The Blessings of Memory

The Blessings of Memory

Yom Kippur 2016

October 12, 2016


The Blessings of Memory

Shana tova, everyone. We’re grateful to have you with us again today. Thank you for being here.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in hospital and hospice rooms of late. We have more than a few members of our community facing serious medical challenges. Each time I meet with families facing the end of life of their loved ones, I tell them something I learned from my father, a rabbi and trained grief therapist, who notes that in grief school they teach that the best thing to do before our loved ones die is to apologize to them for any ways we may have harmed them, and to forgive them for any ways they may have harmed us. The goal is for all of us to be at peace and as much as possible, to not leave anything that needs to be said until it’s too late. Certainly, one can forgive loved ones even after they die, though it’s much harder to do so, and there’s no way to know if they accept our apology after they’ve died. Not just this time of year – teshuva with our loved ones is always welcome.

I’ve also been thinking about the election quite a bit of late. I am a bit of a news junkie, and I like to stay up to date with what’s going on in the world, and in the presidential election process. It’s felt to me like it’s part of being a good American to watch the debates, as awful as they’ve been. I am glad I’ve watched them, at least so I can feel informed. I know the media always love to focus on who won and who lost following each debate. I think that without a doubt, it is clear to so many of us regardless of which candidate you support that if this is the best we can do for a presidential election process, we’ve all lost.

While it was on air, I became a huge fan of the TV show the West Wing. The writing, the characters, the politicians we wish we could have in real life were captivating. During this election process, I can’t help but be reminded of one particular scene, where Lord John Marbury is in the oval office with President Bartlett, who is accepting Lord Marbury’s credentials to be the British Ambassador to the United States. They have a brief discussion about the feasibility of placing a nuclear missile shield over the United States, and President Bartlett says, “well, it’s a discussion for serious men. They say a statesman is a politician who’s been dead for fifteen years. I’d like us to be statesmen while we’re still alive.”

It hit me just yesterday that that’s what I’ve been finding most disappointing in the debates, and in the state of our politics today. Where are the statesmen and stateswomen, if that’s even a term? And a related question – is it even possible for politicians to be statesmen in our oversaturated media markets? When Congressmen have to raise $10,000 per day for their reelection campaigns, and when tabloid journalism has taken us all on a race to the bottom, is there even room for good men and women to reclaim our politics and inspire us once again to lofty heights?

I’d like to think it’s possible, and I think we’d be well served by enabling our politicians to be statesmen and demanding that they do so. I understand the challenges of living a life where people put you on a pedestal and expect you to be better than everyone else. I also think if you can’t uphold basic values of decency and compassion and tolerance for those you disagree with you probably shouldn’t be running for office in the first place. Clearly there is a great desire for change in our country, just as there is for many of us on Yom Kippur. The question is, will our changes enable us to grow or are we trying to hold on to what we thought were better times before? Nostalgia can be a wonderful thing, and it can also blind us to the possibilities of a better future. Whoever wins, I hope that they will have the wisdom to do more than a little bit of teshuvah with the American people. We would all benefit from that process, and hopefully we’d do our parts to help uplift their leadership. I’m not optimistic it’ll happen, but as David Ben-Gurion said, “we have no choice, we must believe in miracles!”

We’ve lost a few major Jewish figures of late – Rabbi Dr. Jacob Neusner, who revolutionized the study of Judaism and made it worthy of serious intellectual study throughout the world and who published many volumes contributing to our understanding of Jewish history throughout our time, so many in fact that the New York Times called him the most published person in history. Of course, we also lost Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, Nobel Laureate, and towering giant of humanity who always inspired us to live by the famous words Never Again. Elie held up a mirror to the world, demanding that we live up to our highest aspirations and ideals, insisting that we could and must do better at providing a world where all can live in peace and freedom.

And Israel lost a statesman recently in Shimon Peres. It was hard not to love Shimon Peres in his later years. How could you not be impressed by an over 90-year-old who worked more hours than most of his grandchildren in pursuit of peace and Israel’s flourishing? When he celebrated one of his recent birthdays he sent out a photo of him standing next to the pyramids in Egypt titled, selfie from the exodus in Egypt. And when he left office, he made an almost five-minute video making fun of himself and his search to find his next job. It’s on youtube, has English translation, and is well worth your time.

Shimon believed in Israel’s right to control its own destiny. Without him, the nuclear reactor, I mean textile factory in Dimona, wouldn’t exist. Without him, Israel probably wouldn’t exist. And for the last years of his life, he seemed made for the position of President. It was a ceremonial position when he took it, and he imbued it with class, with the dignity and wisdom of his 70 years in service to Israel, and with his position as elder statesman.

He reminded me of our wise elders who’ve seen it all, have fallen down a hundred times but picked themselves up even more and kept on going. He encouraged us and Israel to keep going on the long, windy, difficult road to peace, even when it was difficult and even when it seemed impossible.

He was Israel’s chief dreamer, reminding us all of the vision he and Ben-Gurion and the other founders had. He wasn’t afraid of starting from scratch. He said in his video that “when there’s nothing, you can build anything”, and look at all that Israel has built over the years – truly astonishing to think about the technology and innovation that Israel has produced.

He also reminded us that peace would require difficult compromises. Better to make them now while we can. “If you keep refusing every offer”, he said, “you’ll pay a hefty price”.

Most of all, he encouraged all of us to do our part, and reminded us that we all have the ability to affect things for the better. He wasn’t interested in our playing small. We have the choice to dream, to hope, to dare, to move forward even against the odds. He said “you are as great as the cause you serve and as young as your dreams….[and] the future belongs to those who dare.”

Dr. Neusner wanted a Judaism with serious scholarship and no apologetics. Elie Wiesel wanted a world in harmony where we didn’t need to apologize for how we treated one another. Shimon wanted a world where Israel didn’t have to apologize for its existence and where all its citizens could live in peace.

And we, who remain behind with their legacies?

One of the blessings of the brain is that generally wants us to remember only the good times. There are exceptions in the case of trauma and severe wounding, but generally after our loved ones die we process what we need and can focus on the good they’ve left behind. As we begin the Yizkor service in a few moments, let that be our blessing. We’ve lost some great members of our communities this past year. It would be all too easy to be overwhelmed with grief, to give up hope.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who also died recently, reminded us that we carry our past with us. He said:

‘Looking backward, we recall our ancestry.

Looking forward, we confront our destiny.

Looking backward, we reflect on our origins.

Looking forward, we choose our path.

Remembering that we are a tree of life, not letting go, holding on, and holding to, we walk into an unknown, beckoning future, with our past beside us.”

My friends, so many of us have suffered losses this year, in our families, our communities, and our world. My blessing for us is that we can harness the blessings of memory, gently laying down those that don’t serve us, and instead carrying forward the beautiful reminders of what was, and also what can still be.

We are the legacies of those who’ve come before us. May we wear those legacies well, honoring them and us with our actions and our lives.

Ken yehi ratzon. So may it be for us, and for all who mourn.

Please rise for Yizkor….