This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is adapted from the sermon shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk at the Yizkor Memorial service on Yom Kippur at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood OH, on October 12, 2016. We encourage you to post comments or questions below and to share this link by email or on social media such as Facebook or Twitter to continue to engender dialogue on the topics it raises.
There’s a game that I play. If you call my cellphone enough, I choose a ringtone just for you. That way I’ll know you are calling before I look. Sometimes the lyrics of the song just seem apropos to the caller. With others, I’m trying to be cute: like when I downloaded the Theme to the Godfather for when the person calling me is Rabbi Joshua Caruso. It is a way of taking what used to be just a functional act of answering the phone, and turning it into a ritual that is personal. It works. Trust me: I am already smiling with delight the moment Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together rings, because Joanie is calling to see when and where we might grab dinner.
A little under two years ago, I realized there was a frequent caller to my phone without a personalized ringtone. So I looked and found what I thought to be just the right one. It was from about a decade earlier, an evocative song by John Mayer. The song is called “Say What You Need To Say,” and honestly, it reflects on the themes of this holiday. Let me be clear: Mayer’s song is not religious. It is a pop tune. But its lyrics immediately remind one of how fleeting time is and why it is better in this life “to say too much than to never say what you need to say.” Late one November weekend in 2014, I clicked on the song and assigned it to Berkowitz-Kumin-Bookatz, thinking I was being ever-so shrewd. And I proceeded to forget about it.
A few weeks later, my family and I were in New York City grabbing slices at a Brooklyn pizzeria nearby our first home. I heard John Mayer’s song and then felt my phone vibrating in its holster. I stepped out to take the call, and learned from Bart Bookatz that on a snowy night in December, a young man who was part of our congregation had just died tragically. Suddenly I didn’t feel so cute. Heartsick, I collected my thoughts and to prepare to call members of his grieving family.
I don’t think I ever told anyone that story. It’s not really important. It shouldn’t matter where your rabbi is or what he is thinking when he learns of a sad occurrence in your life. But I am sharing it today. Why? Because we are all here in this room because at sometime we got a call. Someone called us to let us know a loved one or friend was in trouble or might be nearing the end. A sister or brother, a teacher, a mentor, a parent, a friend, a sustaining presence in our life had been stilled by death. Because we got that call, the rituals of Yom Kippur were for the rest of our lives altered. We became part of those who don’t just observe the holiday by atoning or fasting. We became the people who enter this sanctuary at this hour to say what we need to say.
It is yizkor, and we have each other to lean on. Even if you came here with some ambivalence, your presence here says: “Papa, I remember you.” It says, “Mom, why did you have to go?” It says to siblings who died before us, “I miss you so.” It says to friends whom we have survived, “thank you for really getting me.” It says to mentors, “your life taught me something.” Just by showing up, we’ve conveyed all of these sentiments. But there is something more. When we participate in yizkor– we also convey that faith, hope, and goodness have grown in the world- because of the life, however humble or grand, of those who lived and then died before us.
A story: this one I’ve told a thousand times. But for some reason, it’s been on my mind this fall. The story takes place when my son was just about 2-3 years old and it always gives me a smile. We were visiting my sister-in-law’s home in Philadelphia and he was cuddled up sleeping next to his mom on the futon in their guest room, and I was on an air mattress a couple of feet away. You ever try to sleep on one of these things, an air mattress? It’s ok when you are tired enough. But that particular night I had trouble settling my thoughts to begin to rest.
When your child or grandchild is just a few years old, you are on good behavior.
-You are trying to be a good role model, and not complain too much over the little things.
-You are making an effort to swear less than you did before a little person was listening to you.
-You are trying to keep your tone of voice in check, and to speak with assertiveness but with kindness, whether to a stranger or to the members of your family.
You aren’t alone. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, dear friends, rabbis, cantors, and preschool teachers are modeling for your kids too. They are showing your children how a courteous person responds when someone is sad, how a respectful person acknowledges that someone does something nice for you, and how a decent person encounters store clerks, cab drivers and wait staff with appreciation.
It was about 3 in the morning and he was just a toddler, when Zachary woke himself up with a big sneeze. To tell you the truth, I didn’t hear the sneeze. But I did hear his insistent voice rise up from across the room after he wiped his nose with a tissue.
“Daddy,” he said. “Daddy! Daddy!” he said until I groaned out, “What?” He responded: “Say, bless you.”
“Bless you,” I replied. “Thank you,” he answered, and within three seconds, he was fast asleep again. Not so much for me. I was up for about another hour.
But I did get a gift in that hour. I learned a lesson from a little boy, now a young man in the 11th grade. It is a special lesson I didn’t truly understand when he was little. But I do get it now that I am one of the people who has to say Kaddish today. It is this: our lives are for three things: to love, to bless, and to be grateful. That’s all we ever have to do. To love fully, to bless another person, and to say thank you for all we have. This is the righteous path of a full life.
Now…who taught those things to you? Was it a parent? A sibling? An aunt or uncle? Was it a beloved life partner? Might it have been someone who is no longer in your life? Surely someone conveyed to you that your life has purpose. On Yizkor this year, I want you to remember who that was and how they connected with you. But remembering is not enough. After you remembe them, I want you to remember, even if it is the last thing you say before you die, that there is no wrong time to say to your people: God bless you. God bless you, thank you, and I love you.
It seems most intuitive with thank you. Doesn’t it? We learned it as kids. And of those three values there is an infinite amount of literature we see about nurturing gratitude in the places we live and work. Have you seen the self-help section of the bookstore, lately? Nearly every title tells the story of how to heal your life through gratitude and equanimity. While walking through a Barnes and Noble, I couldn’t help but take note of the titles of books in this genre. I saw How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk which is about improve communication and thanking them when they help us. There is Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends On It which includes material about looking at yourself with compassion and appreciation for all the values you hold. There is the long-standing bestseller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People which brings gratitude into play in both in life and business. Then there is one of my favorites: a little volume I saw called Happy Wife, Happy Life, which speaks for itself in terms of who we owe a little gratitude and appreciation for all that they do.
But Judaism doesn’t let us off with gratitude. We are commanded to go further. God says we should bless those whom we encounter in our life which can seem so esoteric. How do we bless one another? It must involve us knowing something about theology or faith or Hebrew. Doesn’t it? The Torah says no. Blessing others does not have to be anything grand or complicated. It can simply be woven into the subtleties of how we relate with others from moment to moment.
-Blessing is when the Biblical Jacob meets grandsons he never expected to know. When told his grandsons were going to visit him at his bedside, we read וַיִּתְחַזֵּק֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וַיֵּ֖שֶׁב עַל־הַמִּטָּֽה׃ he rallied himself so they’d see their grandpa in full dignity. Just by pulling himself together, before any words were exchanged, Jacob blessed those kids. Yes, he ultimately spoke to them. But the first blessing he gives them is the way he pulls himself together and embraces them warmly.
-Blessing is when the biblical Rebecca encounters a parched servant sent by Abraham through the desert, at a well where she draws water. When he asks her for water, she not only offers it to him, she runs back to the well, repeatedly, until he and each of his camels are satiated. Her kind and generous energy is not only a blessing to him. She is literally the answer to his prayers.
If you think about these subtle moments of blessing in the Torah, and more, you realize that in your own lifetime, there are people who have blessed you. By showing up for you, by pulling themselves together for you, by being generous with their time and energies with you, or just when others were responsive to you, you received a gift. That’s what makes Yom Kippur so hard. On this Day of Atonement, we realize how often we have failed to reciprocate that gift. For our failures to show love and blessing in this way, we are ashamed. You know what? That is ok.
This reminds me of a story I heard of a funeral held at graveside. After the service, everyone left the cemetery except the mourning husband who was reluctant to go. He seemed to linger over the grave. Finally, the rabbi said, “the service is over. It’s time for us to go home to the shiva.”
The man waved the rabbi away. “You don’t understand rabbi, I loved my wife.”
“I’m sure you did,” she answered, “but you’ve been here for a very long time, you should go now. You should go home and start sitting shiva.”
Again the husband said, “You don’t understand. I loved my wife.” Once more, the rabbi encouraged him to leave, gently tugging at his arm.
“But you don’t understand,” the man said, “I loved my wife – and once, I almost told her.”
Once I almost told her…almost.
It is Yizkor. It is a brand new year, and there is simply no way to know if it is our last. All we know for sure is that someday a call will come to the people who care for us. The instant they get that call, what will be in their heart? Will there be gratitude? Will they remember blessing? Could there be love? Don’t let there be a year that was “almost” the year you spoke your truth. Don’t take a risk on “almost” gathering your people while just to tell them what is in your heart. For like John Mayer’s song goes, “even if your hands are shaking, even if your faith is broken, even if the hours are closing, do it with your heart wide open, and say what you need to say.”