Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775
[Anne sings ending of “Papa, Can You Hear Me?”]
Oh Yentl, Yentl … I could almost see Barbra singing. Thanks Anne! Yentl is the story of a young Jewish girl who wants to study Talmud disguised as a boy. Yentl wants the rights and responsibilities of the traditional male role for herself. In a sense, this is her way of remembering her dead father. The presence of Yentl’s father can be felt throughout the movie.
As we recall the film, we can easily remember Yentl addressing her father again and again. To me, the centrality of memory ties everything together. We are commanded again and again in the Torah, zachor, remember, do not forget.
The very end of the movie is a hymn to memory.
When Yentl is on the ship, traveling to America, she sings “A Piece of Sky,” and the theme of remembering her father is the last thing we hear from Yentl:
“Papa, I can hear you...
Papa, I can see you...
Papa, I can feel you...
Papa, watch me fly!” [Long held note …]
Yentl’s desire to memorialize her father drives her in search of a new life in a new country. She knows her father would be proud of her, if he could see her now.
Memory is powerful, but memory is also imperfect; sometimes it is difficult to recall a voice, a touch of a loved one who died many years ago. They say that time heals everything, but time also blurs our memories. For instance, my mom passed away over 24 years ago, and sometimes I cannot remember the sound of her voice calling me to come in for dinner, or telling me to stop asking questions –two very common phrases. Perhaps we need to settle for what we learn from the lives of those no longer with us. I recall what she taught me, by her example, about remembering the anniversaries of those who had passed on.
On Sunday afternoons, when I was young, we would get on the bus and go to the cemetery to visit the appropriate gravesites –according to their yahrzeit. My mom used to say, “pay attention, and come back when I cannot.” After the visit, we would stop by my aunt’s for cake and mate.
Maybe my aunt’s delicious cake was the trick –I do like cake, but I want to believe that it was because I understood the wisdom behind our visits, and still treasure them. It was not only a visit to a gravesite, but a chance to talk about my grandparents and our other relatives –and for me to ask more questions! As we remember our loved ones, they become part of us, and in this way they live on. NOW I know what she meant by “come back when I cannot.”
Our tradition teaches us zakhor, remember, again and again; one of the ways we remember is by marking the yahrzeit, the anniversary of the dead. Judaism offers us four ways of observing a yahrzeit: Two that we do in private, and two we do in public. The two private customs are lighting of a candle and giving tzedakah.
1. Lighting a candle. It is a universal Jewish tradition to light a candle at sunset, on the eve of the anniversary. [SHOW a yahrzeit candle]
The candle should last 24 hours . In Yiddish it is called a yahrtsait likht, “anniversary candle,” in Hebrew we call it ner neshamah, “soul candle,” after the verse “ner Adonai nishmat adam, the candle of the Lord is the soul of man” (Prov. 20:27). The verse means that God’s light infuses human beings and gives us life, just like breathing would.
2. Giving tzedakah. It is also a well-established tradition to make a contribution in memory of our loved ones. The Hebrew word tzedakah evokes the idea of justice, kindness and honesty. The implication is that the giving tzedakah embodies what a righteous person stands for. So, giving tzedakah for a yahrzeit is as if we were saying, “my loved one was a righteous person, and since they can no longer give tzedakah, I will.” In the Book of Proverbs (11:4) we read, “tzedakah tatzil mimavet,” which our sages read literally, “giving tzedakah, delivers one from death.” Following this teaching, when we give tzedakah for a yahrzeit, we are keeping the memory of our loved ones alive.
Since these are private observances, I trust you follow them at home. This evening, I would like to focus on two public observances: visiting the gravesite, and reciting Kaddish at the synagogue.
3. Visit the gravesite. One of our congregants has the most wonderful tombstone inscription. It is at the Jewish cemetery on Decatur Road and reads, “Thanks for stopping by.” His inscription is right on: “Thanks for stopping by,” though you didn’t have to, but I thank you nonetheless. I believe that those who are buried in cemeteries are not aware of whether we visit or not. The visit is about us, the living. Visiting speaks about how we remember and how much we value memory.
I know it is difficult, some may even think unpleasant, to visit cemeteries even though they hold the gravesites of our parents, grandparents, and other loved ones. We keep telling ourselves, “the dead are not here,” but when we are standing at the gravesite, in some sense, they are. We feel their presence; their memories become so tangible that we can almost hear them; we sense their watchful gaze ...
For some of us, it is physically or logistically impossible to visit a gravesite on the yahrzeit of our loved one; they might be buried far away, halfway across the globe, or their yahrzeit is during a time of the year when it is not possible for us to travel to the cemetery. If that is the case, you may want to consider our Kever Avot ceremony. Kever Avot means, “Gravesite of our Ancestors.”Our memorial prayers will be held this Sunday afternoon at the two cemeteries -see your programs for more details.
Most of those in attendance come because they have a loved one buried at the cemetery. However, if you don’t have a loved one buried here, you may still come to remember your loved ones buried elsewhere. You are also welcome to come to remember a friend or a fellow congregant who is buried at our cemeteries, but whose family lives out of town or abroad. The family may not know that you are there to remember, but you will.
At a time of the year when families and friends used to come together for the High Holidays, our Kever Avot Services highlight the profound significance of a time when we visit the graves of our loved ones and friends. We remember their lives, appreciating the difference they made in our lives and in the lives of others, and of our community. It is a great opportunity to show how much each one of us care, and I know that we all do.
4. Finally, reciting Kaddish. The Kaddish prayer is undoubtedly one of the most powerful and evocative pieces of Jewish liturgy. Reciting the mourner's Kaddish links those who are alive today with all previous generations, in a continuum of faith and hope that has helped the Jewish people to survive and flourish, despite all attempts at their annihilation.
The wisdom of the Jewish tradition excels here, for we are required to recite Kaddish in public, and never alone. Judaism teaches that when we have a yahrzeit, we must leave our home, and join other people: our family, relatives, and fellow congregants, at Temple. Our rabbis had a deep insight: It is good for us to “hang out” with the living, when we remember our dead.
Yet, this ESSENTIAL and defining Jewish practice might be in decline at our congregation. Every month, the Temple office sends out notices about yahrzeits. Let me remind you that these are yahrzeits YOU have told us YOU wish to remember, YET, often, even those who request that names be read on a particular Shabbat, do not actually come to say Kaddish. Reading the name is not a substitute for actually showing up and reciting Kaddish.
I know … there are reasons why people CANNOT come to recite Kaddish: One may be sick or stuck at work, or out of town. My favorite two reasons why Jews do not live up to this responsibility are, of course well-known: “good weather … , and bad weather.” Some may say they CANNOT come because they don’t like the rabbi or the music, or the prayer book, or the time of services, or the oneg cookies, or the challah, or the coffee… Need I say more? As I see it, however, it is a matter of PRIORITIES. Nights out, fundraisers, movies, concerts, games, vacations, you name it, they can all be planned, yet they all seem to take priority over reciting Kaddish in public. If you are one of those who never missed a yahrzeit, I commend you, and encourage you to continue to inspire others with your example. We need you.
This past month, I have had a chance to examine my own actions and I have this regret about the year that passed. Al chet … I failed at my rabbinic function by not stressing enough that every Jew has the religious responsibility to recite Kaddish for those in their families who are no longer with us. When it comes to recognizing the importance of reciting Kaddish, we can all do better in the New Year.
Do I imply that those who do not recite Kaddish for a yahrzeit, don’t care about their loved ones? Of course, not! I have no doubt in my mind that we all care for our loved ones who have passed on. Tonight I want to remind you what Judaism teaches and why it is important.
To the best of my knowledge, the Reform movement never abolished reciting Kaddish in public. We have made some accommodations, so busy Modern Jews could still observe this beautiful and important mitzvah. Traditionally, one must recite Kaddish on the actual day of the yahrzeit. Reform practice represents a compromise: We may come on the Shabbat after the yahrzeit. But it is STILL mandatory, required, and expected.
I can only remind you of what our tradition holds dear. Being Jewish is a choice. We are all Jews-by-Choice. I assume that we all care about our Jewish heritage: We are here. We CHOOSE to belong or attend this congregation. Some of us might be thinking: We care, but we do it in our own way, at home, in private. I say “great!” But that has never been the Jewish way because individualism does not contribute to the continuity of the Jewish people. It is not the Reform Jewish way either. We are Reform, of course, but not THAT Reform!
I know that some of us DO NOT have any yahrzeits yet; it is OK to take upon ourselves performing this mitzvah. In the past 166 years we have collected many names in our yahrzeit list. It will take some time, but it would be very meaningful if next to each person on our yahrzeit list we could also print the name of the member who remembers them. I know who is who, but not everyone does.
WE should also remember: Many people do not have anyone left to say Kaddish for them. Think of the millions who were murdered during the Holocaust, entire families with no one left to say Kaddish. I normally say it for them, but it would be a great mitzvah for some of you to choose one of them as well, and make it your mitzvah project to come recite Kaddish for those people in our Yahrzeit list or for a family who perished during the Holocaust. What a great way of connecting with your Temple and it’s history, and to revive a lost tradition at our congregation!
Let me be clear: Rabbis have two sermons. One, “come to services more often,” and “study Torah, learn what it means to be Jewish.” That’s it, thank you … [WALK AWAY].
A problem that we Reform Jews have is the idea of obligation. In Hebrew it is called a mitzvah, a commandment. A mitzvah is different than an mitzveh, a good deed. A mitzvah is a religious obligation. We stress autonomy and personal choice so much that when treasured practices disappear, we struggle with bringing them back.
If the idea of being obligated to recite Kaddish for your loved ones or a mitzvah for others does not speak to you, I invite you to think about reciting the Kaddish in community as a personal spiritual practice, in other words, as something that brings us closer to God and to the Jewish people.
In Kol Haneshamah: Yamim Noraim, the Reconstructionist machzor, we find this most beautiful meditation, which …
“Jewish tradition, in its wisdom, teaches us that between the world of the living and the world of the dead there is a window and not a wall, […] the rituals of Shiva, Kaddish, and Yahrzeit open windows to the unseen worlds of the dead. They create a sacred space and time wherein we can open our hearts and minds to the possibility of a genuine inter-connection with beloved family members and friends who have left behind the world of the living. [… The yahrzeit] is a window. Prepare to open that window…”
At the beginning of a New Year, I invite you to get in the habit of opening that window more often, for your loved ones who are gone from among us, or for anyone for whom you cared in life, and now you want to remember. Reciting kaddish for our blood-relatives and spouses is a mitzvah, a commandment. Reciting kaddish and showing other signs of respect for the dead is an act of chesed shel emet, an act of true, pure compassion and love. In the year ahead, let us open the window to our obligation, but also, may we open the window to more acts of true compassion and care for others. If we commit to do so, our community will be enriched. We owe it to them, and to ourselves. Because, after all, how we remember them says more about us than about them.
Judaism is a tradition that celebrates zakhor, remembering as a living memory. Rosh Hashanah is known in the Talmud as yom hazikaron, “day of remembrance.” God remembers our actions during the past year, our tradition teaches, and we remember our good deeds as well as our shortcomings.
We remember at the beginning of every year, and this year, I invite you to also make an effort to remember the rest of the year. They say, “New Year, new opportunities;” it is also a time for new habits, for new or renewed traditions. Maybe we all remember one of our people’s most beloved old wise traditions, the recitation of Kaddish at its due time.
May God renew for us a New Year of treasured memories, old and new. May we remember so that we may renew the memory of our loved ones. As my mother used to say to me: “Pay attention … and come back, when I cannot.” It is now up to us, the living, to carry on the duty our tradition: Zakhor! Let us remember as long as we live. L’shanah tovah.