You Have To Be Present To Win – Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk – Yizkor on Yom Kippur 2014





This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple contains the Yizkor Memorial Service Sermon shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk with the synagogue on Yom Kippur afternoon- Saturday, October 4, 2014. We encourage you to share it with friends by email, post it to social media such as Facebook or Twitter, and to share comments on the talk below.

Earlier this week I went to the Kotel, the Western Wall, the Wailing Wall. Only not the one you are thinking of. There’s a Kotel right here in Cleveland. Really. Only it hasn’t been around that long. It didn’t take great energy to build…and it holds the spiritual intentions and insights of all walks of people – women and men of all races and religions. People come to the Cleveland Kotel and place notes there- just how you see notes in between the stones in Jerusalem’s Old City.

What I want you to realize is that the Kotel, the Wailing Wall of which I speak is not something people make pilgrimage to. No. People dread having a reason to see this wall. For in fact what I am calling a Kotel is in fact a plastic wall-hanging outside the Intensive Care Unit at Hillcrest Hospital. Just don’t ask the people at the front desk to show it to you, because most of them walk by it and never notice. And I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who calls it the Kotel.

But even if the person I’m going to see is in a different portion of Hillcrest, I make it a point to stop there. Why? Because I’ve come to feel a sense of warmth and peace arise in me while I stand by it. I bet that is just what someone in Hillcrest’s pastoral care department had in mind- giving visitors something soulful to do while a patient they love is resting, having a procedure or just needs a few minutes alone. Some of the cards in this Kotel say questions like “Will my daughter be ok?” or “When can we go home?” Others are more assertive than questioning, as our non-Jewish neighbors or in-laws write a “Hail Mary, full of grace” or its equivalent in other faiths.

One day this spring I was at Hillcrest and stood at the Kotel, captivated by 3 of the prayers placed there. The first one said: “God bless Terry, who cleans my wife’s room.” Honestly I don’t remember if the name was Terry or Carey or something like that. But I do know that someone is holding up a small candle of hope for Terry. In a moment of striving for wholeness, a husband is taking a break from praying to God to save his wife, and he instead prays for blessings to the kind soul cleaning his wife’s room each night with modesty and dignity. Reading that card made me think of all the people we are counting on when we head home at night from the hospital… all the people who we count on… to be honest and loving and kind and responsive to what they hear and see when our partner, our sister our or our child is in recovery.

I want to say here and now: God bless Terry and all the people who clean the rooms of Hillcrest and the Clinic, Menorah Park, UH, Montefiore and all the medical centers in our city. God bless the Terrys of this world and their children and their parents. God bless the church Terry attends on Sunday and the people in Terry’s life who show support when he or she is sick or injured.

The next card I saw on the same day said, and I quote: “The man in bed 17 is not the same man who hurt me as a child. Please save this man.” Twenty words long- this message stopped me in my tracks.  I saw this card five months ago but I can still see it in my mind’s eye. It was written on the back of a CVS receipt, promising two dollars off a Hershey Bar. It said: “Please save this man,” which made me wonder how many prayers like this are placed in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. How many Jews worldwide are this very Yom Kippur hoping for reconciliation and healing after a hurt sustained long ago?

A third and final card said just one word: “Remember.” That’s all it said was “remember.” Remember. And that’s the card I most want to call your attention to right now: remember. Right now, our Mandel Sanctuary is for the coming hour a room called remember.

      •  Remember: at Yizkor we remember things we’d much rather forget. All the ICUs and nursing facilities… all the clinical settings and doctor’s offices, all the elevators and parking garages where we prayed with one another and held one another.
      • Remember. That’s all the card said. And it is the hardest thing to do when all you want to do is forget! But it’s exactly what I need you to do right now.
      • Remember: the joyful times in the presence of your loved ones, when they danced at a wedding, when you traveled together, or even better… when they just sat in your living rooms, enjoying a contagious laugh over nothing.
      • Remember: not just the happy moments. Remember the history your loved ones saw, and what it made them believe. Where were your loved ones as history was being made- when men stood on the moon, as presidents were elected, when the Beatles broke up, when the Browns won the division, when Israel won a war in six days? Where were they?
      • Remember all the times they helped you to bed when you were sad or sick or injured. Remember when you helped them. Remember Yom Kippur in the past- sharing holidays and break-fasts, when you thought only of the present, and not that one day you’d be here without them in a room called remember.

As many times as I’ve spoken at Yizkor, this is my first time doing so without my dad walking this earth. It’s different. I want to feel at peace- to feel embraced and supported by an unending flow of life. I want to believe there is no difference between the ache we carry into this room, and the goodness of knowing that they lived. I want to believe. I do. Yet some days it’s hard.

I remember when I was just a little boy and my parents would take us to temple on Friday nights. On my way out to the car in the parking lot, I could fly. All I had to do was place my hands in the palms of my parents and then, on the count of three… one, two, three… I would be lifted so high by them, and could feel the breeze against my eyelids. I could feel the strength of my father’s grip around my wrists. The thing is… I’m sure they did the “one, two, three, whee” game when we left movie theaters and ballgames and back to school nights, but I remember it in the temple parking lot… flying home from Shabbat by the sheer force of my parents will. Did you play that game with your folks?

Yizkor is both the feeling of being lifted sky high by our loved ones and the gravity that summons us back to the earth. The gravity of Yizkor is not bad or sad, but it is salient and true. And I think I realize that all the more this year… because I can no longer see Dad or touch him or help him up from a chair. I can’t pray for the people who are cleaning his room… and I can’t forgive him for his faults such as they were. But I can this Yom Kippur… remember 40 years ago what it felt like to have him help lift me in the air and I may not always remember that.

This reminds me of a story I read in Rachel Naomi Remen’s book Kitchen Table Wisdom.

It seems there was a group of doctors who decided to organize a workshop and asked Joseph Campbell, a 20th century mythologist and writer, to teach them about the spiritual world their patients inhabited. Campbell began by showing them slides of sacred images: paintings, statues, pottery, tapestries, and stained glass from cultures and faith streams throughout the world.

Well, one of the slides showed a small Hindu statue called the Shiva Nata Raja, a “Dancing Shiva” statue from the Lieden Museum in Zurich. Shiva in Hebrew means seven. But in the Hindu culture it is the name for the masculine aspect of God. While bronze Shiva statues are common in India, none of these American physicians had seen them before.

In the statue, there is Shiva, the Hindu God, dancing in a ring of bronze flames. It is truly stunning. The hands of his many arms hold symbols of the abundance of spiritual life. As he dances, one of his feet is lifted high and the other is supported by the naked back of a little man crouched down in the dust, giving all his attention to a leaf he is holding in his hands. Despite the great beauty of the dancing God image…[the doctors] were focused on the little man holding the leaf. Their instructor laughed at the irony. Campbell told them: the little man is a person so caught up in examining the material world, he doesn’t even realize that the living God is dancing on his back.”

I love this story because it is such a reality check. It reminds me how often I think I discovered some amazing new truth. But really I’m just crouched down in the dust, looking at a leaf in my hands and missing that God is dancing on my back. I realize now I do this all the time.

  • I grow nervous about the storm brewing out of my passenger side window and miss the gorgeous mountainside my wife sees ahead of us if I’d just look through the windshield.
  • I get my blood-pressure raised while watching the crash of an ocean wave hitting the shoreline. But I’m entirely missing entirely… the delighted leap of my daughter over the cresting wave and the growing confidence in her face that she can leap the next one.
  • I read through my emails on my smart-phone, feeling all smart and needed… and miss that there is a person right in front of me looking to my eyes to know I’m hearing them and listening to what they want me to know.

It’s Yizkor, which means: there is nowhere any of us have to look right now. You can rest your eyes wherever. Look to the mountains. Look to the ocean. Look wherever you like. Because the deal you are trying to close next week can wait. It doesn’t matter whose dropping your kids off at the airport tomorrow. There will be time to get home to turn the oven on and get the kugel in.

Yizkor tells us on when we need to hear it most to get out of the dust and quit looking at the leaves. For God is dancing on our backs. God is coursing through our veins, filling up our lungs with breath, and sending light to reflect off the mountains and guiding the ocean waves to our shore. God is energizing each force of being in this world, if we will but see it that way.

You and I… all of us. We are alive. It need not have been…and it won’t be forever. And today being alive means remembering something very real: the death of a person we loved. Yizkor reminds us that we are not going to suddenly get back all the joy that would come with them restored to us, walking beside us, feeling their hands in ours. No, the highest tribute we can pay to those who have died is to hold hands in this moment, and notice each miraculous breath we take.

A teacher was asked by his students about the spiritual truths he had learned throughout his life. He thought for a while, then he admitted to his students that the spiritual truth he found most important was one he discovered while joining his elderly parents at a bingo game in Florida. There on the wall, in huge letters, was a sign reminding the bingo players of an important rule, and here it is: You Have to Be Present to Win.

You have to be present to win. That to me is the essence of Yizkor… It’s about being present in this life with all its sorrow. Being present…for you have to be present to win.

I’ve written it down twice. Once for the Cleveland Kotel and once for the one in Jerusalem.

I’m going to visit Hillcrest tomorrow and to Jerusalem in two weeks. I’m going to place these cards where they belong… with a prayer- for you, for the ones who helped you take flight, for all the people you can no longer forgive, and for the ones who cleaned their rooms, God bless.