Continuing my series of High Holy Day sermons, here is the sermon on delivered on Yom Kippur eve.
On Rosh Hashanah eve, I mentioned that there is only one rabbi buried in our cemetery, Mt. Nebo. That rabbi is Rabbi Isaac Fall, the very first rabbi of this congregation. Someday, there will be a second rabbi buried in our cemetery, and that rabbi will be me. For when the time comes, it will be in Mount Nebo that both I and the Cantor, along with our son Josh, will be laid to rest. I know that for a fact because we already have purchased the graves.
No, we are not expecting to use any of those graves in the foreseeable future. Death is not knocking at our doorstep, at least not that we know of. It is simply that we have started a process of pre-planning for that eventuality.
In fact, for quite some time, I have been an advocate of funeral pre-planning. Many have been the congregants that I have counseled to do just that, both in order to relieve their family of the burdens and the costs of making funeral arrangements at a time when the last thing they need is something more to anguish over, and in order to assure that the details of their funerals are according to their wishes and not someone else’s.
I have been doing such counseling for years but I have to admit that aside from the Cantor and I drawing up our wills, we have put off doing such planning ourselves. That is until last year, when the Board discussed raising the cost of burial plots in our cemetery. It was in the light of that discussion that the Cantor and I decided that if we are going to buy our graves, now’s the time to do so, for why wait and pay more? You see, after 25 years of serving this congregation; after 25 years of welcoming your infants into the covenant of our people, teaching your children and preparing them for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah services and their Confirmations, officiating at their weddings, and sadly, officiating at the funerals of your parents, spouses, siblings, and sometimes even your children; after 25 years of living in this community and raising our own children here, we have come to think of this as our home, and we have neither the intention nor desire to spend the rest of our lives anyplace else. So it was only logical for us to buy our graves before the price went up.
Then this summer, the Cantor’s father passed away. So there we were, in Detroit, sitting around her brother’s living room with the rest of the family, meeting with the funeral director and the rabbi, arranging for her father’s funeral, often agreeing, but sometimes disagreeing about what Seymour would have wanted. We didn’t argue. We just grappled with trying to find the right answers so that in the end we could render him the most appropriate honor. Would he like this casket or that casket? Did he want to be buried in a suit or in tachrichim, the traditional funeral garb? Questions both big and small. What would Seymour want?
It was after we returned home that the Cantor and I decided that we wanted all those questions resolved before we died, so that our children would not have to grapple them. And not only that, but we wanted it all paid for in advance so that after our loved ones laid us to rest, they would not have to confront a multi thousand dollar bill and hope that our estate would be able to cover the cost. The pain of a loss is pain enough to bear when a loved one dies. Those who will mourn for us should not have to endure the pain of funeral arrangements as well.
So we have been going about the process of pre-planning our funerals. We have met with both David Deuth of Weerts and Steve Presley of Wheelan’s, for both these funeral directors have been very caring of our Jewish community and we wanted to give both of them the opportunity to “bid the job” as it were. We discussed caskets. We discussed vaults. We discussed whether or not we want the Hevre Kadisha to ritually prepare our bodies. We discussed limousines. We even talked about having chocolate in the family room – a nice touch we experienced at Gail’s father’s funeral – and we both love chocolate, though by that time we personally wouldn’t be able to enjoy it, but others would. And then we met with Mr. Carvel, at the cemetery, and set up a program to pre-pay our grave opening fees. In our planning, we want every detail taken care of so that our heirs need not be challenged by them.
Our next step – and we have discussed this – will be to write ethical wills. Writing an ethical will is a beautiful Jewish tradition. Through it, you transmit to your heirs, not your material possessions but rather your spiritual ones; the teachings, values, and principles which you hold dearest to your heart and which you sincerely wish that your loved ones will strive to incorporate into their own lives, and by so doing, keep your spiritual legacy alive. It is also a vehicle through which you can express certain wishes when it comes to the funeral service itself. If my father-in-law had written an ethical will, it most certainly would have included the fact that he wanted a Dixieland band to accompany him to the grave. In any event, we knew that because he told us so on countless occasions. Now, I would not include a Dixieland band in my ethical will, but I very well might include the desire to have someone sing the Peter, Paul, & Mary song, “One Kind Favor.” That song has always touched me and I always have wanted it sung at my funeral.
But when all that is said and done, the hard facts on the ground are that there is far more to funeral pre-planning than all the items I have listed so far and the other countless related details which I neglected to mention, such as flowers. These other aspects of funeral pre-planning are not things that you can take care of with a funeral director, or any other functionary for the ceremony. And without question or doubt, these are the more significant elements that contribute to the beauty and meaning of your funeral service.
My father-in-law, Seymour Posner, had a beautiful funeral but the most beautiful part of it was not the result of our conversations with the funeral director or the rabbi. It had nothing to do with the casket we chose or the chocolate in the family room. And while my brother-in-law, and my niece, and a family friend, and the rabbi offered lovely eulogies, even they only contributed to the greater beauty in a limited sense. What made his funeral so strikingly beautiful was the fact that over 750 people attended. Over 750 people felt it important enough to take the time out of their busy lives to come to the mortuary in order to pay their last respects to this man, my father-in-law. That type of turn out – that type of demonstration of love – is not something that you can arrange for in advance by hammering out details with funeral directors and setting up payment schedules.
When it comes to that aspect of funeral pre-planning, that type of pre-planning takes a lifetime; a lifetime of living one’s life in such a way that one effectively touches the lives of others.
In the past, I have told you that traditionally Jews are supposed to wear their kittel on Yom Kippur. The kittel is a white linen robe which serves as a burial shroud. For on this day, more than any other, we are instructed to dress for the grave. For on this day, we need to confront our own mortality, and in so doing, commit ourselves to engage in this most important aspect of our funeral pre-planning. For it is up to each and every one of us, and no one else, who that person will be that they are burying on the day of our funeral. We can plan the details of the casket and the vault and the flowers till the cows come home, and we can pay all those bills in advance, but all those plans are meaningless unless we truly invest ourselves into planning to transform ourselves into the type of people whose very nature and character inspire others to take time out of their busy lives to attend our funerals and show us the respect we have earned.
That is what we are supposed to be doing on Yom Kippur. We are supposed to be looking at our lives – at the people we are, the people we have become – and seriously ask ourselves: “Is this the person I want to be? Is this the type of person who will inspire others to render me honor by attending my funeral?”
The name of the game here is touching the lives of others in positive and loving ways. All too often we are so wrapped up in our own personal pursuits. We spend so much of our time seeking comfort and pleasure for ourselves. We measure ourselves by material standards; how much we earn, how much we have, what we wear, where we live, what we drive, where we eat, where we go on vacation. In so doing, we miss the point entirely. It is not a matter of what we have and what we gain, but rather a matter of what we share and what we give. Our comfort, our ease, our luxury only pleases us. Others may compliment us. Others may envy us. But trust me, no one loves us because of it. People never love you for what you have. They love you for who you are, and how you share yourselves with them. It is not how easy your life is, how much pleasure you enjoy. It is how you have helped to make their life a little easier, a little more pleasurable.
I wish to share with you a true story; the story of a man whose funeral I officiated at some 13 years ago. Some of you, or maybe many of you, may have heard this story before, but it is worth retelling.
Actually it is the story of two men; the man I buried and his brother. These two were as different as night and day. The deceased lived his whole life here in the Quad Cities, while the brother went off to college, entered business, experienced growing success and ultimately wound up as a major New York corporate executive; a very wealthy and powerful man. The brother who remained in our community led a rather simple life. He never made a lot of money. He never seemed to need a lot of money. He was neither famous nor powerful, and these things did not seem to matter to him. His wealthy brother truly loved him but also didn’t really think that much of him. He felt that his brother never really made much of his life.
And it was true, materially speaking that is. He hadn’t done much. He hadn’t made much. But he did accomplish something, but it wasn’t anything you could take to the bank or buy a car with.
You see, this simple brother loved sports. Particularly high school sports. Even more particularly, Moline High School sports. Whatever the sport – whatever the team Moline High School fielded – he was their biggest fan. For years, he was their biggest fan. He was such a big fan that he actually became an unofficial part of their sports program. Whenever a Moline High School team played, his seat was not in the stands, but on the bench, along with the players. And while sitting on that bench, he constantly gave the players words of encouragement, and sticks of gum. He loved them and they loved him.
Then the man died and his wealthy brother arranged for the funeral. After all, he needed to take care of his poor brother. And financially, he did so. But when it came to the funeral itself, he was in for a great shock. For the room was packed; filled with student athletes and with graduates. A massive number of people whose lives this simple man lovingly touched. Graveside, at the conclusion of the interment service, all these young people marched by the open grave, each one dropping into it a stick of gum.
The wealthy brother was more than flabbergasted. For while he loved his sibling, in truth, he thought of him more or less as a nebish, never really amounting to much. But here, at this funeral, he came to discover that his brother who may have been lacking in material possessions was rich in friends; was beloved by many. The more he considered what he was witnessing, the more it shook him. It shook him so because he came to realize that it was not through wealth or power that his brother had amassed such a loyal and loving following. It was through the gifts of his heart. It was through all the efforts that he had expended, over so many years, in showing others how much he cared for them. And what probably shook the wealthy brother the most was the growing realization that when he died, the chances were slim that there would be anywhere near an equal demonstration of affection at his funeral. Yes, today, there were many who catered to his every whim, but he knew in his heart of hearts that they did so, not so much because they loved him, but rather because of his position and the power he wielded over their lives. But when he dies, that power will be gone, and so might they. Now he found himself questioning his long held perceptions. Who truly was the wealthiest brother? He with his possessions and his power, or his brother with his army of devoted friends?
Every person on the face of this planet wants to be loved. Even those who protest that they don’t want to be loved, deep down, they really do; perhaps more than most. It is natural for us. Being loved lifts us to the clouds. It makes us feel as though the entire world is ours. There is no greater high. How wonderful it feels when we encounter people who are truly happy to see us. The smiles that fill their faces warm our hearts as little else can. Every person on the face of this planet wants to be loved.
Yet the sad truth is that for many of us, we are not nearly as loved as we would like to be. We may know a lot of people, and many of them may actually like us, but how many of them really love us? Perhaps all too few. Whether or not we realize it – we acknowledge it – that fact is our misfortune.
But who is responsible for that? We are, and no one else. For we are the ones who are in control of whether or not we are loved by others. For if we want others to love us, then we must love them, and show them our love. Admittedly, sometimes loving others can be a challenge, for it can call upon us to put others before ourselves; to place their needs before our needs. These days, in a world which tends to focus on the pursuit of self-satisfaction, this can appear to us to be an insurmountable challenge. But it is not. For the magic of it is that the more we care for others, the more we find that we are also caring for ourselves. There is a personal healing imbedded in acts of selflessness; when we reach out to touch the lives of others in positive ways. It provides us with a pleasure more satisfying, more long lasting, than any material possession or self-indulgence will ever offer.
Each and every one of us has the power to become that person. All that is necessary is that we decide to do so. This is precisely what Yom Kippur calls upon us to do. This is precisely what God calls upon us to do. God has blessed us with the capacity to perform countless acts of loving kindness; to live a life of loving kindness, but it is purely up to us to do so. And if we do so, we will find that when we are laid to rest, our funeral pre-planning will have paid off. For those whose lives we touched will be there with us, accompanying us to the grave. They will say prayers and many may weep; they may weep real tears as they bid us farewell.
So what will it matter to us, some of you may wonder? We will be dead, beyond the touch of their tears. But it will matter. It will matter because it means that our life will have had lasting meaning. It will have been a life well spent, for in it we have sowed the seeds of love wherever we went. Those seeds have taken root, grown and flourished. And now that we are gone, those who shed tears for us, will spend at least some of the rest of their lives gathering the seeds of love we sowed within them and sharing those seeds with others. It is that river of love, flowing from us, through us, and back to us again, that has the power to transform our funeral from an exercise in ritual to a testimony to a life which has changed the world and changed it for the better.