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

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

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

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

The dead tree was actually holding up the living one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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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.)

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Memory: The Golden Lacquer of Jewish Life – Second Day Shavuot 5779 / Yizkor

If I were to ask you, what are the primary features of Jewish life, what would you say?

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.

Kintsugi bowl

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:

אָדָם יְסוֹדוֹ מֵעָפָר
וְסוֹפוֹ לֶעָפָר
בְּנַפְשׁוֹ יָבִיא לַחְמוֹ
מָשׁוּל כְּחֶרֶס הַנִּשְׁבָּר
כְּחָצִיר יָבֵשׁ וּכְצִיץ נוֹבֵל
כְּצֵל עוֹבֵר וּכְעָנָן כָּלָה
וּכְרוּחַ נוֹשָׁבֶת וּכְאָבָק פּוֹרֵחַ
וְכַחֲלום יָעוּף

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.”

Montreal, May 2019

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.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, second day of Shavuot 5779, 6/10/2019.)

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We Need More Ritual – Pesah Day 8 / Yizkor 5779

A little more than a week ago, two days before Pesah, Rabbi Amy Bardack, a member of this congregation whom many of you know, walked into my office to sell me some hametz. Now, of course, you know how this works: members of the community sell their hametz to me, usually by filling out a form that declares the sale, and then I in turn sell their hametz, plus my own, plus all the hametz in this building, to somebody who is legally permitted to own it during Pesah, according to halakhah / Jewish law. (As you may know, it is not only forbidden to eat any form of the five species of hametz – wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye – during the eight days of Pesah, but also it is forbidden to own or benefit from it. And, by the way, if you do not sell your hametz or get rid of it all, and you own it during the holiday, then it may never be eaten by a Jewish person, ever.)

So the stakes are pretty high here, particularly for expensive items like single-malt Scotches, etc.

So most people fill out the form and send it in with a donation, and my assistant Audrey collates all the addresses and makes a list for our communications director Anthony.

But Rabbi Bardack did not merely send the form in, along with a donation for ma-ot hittin, providing for the needy in our community before the holiday. She felt she needed to make a complete ritual out of it, so she came to my office and made the exchange the old-fashioned way, face-to-face.

I asked her why it was so important to make the sale in person. She responded that she wanted to do it “right,” and that there was something particularly holy about performing a ritual in the traditional way.

Ritual, said Rabbi Bardack, gives us a moment of purity. No matter what kind of craziness might be going on in our lives, our work, our families, no matter what sort of political insanity is taking place on the national stage, no matter what sort of bloodshed might be taking place in the world, performing a ritual is a brief respite, an opportunity to feel holy, at least for a moment.

We all have the opportunity to push aside everything else for a moment of qedushah, of holiness. In fact, we have that opportunity multiple times every day. One tradition suggests that we should say 100 berakhot / blessings every day; you can almost fulfill that merely by reciting shaharit, minhah, and ma’ariv (the three regular daily services in Jewish life). But even if you cannot pray that much, you have opportunities to raise your HQ (holiness quotient) all day long: every time you eat something, for example, you can say a berakhah that will elevate your sandwich or snack food from the mundane to the divine. (The Talmud, in Berakhot 35a, tells us that eating food without saying a berakhah is something akin to theft.) Or every time you smell a fragrant plant or flower or tree. Or see a rainbow or a beautiful mountain. Or hear good news, or bad news. There are many such opportunities for holiness – they need not be relegated to Shabbat morning in the pews.

Ritual gives us a moment of purity. We cannot control so many aspects of our lives. But we can be momentarily holy.

David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, recently opined that we need ritual. He describes playing a game called, “There should be a ritual for…”

There should be a ritual for when a felon has finished his sentence and is welcomed back whole into the community. There should be a ritual for when a family moves onto a street and the whole block throws a barbecue of welcome and membership. There should be a ritual for the kids in modern blended families, when they move in and join their lives together. There should be a ritual for when you move out of your house and everybody shares memories from the different rooms there.

He points to various religious rituals to make his case. Brooks, who is Jewish, also notes that the majority of rituals in Judaism involve a physical action: putting on tefillin, lighting candles, and so forth. And they help frame our days, our lives, with the sense of connection – to God, to community, to family, to others around us who also need that connection.

So great is our hunger for rituals that when we come upon one of the few remaining ones — weddings, bar mitzvahs, quinceañeras — we tend to overload them and turn them into expensive bloated versions of themselves.

Between these lavish exceptions, daily life goes unstructured, a passing flow of moments. This means we don’t do transitions well. Rituals often mark doorway moments, when we pass from one stage of life to another. They acknowledge that these passages are not just external changes but involve internal transformation.

Our society has become so informal, he suggests, that we have let old rituals go and not replaced them with new ones. We are therefore running a kind of “ritual deficit,” wherein we need to mark the holy moments of our lives, but we do not have the tools or even the framework in which to do so.

And that brings us back to today. Yes, this is the eighth day of Pesah, a holiday marked with a plethora of associated rituals: the cleaning, the hunt for hametz and the burning thereof, the aforementioned sale, the siyyum (learning a tractate of Talmud in order to celebrate and not fast on the day before), the seder and everything associated with it (lots of discrete sub-rituals there), services with special melodies for the festival, the recitation of Tal, and so forth. Loads of rituals. In fact, I am often surprised by the staying power of Pesah rituals. We had 80 or so people show up for the siyyum eight days ago, far more members of our community than are aware of, say, the 10th of Tevet or the 17th of Tammuz, other minor fast days. We know from our own survey data that virtually all the members of Beth Shalom attend a Pesah seder. This is a holiday that continues to draw us into ritual like no other.

And then there’s Yizkor, more properly referred to as Hazkarat Neshamot, the ritual of remembering the souls of those whom we have lost. This is, in fact, our first such public remembering since the 18th of Heshvan, just over six months ago. This is a ritual that is so deeply connected to who we are as Jews.

There is something very important here – not only the value of ritual in general, but in particular, the way that we grieve for those whom we have lost. We do death well. Memorials, remembrance. We have the tools with which to wrap our minds and hearts around grieving for a lost loved one.

And, let’s face it: this is not the way our society is moving. Everything that happens in the world today is so viscerally current. It’s what scrolls by on our phone from one moment to the next. By the time one piece of news has hit the media, we barely have time to process it before we are on to the next item. We went in the last week or so from lamenting the burning of Notre Dame to mourning the murder of over 300 Catholic Sri Lankans.

But we take time to remember those whom we have lost. We have seven days (shiv’ah) surrounded by friends and family during the deepest days of grief; we have thirty days (sheloshim); we have a full year of mourning for parents. And then we have yahrzeit, an annual commemoration. And four times a year we have Hazkarat Neshamot (Yizkor). So many opportunities to remember. So much time in which to live with our grief, to recall those who gave us life, to hear their words echoing in our heads, to remember what they gave us, how they made us who we are.

David Brooks draws a fine point on it:

People can understand their lives’ meaning only if they step out of their immediate moment and see what came before them and what they will leave behind when they are gone.

It is through remembering those whom we lost that we draw out the meaning of our own lives. Why am I here, if not to live out and teach the values that my parents gave me? Why am I here, if not to strive to leave this world in a better state than it was when I entered it? Why am I here, if not to seek those moments of holiness, of purity, through ritual?

We need ritual. We need memory. We need meaning to fill out the whys of our lives.

Shabbat shalom, and hag sameah.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning and the eighth day of Pesah, 4/27/2019.)

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Virtual Visitation – Shemini Atzeret 5779 / Yizkor

We, the Jews, are good at memory. It’s an essential part of our tradition. What are the ways that we remember people who have passed from this world?

  • Reciting Qaddish / other Yahrzeit (anniversary of death) observances
  • Yizkor (memorial services observed four times per year)
  • Book of Remembrance
  • Plaques

We are thorough at remembering. I think that might have something to do with our history. For much of the last two millennia, the Jews have moved around a lot, and every time we had to pick up and move to a new locale, we had to leave the cemetery behind. (Yes, the book of Shemot / Exodus records how the Israelites took Yosef’s bones with them as they fled Egypt, but that was an unusual circumstance.) It could be that we developed these regular rituals for remembrance.

When I look through our list of yahrzeit names, I often see that those who are observing yahrzeits are far away – who have since moved to Florida or Texas or New York – but their mother or sister or cousin is buried here in Pittsburgh. My grandparents are all buried in the Boston area; I don’t know if I will ever get to their graves again to visit. But I of course carry my memories of them, and I have shared some of those memories with my children. My grandmother, who, when she left her shtetl at the age of 8 in 1921, left her grandparents behind in the earth of Volhynia, Ukraine, could never have even thought about going back to visit them after she arrived in Boston. (For years, my mother and I have been thinking about traveling to the Ukraine to see if we can find them. BTW, I am captivated by the fact that I can see my grandmother’s little town on Google Maps. It’s nothing more than an agrarian crossroads, and the likelihood that the Ukrainians have maintained the Jewish cemetery there seems pretty slim.)

As the Jews were uprooted throughout history and went from Israel to Iraq, to Rome, to Spain, to France, to Germany, to Iran, to Yemen, to Morocco, to India and China and Jamaica and Chile and the Lower East Side and all the other places they went, they did not have the luxury of going back to visit.

So we developed virtual visitation. We carry the names, the faces, the memories of our departed loved ones wherever we go. We carry with us at all times those who have left us behind, and we take those memories down from our mental shelves from time to time. One of the great things about how we Jews mourn is that we force ourselves to remember. We are never entirely healed by a loss, but all that active remembering brings us comfort.

A couple of weeks ago on Yom Kippur, as we dedicated the new memorial plaques to be placed on the walls of Beth Shalom, a name caught my eye: Melaku Allen. Usually, the names that I see enshrined on plaques are drawn from the traditional Eastern European canon of names: Bernstein, Cohen, Levine, Shapiro, and so forth. Lots of Irvings and Idas and Morrises and Minnies. Not too many Melakus.

I actually wasn’t sure even how to pronounce the name.** The plaque was being dedicated by our member Dan Schwarcz. So I asked him about it at kiddush on the Shabbat between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. This is the story he told me.

Melaku Allen was the son of an Ethiopian Jewish father and a Christian, African-American mother, and he grew up in New Jersey. His father returned to Ethiopia when he was young, but Melaku, captivated by the traditions of his absent father, was drawn to Judaism, and underwent no less than three conversions: first by a Reform rabbi, then a Conservative rabbi, and then an Orthodox rabbi. He met Dan when they became roommates; Dan was in graduate school, and Melaku worked for NJ Transit. That was in the mid-1980s, and Melaku was not young then – he had already served his country in Vietnam, where, among his tasks was the spraying of the toxic defoliant Agent Orange. Melaku told Dan that he had been regularly covered with the stuff.

Dan and Melaku became very good friends, although they came from very different cultural backgrounds. Melaku occasionally referred to the two of them, jokingly, as the Schwarcz brothers. And they used to daven together at a little shul called the New Freedom Synagogue, so named because it was sponsored by an organization that was helping to resettle Jews from the Soviet Union, who were arriving in greater numbers in the 1980s.

But eventually, the Agent Orange exposure caught up with Melaku, and in 1987 he died of cancer. His funeral, Dan said, was unusually awkward, because his mother’s family was Christian, but it was a Jewish service. The synagogue members wanted to physically bury him, according to Jewish practice, but Melaku’s mother’s family was shocked by the practice. The officiating rabbi, who must have been a skilled communicator, explained gently that this was Melaku’s wish, to be buried according to Jewish tradition, and that the Jews consider it one of the highest forms of hesed, loving-kindness, to bury our deceased loved ones as a community, each of the assembled mourners helping out. So the Jews began the process of burying Melaku, and the assembled group seemed very tense and awkward, until Melaku’s mother stepped forward, picked up the shovel, and put some earth into his grave. There was a feeling of relief, and the Jews and the Christians all buried Melaku together, shoveling the earth together in fellowship while they remembered this man who died too young.

Dan did not have to take upon himself the obligation for remembering Melaku. He was not a relative.

But Melaku did not have anybody else to recall him in the Jewish way. So Dan took the virtual visitation upon himself. And then he went a step further to recall him with a plaque, which will now sit on the wall in Beth Shalom as long as this building stands.

One of the wonderful things about Judaism is that remembrance is all-encompassing. We remember and grieve for all those whom we have lost. The sibling from whom one was estranged. The abusive parent. The stillborn child*. Those that perished in the Shoah, and of course for many of them there is nobody to mourn. Those that gave their lives to defend their country, and in particular those who gave their lives for the state of Israel.

That is one reason that I urge people not to follow the old Ashkenazi custom of not staying in the room for Yizkor. We need more remembrance. We can always offer words of Yizkor. The need for recalling those for whom there is nobody saying qaddish is far greater than old-world superstitions.

And even for those for whom there is no plaque, and no living relative, we continue to recall them. Just as Moshe fulfilled the promise that the Israelites made to Yosef, hundreds of years prior, to take his remains up from Egypt with him, we fulfill that obligation to all who came before us, carrying the spiritual remains, if you will, of all Jews who came before.

There is a Jewish cemetery in Berlin, which I once visited on a tour of Jewish sites there, where Moses Mendelssohn is buried. Mendelssohn, of course, is the father of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment that began in the 18th century, as Jews stepped out of the shtetl and into Western society. Mendelssohn was, arguably, the first modern Jew: he lived an observant life and wrote extensively on Jewish topics, but also entered the salon culture of Berlin, wherein he schmoozed and sparred with non-Jewish German philosophers of the time, most notably Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. He is one of the three great Moseses invoked in the piece of Jewish intellectual folk wisdom: From Moses [the biblical one] to Moses [Mendelssohn], there is none like Moses [Maimonides].

The Nazis destroyed the cemetery, and as you walk through it you see fragments of the matzevot (gravestones) in the ground. But when I visited in 2001, there was one matzevah standing: that of Mendelssohn. It’s a recreation, of course – it’s not the original. But it’s a stark, powerful statement of memory.

MosesMendelssohn 2

Does Mendelssohn need a marker? No. We recall him every time a contemporary Jew acts like a citizen of the world: dressing like an American, or studying at a French university, or voting in a democratic election in the State of Israel, or recording a hit rap album (with a nod to Mac Miller, z”l). Our virtual visitation of Mendelssohn consists of living proudly as Jews who are welcomed into the broader society.

We continue to mark Moses Mendelssohn’s passing, and Melaku Allen’s, and all those whom we recall today, as we make our way through life, virtually and physically. But the essence of remembrance is not what’s on the wall, or in the Book of Remembrance that you all hold, or even in reciting Qaddish or lighting a candle. It is in what is in our hearts as we remember them, the things that they gave us, the moments we shared, the times we hear their voices coming out of our own mouths. Those are the items that sustain and honor our beloved parents, sisters and brothers, wives and husbands and partners, our sons and daughters and friends and all those whom we recall, as we continue through life.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shemini Atzeret 5779, 10/1/2018.)

* Yes, some have the custom not to mourn children who do not live past 30 days. But first of all, that is because in the pre-modern world, many, many children died this way. Also, it’s just a custom. If it helps you heal to mourn for a miscarriage, a stillbirth, a baby who died soon after birth, then you have every right to do so.

** Dan tells me that while his mother accented the first syllable, “MEL-a-ku,” his Jewish friends accented the second and turned the k into a khaf: “mel-A-khu.” I cannot confirm this, but my suspicion is that it is an Amharic (Ethiopian) cognate of the Hebrew melekh, meaning “king.” Amharic and Hebrew are both in the Hamito-Semitic family of languages.

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Everyone Has a Story – Shavuot Day 2 / Yizkor, 5778

Shavuot is kind of a funny festival. It’s one of the least well-known, mostly because it usually falls after Hebrew schools have concluded for the year. It doesn’t really have all the tactile and gustatory experiences of Sukkot and Pesah, say, or the fun-loving, child-centered holidays of Hanukkah and Purim, or the gravitas of the High Holidays. I don’t think it’s even as familiar as Tu Bishvat, which is not actually a holiday at all.

And yet the story that Shavuot tells is so central to what it means to be Jewish – the celebration of the gift of Torah, and everything that flows from it. Shavuot is the story of the ongoing revelation of our tradition, of how we continue to receive and reinterpret ancient wisdom for our time. As such, it should be the central pillar of the Jewish year, the one holiday that unites everything else we do with our most essential spiritual journey, our lifelong quest for understanding ourselves and our world.

OK, and there’s also cheesecake.

Two weeks ago, we laid to rest a long-time member of Beth Shalom, Ruth Lessing. She was a few months shy of a full century when she passed away.

Whenever I perform a funeral, I meet with the immediate family of the deceased to get the full story: who they were, what they enjoyed doing, what they took pride in, their successes and failures, and so forth. With Ruth, this process was not so easy: she had one son who lived in Wisconsin, and was on hospice care when his mother died; he himself passed away a few days later. So I had to rely on a couple of more distant relatives here in Pittsburgh, and they told me what they knew: they gave me as much of Ruth’s story as they could. Getting that information was not so easy. I eventually heard about Ruth’s parents in Germany, who bribed a whole range of officials to get five of their seven children out of Germany prior to the Sho’ah, but who ultimately perished, along with Ruth’s younger brother, at the hands of the Nazis.

But it reminded me of an essential piece of who we are: that each of us has a story.

Yad Vashem

Yad Vashem

One of the poems included in our Yizkor (memorial service) booklet is “Lekhol Ish Yesh Shem / Everyone Has a Name.” It was written by the Israeli poet Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky (1914-1984), usually referred to as Zelda:

(Note: Hebrew is a gendered language. Please understand that while Zelda wrote entirely in the masculine, it can be read as “he” or “she”; I have modified the translation to reflect this.)

לכל איש יש שם
שנתן לו אלוהים
ונתנו לו אביו ואמו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו קומתו ואופן חיוכו
ונתן לו האריג
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו ההרים
ונתנו לו כתליו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו המזלות
ונתנו לו שכניו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו חטאיו
ונתנה לו כמיהתו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו שונאיו
ונתנה לו אהבתו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו חגיו
ונתנה לו מלאכתו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתנו לו עונות השנה
ונתן לו עיוורונו
לכל איש יש שם
שנתן לו הים
ונתן לו מותו
Everyone has a name
given to him by God
and given to her by her parents
Everyone has a name
given to her by her stature and the way she smiles
and given to him by his clothing
Everyone has a name
given to him by the mountains
and given to her by her walls
Everyone has a name
given to her by the stars
and given to him by his neighbors
Everyone has a name
given to him by his sins
and given to her by her longing
Everyone has a name
given to her by her enemies
and given to him by his love
Everyone has a name
given to him by his feasts
and given to her by her work
Everyone has a name
given to her by the seasons
and given to him by his blindness
Everyone has a name
given to him by the sea
and given to her by her death.
(Translated from Hebrew by Marcia Falk, quoted from “Generations of the Holocaust” by Bergmann and Jugovy)

Zelda stamp

Zelda

Our name is our story; captured within those few words, you might say, is all that we stand for as individuals: our likes and dislikes, our deeds and misdeeds, our family connections, our obligations and characteristics and quirks and reputations.

We live in an increasingly dehumanizing world, one in which our individual stories are less and less relevant to all that we do. I am increasingly concerned that, given the way things are moving, we shall all soon be reduced to a pile of numbers. The new algorithms that suck up our information like water, predicting our behaviors, knowing which product we will buy and which candidate we will vote for even before we have thought about it, are sapping our free will. It’s more than a little creepy, and quite alarming. We will soon have no secrets, nothing that is hidden from the rest of the world. Maybe that’s already the case.

Not long after the news broke about Cambridge Analytica, the election research firm that scooped up personal data on 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge and in violation of Facebook’s terms of service, the New York Times ran a few analysis pieces about the information that Facebook and Google and other big data companies collect and use. The author had downloaded and reviewed all the information. Facebook’s data amounted to 650 megabytes, including all of his Facebook activity (likes, shares, posts, etc.), all of this friends’ contact info, including addresses and phone numbers, and a list of all the companies and organizations that had requested his information for the purposes of advertising on the site. (BTW, I downloaded my own Facebook data after reading this article, and among this latter list was none other than Congregation Beth Shalom, which has purchased a few targeted ads on the site.)

Google and Facebook know a lot more about you than your parents do. Even, by the way, if you do not have a Google account: these companies create files for people that are connected to others who do have accounts. They may not know your name, but they know a lot of things about you, and they assume that some day that info will be useful. Google owns the text of this sermon, by the way; in my own Google drive, there are nearly 6 gigabytes of writings and photos and videos and sermon ideas just sitting there waiting to be delivered.

Your genome, by the way, is small by comparison. Your DNA, the chromosomes found in each of the cells in your body, effectively what makes you you account for about 750 megabytes; it can be further reduced to the essential variations that differentiate individual humans from each other, is maybe only about 125 megabytes, depending on the method of storage.

DNA

But that’s not a story. We are not the sum of our data points, or our clicks or our lists of friends or where we purchased groceries. We are not a set of ones and zeros, or even patterns of genetic nucleotides. We have souls. We have journeys. We have lives. We have names. Everyone has a name, which is shorthand for the life we have lived.

You cannot capture love in a digital file. You cannot describe the palette of human creativity, or the full range of human feelings, or the complexity of interpersonal relations. You cannot record the thrill of watching your daughter perform on stage, or the joy of meaningful conversation, or the exultant abandon of group singing around a campfire. A computer would have no reason to argue with another computer over the meaning of a verse in the Torah, or a Talmudic sugya. Microprocessors do not mourn their parents.

What makes us people, what gives us our names, is the full complement of human experiences that we acquire over years of living. It is learning to walk, and failing at dating. It is hiking in the woods, swimming in the ocean, tasting the most fabulous dessert you’ve ever had. It is staying up all night to write a term paper and getting a mediocre grade. It is scoring the winning point and losing a beloved partner.

I must say that I am slightly concerned over the bold new future, in which companies will reduce us to a pile of numbers, but I am not THAT concerned, because we will always have our souls. Nobody can take that away from you.

And nobody can take away the souls of those whom we have known and lost. We carry them all with us. We carry their names. And we carry their stories.

Lekhol ish yesh shem. Each of us has a name, and each of us has a story.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, second day of Shavuot, 5/21/2018.)

 

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May (S/He) Remember – 8th Day Pesah 5778 / Yizkor

In last week’s New York Times, there was a column by Nicholas Kristof about clergy in America (“The Rise of God’s Spokeswomen,” Sunday Review, April 1, 2018), and how clergy of most denominations are increasingly female.

We in the Conservative movement began ordaining women as rabbis in 1985, and as their numbers have grown, the idea of a female rabbi has become more widespread and more acceptable. I have female colleagues who are in large congregations, who are the senior spiritual leaders of their flocks, and who are as respected and as effective in their positions as men. And that is a good thing.

Kristof says something that I found particularly moving: that our changing attitudes to spiritual leadership, that our increasing openness to women in the role of rabbi or minister or priest will ultimately transform our theology. He cites Rev. Serene Jones, the first woman president of New York’s Union Theological Seminary (just across the street, by the way, from my rabbinic alma mater, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America), who suggests that women will ultimately dominate religious leadership in America, and that this will reshape our understanding of the role of God in our lives, moving from “stern father to more of a maternal healer and nurturer.”

The student body at Union is now nearly 60% female; at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, 63% of rabbis ordained since 1998 have been women. About one-fifth of all Conservative rabbis are women, and that percentage grows a bit each year; this spring’s ordination class is 16 women and 12 men, or 57% female. The membership of the Cantors Assembly, the professional organization that consists primarily of cantors serving in Conservative synagogues, is 35% female.

Women Rabbis Lean In

Conservative rabbis

With so many more women joining the ranks of clergy, our relationships with the various faith traditions, at least in the progressive movements, will naturally change. And so too will our theology.

Still, the sense of “maleness” in Jewish tradition is ever-present, and hard to miss. Consider the special service that we will perform in a few minutes, the proper name for which is “hazkarat neshamot,” the “remembering of souls.” But almost everybody in the Ashkenazi world refers to it as Yizkor (accent on the “yiz,” since both Yiddish and English tend to accent the penultimate syllable in most words; the original Hebrew, properly pronounced, accents the “kor”). “Yizkor” is the first word in the memorial prayers that we recite during that part of the service; these prayers are recited only four times per year: on Yom Kippur, on Shemini Atzeret, the last day of Pesah, and the second day of Shavuot.

What does “yizkor” mean? Literally, “May He remember,” and since it is followed by the word Elohim (one of the common terms for God), it should be understood as, “May God remember,” as in, May God remember my mother, my father, my sister, etc. Now, in English, the translation is non-gender specific. But in Hebrew, the word yizkor is totally, unapologetically masculine. There is actually nothing we can do about it – there is no gender-neutral third person conjugation in Hebrew. It’s either yizkor or tizkor, may She remember, and with that latter term there is the same challenge. So, while we might avoid the issue by referring to the service by its proper name, Hazkarat Neshamot, we can’t really do much about the memorial prayer itself.

There is a midrash that I truly love about the creation of humans as described in Bereshit / Genesis on the sixth day of Creation. It’s about the verse, Genesis 1:27:

וַיִּבְרָא אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱ-לֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ, זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם.

And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them.

The midrash interprets the verse to indicate two stages of the fashioning of human beings. The first adam, the first human creature, has two sides, a male side and a female side. Because the Hebrew in the first half of the verse has a singular direct object (“vayivra et ha-adam… bara oto,” “God created man… He created him”), it is clear that God created only one creature at first. Furthermore, one may also extrapolate that, since the text tells us twice that this being is fashioned in the image of God, that God also has two sides, a female and a male.

adam and eve

Adam and Eve, by Tsugouharu Fujita

The second part of the verse, “zakhar uneqevah bara otam,” “male and female He created them,” has a plural direct object, so the midrash’s perspective is that God took this two-sided figure and split it into two distinct beings, a female human and a male human. Both are therefore equally in the image of God. Both are God-like, and God is neither male nor female but actually both.

I must concede that when I think and speak about God, I am trying not to envision a specific image. On the contrary, my personal understanding is much more along the lines of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s view of God as kind of force within the natural world, a process that works through and around us, and such a force has no gender, no body, no clear “actions” as described in the Torah and midrash. But I know that if you scratch two Jews, you’ll get at least three different theologies. And, of course our text and liturgy is saturated with images of God as a distinct character, and in particular, a distinctly male character: Avinu malkeinu, Avinu shebashamayim, God sitting on a heavenly throne, God creating the world, God dictating to Moses on Mt. Sinai, and so forth. And all that language is unquestionably masculine.

I’m going to pause here for a moment to share a personal anecdote, one that might help illustrate a different model for understanding God.

A few of you know that I lost my first cousin, Anne Lerner, last week. She was 50 years old, and taught in a middle school for “inner-city” kids in Hartford. She died unexpectedly of a heart attack, and we were all shocked and raw, particularly in the context of Passover, to be burying her at such a young age. Anne was never married; she did not have children of her own. But she was so loved by all her students, current and former, that there were about 300 people at her funeral. The school where she taught actually closed on Monday so that teachers and students could attend, and the school actually brought the students in buses to the synagogue in Manchester, CT where the funeral was held.

I am telling you this not to share with you my grief over the loss of my cousin, but rather because in discussing the arc of my cousin’s life with my family members in preparation for delivering a eulogy, I came to understand that she saw her students as her children. She was to them like a nurturing mother, leading and guiding and nudging where possible, making sure they were taken care of, making sure that their needs were met, that if they were not receiving love and support at home, then at least they would get it at school.

Anne loved those students. She loved them dearly. And they loved her right back.

Teaching is holy work, and although my cousin would not have thought of herself as holy, she was in some sense modeling for all of us a way that we might understand God: our teacher, our guide, our provider, our nurturer, the one who makes it possible for us to love. God need not be “Our Father, Our King,” but rather, “The One who loves us and gives us the ability to love.”

That is a theology that appeals to me, and arguably an understanding that is made even more reasonable as the clergy becomes more female.

Any of you who have ever discussed theology with me, in a class or my learners’ service or one-on-one, knows that I am all for re-thinking how we understand God, because the traditional images do not work well for me. And some of you may also know that I draw heavily from my teacher Rabbi Neil Gillman (zekher tzaddiq livrakhah / may his righteous memory be for a blessing) in this matter, whose bottom line was that we have to seek the understanding of God that works for us as individuals. (BTW, if you are interested in learning more about this, come to my session at the Tiqqun Leyl Shavuot on Saturday night, May 19th at the JCC. I will be discussing Rabbi Gillman’s legacy and why connecting to theology is so essential.)

What works for me is to see the entire palette of humanity as reflecting the image of God: God is male and female, black and white and everything in-between. And God is also none of these things.

As we embrace more women in the clergy, we will surely welcome a broader understanding of the Divine, a more balanced sense of God that incorporates both paternal and maternal aspects.

While I am almost certain that we will always continue to refer to hazkarat neshamot as “Yizkor,” may He remember, I think it would be a good thing to, when we recall our loved ones who are no longer with us, to remember that they were as much subject to God’s nurturing love as to God’s justice.

May that God, the one that reflects the balance of humanity, remember all of those whom we recall today. May our God-given ability to love inspire us, in their memories, to spread more love in this world.

anne lerner

My cousin, Anne Lerner z”l

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning / 8th day Pesah, 4/7/2018.)

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