The Challenge of Living a Long Life — Yizkor, 5777

14/10/2016 at 18:00 Leave a comment

Yom Kippur – Yizkor

Neil F. Blumofe

12 October 2016


Good morning – as we enter into these Gates of Memory – as we consider the personal stories that bind our lives together from generation to generation, this year we also remember three Jewish notables who exemplify Jewish thought, peoplehood, and conscience in our challenging world.  It is their writing, leadership, and example that encourages us to continue their work, in our own humble way – to allow our lives to resonate – as guarantors for those who are looking to us for inspiration and direction.


To begin, I will offer a few remarks about Rabbi Dr. Jacob Neusner, who died this past Shabbat Shuvah, and I will also share about Shimon Peres, who passed away just before Rosh haShanah.  In addition, I’ve asked Marc Winkelman to speak about Elie Wiesel this morning.  Marc is the Secretary/Treasurer of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, an organization founded by Elie and his beloved Marion shortly after he received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1986.  The Foundation is dedicated to combat indifference, intolerance, and injustice, through international dialogues and youth-focused programs that promote acceptance, understanding, and equality.  Marc and Elie enjoyed a strong friendship for more than a decade.



Rabbi Jacob Neusner was an American academic scholar of Judaism who is regarded as the most published author in history, having written or edited more than 950 books.  He received his rabbinic ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary and concentrated his research on the study of rabbinic Judaism in the Mishnaic and Talmudic eras, claiming that there were in fact several Judaisms that coalesced into what we now know as rabbinic Judaism.  His great importance to us is that Neusner translated into English nearly the entire rabbinic canon, thus opening up this world to the greater world.  He was an engaged scholar and with his connections to the past, with the publication of one of his books, Fellowship in Judaism: The First Century and Today (1963), helped to shape what became known as the Havurah Movement which continues to have a significant impact on American Jewish life.  As Shaul Magid writes about Neusner, “he was a believer in the flourishing of Judaism and the Jewish people, but was a critic of confessional Judaic scholarship and Jewishness not based in religion.”  He was one of the most influential Jewish intellectuals in America in the past fifty years – as we continue to try to find our way and place in 21st century America.


[SHIMON PERES] (1923-2016)

He had a political career that spanned almost 70 years, serving twice as the Prime Minister of Israel, twice as the Interim Prime Minister, a member of twelve cabinets and ninth President of Israel, Peres was considered to be the last link to Israel’s founding generation.  He was mentored by David Ben Gurion, and was an architect of Israel’s nuclear program, understanding that Jewish innovation and Jewish achievement were all predicated on Jewish survival.  Together with Yitzchak Rabin, Shimon Peres helped to organized the daring Entebbe rescue operation in Uganda in 1976.  The Book of Proverbs teaches that when there is no vision – we will perish.  Throughout his long and distinguished career in building the people and the State of Israel, Shimon Peres did not lose his capacity to dream and through even the darkest times to imagine a better tomorrow.  In 1996, he founded the Peres Center for Peace and in 2016, he founded the Israel innovation center, encouraging young people from around the world to be inspired by technology.  In 2014, when receiving the Congressional Gold Medal, Peres concluded his remarks before Congress with these words before Congress: “I leave you today with one piece of advice.  It is the advice of a boy who dreamed on a kibbutz who never imagined where his blessed life would take him.  When Theodore Herzl said, “im tirzu ain zo agadah – if you will it, it is no dream,” he was right.  Looking back on the life of Israel, our dreams proved – not to be too big, but rather, too small.  Because Israel achieved much more than I could have ever imagined.  So I ask only one thing of you – the United States of America – this mighty nation of dreamers.  Don’t dream small.  You are great.  Dream big.  And work to will those dreams into a new reality, for you and all humanity.”


[ELIE WIESEL] – Marc Winkelman


Thank you, Marc.  As we take these intentional moments for Yizkor this morning, and encounter ourselves anew, in the space between life and death, we see our flame flicker as we remember those in our lives who have made an impact – in the stories that we tell, in the genetics that we share, and most tragically, in the hopes and dreams suddenly broken by lives ended much too soon.  What a terrible burden we now hold.  If we had a few more moments, what would we say – how full would be our embrace of those whom we know we will not see again?


A rabbinical colleague of mine, Ken Berger, once wrote about the astronauts of the Challenger rocket, and how after the explosion in 1986, they had five minutes to contemplate their lives as they were plummeting to the ground from 65,000 feet up.  He called his sermon, “Five Minutes to Live.”  Terribly, almost three years later, Rabbi Berger and his family were on a commercial airplane flight when the tail engine exploded, crippling the controls.  As the plane lost altitude Rabbi Berger and his wife had about 40 minutes to contemplate their lives before they were killed – his two children miraculously survived.  If we truly considered our mortality, what thoughts would enter into our minds?  What actions would we take?  How deeply might we painfully dwell in the idea of, “if only.”


It is in these moments that quiet stories are shared – inspiration that may strum a soft chord – anecdotes of resilience and encouragement that serve to cushion our encountering these bleak moments and acknowledging our mortality.  How can we make peace with this, when all ultimately crumbles, like brittle matzah?


Our tradition teaches that King Solomon, a son of King David, and a most wise and discerning king in his own right, at important junctures of his life, wrote three sacred books in his lifetime.  When he was young and filled with zest for life, he wrote Shir haShirim – The Song of Songs – a passion-filled reverie that celebrates both spiritual and physical intimacy in the guise of young lovers.  When he was older – middle aged, and established, he wrote the Book of Proverbs – known in Hebrew as Mishlei — a testament to wisdom and the pursuit of ethical values and moral behavior.  When Solomon was looking at his last days – and he was able to assess the impact that he had in life, he wrote Kohelet, or the Book of Ecclesiastes – a book that interrogates the lessons that we are supposed to draw from our experiences in life.  Far from making peace with what we have accomplished and what we have left to do, Kohelet postulates that most of what we do is hevel – or futile – and that the impact that we make in the world before we die is blunter than we imagine.


Along with the Book of Job, Kohelet is considered radical and controversial in its challenging depictions of life’s difficulties.  When we see our life as a grand drama in the fullness of time, with each point connected, as opposed to singular events, broken up in the fragmentation of our own development – our life becomes filled with timeless understanding.  We are able to review everything we have done without cherry-picking that which we are most proud – or that which will play well in the restless scrutiny of the public – we see an uninterrupted precious offering of our years – rather than isolated incidents executed haphazardly here and there.


As we age, we get to see all that we have been, without concealer or makeup.  We gaze upon our blemishes and our frayed state plainly, yet gaining strength and vitality from seeing in our mind’s eye, who we once were, as well.  Yes, this is frightening – to see the landscape of who we have been and to see too that we are both a shadow of who we once were – and a shadow of who we were yet to become.  We are a totality of our actions – and the best teshuvah we can make is to not ignore what we have done, or write it out of our narrative that we tell ourselves, but rather to own all of it, even in its unpleasantness, and realize that we have not only survived our challenges and our bad choices, we have lived and continue to live to reset our judgments, by living with a radical sense of forgiveness or at least acceptance, before we die.


In the Mishnah, Rabbi Eliezer teaches – shuv yom echad lifnei mita’tach—repent one day before your death, and our tradition takes this as a potent lesson for expanding our perspective and broadening our awareness – allowing each moment to be sacred, for we do not know what will come next.  We look to cultivate presence in all that we are, now – and if you are like me, in all of the years, you find music to match your mood.


As I dwell in my life, I notice its soundtrack – the songs that were once so central to specific experiences or time periods of my life, and how subsequent songs that have come on the scene have been informed by what was – and are richer because of these juxtapositions, irrespective of song genre or category.  As my life’s soundtrack is being created, it plays like a mixtape – some Led Zeppelin, Arnold Schoenberg, John Coltrane, Chopin’s Nocturnes, and the discography of Leonard Cohen.


As we move back and forth among our memories – from our foundational remembrances to those that have just formed – to the ones that are effervescent to the ones that keep returning, to our dismay, to fill our slumber or to inhabit too, even our waking hours – to the ones that are marginally true, to the ones that have brought us to where we are now, from the intensely private memories to the public ones that serve as a great narrative of our collective purpose and status in this world, it is hard to think that our soundtrack will someday end.


To others will we just leave our studio recordings — what will happen to the live sessions – to the tape that continues to run, recording our non-manufactured, more candid moments?  We have seen, most embarrassingly and tellingly in our times, that these recordings, once forgotten and again resurfaced, can be destructive to the image of who we would like to think that we are.


To protect against this is to live the challenge of Rabbi Eliezer.  The best way to not have our previous images or comments come back to bite us, is to not create them in the first place.  In this time of year, I typically listen to a good bit of Leonard Cohen.  Leonard Cohen has been recording music for slightly longer than I have been alive, and in the chapters of his life, his songs correlate with the three main stages outlined by King Solomon.  And each of us, as we collect our own writings, postings, photos, or memories, know too that we create a collage of our collected works, as well.


How do we transform our shames and our regrets?  I have been intrigued with the more recent recordings of Leonard Cohen.  In 2012, at the age of 78, he released a song entitled, “Going Home.”  The lyrics as Cohen sings them:


I love to speak with Leonard

He’s a sportsman and a shepherd

He’s a lazy bastard

Living in a suit. 


But he does say what I tell him

Even though it isn’t welcome

He just doesn’t have the freedom

To refuse. 


He will speak these words of wisdom

Like a sage a man of vision

Though he knows he’s really nothing

But the brief elaboration of a tube.


This album is produced with his trademark sparse sound, backed by tightly harmonized female voices, urging along the messages of this song – and of our lives – love, desire, faith, and redemption – knowing that our time is limited.


And last month, on his 82nd birthday, he released a new song, “You Want It Darker,” in advance of the forthcoming album.  This song is a radical departure from his more established work – the themes of longing and inevitable loss are still present, yet the arrangement has changed.  For this song, Cohen connected again with the synagogue of his youth – Shaare Shomayim — a place in Montreal where his grandfather and great-grandfather served as congregational presidents, and where Leonard himself became Bar Mitzvah in 1947.


As he sings the lyrics which can be read as a challenge and a sober examination of God, he employs the haunting sounds of the male choir.  This is not a challenge from the thrilling remove of a coffee house or concert stage – this is an indictment of God and an assessment of his life emanating squarely from the sanctuary itself in the tradition of the founder of Hasidic mysticism, the 18th century Baal Shem Tov, who used to pray – Tateinu – today is Kol Nidre, when everyone forgives and is forgiven.  Let us put the past behind us.  I didn’t always do what was asked of me and you didn’t always do what was asked of You.  So, I forgive You and You forgive me – and we’ll call it even.  And Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Beredichev who wrangled with God on behalf of his community in the 19th century, daring God to choose another people, already, or as Elie Wiesel recounts in 2008, happened in Auschwitz, when a group in his barracks put God on trial for Crimes against Humanity – and found God guilty, and then they went to pray.   In addition, as Cohen sings in an inscrutable bass voice – he intones in English the opening words of the Mourner’s Kaddish as he also asserts –


If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game

If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame

If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame.


And then he switches into Hebrew – singing Hineni, Hineni – I’m ready, my Lord – the watchword of the High Holydays.  At the end of the song, the cantor of the synagogue has the last word, singing Hineni – seemingly to advocate on Leonard’s behalf, to plead with God and to help him get to where he wants to go.


I find this utilization of a traditional Jewish sound to be enlivening.  From our far distant places, we are called back to the experiences that we once have had, or are currently endowing, as we contemplate our last chapters.  Often, I walk in the hallway of our own Religious School, looking at the pictures of the Confirmation classes on the wall and imagining the trajectory of the students who I did not have the privilege to know, and wondering too about those who used to sit with me as they studied for the Bar or Bat Mitzvah – how they are and where they are.  This is the greatest benefit of being so long in our community – having such a long-term investment with so many of our families.


And now, we are not to trade one service for another – one year for another, giving the old one back as if we were leasing it.  We are to create our successes on what has already been – unable to strike much from our memory, while making peace with it.  This is the job of Yom Kippur – not forgetting; rather, learning how to move into all that we are as we look to imagine who we may yet become.


It has been said that in cultivating awareness, we realize that we live our lives as gravediggers trapped in a gold mine — marveling at the exquisite beauty all around us, yet knowing that our days are numbered.  What will this year bring as we consider the teaching of Rabbi Eliezer?  Can our lives still be unexpected and extraordinary?  Beyond our good days and bad days — right now, we are at the summit of our powers that are left to us.  Can we yet still be healed by coming to terms with our past?


On his first album, released in 1967, Leonard Cohen sang a song called, “So Long, Marianne,” a paean to a woman with whom he lived and who he had mightily loved – and with whom it ultimately did not work out.  He kept in touch with her intermittently throughout the years, and earlier this year he received word that she was dying.  This woman, who had helped Leonard discover his voice, and was a most powerful influence on him at one time, was in her final days.  This past July, he wrote to her saying:


“Well, Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon.  Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.  And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and for your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that.  But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey.  Goodbye, old friend.  Endless love, see you down the road. 


All we have is the song we can sing now – the Torah that we write in this moment that joins all of our previous chapters.  Like King Solomon throughout our lives, in our times, we have written our books, reflecting on who we have been.  Like Leonard Cohen, we can still offer vibrancy even as we may think that death may come later than it should.  We always have but five minutes to live – it’s always the day before our death – and if we outlive our connections that we have, we become lost souls, pining away for our end – exclaiming Hineni – that we are ready, my Lord.  Why not surrender the illusion that we have any control – and as we argue with God about our present circumstances, we can look to draw meaning and strength from the investments that we have already made in our years, that are always ripe for rediscovery.


G’mar Hatimah Tovah – Shanah Tovah Tikateivu vTeichateimu

Entry filed under: Halacha, Judaism, Liturgy, Talmud, Torah, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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