Posted tagged ‘Yahrzeit’

The Middah of Zechirah: A Yizkor Sermon

November 3, 2016

Throughout these High Holy Days, we have been exploring the spiritually powerful world of Mussar as we have examined just a few of the Middot – the God desired attitudes or character traits – which have the ability to heal our souls and permit more divine light to shine into our lives, and through us, into the lives of others.

During these brief moments of Yizkor – memorial – when our thoughts and hearts turn to the loved ones we have lost over the years, I would like to introduce yet one last Middah, the Middah of Zechirah – Remembrance.  For after all, that is what this particular service is all about.

As I stated in earlier sermons, and just this morning, Mussar views our attitudes as existing along a continuum, from one extreme to the other, with the Middot seeking to help us find the ideal spot along that continuum at which we can establish for ourselves the most effective and uplifting set point for our personal attitudes.  When it comes to the Middah of Zechirah – Remembrance – that set point is to be found somewhere between the extreme of a purging from our memory of any thoughts of those who are no longer with us, and the extreme of a total and debilitating obsession with our memories of those who have departed this life; between the extreme of moving on with our lives as if those people never existed and the extreme of being so lost in our sense of loss that we find ourselves incapable of moving forward in our lives.  As is the case with all such continuums, as explained by Mussar, both extremes are destructive to our character, yet elements of both extremes are necessary for our spiritual survival.  The Middah of Zechirah seeks to help us discover the sweet spot along that continuum which combines that best of both perspectives in such a way that our memories of loved ones are neither lost to us nor seeking to drown us in an oceans of sorrow; in such a way that we can hold the memories of those we loved, and continue to love, near and dear to our hearts as they come to serve to brighten our lives rather than darken our days.

In our search for this Middah, we need to confront what might be for many a rather uncomfortable fact; that we fear extinction.  The nightmare we never speak about with others is the one in which we not only no longer exist in this world, but it is as if we never existed at all.  All the evidence of our having been here is erased.  If someone were to mention our names, the common response would be, “Who?  Never heard of him.  Never heard of her.”  That our life would have been the realization of Shakespeare’s words:  “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more:  it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”[1]

If that is what awaits us at the end of our days, then what is the purpose of the struggle?  Why do we grasp so tightly onto life?  Why do we invest so much energy into it?  Physical energy.  Emotional energy.  Why do we care?  Care about ideals.  Care about others.  Care about ourselves.  If it all comes down to nothingness, non-existence, why not just give up the ghost and end it now?

We all want our lives to mean more than nothing.  We all want to leave our mark before we are gone.  We all want to make some sort of difference; leave some sort of legacy.  We all want to be remembered.  Zechirah.  And just as we want to be remembered, those who came before us wanted to be remembered as well.

But how can we expect to be remembered unless we remember?  Why should we, in good conscience, expect those who follow after us to do more for us then we, ourselves, did for those who came before us?  We can’t, and we shouldn’t.

There are those who claim, “Memory is a very personal thing.  I keep it in my head and in my heart and that is all I need to do.”  But remembrance is more than mere memories locked away in our brains, hidden from the world at large; hidden even from those closest to us.  Remembrance isn’t something that is exclusively passive.  It needs to be active as well.  We need to act upon our memories as well as harbor them.  We need to bring them into our lives and not just keep them locked away in our hearts.

One way that we can engage in such active remembrance is, of course, through ritual.  That is precisely what we are doing right now by attending this service.  But this is only one such ritual, and it is a once-a-year commitment, and we can do it for all our loved ones together at once – mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, and God forbid, children.  We all know that there are other rituals as well which we can be observing, such as lighting Yarhzeit candles and saying Kaddish on the Shabbat nearest the Yahrzeit, attending such services as festival Yizkor services and Kever Avot.  Visiting the graves of our loved ones and saying a prayer.  Giving tzedakah in their memory on their special days, such as birthdays.  Now there are those who believe that by our observing each of these rituals, we enable the souls of our loved ones who have returned to God to experience feelings of joy and love not unlike how they felt when physically alive, we celebrated with them their special times, such as birthdays and anniversaries.  It would be kind of like sending them a spiritual greeting card.  Maybe that is so.  We cannot know for sure.  However, what we can know, and what we can experience, is whether or not it impacts their heavenly existence, it can impact our earthly existence.  Taking the time and the energy to observe such rituals in their memory can touch our lives in much the same positive and loving way that we experienced in celebrating their days with them when they were with us.  There is a tangible spiritual uplift we can feel when we take the time to light a Yahrzeit candle for them, say Kaddish for them, go to visit their graves.  Such deeds bring out our memories and draw us closer to them.  They have the power to heighten the feeling of their continuing presence in our lives.

While those special days with their special observances are very important, when it comes to our actively engaging in Zechirah, there are other opportunities as well – daily opportunities.  At the hands of those who are gone, we received manifold gifts; gifts that far exceed any material inheritance they may have passed on to us.  These are the gifts of the spirit.  These are the gifts which may not have added to our estate but they have added greatly to our character.  The wonder of these gifts is that we can keep them the rest of our lives yet freely share them with others and they would not diminish one iota.  Indeed, with every act of sharing, they grow.  And they grow all the more wondrously if, when we share them with others, we also share something about the people who gave us those gifts in the first place; introducing to those whose lives we bless, to those who blessed our lives.  Introducing them as if they are standing right alongside of us; a chain of tradition, if you will, of blessings.  You may have heard of “paying it forward”.  Well, we can pay it forward and backward at the same time.  In so doing, we can keep both the legacy and the memory of our departed loved ones alive and vital in this world.

Not every one of us is destined to have our names inscribed in the history books and remembered for time immemorial but that does not mean that we are destined to fade into nothingness.  Each and every one of us leaves a legacy; a legacy of our choosing.  And each and every one of us carries upon our shoulders the responsibility to transmit to others the legacies that have been left to us by those we loved.  We are the keepers of each other’s legacies.  In so doing, we are the ones who determine whether or not the fate of others is destined for extinction in this world or for an unbroken chain of memory and gift giving stretching far into the unforeseeable future.  The power of Zechirah – Remembrance – is in our hands and may we always make the most of it.

[1] Shakespeare, William, “Macbeth”, act 5, scene 5.

MEMORIAL DAY: Dare We Forget the Sacrifices?

May 24, 2014

It is Memorial Day weekend and so many of us are looking forward to the holiday; a 3-day weekend for most with plenty of sunshine (hopefully), as we relax with family and friends, basking in the Spring weather. Perhaps we will have or attend a barbeque. Perhaps a graduation party. Perhaps we may hit the road for a mini-vacation. Perhaps we will take advantage of all the holiday sales. What a wonderful holiday Memorial Day is for us!
While it is a wonderful break, especially after such a long, hard winter, it seems that in the midst of all our relaxing and partying, we may have forgotten something. We may have forgotten the reason for the holiday; what the holiday is supposed to be about. It’s not barbeque day. It’s not bask in the sunshine day. Its not take a mini vacation day. It’s not shop the sales day. It is MEMORIAL Day. It is a time when our thoughts should be turning to some very, very special people; people who were dedicated, brave and self-sacrificing. Indeed, these people made the ultimate sacrifice for us. They gave up their very lives so that we can continue to live in freedom.
On the Yahrzeit board in my synagogue’s sanctuary, in the bottom right-hand corner, there are eight plaques with stars next to their names. The star is there to acknowledge that each of these individuals was killed while in service to our country. One of them died in the First World War and seven in the Second World War. On this Memorial Day Shabbat, I will be including their names in the list of those others being remembered as we recite the Kaddish.
I am assuming – rightfully or wrongly – that this is a short list of those members of Temple Emanuel who over the years made that ultimate sacrifice. It is definitely a short list of those who served our country in time of war. With our congregation having been founded in 1861, I suspect that there were members of our congregation who fought in the Civil War, some of whom may have been in killed on the battlefield. Perhaps some of our number fought and maybe fell in the Spanish American War. Perhaps also in the Korean and Viet Nam wars. The members of our community have always been willing to serve, and if necessary, die for our country.
When we consider the history of our people, with all its pain and suffering, with all the prejudice, persecution, and bloodshed, the freedoms this nation has offered to us most certainly should be cherished. When practically no other nation on earth would welcome us, nevertheless give us full and equal rights and protections under the law, America stood out to us as a beacon of hope, security, and dignity. For our people, America was the exception to the rule, and continues to be the exception of the rule. Since before the birth of this nation as a nation, Jews have not been considered aliens or hardly tolerated guest but rather we have been welcomed as full partners in the American experiment.
With the Holocaust and all its horrors now being almost 70 years in the past, and the generation who lived through those dreadful years growing fewer and fewer with the passage of time, it is all too easy for us Jews who were born in the safety and security, and especially the full inclusion, of American life to take our freedoms – our acceptance – for granted for we have personally known no other existence. We have never been thrown into a ghetto or worse. We have never been denied our rights to vote or get an education or live in a particular neighborhood or work in a particular profession or for a particular employer. We have never felt the sting of living in a society permeated by the hatred of us; a hatred sponsored by the state itself. Yet these are precisely the things about America that we should not take for granted but rather cling to and value to the highest degree. Our gratitude should ever continue to be boundless; as boundless as the wonderful opportunities we so readily enjoy in this land.
All this brings us back to what Memorial Day should mean for us as Americans, and particularly as Jews. As easy as our lives are today, we should not deceive ourselves into believing that the freedoms we take so much for granted were easily gained or easily maintained. For they were not. In every generation from the birth of this country to this present day, there have been those who sought to destroy all that we have; those who sought to destroy the promise of America. In every generation, Americans have had to take up arms in order to protect the American way of life. They have had to take up arms to protect those very freedoms which we enjoy today and which have meant so much to us as Jews living in this land of freedom. Along the way, many of them have sacrificed their lives in that cause. They fought and their died so that we could gather in our synagogues on Shabbat and holidays, worshiping God in our own way – in the Jewish way – and free to do so without fear or dire repercussions. They fought and died for the freedom of American Jews and American Catholics and American Protestants and American Muslims and American Unitarians and Hindus and Buddhist and Sikhs. They fought and died for the freedom of the Whites and the Blacks and the Hispanics and the Asians of our land. They fought and died for the freedom of all Americans, regardless of race or creed or gender or age or sexual orientation. That freedom, which we too often take for granted, was more valuable to these military martyrs than was their lives. That we are who we are today is in no small way owing to their ultimate sacrifices. How could we ever adequately express what should be our gratitude?
Perhaps we can start by taking the time before we leave this building tonight to go over and look at those eight Yahrzeit plaques and consider all that they stand for. Perhaps as we look at those plaques we can say in our hearts, or maybe even out loud, “Thank you.” In any event, in the midst of all our leisure and pleasure on this holiday weekend let us try to set aside some time to reflect upon the great debt that we owe to America’s warriors and especially to those who have fallen in the line of duty. But if we truly want to render proper honor to the memories of these brave people, then we need to retrain ourselves in such a way that we never again take for granted that for which they so willingly sacrificed their lives.

Who Stands for Kaddish?

June 14, 2013

Recently, on the Reform rabbinic list server. there has been a discussion  about the common Reform Jewish custom of having the entire congregation stand for the Kaddish Yatom (the Mourners’ Kaddish).  While I found the give-&-take interesting, up until now I had decided that this was one conversation which I would follow but not partake in.  However that changed after one of my friends posted a very touching account of  his own personal experience at the time of his father’s passing.  In it he testified to how much more meaningful it was for him at the time of his loss to stand alone, or with a cadre of fellow mourners when saying Kaddish, and how when he found himself in the more typical Reform setting where everyone stands for Kaddish, how the transformation of this prayer into a communal event diminished his Kaddish experience.

His story inspired me to share a personal story of my own – though my experiences have led me to approach this question from a very different perspective.  His feelings are his feelings, and as I respect him greatly so do I respect his feeling.  But we are all molded by our experiences and mine have sent me down a different path than his.  So here is my story and what I have taken away from it.

Growing up, my family belonged to a classical Reform congregation in the Bronx.  My parents were a microcosm of the make up of that congregation.  My father was raised as an Orthodox Jew and for years refused to practice any Judaism, so deep was is distaste for Orthodox Judaism.  On  the other hand, my mother was raised as a classical Reform Jew by parents who had a very limited involvement in their congregation, yet as an adult she felt the need to deepen her Jewish connection.  For several years, while my sister (who was 6 years my senior) went to religious school, my family belonged to an Orthodox congregation, at the insistence of my mother. She felt it important that my sister have a Jewish education and the Orthodox congregation was the closest one to our home.  We never attended services – not even the High Holy Days – and until the day of my sister’s Bat Mitzvah (a group service on a Sunday afternoon, with no Torah reading), my father never set foot in that synagogue.  As soon as my sister had her Bat Mitzvah, my parents quit that congregation.  However, about a year later, they were approached by neighbors who belonged to a Reform congregation.  With my mother insisting that I, too, receive a Jewish education (I was in 1st grade at the time), my parents gave it a try and both of them immediately fell in love with Reform Judaism, both becoming active members of the congregation.

I grew up with only one living grandparent; my grandmother on my mother’s side.  A few years after my family joined the Reform congregation, my grandmother passed away.  At that time (this was the late ’50’s) it was still the practice within Reform Judaism that only the mourners rise for the Kaddish.  For eleven months, every Friday night, my mother would stand and say Kaddish for her mother, often standing alone, attempting to read along with the rabbi.  I say “attempting” because as a child, my mother never learned to read Hebrew.  She struggled mightily with the transliteration of the Kaddish as found in the old Union Prayer Book.  Even as a child, I clearly recognized how painful it was for her to stand alone in the congregation and fumble over this prayer.  It had to be extremely embarrassing, but she bore it every Friday evening, a true act of dedication to the memory of her mother.

Throughout our movement, my mother was not alone in this predicament.  In those days, and even more so when my mother was a child, Hebrew study was not a priority for Reform Jews.  It was after my mother’s experience that our congregation instituted the practice of everyone rising for the Kaddish.  They said it was in memory of all the Jewish martyrs of ages past but in fact it was in support of those mourners of the day who could not fluently read the Hebrew and deserved not to be so publicly embarrassed.  Feeling the pain of my mother, I always deeply appreciated that act of kindness.

Then came the days of my own mourning, with the passing of my mother, then my father, and then my sister.  One Shabbat morning, when I was attending a Bat Mitzvah at our local pseudo-Conservative congregation, I experienced for the first time what it was like to stand for the Kaddish as a mourner without the non-mourners of the congregation standing alongside of me.  Like my friend and colleague, I keenly felt the healing power of the moment in ways that I never felt in my own congregation.  I immediately appreciated what had been lost with the institution of our communal Kaddish.  Yet the memory of my mother’s Kaddish ordeal remained a painful memory.  What to do?

Shortly after that experience, in my own congregation, I instituted the practice of introducing the Kaddish in such a way that the mourners had an opportunity to spend at least some time standing alone in memory of their loved ones before they were joined by the rest of the congregation in standing and reciting the Kaddish.  Three years ago, I added a beautiful addition to that practice.  Now I not only have them stand when their loved one’s name is recited in the Yahrzeit list, but I also give them the opportunity, if they choose to take it, of sharing some personal reflection on the life of the loved on they are recalling that Shabbat.  Not only is it powerfully cathartic for those mourners who choose to take advantage of that opportunity, but it personalizes and enhances the Kaddish experience for all those congregants who will stand and pray without a Yahrzeit of their own to observe.  I have found that it truly does capture the best of both worlds.

Bringing the Yahrzeit List to Life

February 29, 2012

For those who are not aware of it, we Jews honor the memories of our loving departed by observing the anniversary of their passing by reciting a special memorial prayer in the context of our worship.  We call that anniversary by its Yiddish name, “yahrzeit.”  The prayer we offer in memory of our our loved ones is called the “Mourners” Kaddish.”

Last year, the President of my congregation came to me with a suggestion about how to make our services more personal at the point in the service when we recite the Mourner’s Kaddish.  I believe she had witnessed this at another congregation and found it meaningful.  Her suggestion was that before we read the Mourners’ Kaddish, we offer those who have a yahrzeit to observe the opportunity to share some brief reflections on the person or persons they are remembering.  So we gave it a try and I have to tell you, I found it to be quite a powerful and moving change in the routine of our worship.

As long as I can remember – as a child and as an adult – while attending Jewish worship services, the recitation of the Yahrzeit List before the reading of the Kaddish was this dry cataloging of names of people, most of whom I did not know.  Of course these names were meaningful to those who came to remember them and to those who actually knew them, and that indeed was important.  Needless to say, the older I got and the more time I spent in the community, the more names there were on the Yahrzeit List were those of people I actually knew; people of whom I had personal memories; people for whom the act of saying Kaddish was more meaningful for me.  Yet still, on any given Shabbat, many of the names, if not most of the name were for me, and I suspect for most of the rest of the worshipers, names of people unknown to us, and therefore impersonal.  And on those Shabbatot where all of the names where unknown, the Yahrzeit list and the Kaddish were little more than signals that the service was drawing to a close and that the Oneg would soon begin.

However, this all changed dramatically as soon as we began to invite mourners to share their memories of loved ones with us.  First of all, understand that not every mourner wishes to do so.  It is not their obligation.  It is their option.  There are many people who are uncomfortable speaking in public, and there are others who find the public sharing of such memories to be too personally painful.  But those who wish to share are invited to do so, and several do.  We ask that these remarks be brief and some are less brief than others, but none so far have been overly long.

But far more important than whether or not their remarks are short or long is what they have to say.  For it is in what these people say that we discover the power of the moment.  These mourners share both memories and feelings.  In so doing they transform these names into loving, caring human beings.  They share their virtues.  They share their faults.  They bring a tear.  They bring a smile.  In the end, everyone in the sanctuary finds themselves, to some degree or another, mourning individuals who they may never have known face-to-face.  We feel in our hearts the loss that our mourners feel.  We feel our own sense of loss in that we have been introduced to an individual who we probably would have enjoyed knowing, but never had the opportunity to get to know.

In this way, in our services, the Mourners’ Kaddish has become far more than a marker, indicating that the service is nearing its conclusion.  Its fundamental purpose – that of keeping alive the warm and loving memories of those now gone – has been reawakened in our hearts and in our lives.  We all become mourners.  We all come to realize that every single individual – living or dead – is far more than just a name; that every single individual brings into this world their own special brand of beauty.  When they pass away, and at least some of that beauty is lost, we are all diminished by their passing, even if we never knew them in life.

This has become a very meaningful congregational tradition for it has taken our worship services to a higher spiritual realm.

The Prayer of Breath, the Breath of Prayer

February 26, 2012

There are many reasons why people come to Shabbat services.  Some come to remember loved ones who have passed away.  Some come to take the opportunity to actively affirm their Jewish identity.  Some come because they find Shabbat worship to be a meaningful way to start a weekend of leisure.  Some come to connect with Jewish friends or with the Jewish community as a whole.  Perhaps some come because they have nothing better to do on a Friday evening.  There are many reasons why people come to Shabbat services, but I suspect – indeed, I hope – that perhaps the most common reason is that in one way or another they wish to try to establish some sort of connection with God.  At the least, they may view the very act of leaving their home on a Friday evening and making the physical effort to come to the synagogue for prayer as a means of showing God that they care.

To me, the saddest aspect of contemporary American Jewish life is that in most synagogues, like my own synagogue, many of the seats of our sanctuaries remain empty Shabbat after Shabbat after Shabbat.  For the empty seats serve as a painful testimony to the fact that most of our people rarely or no longer feel the desire or need to connect with God.  They are Jewish.  They probably believe in God.  But they have little interest in pursuing an active relationship with God, particularly through prayer and worship.

But be that as it may, we cannot force people to want to connect with God; to want to engage God in their lives through prayer.  We can only try our best to provide them with the opportunities and the inspiration to do so.  The rest is up to them.  As the old adage says, “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.”

However, as for the people who do choose to come to Shabbat worship, to stretch that analogy a little further, they are the horses who have chosen to drink; to drink from the wells of spiritual refreshment and Divine connection which Shabbat worship can offer.  It is precisely to these people that every synagogue has a responsibility; the responsibility to assist them – to work with them – in the search to find ways to make their prayers a more effective vehicle for connecting with God.

This past December, I traveled to Washington, D.C. in order to attend the biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism.  While at that convention, I had many wonderful and meaningful experiences.  Among them was a workshop entitled “Making Prayer Real.” It is upon that workshop which I wish to reflect.

First off, I have to tell you that I found the title of that workshop to be odd.  “Making Prayer Real” implies that our prayers are not real, and I do not believe that to be the case.  I believe that the prayers of any person who takes the effort to come to synagogue on Shabbat are real.  They may not be as effective as they could be, but they definitely are real.

That aside, I found the workshop  – particularly one aspect of the workshop – to be enlightening.  It was some­what meditative, but it was more than mere meditation.  I say “mere meditation” because I believe that while meditation techniques can assist us in prayer, they cannot replace prayer, especially in a Jewish setting.  For Jewish prayer is predominantly, though not exclusively, communal, while meditation is almost exclu­sively, if not exclusively, personal.  While there is a place for meditation in Jewish prayer, the greatest power of Jewish prayer is to be found in what we do together as a community of worshipers.

But back to the workshop.  At this workshop, one of the presenters – Cantor Ellen Dreskin, with whom I used to serve on faculty at the NFTY National Camp in Warwick, New York – conducted an exercise involving God’s name and breath.  As most, if not all of you know, we Jews are not permitted to pro­nounce the actual name of God.  It is a four-letter name composed of the letters Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, and when we see it in the texts, we say “Adonai” in its stead.

Yet there are many Hebrew words and names that incorporate elements of this name in order to include some sort of connection with God.  So, for example, the Hebrew name for Elijah is “Eliyahu.”  “Yahu” comes from that four-letter name of God, and the name “Eliyahu” means “Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey is my God.”  There is also a very well known Hebrew word which also includes an element of God’s four-letter name.  That word is “Halleluyah” with “Yah” being the God part.  The word means “Let us praise Yah; Let us praise Adonai.

Yet when you consider “Yah” it is a sound that is made up of nothing but breath – “Yah.”  So Cantor Dreskin had us do an exercise.  She asked us to take a deep breath and hold it.  Hold it as long as we could.  And when we finally let it out, we were to let it out with a “Yah.”  Dear reader, try that now then do it again.  “Yah” – God – is breath, and without the eventual “Yah” – without God – we cannot continue to breathe.  When you think about it, God is present in our every breath.  Every time we exhale, God is there.  For as long as we breathe, God is an integral part of our every moment, both waking and sleeping.

Then she turned our attention to that word: “Halelu-yah – Let us praise Yah.”  So we took a deep breath and held it, and then let it out saying “Halelu-yah.”  Dear reader, try that then do it again: “Halelu-yah.”  With our breath, we are praising God.  Our every breath should praise God, for without God, we would have no breath.

There is probably nowhere in Jewish texts in which this is better expressed than in Psalm 150, which is included in the Shabbat morning worship service.  For in verse 6 of that psalm it says, “Kol haneshama t’haleil Yah, halelu-Yah! – Every breath praises Yah, so let us praise Yah!”  Of course Cantor Dreskin had us sing this verse, but if you cannot sing it, then at least say it:  “Kol haneshama – t’haleil Yah, – halelu-Yah!”

This is not just a prayer nor is it just a meditative technique.  What it is, is a life perspective; an important spiritual life perspective.  For if we want to truly connect with God, we have to honestly come to the realization that God is just not present to us in the sanctuary, but is present to us every day, every hour, every minute of our lives, with every breath we take.  God is our constant companion, and every breath – every moment of life – is yet another gift from God; a gift for which we should be grateful.  It is only when we begin to view God in this way that we can begin to start to pry open those gates which seem to keep us from God and God from us.  The Hasidic master, the Kotzker Rebbe, once said, “Where is God?  Wherever you let God in!”  When we begin to recognize God’s presence in our every breath – that our every breath is a prayer – then we will have begun to let God into our lives.

So if our every breath is a prayer, why come to the synagogue?  Why come to services?  I once heard a dear friend and colleague of mine, Rabbi Stephen Pinsky, give a sermon about prayer.  It was back in my New York days.  In that sermon he said, “People ask me, ‘Why do I have to come to the synagogue to pray?  I can pray in the middle of Central Park.’  To this I respond, ‘If you find yourself in the middle of Central Park then you better pray!’” His point was telling.  People say that they can pray anywhere but the fact of the matter is that unless the situation is such that it evokes prayer, they rarely if ever pray.  The Shabbat worship service offers us the opportunity to set aside some time for the act of praying; for actively reaching out to God, and opening ourselves up to receive a God who is reaching out to us.

It is not unlike our love for our dear ones.  We know we love them.  We feel our love for them con­stantly, but we don’t always express it.  We don’t always marry word and deed to intention.  We don’t always say to them, “I love you,” nor do we always demonstrate through our deeds the love we hold for them.  Yet there are times like birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, which provide us with the opportunities to express in word and deed that which is always in our hearts.  So it is with Shabbat and worship.  It offers us the opportunity to open our hearts and express to God that which is always there, and perhaps even open our souls and receive God’s reciprocating touch.

Sensing God in our every breath – praising God with our every breath – and praying to God on Shabbat are by no means alternatives but rather they exist in a symbiotic relationship.  Our constant experiencing of God in our lives fuels and vitalizes our prayers.  It makes them meaningful.  It endows them with wings with which to fly to Heaven.  And as for our prayers, they give voice – a clear and beautiful voice – to the connection we feel to God with our every breath.  They enable us to announce to the world, and most importantly to God, those profound feelings we carry in our hearts.  For in the end, prayer is not just a matter of reading words out of a book but rather attaching those words to that which is in our hearts, so that together they can rise to Heaven and draw Heaven to us.

Snow What?

January 27, 2012

Friday, January 20th was not a wonderful weather day here in the Quad Cities.  Indeed, it was actually quite miserable, with cold and snow falling all day into the early evening.  It most understandably was one of those days when, having arrived at home after a long day at work, for most people, going out again was probably one of the farthest things from their minds.  Here at Temple Emanuel, during the course of the day we wrestled with whether or not to cancel services.  However, since by mid afternoon, we only had about 2 inches of snow on the ground, we decided to hold them.  After all, Shabbat is Shabbat, and 2 inches does not a blizzard make.

One of the calls which we received during the day, asking whether or not we would be cancelling services was from the associate pastor of a local Presbyterian church whose Confirmation class had been scheduled to attend our worship that evening; a church which has been sending its Confirmation class to our synagogue for a “Jewish worship experience” for so many years I cannot begin to count them.  When I told her that services would be held as scheduled, she sounded quite pleased rather than disappointed.

That service was planned as a special one for our congregation.  Not only were we hosting these visitors and longtime friends of our congregation, but we also were hearing from those of our congregation who had the privilege and pleasure of attending the recent joint biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism and the Women of Reform Judaism, as they shared with us their insights and reflections on that gathering.  On top of that, we were observing the first Yahrzeit of beloved modern Jewish music composer, Debbie Friedman, by including in the music of the service many of her settings for our prayers.

No sooner had the Cantor and I pulled into the parking lot than the students from the Presbyterian church started arriving in car-after-car-after-car.  While some of our congregants arrived later, when the service began, the Presbyterians were in a significant majority.  Though the numbers gap shortened as the evening progressed and a few more of our people arrived, I strongly suspect that had it not been for the special reports and music, we would have remained far outnumbered.  At the beginning of the service, I made a quip about how it seemed as though the Presbyterians were made of far hardier stock than the Jews, but we all know that it is more than that.

Our congregation serves as host to many different church groups in the course of any given year.  One thing that most of these groups hold in common is that they are in awe of what they experience here.  They are captivated by the very sound of the Hebrew prayers.  They find our melodies enchanting.  The text of our services really touches them.  They are both fascinated and moved by our Yahrzeit boards, our obser­vance of Yahrzeits, and especially when mourners share some reflections on the people they are remembering that Shabbat.  And when the ark is open, and they see the Torah scrolls they are wide-eyed in mystical wonder, and especially so when they are fortunate enough to attend on a Shabbat eve when we actually take the scrolls out of the ark, carry them around the sanctuary, and read from them.  For so many of these church members, attending our services constitutes a spiritual, or even mys­tical, experience.

This is truly one of the great ironies of American Jewish life; that Christians have a far greater appreciation of Jewish worship than do Jews.  They find so much more meaning in our worship than do our own people.  Nor is this odd imbalance limited to the worship experience.  I find it so whenever I speak or teach about Judaism to a non-Jewish audience.  The non-Jews flock to study Judaism while the Jews seem to flee from the opportunities to do so.  In speaking with the folks at our own Federation, they, too, acknowledge that while their public programs have met with great success, it is not so much the Jews who attend them but rather the non-Jews.  Indeed, for as long as I have been in our community, that has been the greatest complaint that I have heard about the massive crowds who year in and year out attend our Interfaith Yom HaShoah observances; “Where are the Jews?”

I have to tell you that our community is not alone in this Jewish malaise.  According to a study done by the Pew Forum, which is an organization devoted to studying all aspects of religious life in America, we Amer­ican Jews have a pretty pathetic showing when it comes to the appreciation of our religious oppor­tunities.  So, for example, while the national average for those who attend worship services weekly or more than weekly is 39%, out of 14 different faith groups, with Jehovah’s Witnesses ranking 1st at 82%, American Jews are tied with “Other Faiths” for 12th and 13th place – just above the “Unaffiliated,” with 16%.  According to that same survey, when it comes to how important people feel religion is in their lives, with the national average for those who feel that it is very or somewhat important being 84%, and with Historical Black Churches ranking number 1 with 98%, we Jews rank number 12, with 71%, just above “Other Faiths” and the “Unaffiliated.”

One cannot help but feel sad in the face of these statistics, and in the face of the reality that not only our synagogue but almost all American syna­gogues face on an ongoing basis.  Why is it that so many of those who are not Jewish have such a great appreciation for the rich and wonderful heritage which is our own, while we Jews look at it and yawn?  Perhaps it is the fault of the synagogues.  Perhaps it is the fault of the rabbis and the cantors.  Perhaps it is the fault of our religious schools.  Perhaps it is the fault of our obsessive desire to “fit it” with the rest of our society and not to be viewed as “different” or “alien” by our non-Jewish neighbors; to be with them, wherever they are, whenever they are there, doing whatever they are doing, and not to let our Judaism get in the way of that.  But more likely, it is all of these reasons, and even more.

There are those who say that competitiveness is a Jewish trait.  Maybe it is.  But if it is, then we as Jews cannot be satisfied being near the bottom of the list when it comes to religion; just one or two steps above those who openly profess that they do not care at all about religion.  So what are we going to do about it?  Whatever it is, we have to start doing it together.

The Psychology of Sad: A Yizkor Sermon

October 13, 2011

Several years ago, I received an email inviting me to take a personal health survey on a website called “Real Age.”  The purpose of the survey was to compare one’s chronological age with what they call one’s “real age,” which is determined by some formula which factors in both the state of the health of one’s body and the healthy or unhealthy behaviors one engages in.  While I was less than satisfied with the results of the survey, it did inspire me to sign up for their free wellness emails which I now receive about every three days.  Each email contains three short articles about simple things that we can do to improve our health.  They are articles like, “Eat Mexican Tonight and Fight Colon Cancer” and “Clear Brain Plaques With This Nutrient” which happens to be Vitamin D, and “The Food That Helps You Feel Carefree” which happens to be, believe or not, tuna fish.  Though sometimes based upon obscure studies, these are fascinating articles which offer some truly helpful tips, though I suppose there is a limit to how often one can be told to drink green tea and go for a walk.  Every once in a while I forward a whole bunch of these articles to my two daughters so that they too can reap some of their benefits.  I used to send them to the Cantor, but she kept sending them back to me, saying, “Well, are you going to do this or not?”

While most of the Real Age articles are about improving one’s physical health, every once in a while they publish one about improving one’s emotional health.  One such article was entitled, “Sad?  Don’t Forget About It.”  I read it and I immediately thought of this Yizkor service and this very special gathering of mourners.

According to this article, studies show that when we are feeling sad, it is important that we do not brush aside our sad feelings and try to forget them, but rather we need to embrace them and remember the source of our sadness if we wish to truly heal ourselves.  To quote this article, “Knowing what’s making you sad is key to dealing with it, learning from it, and letting go.  If you don’t process what you’re going through, sad thoughts may continue to linger, and sad signals may even get stored in your body.”

If this be true, and I trust that it is, then once again, I am amazed at the profound wisdom of those rabbis long ago who established the Jewish practices and traditions surrounding death and mourning.  They told us, “Do not try to run from your sadness and your pain.  Do not try to hide it and gloss it over.  Rather, you must embrace it, for only through embracing the pain of your sadness can you learn how to deal with it and live with it.”  Ours is not a tradition of wakes and calling funerals “celebrations.”  Quite the contrary.  It is a tradition of Keriah; of tearing our clothing in order to acknowledge that our loss has created a tear in the very fabric of our lives.  It is a tradition of Shivah; of stopping our lives for seven days so that we can focus on the grief of our loss.  It is a tradition of Kever Avot; of visiting the graves of our loved ones before our major holidays.  It is a tradition of Yahrzeits and Yizkor; of setting aside special times dedicated to remembering our loved ones now gone.  How very wise those rabbis were, for long before the days of Sigmund Freud and the birth of psychology, they understood all too well that in remembering there is healing.

The rabbis also understood that human beings need the structure of specially appointed times in order to facility and focus that process of remembering.  Of course we are fully capable of remembering our loved ones on days other than Yahrzeits; at times other than during Yizkor services.  But if left to our own devices, those memories are usually pushed to the back of our minds, for the challenges of day-to-day living tend to demand most if not all of our attention, so our thoughts focus on them.  The memories of our loved ones will float to the surface occasionally, but only briefly, as our minds are overwhelmed with filling more immediate needs.

This, by the way, is the very same reason why we celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, and holidays like Valentine’s Day.  Of course, we love all our dear ones 24/7, but usually we do not have the opportunity to give that love a lot of thought or attention.  However, when we arrive at a birthday or an anniversary, or Valentine’s Day, we have been given the opportunity to focus on our feeling; to place the demands of day-to-day living on hold as we direct our attentions to telling and showing our dear ones how much we love them.

Yahrzeits, Yizkor, Kever Avot, Shivah; they are no different from this.  They, too, are opportunities to place the demands of day-to-day living on hold as we direct our attentions to telling and showing our dear ones who are no longer with us how much we love them still.  And with the telling and the showing most certainly comes the remembering.  And with the remembering comes the healing.

Yet there is something within us which calls upon us to resist this process of remembering and healing.  Perhaps it is because we live in a society which is obsessed with fleeing from pain or discomfort.  Most of us grew up without the benefits of air conditioning, yet we were able to survive and adapt to the hot, muggy days of summer.  But today, who goes outside if they do not have to in the middle of August?  We have invested millions of dollars into the development of drugs to eliminate the very sensation of pain.  In our society, pain is something to be avoided at all costs, rather than confronted.

Yet to avoid the pain of our loss is to deny ourselves the healing of memory.  And memory does heal us.  For the more we remember our loved ones, the less our memories dwell on the pain of our loss and the more we recall the pleasure and the joy and the love they brought into our lives.  The more we remember, the more our memories morph from anguish to gratitude; from the sting of loss to the sweet caress of love.

My mother died the agonizing death of cancer.  As her end drew near, delirium engulfed her.  The last time I heard her voice was over the telephone, the Cantor, Shira, Josh, and I were in Los Angeles.  Josh, who had recently been diagnosed with autism, was undergoing an extensive evaluation at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute.  I made the phone call while waiting to meet with his doctor.  I felt terribly torn for I needed to be with my son on the West Coast, but I also needed to at least stay connected with my mother on the East Coast.  As my sister kept me abreast of my mother’s condition, in the background I could hear my mother, calling out in her delerium, “Is that Henry?  Where is Henry?  Is he coming?  Is he here?”  Those words cut through me like a knife.  They were the last words I ever heard my mother speak.  She died literally hours before I was able to bring my family home to Iowa and rush off to her side in Florida.

The pain of that memory encapsulated for me my pain at the loss of my mother.  Even as I speak of it now, I feel a painful twinge.  But over the passing of the years, I have found that by embracing my memories of my mother rather than avoiding them because of the pain they may evoke, I have been able to heal from the pain of that particular memory, and from the pain of her passing.  For the more I chose to remember, the more the painful memories gave way to the warm and loving memories, not of her passing but of her life.  Now, when I think of my mother, I do not dwell on her cries born of delirium but rather on how she would go out of her way to make each and every member of our family happy; how, whenever she discovered a dish that  I liked to eat, she would serve it to me every single day, week after week, until I could no longer bear to look at it.  And when I would finally say, “Stop!  I can’t stand to eat this any more!” her reply was always the same; “But you used to love it!”  All she ever wanted to do was to make me happy.  And she did that with everyone in our family.  She was the personification of familial love.  As I remember the love, and not the pain, I am healed.

So it is with all of us, or so it can be with all of us.  We are gathered here to remember.  Remembering is so very important.  That is why we call this service Yizkor – “Remember” with an exclamation point, for the Hebrew word is in the command form.  Let us not hesitate to take every single opportunity our lives and our Judaism offer us to remember our loved ones.  Let us not be afraid to fill our minds and our hearts with their memories.  For the more we choose to remember, the more we come to understand that truly only their bodies have gone.  The essence of who they were still lives within us.  They still speak to us.  They still accompany us as we travel the path of life.  All that they were, we carry inside of us, in our memories of them.   And the more we choose to remember, the more we bring them back to life; the more we bring all that was so good and wonderful about them back to life.  The more we remember, the more we ourselves are healed of the pain their passing has inflicted.

We have gathered here in this sanctuary, for this special service, dedicated to the memory of our loved ones.  May our thoughts of them now fill us more with joy than with sadness; more with gratitude than with pain.