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Festivals Sermons Yizkor

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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Festivals Sermons Yizkor

Ephemeral Joy and the Bond of Life – Pesah Day 8 / Yizkor 5780

The end of Pesah is, 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.

Tippett:

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.

Gay:

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. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, eighth day of Pesah 5780, 4/16/2020.)