December 2, 2022 -
This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is the Yizkor Memorial Service sermon from Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple on Yom Kippur, Sep. 23, 2015. We encourage you to share it on social media such as Facebook or Twitter, send it by email to friends and loved ones, and to respond with comments below. All of us at Fairmount Temple wish you a happy, healthy New Year.
I was eleven years old. Eleven. I spent the summer in the New Jersey home of my dad’s youngest sister. All of us, her nephews and nieces were invited to join our NJ cousins and my Aunt and Uncle for one summer or another. This woman was born to be an aunt. Every day she magically led us on outings, games, and adventures. God, I loved that summer.
I remember going on one ride at an amusement park with one of my cousins something like fourteen times in one day. I remember picking my brother up at a NY summer camp and taking him out for pizza. I remember riding next to my Uncle with the top-down in his convertible on the freeway, with an album of Simon and Garfunkel…blaring through the speakers.
I also remember feeling that this summer would be the first time I would be pushed beyond my comfort zone. That summer, I rode a moped, I went to my first drive-in movie and that summer I really learned to swim. My aunt signed me up for one-on-one lessons at her pool, where the instructors pushed me to hold my breath for longer, to swim down the long lanes of the pool with confidence, rather than just the short distance across the pool. Not long before the summer was over, we went to the shore to visit with friends whose place was right on the Atlantic.
I was eleven. It was to that point, the best summer of my life. And I nearly died that summer in the Atlantic Ocean. At least that is the way I remember it.
In the midst of chasing down a ball or a stick I had brought with me to play out in the waves, I followed a path toward where one of my cousins was comfortably swimming. But he was facing away from me and didn’t even know I was coming toward him. I tripped and fell head first into a clearing in the water just before a huge wave came to the same spot. I was now face first falling into what they call the ocean’s undertow. My head was where my feet would’ve normally been standing, and I didn’t know from an undertow. I had figured I was pretty safe to hang out in the part of the shore where although the waves were high, the water was shallow.
Have you ever been caught in the undertow? If you have, you know I was dead wrong. What follows is unclear. My memory of what happened is not sequential. I just remember sensations. I remember my forehead scraping against something at the bottom of the water. I remember the feeling that I was moving very fast out away from the shore. And I remember feeling that my mouth, my throat, and my chest was filling up quickly. I was sure I would die and I was eleven.
It turns out OK. My mom isn’t at a Yizkor service today saying kaddish for an eleven-year old swimmer caught in the undertow. Thank God, whatever sucked me in spit me out before I had the chance to panic or choke or drown. The thing is…I know that if my aunt had seen it happen, I would’ve been grabbed up in her arms. She’d have reassured me of an unending unstinting love and then brought right back out into the deep waters. But she didn’t see. I didn’t tell. It remains my deepest fear. I’m afraid to drown. My head knows that the deep end of the pool isn’t the ocean’s undertow. But my body shakes near the deep end like I’m a scared 11-year old boy.
It’s yizkor today, a service that triggers us to say “we will remember.” One of the most important things we can remember is that when our worst fear is realized… even the most encouraging, forces in our lives, our parents, our children, our aunts and uncles, they can’t always see what is happening below the surface. For if they could, if they could, they would absolutely pick us up and bring us back out to deep waters with an unstinting, unflinching love they possess just because we are their kids, their siblings, their dearest friends and loving partners.
I once heard the story of Sid Luckman, a little Jewish guy who in his day, had been the quarterback for the Chicago Bears. I’m not talking a ‘Johnny Manziel won his first game’ kind of star. No, Luckman didn’t just have hype. He took the Bears to four championship titles in his twelve years in the pros. The thing is, that Luckman’s father was a hard-working immigrant without much knowledge of football, and who rarely was able to see his son Sid play.
As legend tells it, one Sunday, the Bears were taking on the New York Giants, and Luckman persuaded his immigrant parents to take seats right on the 50-yard line, only 5 rows up, where you could practically hear Sid call Chicago’s plays at the line of scrimmage. For the first quarter things went smoothly. Luckman handed off to Nagoorski. Touchdown! Then Luckman passed complete to Shimansky, setting up a field goal. Things were going well for Sid. But in the 2nd half, his pass protection completely flopped. Suddenly, the defensive line came running to tackle Luckman. He scrambled for his life. Being chased by Giants he scampered and ran as far as he could from the monstrously big men trying to sack him to the ground with tremendous ferocity.
Suddenly, from the sidelines, about five rows into the stands, a voice called louder than the rest of the cheering home field crowd. The voice was clear and Luckman recognized the thick immigrant accent, as it said, “Sidney! Sidney! Let dem have da ball. I’ll buy you a nudder vun!”
I’ll buy you a nudder vun. I love that line. It speaks to me, particularly on Yom Kippur, a day of such dread. For when we fear a loved one may sustain a blow, a fall, a diagnosis, or a treatment from which they might not return, we want to do something, anything to help! Almost like Luckman’s immigrant parents, we are on the sidelines, close enough to be heard but not close enough, not fierce enough, simply not able, no matter how much we love them and are present for them to save them from what happens to us all. It’s the rules of the game. We are one day, each of us going to get tackled by something. Not every eleven year old is going to get out of the undertow. Not every life-saving procedure is going to save us. We know: it is part of life.
But why do we so often feel like we are on the sidelines of the game? Why do we feel as powerless as Luckman’s father did watching the linebackers chase down his number one son? Would screaming help? Would panic? How about buying our son a nudder vun, another device, another medicine, another consult, another treatment? Whether he is eleven or twelve, forty nine or seventy nine, the person being chased by death is our Luckman. He is our kid, our dad, our brother. Watching him in peril, we would make any deal to protect him. We are desperate.
Rabbi Chaim Stern wrote a High Holy Day prayer that testifies to that desperation we feel when our loved ones are being chased by giant players we can see or an undertow that we can’t see. He wrote of us scheming for a fairer life way to tell death and disease and destruction to go back where it came from. The prayer reads:
“If some messenger were to come to us with the offer that death should be overthrown, but with the one inseparable condition that birth should also cease; if the existing generation were given the chance to live forever, but on the clear understanding that never again would there be a child, or a youth, or first love, never again new persons with new hopes, new achievements; ourselves for always and never others- could the answer be in doubt?”
When I read those words, which come at the weakest part of Yom Kippur for me, I feel comforted, even buoyed with strength. Why? Because as I hear you read your part, I realize how deeply this community is committed to “new persons, new hopes, new life.” When I hear you read your part, I know: I am alive. I didn’t die on a meaningless day when I was just an eleven year old kid in over his head. I got spooked. But I didn’t die. it didn’t even kill one of my best summers ever. But I will never forget it.
Yizkor. It means: it shall be remembered. This year at Yizkor, we remember deaths that came gently and others that were as intimidating as the waves of an ocean. A high tide or a powerful undertow contains enough force that it could drown any one of us. This is true.
But no less true is the message I want to share with you today. And here is that message: the undertow, the force that fills us up with fear and dread, it is only part of life. It is mighty yes, and worth our awe. But if we will give ourselves spiritually to new hopes, new persons, and new life, we can forever let go of our fear of dying in an ocean of despair.
It is Yizkor. So let’s remember them. Remember those around whose tables we dipped apples and honey. Remember the people who brought you into maturity, who made you the person you are. They are your husbands and wives, your parents and grandparents, your aunts and uncles, your mentors and friends They may have died early in your life. Others died only a few months back. But we do them no honor by making our foreseeable future about staying broken-hearted. Instead, right now, we should listen for them. For they are five rows up from the sideline, calling out at the top of their lungs. And they are saying: ‘Give em da ball!’
‘Give em da ball,’ they are saying. And how can we do that? Here’s how. Buoyed by their lives, the things they achieved and other things they never completed- we can scramble and run from even the tallest and fiercest of foes. But we’ve got to first give ourselves permission to run back into life, to leap in to the deep end, to splash in the ocean and to know that we are loved by an unstinting, unflinching affirming love. That love can be our bridge back into life.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav teaches, Kol Ha-Olam Kulo, the entire world, everything in the world is but a very narrow bridge. V’ha-ikar, the key idea, we are taught, is lo’lafeched klal. Lo L’fached klal. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid of death. Do not be afraid of the forces that are chasing you. Lo l’fached klal. Only be afraid of not living. For no matter how hard we wish, no matter how much our loved ones would want it for us, no one ever gets a nudder vun.