How can we change? Yizkor 5778

YK Yizkor 5778 2017 Yom Kippur

Sep 30, 2017

Rabbi Philip Weintraub

Congregation Agudas Israel

 

In 1965 John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote:

There are places I remember

All my life though some have changed

Some forever not for better

Some have gone and some remain

All these places have their moments

With lovers and friends I still can recall

Some are dead and some are living

In my life I’ve loved them all

Copyright John Lennon and Paul McCartney, https://www.thebeatles.com/song/my-life

 

In a few minutes, we will recite Yizkor.

May God remember the soul of my ____________ who has [have] gone to his [their] eternal home. In loving testimony to his life [their lives], I pledge tzedakah to help perpetuate ideals important to him [them]. Through such deeds, and through prayer and remembrance, may his [their] soul[s] be bound up in the bond of life. May I prove myself worthy of the many gifts with which he [they] blessed me. May these moments of meditation strengthen the ties that link me to his [their] memory. May he [they] rest in peace forever in God’s presence. Amen. (Machzor Lev Shalem)

 

Today is a complicated day, emotionally.  We are thinking of our own lives.  We confess our sins.  We beat ourselves up.  We consider where we have been and where we want to go.  At the same time, we think about those that came before us.  This ratchets up the emotions, as well.  I am very pleased that in our Yizkor booklets this year we have two special additions–one that is for a difficult parent–how do we honor their memory when they caused us so much harm?  The second is for those who are fortunate to have living parents and offers thanks to God for that blessing.

Using my eclipse theme of the last few days, I wonder how does the eclipse change us and our views of the universe?  How do we look at the world differently, seeing that even the sun can sometimes be hidden from sight?  

 

In a way we find ourselves in two separate timelines–one is our own and one is that of the people we remember.  With both we are looking backwards.  We need eyes in the back of our heads, but we cannot forget the eyes in the front!  Looking forward is essential also.  If we spend the entire day (or our entire lives) beating ourselves up for the past, we cannot move forward.

 

In Masechet Sanhedrin 37a, we study a powerful Mishnah: we discover how the court interrogates witnesses.  This is not a simple affair.  They do not just swear to tell the whole truth.  In a capital case they are reminded that someone’s life is literally in their hands–if their evidence helps convict someone–they are the one who must help with the execution!

 

Several stories on the page draw my attention.  The first is of Rabbi Zeira.  He always saw the best in everyone. (I have spoken regularly about the importance of that noble trait!)  When he was presented with thieves, he tried to help them repent.   

הנהו בריוני דהוה בשיבבותיה דר’ זירא דהוה מקרב להו כי היכי דניהדרו להו בתיובתא והוו קפדי רבנן כי נח נפשיה דר’ זירא אמרי עד האידנא הוה חריכא קטין שקיה דהוה בעי עלן רחמי השתא מאן בעי עלן רחמי הרהרו בלבייהו ועבדו תשובה:

The Gemara relates: There were certain hooligans [biryonei] who were living in the neighborhood of Rabbi Zeira. He brought them close, i.e., treated them with friendship, in order to cause them to repent of their sins, but theother Sages disapproved of his actions. When Rabbi Zeira died, those hooligans said: Until now, there was the short one with singed legs, i.e., Rabbi Zeira, who would pray for compassion for us. Who will pray for compassion for us now? They thought about this in their hearts and repented. Ultimately, Rabbi Zeira’s actions were proven correct, as they repented.

What does this say about how we interact with one another?  What kind of world do we live in if we judge each other in the most lenient ways, if we expect that others are doing their best?  We are all flawed.  We are all imperfect and if we remember that about the other, how much more positive will our interactions become?

 

I know how difficult this is!  There are many lessons in our tradition that are regularly repeated.  The importance of fair judgement is one of those.  We are told to favor neither the rich or the poor, nor our friends.  We are told to judge others for merit, for good, to see the best in one another.  If something has so many reminders in our tradition, you can be darn sure that we NEED the reminder.  Elsewhere in Sanhedrin we learn that there is no unnecessary repetition in the Torah–if something is repeated, there is a reason!  We NEED the repetition not to judge each other harshly.  We NEED the repetition to treat one another fairly.  We are inclined to favor those who will favor us.  Depending on the moment and circumstance, we may favor the more well off or the less well off–whether for personal reasons or communal ones.

 

Returning to our text: the second story is part of the intimidation and interrogation of the witnesses.  There they are reminded that saving one life is saving an entire world and ending one life is ending an entire world.

לפיכך נברא אדם יחידי ללמדך שכל המאבד נפש אחת מישראל מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו איבד עולם מלא וכל המקיים נפש אחת מישראל מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו קיים עולם מלא

The court tells the witnesses: Therefore, Adam the first man was created alone, to teach you that with regard to anyone who destroys one soul from the Jewish people, i.e., kills one Jew, the verse ascribes him blame as if he destroyed an entire world, as Adam was one person, from whom the population of an entire world came forth. And conversely, anyone who sustains one soul from the Jewish people, the verse ascribes him credit as if he sustained an entire world.

Finally the third is about how we are all created by God from one ancestor–maybe not genetically–but so that no one can claim their father is greater than another.

ומפני שלום הבריות שלא יאמר אדם לחבירו אבא גדול מאביך

The mishna cites another reason Adam the first man was created alone: And this was done due to the importance of maintaining peace among people, so that one person will not say to another: My father, i.e., progenitor, is greater than your father.

If we see ourselves as coming from a common spiritual ancestor, we see that we are all one family.  Looking at our world today, we can use this reminder.  Whether our skin is light or dark, we come from one ancestor.  Whether we like low taxes or high taxes, we come from one ancestor.  Whether we believe that government is a force for good or a force of bureaucracy, we come from one ancestor.  Whether we are right or left, love Israel or do not care, we come from one ancestor.  If I believed it was acceptable for me to have a tattoo, I might put these words on my forehead!  We must see the commonality in one another, the humanity and the Divinity in one another.

What is it about these texts that draws me back again and again: the importance of relationships; the importance of continuing to work on our relationships; the importance of recognizing that others are ALSO working on their relationships.

 

Ok, I want to see if you are awake for a moment.  I’m going to ask you raise your hands.  How many people here email? text?  Do you ever talk to people on the phone?  On facetime?  In person?  Now I need a shout out, which of those options creates the least amount of confusion?  Probably in person.  Yet how often do we use other forms.  They are substitutes, and important substitutes, but how often do we misconstrue and misunderstand.  We write a message with love and kindness, expecting someone will read it that way.  Yet how often is a message hastily sent, responded to in haste?  How often do we read a message and think someone is annoyed with us–and find ourselves completely wrong!  Tone, body language, facial expressions are essential to our communication–yet we are missing those so often.  I know I have this challenge, and I bet you do, too!

 

This is clearly not a new problem–well maybe the texting or snapchatting is–but as I shared from the Talmud–we have been having unnecessary disagreements forever!

 

It seems one of the main tasks of this time of year is attempting to repair relationships.  That works fine if the other party is on the same page, but what happens when they are not.  Not everyone is open to renewing relationships.  Not everyone is capable of it.  Some people just are not ready.  Some situations are not meant to be reconciled–if someone was abusive–neither side may find reconciliation productive–and it can even be harmful.  If we are the damaging party, we may ask forgiveness, but we are not guaranteed it!  If we are the injured party, we may forgive if asked, but we are not 100% obligated to do so.

 

Earlier this week, I met with my Tuesday morning Mishnah group.  We looked at a tshuvah, a rabbinic answer, of Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, the former Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, may his memory be a blessing.  He was asked could one write a letter of apology before Yom Kippur, if one was too embarrassed to go in person.  While his answer strongly implied that going face to face was best, he implied that we should do whatever we can to repair what he have broken.  We learned that while we must make at least three attempts to ask forgiveness from a friend, from a teacher we must ask even 1000 times!  Yet in our conversation, we wondered about the broader implications.  Few relationships are broken through the fault of only one side!  

What happens if someone is gone?  If they are dead?  In these cases, expressing our feelings in other outlets can be productive.  We can write a letter, an email, speak to a rabbi, a friend, a therapist.  If we give ourselves outlets to discuss these losses, we may find ways of working through them that did not seem open before.

 

But of all these friends and lovers

There is no one compares with you.

And these mem’ries lose their meaning

When I think of love as something new.

Tho’ I know I’ll never lose affection

For people and things that went before,

I know I’ll often stop and think about them,

In my life I love you more.

 

The way we move forward is by having these conversations–before it is too late as often as we can.  Our biggest failure is thinking we cannot change–and neither can the ones we love.  We think we and they are immovable and inert.  The holidays, the shofar come to blast us out of this fallacy.  We can do it.  We can improve ourselves, our relationships.  Last night I referenced the Unetanah Tokef, reminding us that we can be alive, but we have the choice of existing or living.  The central line of that prayer is that

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.

But teshuvah and tefillah and tzedakah (return and prayer and righteous acts)

deflect the evil of the decree.

In many ways THIS is the lesson.  THIS is how we can react.  THIS changes our fate–or at least how we understand it.  We CAN change.  We CAN pray.  We CAN help the world.  If we make those choices, our world is a better place–not in some future time, but NOW.  L’shanah tovah.  We now open our yizkor books.

Sources:

https://www.thebeatles.com/song/my-life

https://www.sefaria.org/Sanhedrin.37a.10-37b.2?lang=bi

Machzor Lev Shalem

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