nun, that Catholics have a practice known as “memento mori,” Latin for “remembering death.” The idea is to “intentionally think about your own death every day, as a means of appreciating the present and focusing on the future.” Sister Theresa Alethia Noble of the Daughters of St. Paul convent in Boston has made it her mission to raise the profile of this somewhat obscure practice. Her argument is that we are too focused on the superficial and the inauthentic, the “bright and shiny” things that are constantly occupying space on our screens and in our consciousness.
The article notes that Buddhist mindfulness meditation tries to achieve the same thing, and Morrie Schwartz also invokes the Buddhists.
But we, the Jews, have our own traditions that keep our mortality in front of us on a regular basis.
You may never have thought about this in these terms, but that is what we do every time we observe Yizkor, when we take a few moments to recall those whom we have lost. One of the traditional things we say during Yizkor are the words from Psalm 16:
Adonai is always before me, at my right hand, lest I fall. Therefore I am glad, made happy, though I know that my flesh will lie in the ground forever.
As ironic as this statement sounds – happiness and death in the same verse – it is absolutely the feeling one gets in reading Tuesdays with Morrie. Teacher and student are united in their joy of connecting and reconnecting, even though one will soon be gone. They enjoy food together; they exchange powerful hugs.
And every time we respond to one reciting the Mourner’s Qaddish, we are doing the same thing. The text of the Qaddish is not even about death, but even though it is an essential part of mourning, it promises life and joy in our praise of God. And every time we celebrate any life cycle event – berit milah, baby naming, bat/bar mitzvah, wedding, etc., we are reminded that life is a cycle – a cycle of joy and grief and loving and loss and thriving and languishing and beginning and ending.
Why is a Jewish wedding ring a perfect, simple circle, with no stone? Because life is a circle, one in which we all experience all of those beginnings and endings every single day, as we wind our way around.
Elsewhere, Morrie adds, “The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in.” (p. 52) As we turn around and around, the way we make our lives full, the way we fill in that circle, is by giving out love, and maybe getting some of it back.
Death is always there. We hear it intoned in our rituals. We bring comfort to those who are approaching death, and when they are gone we are there for those who mourn. We know that we can be happy today, because we also know that there is an endpoint. And we will be remembered by those to whom we gave love.
Perhaps one of the most striking lessons that Morrie Schwartz offers, and one which living a life committed to Judaism also gives us, is the following:
“So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.” (p. 43)
Jewish lifecycle events, Jewish holidays, Jewish ritual and song and story and text and halakhah and customs, are primarily focused on connecting us to each other and offering us meaning. While we know where we are headed, we understand that the most important thing that we can do before we get there is to connect, and to re-connect, and to love. That is our purpose; that is what gives our lives meaning.
As we emerge from this pandemic, let us not only remember those whom we have lost, but let us also recommit ourselves to living better, to finding meaning, to engaging with the words of our tradition, to loving more.
That is how we may truly appreciate the gift of life.
You might have heard a curious news blip a few weeks back about an extraordinarily unusual art auction. The artwork, by the American artist known as Beeple, was a collage of 5,000 individual digital images, assembled over nearly 14 years. Beeple, whose birth name is Mike Winkelmann, made one image each day, beginning on May 1, 2007, and the collage, entitled “Everydays: The First 5,000 Days” sold for an astonishing $69.3 million, the third-highest price paid for the work of a living artist.
Now, what is most curious about this? That the purchaser has nothing to show for his $69.3 million other than a JPEG file, about 21,000 x 21,000 pixels, with a size of about 320 megabytes. No canvas, no paint, not even a carved, gilt frame. Theoretically, anybody with a computer could easily make and distribute innumerable copies of the file and share it online with a few clicks.
You heard that right: the owner paid nearly $70 million for a computer file.
So how is it that this work could be sold for such an exorbitant sum? Because it is a so-called “non-fungible token,” or NFT.
What’s a non-fungible token, you ask? You’re not alone. Saturday Night Live actually put together a musical skit about it last week, in which a befuddled Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen (played by Kate McKinnon) seems to be at a loss to explain it.
As briefly and as simply as I can explain it, an NFT is any unique item of digital content – art, tweets, music, etc. – that can be verified as the original version through a series of secure, verifiable, time-stamped files that attest to its legitimacy. And why the need for this verifiability? So that the creator can sell the original digital content, and its ownership, or transfer of ownership, can therefore be proven. Many people can possess a digital copy, but there is only one non-fungible token of any digital content that exists anywhere, and the proof of that ownership is entrusted to thousands of computer servers, scattered around the world, so that the ownership can always be proven. (Some of you may have heard of Blockchain – NFTs use that technology.)
In short, this enables people to assign a dollar value to something that is effectively a set of ones and zeros that only computers can translate for us. Completely intangible. And the records that make it “real” are entrusted on a whole bunch of secure servers, ostensibly forever.
Other items that have sold as NFTs are the first tweet by Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, for nearly $3 million, and a digital picture of a column by New York Times Technology columnist Kevin Roose, which netted $560,000, which is I presume far more than Mr. Roose earns in a year. (He donated the money to a charity.)
Now, why is this interesting, other than the absurd amounts of money involved?
First, because it means that art, and specifically ownership of art, has moved beyond the physical product into a kind of spiritual state. It effectively means that you can own an idea, and not just the Earthly manifestation of that idea. (I suppose that the concept is not too different from the principle of intellectual property, except that usually people want to own their intellectual property because it can be used to create physical things of value. That does not seem necessarily to be the situation here. Hence the novelty.)
But second, as curious as the principles behind non-fungible tokens may seem, the concept suggests something very powerful: that intangible items are truly valuable. And, particularly relevant on a Yizkor day, that our relationships, our sets of memories of those whom we recall today, are something like NFTs in that they are unique, real, and non-fungible. But these relationships are much richer, and effectively priceless.
Let me explain:
When I was in graduate school at Texas A&M University, I recall a discussion with some fellow Jewish grad students over a Shabbat dinner at the Hillel building there. One of my colleagues opined that it was essential to publish academic papers, because it meant that when we were gone, there would be something tangible to show that we had made an impact on the world, in print and therefore “official.” (Since he was a grad student, I’m guessing that he was also trying to rationalize what he was doing in graduate school.)
You could extend this to any particular product: inventing a gadget, say, or building a house. When we create tangible things in this world, we can point to them and say, “Aha! I have left something for the world that will remain after my death.”
But I must say that I disagree with my grad school buddy. An object is just an object; it will eventually crumble and return to dust. A paper in a journal, no matter how essential it might seem right now, will ultimately become obsolete. Yes, it is true that we read words from the Torah today, a book that is still with us after over 3,000 years, but how many other books can you name that are that old? (The Torah is clearly exceptional, for several reasons.)
Rather, I am convinced that the greatest impact that we can have on the world is to place a little bit of the intangible pieces of ourselves – our wisdom, our love, our emotional support, our humor, our personality – into all the people we know.
And, in fact, that is what every single person on this Earth fundamentally creates during our lifetimes: the intangible dust of relationships. Memories, sentiments, shared experiences, wisdom, cherished moments, expectations fulfilled, or not, and so forth. That is the content of our relationships, much more comprehensive than the pixels arranged on a screen by a digital artist.
And, almost miraculously, we give out these bits of ourselves to others every time we interact, every time we speak, every moment we share with others. Taken together, all of those create a unique, non-fungible collection of us as individuals, a collection that will remain long after we have departed our physical bodies.
And, unlike an NFT, the content of these vouchsafed bits of ourselves is much more rich. My relationship with my wife, for example, is quite different than my relationship with my 6th-grade teacher, Mr. Welsh. OK, so Beeple spent 5,000 days creating the piece that sold for $69 million. But I have spent already more than 18,000 days on this planet, and within that over 300,000 waking hours, much of that time engaging with others in all the ways that people interact. And nobody can ever take that away from me. Or from you. Or from all the people we know.
The total value of the unique relational moments of my life, if it could be sold, would easily eclipse any NFT by an infinite number of orders of magnitude.
And that is precisely the point. Our relationships are priceless, and they are forever. Even if one cannot recall a specific interaction, it leaves an emotional residue – cumulative and integrated into the totality of relationship. Even when all those who knew us personally are gone, the dust of our relationships continues to echo in all relationships, in all the collective facets of humanity.
In a commentary on Shir HaShirim, Song of Songs, from which we read this morning, Rav Avraham Yitzḥaq Kook (1865-1935), the first Chief Rabbi of Mandate Palestine, teaches us that, “Each worldly song is linked to all other songs, and their totality expresses the supernal harmony of the divine whole.” That is, the songs of our individual lives are interconnected. The relational dust that we all leave is a part of the greater song of humanity.
That is, I think, the very meaning of the term “Tzeror haḥayyim,” the bond of life, which appears in the El Male Raḥamim memorial prayer, which we will recite in a few minutes. We are all tzerurim bitzror haḥayyim, bound up in the bond of life together, inextricably interconnected in all the relational material that we share and re-share.
On this day of hazkarat neshamot / remembrance of souls, we recall those whom we have lost by singing their songs, by recalling the holy moments we spent with them, by engaging with that relational residue. We understand that our lives were not only enriched, but in fact defined by those pieces of themselves that they placed in us. Those memories are unique, and together they define those whom we remember today.
We carry them with us. We attest to not only their existence, not only the non-fungibility of their lives, not only how very real they surely still are, but how those relationships shape our lives, our world, our outlook, and our ongoing relationships, which we continue to share with others.
You might have thought that this piece of the basics of Judaism would come first. After all, the first thing we learn about being Jewish is that our heritage comes with a story. We learn stories from the Torah in Hebrew school. We remember the Exodus from slavery in Egypt at the Pesah seder table. We light Hanukkah candles to remember that a small band of Jewish rebels fought off the idolatrous invaders and restored the Temple in Jerusalem, and so too do we have an obligation to enlighten the world. We get a day off every seven days because God rested after six days of Creation. Even those of us with zero formal Jewish education know the stories about the Garden of Eden, Joseph (thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber), Moses (thanks to Hollywood). The Torah and pop culture are intertwined in ways we do not even notice.
On the other hand, story serves as a beginning, and also the end; I have heard that Jewish life is something like a Moebius strip – as you follow its path, you always return to where you started. In engaging with our tradition, we always return once again to our story, our history, our culture, and we are reminded that sharing our story with others will lead to a better world: Wouldn’t it be awesome if the whole world observed Shabbat? Wouldn’t it be absolutely amazing if everybody were to gather around a holiday table and say, “Let all who are hungry come and eat”?
And let’s face it: story is the most interesting part. For most of us, that is.
I have a slight confession to make here, although many of you probably have noticed this already. I’m not really a story-telling rabbi. Some rabbis are more inclined to pepper their sermons with good stories that lead to a moral. I am more cut-and-dried, more inclined to lay down the brief, pithy Talmud Torah than long form stories. (If you were on our Zoom service on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, you may have noticed that I tried to tell a joke and totally bungled it.)
But I am very fond of the fact that, no matter how we break down theologically or sociologically or demographically, we, the Jews, are still united by our stories. Even though we approach many things differently, the Torah is the Torah; the Talmud is the Talmud, and disagreeing over the meaning of a phrase or the halakhic import of a certain read comes with the territory. As fractious as we are, we still share our stories.
And you know what? As long as we continue to tell our stories, they will protect and save us, just as they always have.
Think about this: what is it that enabled Jewish people to survive the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the Inquisition, the Shoah? What enabled Jews to manage being alternately exiled and welcomed, dispersed and ghettoized, massacred and delegitimized? What empowered us to look past the anti-Semitism, century after century, land after land? What encouraged the Zionists to build a modern nation in an ancient land? What has enabled this very community to pick itself up from its grief and move forward, after 11 of our friends and neighbors were brutally murdered by a white supremacist with an assault rifle?
Not history. If it were up to mere history, the Jews would have disappeared thousands of years ago. Our history is littered with destruction, dispersion, forced conscription, pogroms, and disillusionment.
No, what gave us the strength to survive was that these stories fill our lives with meaning. We mustered the courage to press on by the promises given to Avraham and Sarah, Rivkah and Yitzhaq, Rahel and Ya’aqov and Leah and Yosef. We have continued to teach our stories to our children, so that, generation after generation, their eyes were lit with the richness of our wisdom, the power of our tales, the inspiring personalities of our bookshelf.
One of the more curious things that we do as Jews, on the festival of Sukkot, is to parade around the room holding aloft the four plant species identified in the Torah as the symbols of the season: willow, myrtle, palm, and citron, also known as the lulav and etrog. And what do we do whilst parading?
We say, “Save us.” “Hosha’na.” And we say that over and over and over, and in between chanting “hosha’na,” we add tiny story fragments, a couple of words each. They always go by so quickly, because the piyyutim are long, and late in the service so everybody’s hungry and wants to get to lunch. But they include reference after reference to the Torah and to midrashim. Just a few brief examples:
We chant this on the second day of Sukkot:
הוֹשַׁע נָא אֶֽבֶן שְׁתִיָּֽה, הוֹשַׁע נָא
Hosha’na even shetiyyah, hosha’na.
Save us, Foundation Stone, save us!
The Even Shetiyyah / Foundation Stone was the mythical piece of rock, located at the top of Mt. Moriyah, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, from which, according to midrash, the world was created. It holds a special power that we continue to invoke to this day.
Kehosha’ta tevu’im betzel gezarim, yeqarekha ‘imam ma’avirim, ken hosha’na.
As you rescued this people from drowning by splitting the deep sea, Your glory crossing with them, so save us!
This is a clear reference to the Israelites crossing the Sea of Reeds, accompanied by God, an example of how God has saved us in the past.
There are literally hundreds of these types of references, some more deeply coded than others, in endless liturgical poems used over the holidays, not just for Sukkot, but around every holiday.
The message is clear: our stories save us. When we are in trouble, when we need something to hold onto, we lean into the rich assortment of tales that have inspired us and given us a meaningful framework for thousands of years.
Now, I know I have a few armchair skeptics out there in Zoom-Land right now (and you may actually be seated in armchairs!) who are thinking, or perhaps even remarking out loud, “Come on, Rabbi. The stories of the Torah are not true. They conflict with the scientific record. There’s no archaeological evidence of the Exodus, or that the Israelites were actually enslaved. Do you really think that Moshe took dictation from God on Mt. Sinai?!”
To you I say, “I’m happy you’re listening!” and then, “So what? That is not the point.” History and story are not the same thing. Scientific truth and the foundational stories of an ethnic or religious group are not in the same category; they answer different questions. Science tells us that the universe is 14 billion years old, following a Big Bang in which all matter was violently expelled from a single, infinitely dense point, and ultimately cooled to the point where atoms and molecules and (at least in the case of one particular planet) life formed through a series of fascinating phenomena.
But science does not tell us that we need a day off every seven days, because God rested on the seventh day of Creation. And science does not provide us with the wisdom to raise our children to be human beings, or to seek the common good, or to behave with integrity, or to remember the needy, or to pursue justice. Science teaches us facts; our stories teach us not only how and why to be Jewish, but also how and why to aspire to be the best humans we can be.
Our story, the Jewish story, may not meet the standard of scientific fact, but they are ours. My teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Neil Gillman, taught me the value of what he referred to us as “myth.” Not myth in the sense of falsehood, but the series of stories that help us explain our world, the lens that helps us make sense of the information we take in. Every nation, every ethnicity has its own myths.
That is why the contemporary tools of biblical criticism, which cast doubt on some of our stories, do not trouble me. No matter what scholars may say about our foundational myths, they continue to frame my life and yours in holiness.
Some of you may be aware that there is a new translation out of the memoirs of Glikl, a Jewish woman who lived in Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries. I’ve been captivated by her story for many reasons, among them the fact that stories of and by women are too few and far between on the Jewish bookshelf. Glikl was born in the 17th century to a wealthy family, and she is not only literate in the sense that she can write her own memoirs in Old Yiddish, but also she is Jewishly literate, peppering her language with quotes from the Torah and rabbinic text. She writes about her family’s ups and downs, about intrigue and marriage and of course anti-Semitism, which is very much a part of her world.
One of the captivating aspects of her work is the way in which the Jewish story nourishes Glikl.
Throughout the seven books of her memoirs, which cover 28 years from 1691 until 1719, she weaves Yiddish folktales, Talmudic stories, and personal anecdotes into the details of her family life. She unspools lengthy yarns to teach us a moral, like the value of patience, and then she tells the tale of how she and her mother both gave birth around the same time, and one night their babies were confused and the entire household was in an uproar. She expands the story from the Talmud about Alexander the Great’s search for the Garden of Eden, to teach us that we should be satisfied with what we have. And she urges us to settle our personal accounts during our lifetime, a notion particularly salient for these days of teshuvah, repentance.
Glikl’s memoir is not only a fascinating slice of history, a particular moment captured in remarkable prose, but also a testament to the power of story. As we listen to her unspool her tales, we also see how the Jewish story supports and nourishes her and her family, how Jewish rituals and holidays, drawn of course from our story, are very much a part of her everyday existence.
Ladies and gentlemen, I know that right now, things might seem much worse than they have ever been. I know that these Ten Days of Teshuvah / repentance, starting with Rosh Hashanah and concluding today (at 7:47 PM) have been nerve-wracking for reasons I do not need to enumerate. But underlying the threat of chaos and anxiety about the future, I know that over the past week, in the back of my head, I have been praying for life. Zokhreinu lehayyim. Remember us for life, God. And even though the story of the Book of Life should also fill us with awe, I must say that it has been comforting to me to be able to share these melodies and stories, these High Holiday sounds and ideas, with all of you, even virtually, over these days.
Our story, the Jewish story, offers us comfort and meaning and protection. It holds us together in a way that halakhah cannot. It continues to brighten the eyes of our children and inspire all those who listen of all ages. And our rituals and customs and values bring us back again and again to our story.
What do we do when we recall a loved one? We recall their story.
It has often been observed that the hyphen on a memorial stone or plaque stands for a whole lot. A short, straight line. But none of our stories are straight; they contain twists and turns and loops and dead-ends. And it is up to us, the living, to recall all of those twists and turns in the lives of those whom we remember.
In the context of this pandemic, we have lost 1,000,000 people worldwide, including over 200,000 here in the United States, including members of this community and even a past president of Beth Shalom. And millions of people have lost their jobs; many more are living with less. The spiritual and economic pain from which we are all suffering is immeasurable; the deep frustration at our elected officials, and our fellow citizens, for their various failures is palpable.
When all is said and done, many, many people around the world will have died alone; many will be buried in overwhelmed cemeteries without any kind of funeral or eulogy. Many will have left this world in a way that their story remains unfinished, or untold.
Back in August, the city of Detroit memorialized its coronavirus victims by putting up huge photos of them in a city park, so that people could drive through and see their faces. There were 900 portraits in the exhibition, accounting for more than half of the 1,500 city residents who had by then died of the virus.
A face is not a story, but in its lines and contours you can perceive quite a bit about a person. It was a moving tribute; the very idea brings tears to my eyes.
Ladies and gentlemen, we will likely have many months to go of isolation, of sickness and death. But we also have the gift of memory – remembering those we have lost; remembering our lives before the pandemic, remembering that humans are awfully clever, and will ultimately turn this time of sadness into one of rejoicing.
Although Yom Kippur is a Yizkor day, a day on which we remember those whom we have lost, and a day of gravitas as we seek repentance, rabbinic tradition tells us it is also a day of rejoicing; rejoicing at the fact that we know that if we work hard at the former, we will achieve the latter.
It is memory which may bring us salvation. It is memory which will bring us joy.
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.
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.)
The end of Pesahis, to me, always quite anti-climactic. We put the Passover dishes away, toss out foodstuffs that we would never consider eating during the rest of the year, and then life sort of shambles on as normal, as if these eight obsessively, gastronomically limited days were a brief lull. This year, of course, the usual lull will linger longer
My attention was recently captivated by an interview I heard on public radio, on the show On Being with Krista Tippett. She spoke with author and poet Ross Gay, who is also a professor of English at Indiana University. He said something that struck me for its paradoxical insight: that human joy is intimately tied to the operating principle that we are mortal. Let me just share with you how he put it:
… Joy has everything to do with the fact that we’re all going to die. When I’m thinking about joy, I’m thinking about — that at the same time as something wonderful is happening, some connection is being made in my life, we are also in the process of dying. That is every moment…
The connection between the dying and the joy… is just the simple fact of the ephemerality of [life] … if you and I know we’re each in the process, [of dying], there is something that will happen between us. There’s some kind of tenderness that might be possible…
… [J]oy is the moments — for me, the moments when my alienation from people — but not just people, from the whole thing — it goes away. And it shrinks. If it was a visual thing, everything becomes luminous. And I love that mycelium, forest metaphor, that there’s this thing connecting us. And among [that] is that we have this common experience — many common experiences, but a really foundational one is that we are not here forever.
And that’s a joining — a “joy-ning.” So that’s sort of how I think about it.
But joy is — our capacity for joy, despite and through that, the fact that we’re all gonna die and that things are going wrong all the time, is also something that joins us together. It’s leveling, in a way.
Totally… [I]t is joy by which the labor that will make the life that I want, possible. So it is not at all puzzling to me that joy is possible in the midst of difficulty.
These are exceptionally prophetic words, which, like words of Torah, we can only hear and interpret in our current context. The interview was recorded in July of 2019, however, long before COVID-19 was a thing.
Matters of life and death are shared between all of us. I think what Ross Gay is trying to say is that we all carry with us the potential to create joy, to increase happiness in this world, and we also all share the fact that we are going to die. So the potential for joyful living is predicated by the fact that we need it – that in all human relationships there is an implicit shared imperative to foster joy, since our time on Earth is limited.
The first thought that occurred to me as I was listening to this interview was, What a dreadful idea! How can reminding myself of my mortality possibly bring joy?
And then upon second thought, Wait a minute! He’s right. I share that with every other human on the planet. We may speak different languages, have absolutely orthogonal political outlooks, practice different religions, and so forth. But for every single one of us, the clock is ticking. It’s a jumping-off point for every relationship.
Death is, as Krista Tippett suggests, the great leveler, and arguably a cause for joy. And particularly when we lose somebody, it is the motivator for remembering to live. That is precisely the reason we mourn, the reason we say the Mourners’ Qaddish, which is not at all about death – to remember to live, to remember that, in our limited time, we must bring joy.
As I was listening to this a few weeks back, I was making breakfast for my family, whole-grain waffles with maple syrup, a joyful Sunday-morning move, and of course I was not thinking about dying. (I miss waffles. Only one more day of Pesah!)
But living, truly living, is in the joy that we bring to others – by preparing and sharing food with them, for example. And by talking. And by hugging. And by being there in times of need. And by being there for the happy times. And sometimes just by being present, or even present from a distance.
Because, when we are gone, we can no longer really create joy.
My teacher, Rabbeinu (“our teacher”) Neil Gillman, in his 1997 work, The Death of Death, points out that it is death that makes us fully human. “Death,” he says,” is not punishment for disobedience, but rather the inevitable result of the full flowering of our humanity.” He cites the Creation story from Bereshit / Genesis of Gan Eden / the Garden of Eden, as launching human-ness in its complete form; Adam and Eve were in some sense required to understand their mortality before they could be considered fully formed. He cites Martin Buber’s interpretation of the Gan Eden story as an act of compassion on humans by God, avoiding subjecting them to “aeons of suffering.”
But life, thank God, is not merely suffering. It is all-encompassing, and in remembering to live, we also remember to seek pleasure and company and good times and love. And what makes the joy ultimately overpower the suffering is that we know that our time is fleeting.
We all carry with us a certain number of memories of people who are now gone. We all carry with us what made them who they were. And we remember them when we act in their memory, when we carry on with life, when we bring joy to ourselves and others.
Something that I am trying to do during this pandemic is to be positive. Yes, I think you know by now that I am an optimist. But I have been trying to draw on that well of optimism now more than ever.
Let’s face it – our options for being joyful right now are somewhat limited, particularly if we live alone. And the entirety of the festival of Pesah, the festival of freedom, the festival of spring, the major holiday that kicks off the cycle of the Jewish year, has had a kind of pall over it. We have not been able to visit with family; we have not been able to exchange hugs and share food and stories with many people with whom we would ordinarily do so.
And yet, we also know that this will come to an end, and when it does, I know we will all be truly joyful.
But I think we have also been given a sort of gift by the pandemic, and that is a glimpse of our own mortality, and that reminder that death makes us human. We are all bound together in life – those of us who are still breathing, and those of us whom we remember on days like these.
Because, as we will say in a few minutes when I recite the El Male Rahamim prayer, utzror bitzror hahayyim et nishmoteihem. May the souls of those whom we recall today be bound up in the tzeror hahayyim, the bond of life. You will also see a variant form of this written as an abbreviation on some Jewish gravestones, in the form of an acronym: תנצב”ה, which stands for “Tehi nishmatah/nishmato tzerurah bitzror hahayyim .” May her/his soul be bound up in the bond of life.
We are intimately connected, living and dead, through this bond of life. And although the dead do not give us joy, they certainly give us life through that connection, which enables us to go on seeking and giving joy to others.
And qal vahomer, all the more so in this time of an afflicted world, we remember not only those who gave us life, but also those who died or are dying at the hands of this vicious virus, which does not discriminate with respect to age, race, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, and so forth. We are reminded that we are all in this together – as Jews, as American citizens, and as human beings, interconnected with all others around the world.
On this day of Yizkor, of calling to mind those whom we have lost, we must acknowledge our condition: that our lives are ephemeral, and that the joy that we share with others in the brief time that we have been granted is invaluable. We sink or swim not as individuals, but as a community, as a society, as a world.
We are deeply interconnected, mournful and joyful and distant and close all at the same time, all together, bound in that bond of life that makes us human, that calls us back to our shared mortality.
May we all be bound together in that tzeror hahayyim.
As I have aged, I have learned to be somewhat more forgiving of my own brain. When I was younger, it seemed that I remembered everything. Today, I sometimes feel lucky if I remember the most important things: to spend time with my children, to eat lunch during a busy day at work, to tell my wife how much I love her.
How many of us are sometimes frustrated by not being able to remember something? Where you left the keys, as a relatively innocuous example, or something more contentious, like your spouse’s birthday. How many of us wish that our brains worked more like the RAM in a computer – efficient storage that is always available and easy to find? Wouldn’t it be awesome if you never forgot anything?
You may have heard that there are a handful of people in the world who are endowed with a curious condition that enables them to remember everything. That is, you give them a random date on a calendar, from fifteen years ago, and they will tell you what they wore that day, what they ate for lunch and who they bumped into on the street. This condition is known as “hyperthymesia,” and although it does not allow for “total recall,” it does allow a person with the condition to remember virtually everything that relates to them. For example, while a person with the condition might remember what clothes she was wearing on a certain day, she may not be able to recall what her friend was wearing, unless the friend’s outfit was somehow related to her personally. Dozens of cases have been reported in the last 13 years or so, since the condition was formally identified by neurobiologists. The actress Marilu Henner, whom you may recall from the late ‘70s/early ‘80s TV show, Taxi, apparently has this condition.
Imagine for a moment how cool that might be! School would be a breeze; you would never be embarrassed again by not knowing the name of somebody who you met five years ago at a party after a few drinks; you would never misplace your keys ever again. Speaking as a rabbi, I could definitely see how such a condition would make my life and my work so much easier.
And yet, maybe not.
There is a good reason to forget things, and perhaps the reason why, evolutionarily speaking, this feature did not become standard among humans.
Certain things need to be forgotten, and particularly those things that cause us pain and emotional anguish. We need to forget the pain of loss, the grief associated with the death of a parent or sibling or God forbid, a child. We need for ebb of time to dull the sharp memories, the ones that push our sorrow buttons. We need for those memories to be less fresh, so that we can go on about our lives with some semblance of normalcy.
Not to forget entirely, of course. But rather, to lessen the heartache somewhat. For the person who remembers clearly what he or she did on any particular day, a great personal loss must be ever-present. The stabbing pain of feeling like, “How can I possibly live without her?” must be as fresh a decade later as it was at the start of shiv’ah.
Thank God for the hollowing-out of memories that time brings. We learn to live with loss, but of course it takes time. That is the point of shiv’ah, of sheloshim, of yahrzeit – the calendrical framework of Jewish mourning. Seven days of deep pain, pain which prevents us from leaving the house, which can only be slightly soothed by the presence of others in our homes bringing comfort. Then three more weeks of somewhat less grief, when we saunter out of our homes, return to work maybe, but still feel like nothing’s quite right. And then the balance of a year, in which we acknowledge our ongoing grief by limiting our joyous activities.
And thereafter, we set aside just a few days for remembrance, to recite prayers of memory.
Memory is essential to Judaism, and our framework of mourning is known to be one of the best. But even beyond that, we have not one, but two days in the contemporary Jewish calendar called “Yom haZikaron,” the day of remembrance: Rosh Hashanah we all know. Less known to American Jews, but extraordinarily important in Israel is the national Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, a day marked by solemn ceremonies around the country, set aside for public grief for those who gave their lives defending the State of Israel. (It is an unfortunate shame that we Americans do not take our own Memorial Day as seriously as Israelis do.)
But even so, our relationship to memory is complicated. Our tradition wants us to remember things that we did not personally experience: the entire holiday scheme of the Jewish year is intimately tied to our history: the Exodus from Egypt; receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai; wandering in the desert; the destruction and rebuilding of Jerusalem; the Sho’ah. We are, in some sense, striving to constantly relive our ancient, communal memories, to make sure that we do not forget, that we remember to connect our gratitude for what we have today with all of those past events. We have a history that stretches back thousands of years, and we carry it with us wherever we go. That is an essential piece of Judaism.
And yet, even though we set aside one day a year to mourn the desolation of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and then the Romans, we do not relive that every day. We understand that communal grief has its day. Even though we remember and mourn the 6 million murdered by the Nazi machine in our own time, we also still acknowledge that there can be joy in our lives. On Shabbat morning, we read from Megillat Qohelet, the book of Ecclesiastes (3:1-4):
A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven: A time for being born and a time for dying, A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted; A time for slaying and a time for healing, A time for tearing down and a time for building up; A time for weeping and a time for laughing, A time for wailing and a time for dancing;…
The words of Qohelet ring across the ages: we cannot dwell in grief forever; neither can we ignore that grief. Rather, there is a time for that.
Qohelet does NOT say, there is a time to remember, and a time to forget. But the Catalogue of Times also reflects back to the opening verses of the book (1:4-5):
One generation goes, another comes, But the earth remains the same forever. The sun rises, and the sun sets— And glides back to where it rises.
With each rising and setting of the sun, life goes on. Our pain will ease; the peaks and troughs of life will even themselves out. And we continue. We go on. We live with our memories, the painful ones and the joyful ones. We do not forget, but we manage with what is on our plate.
This is the last Yizkor / remembrance service that we will observe in the one year of mourning following the anti-Semitic attack in our neighborhood. There will always be a before and after in Pittsburgh; there will always be a weightiness in our hearts for those whom we lost, and for the sense of security our community lost. That day will be seared in collective memory forever. We will never forget.
I must say that I am somewhat relieved that the actual Yahrzeit (annual day of remembrance which corresponds to the day on the Jewish calendar when a loved one passed away) is a few weeks after the date that the rest of the world will associate with Pittsburgh. When the media people doing follow-up stories leave, when the cameras have moved on, we will muster our grief together and mark the 18th of Heshvan (November 16, 2019) by saying Qaddish as a community – quietly, mournfully, appropriately.
The horror of that day and its aftermath will continue to live with us. But as it recedes in memory, as we learn to grapple with it from a distance, as we remember those whom we lost, we also re-establish our sense of selves: who we are, what we stand for, and why we must continue to lean into our tradition. We re-establish our violated sanctuary as sacred space.
I remember Cecil, who wrote me notes of gratitude which I could not read. I remember Dan, always with a smile, always with a friendly update. And my memories of them drive me forward to proudly wave my lulav and etrog, to recite words of tefillah with my community, to celebrate around the Shabbat table and resonate with our ancient tradition.
I continue to meditate on the words of Qohelet – dor holekh, vedor ba… vezarah hashemesh uva hashamesh – one generation goes, and another comes, the sun rises and the sun sets – and understand that I am neither the first nor the last Jew to feel the pain of hatred, of persecution, of murder. I will not be the last Jew to cry out in anger and frustration, as Rabbi Levi Yitzhaq of Berditchev did in bringing a din toyre, a lawsuit against God. I will not be the last Jew to recite Qaddish for martyrs.
But I will certainly do whatever I can to try to make this world a place where more Jews, and more people everywhere, are liberated from painful memories.
As we turn now to Yizkor, the service of remembering, we should be at once grateful that memories recede, and also grateful that we have the framework of our tradition to guide us through dark times and to sanctify our holy moments.
I might argue that the glue that holds all of this together is memory: memory of our personal Jewish journeys, memory of our collective experience, memory of those who came before us. We pay attention to that last one in particular on Yizkor days, but of course our memory is always with us.
I participated in a panel last week at Rodef Shalom Congregation as a part of their annual congregational meeting. Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom, Rabbi Jeff Myers of Tree of Life, Cantor Julie Newman of Tiferet, and I discussed the future of synagogues, moderated by Rabbi Danny Schiff. Rabbi Schiff’s first question was, “What is causing the disengagement from synagogues today?” Not a simple question, and of course nobody knows exactly what the answer is. But certainly we have a great challenge before us in making the synagogue “work” the way it has done in the past.
One reason, I think, that it is so much harder today to create the communal Jewish experience in synagogues is that we have become much less reflective as a society. We are so much more in the current moment than ever; the way the news cycle turns over, we hardly process yesterday’s craziness before today’s madness hijacks our attention. And that frantic pace has infected the entire range of our lives. Twitter is not a reflective medium. And I find this deeply troubling.
But Judaism, and synagogues in particular, offer us the reflective framework to reflect, if we only take it. Our tradition, which ideally infuses our lives with holiness, offers a refuge from the cut-and-thrust of life today. And we really need that refuge.
It was with great pleasure that I encountered a recent piece by New York Times columnist David Brooks that captured a beautiful metaphor for Jewish life. In it, he describes the centuries-old Japanese craft known as Kintsugi bowls. These are ceramic bowls that are hundreds of years old, but what makes them special is not the age or the design of the bowl, but that they have at some point been broken, and then the shards are put back together with the Kintsugi technique, which dates to the 15th century, and uses a combination of gold and lacquer.
The resulting bowl has exquisite gold veins running through it, making an otherwise-ordinary bowl unique. Every one is different; every pattern is special. As Brooks puts it,
There’s a dimension of depth to them. You sense the original life they had, the rupture and then the way they were so beautifully healed. And of course they stand as a metaphor for the people, families and societies we all know who have endured their own ruptures and come back beautiful, vulnerable and whole in their broken places.
What fascinates me about this concept is that it is very Jewish:
On a personal level, what is broken can be made whole again (cf. Yom Kippur). In fact, the Jewish holiday cycle reinforces over and over the idea that we are all individually broken, and that we can always seek and achieve wholeness once again.
From the perspective of the Jewish nation, it is our brokenness that has enabled us to continue as a people (cf. Tish’ah Be’Av). Destruction and rebuilding are an essential piece of Jewish history; our nation is conceived in emerging from slavery; the Second Temple follows the destruction of the First; the yearning for rebuilding has spurred us onward since the destruction of the Second Temple; establishment of the State of Israel followed the Sho’ah, and so forth.
Memory is the golden lacquer of Jewish life. What makes us unique and special is our personal and collective memories, our having been broken through loss and suffering, and then repairing ourselves with the reinforcement of remembrance.
We are not the people who shy away from brokenness. On the contrary, Judaism highlights the fragility of human life. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, during the central Untaneh Toqef prayer of the Musaf service, we are reminded in a stream of Tanakhic and midrashic references of our frailty and our capacity to be healed once again:
Our origin is dust, and our end is dust. With one’s soul a person brings bread [Jewish text compares humanity to] a broken vase Dried-up grass and a withering bud A passing shadow and a fading cloud Blowing wind and blossoming dust And like a dream that floats away.
As we recite these words on High Holidays, we acknowledge that we are as much a product of our cracks as we are our whole pieces, that the essence of life is being broken and repaired; that our brokenness makes us stronger, more beautiful, more resilient.
Leonard Cohen (zikhrono livrakhah / may his memory be for a blessing) sang, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
It has been speculated that Cohen was referencing here the concept, from Rabbi Isaac Luria’s kabbalistic formulation, of the shevirat hakelim, the breaking of the vessels. It’s a complicated tale, but in brief, when God created the world, said Rabbi Luria in 16th-century Tzefat, the primordial vessels (kelim) were unable to contain the light poured into them, and they shattered, casting sparks of light into the universe. Creation of the world necessitated the breaking of these vessels. The world begins with an act of brokenness, and those Divine sparks that are still out there for us to uncover are there due to that breakage.
The cracks within each of us are there for good reason – they help us see the Divine, the kedushah / holiness in ourselves and the kedushah in others.
Like the Kintsugi bowls, our lives, our personalities, are enhanced by the fracturing and repairing. We are made more beautiful by our unique flaws, and the Godly light that shines through each of us, reflected by the golden glue of memory, helps us illuminate each other and the world.
And all the more so, on a Yizkor day, a day on which we remember those who came before us, we recall that those who gave us life did so not that we should be perfect, not that we should be without flaw, but quite the opposite. Our parents, our spouses, our siblings, all those whom we remember today, their imperfections were what made them who they were, made them holy. And so too did they see the cracks in us that make us all individually, uniquely human and yet infused with Divine light.
Ladies and gentlemen, I have often remarked that we, the Jews, do death and mourning very well. Yizkor, yahrzeits, plaques, shiv’ah, sheloshim, qaddish, etc.. We have the tools with which to wrap our minds and hearts around the grief that comes with loss. We have the communal framework that enables us to support each other in times of great pain. We are awesome at reflection and remembrance.
But even more so, it is the memory of losing those whom we love most that makes us who we are. That memory is what holds the shards of our souls together, that stitches us back up, scarred from the experience, but ultimately making us stronger, more nuanced, more human, more able to perceive and reflect the holy sparks all around us.