Remember When: Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk, Yizkor Memorial Sermon – Yom Kippur, Sep. 30, 2017

This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is the Yizkor Memorial Service sermon prepared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk at Yom Kippur on September 30, 2017. We encourage you to share this link by email and to post this link to social media such as Facebook or Twitter.

Yizkor…it means remember. It is soothing at this point of Yom Kippur to remember a better time. If you are here, we pray you will be soothed by memories of a spouse, a loving partner, a sibling, a parent or another person very precious to you. Coming to Yizkor helps us protect our loving recollections of the very people who would have sat at your side right now if they were still alive. We remember each person and the stories that tell us what they meant.

If you are anything like me, when you share the stories of a person who has died, there are times when your kids look at you dumbfounded. It’s not because you’ve shared the story with them too many times. It’s because there is something in your story that is obsolete or that your children or your nieces or nephews have never seen. It’s a kind of game between the generations that I call “remember when.”

  • Like remember when…you’d listen to the radio all afternoon long just so you could record your favorite song…on a cassette tape.
  • Or remember when…you’d pull up to the gas station and roll down your window and ask the attendant to fill up your tank with regular.

There are thousands of these. Like remember when you’d have to walk into the bank during open hours to get your money. Or remember when on the way to the airport you’d keep checking your jacket because that is where you placed your ticket…your one and only way to get on board.

What I want to get across is that “remember when…” is that it is not just an optional part of Yizkor. “Remember when” is a theme of our Yom Kippur rituals, prayers and prophetic readings. Reflecting on the atonement for which we’ve strived in past years, we note the obstacles that blocked us from fulfilling what we set out to do. Subjecting those obstacles to the scrutiny of Yom Kippur makes us see that some of those obstacles are as obsolete as the pay phones that used to be wherever we’d look.

My own rabbi, Dannel Schwartz, once told me of a time when he was just minding his own business at an airport terminal at LAX awaiting a flight home to Detroit that was running late. But he couldn’t escape noticing a young woman whimpering and speaking quietly to herself in the corner of the terminal. He could see that she was truly in distress. And since it was my rabbi who taught me not to be indifferent to another person’s cries, he looked toward her rather than away. He noticed that the young woman had an overstuffed backpack on the chair next to her, and had a look about her that it seemed she’d been away from home for a long time. He went over to her and asked what was wrong. “I lost my ticket!” she said.

Now you know that this story took place a few years back. There was no such thing as an e-ticket. When you lost that piece of paper, you had to buy a new one. So she said frantically: “I can’t find my ticket anywhere!”  It turned out that the young woman was nineteen and had saved up enough money from a part-time job to travel. Running low on cash after a few months abroad, she had very little left to her name but her backpack and a ticket home to her parents in Detroit. She was surprising her parents because they were not expecting her home for a couple of more days. Even as she told this whole story, her emotions were getting the better of her. She had a hard time catching her breath as she sat there, showing my rabbi and a half-dozen other strangers her bag and her coat and everything with her. She admitted that she hadn’t eaten in a day because she was out of money. So she was just sitting there in the corner of the terminal by her gate, not knowing what to do.

A few of the passengers huddled together. A couple offered to take her to lunch, and my rabbi volunteered to go to the desk to find out how an impromptu collection of strangers might be able to each put a few bucks in to get this girl home. They were each going to their respective destinations when suddenly a loud scream was heard. It caused everyone in the building to look! The young girl was staring at her chair. “My ticket,” she screamed. “It’s my ticket!” Most of the people nearby her went back to their business. But…the whole group-in-the know, the gang that had busied themselves with her problems and tried to help her…they looked carefully at this girl and sure enough, this young woman had been sitting in the corner of the terminal. She’d sitting there, hour after hour, sitting on her ticket! She had searched her bags a hundred times. She had lifted out her pockets two hundred times. But she had been sitting on her ticket the whole time. Now right in front of their eyes, she quickly wiped away her tears… decided she was no longer hungry, and ignored the whole gang around her, walking right up to the boarding agent and onto her plane.

Now I know that story is a bit dated! But even today, if any of us encountered that same kid in distress, carrying her license or without, staring off into space and wondering how she might get home, we might be inclined to help her. And this is good because that young woman…she is each and every one of us. We are all sitting on our tickets. We are sitting on opportunities to make good on our promises and pledges to show how precious life is. And…why do we do that? I think it is because very often, we are too busy holding onto things that are obsolete like past hurts and insults that made us feel aggrieved. We find ourselves ignoring the things that really matter, like acceptance of another person’s human frailty or generosity with the people who’ve supported us rather than kick us when we are down.

Repeatedly in the past 24 hours we’ve confessed. Al Chet Shechatanu— we confess, for gluttony, for dishonesty in business, and for taking others for granted. But also, all day, we’ve identified the ticket to a more honorable and righteous life than we’ve ever lived. What is in that ticket? You all know. It is Teshuvah, our capacity to overcome our faults, Tefillah, the times we showed faith in something greater than ourselves, and tzedekah, our willingness to act and give to causes that improve the world. These values don’t comprise just any ticket. They are the first-class ticket to a life that truly takes flight.

Some of you know that my oldest child is nearly the age of that kid my rabbi saw in the corner of the airport. Zachary will graduate from high school next spring. So he and I have been discussing that this is his last Yom Kippur before he flies away from our family nest. Like all parents, I am questioning: “Have I taught him well? Will he navigate his future with both confidence and humility?” These weighty questions have caused me to play that “remember when” game more often than he’s used to.

For example, I remember the first movie he saw in the theatre. It was the Disney movie, “The Lion King.” It’s hard for me to imagine that in the combined 23 years since the film and musical came out that you have never heard of it. So let me spoil it for you. It is the story of a precocious lion cub named Simba who must overcome many obstacles between him and the succession of his father as the king of the pride lands. Although the film includes wonderful music, exciting fast-paced action and hilarious scenes between Simba and his friends, it will come as no surprise to you that I see the movie as really about the baboon advisor who functions as Simba’s rabbi. Yes, Rafiki the baboon is his rabbi!

My favorite scene in the movie is essentially a Yizkor sermon in itself. Simba is struggling with the death of his father which he witnessed when he was just a child. He is troubled as he tries to work up the courage to go back to the Pride lands to face his past. When he is hurting and feeling just awful, he goes to see his Rabbi who offers Simba guidance by the side of a lake. Rafiki tells Simba what numerous Jewish sages have taught us about reconnecting with the people we miss most. He tells him that his father’s spirit is immortal. He tells him that his father lives inside of him. He points to Simba’s now adult reflection in a nearby lakeside and tells Simba to find his father looking back at him. Simba demurs at first, as so many of us do when someone asks us to remember and thus to grieve again. When this happens, we are scared and vulnerable and uncertain what we will find. For Simba, he tells his rabbi that’s just a mirror reflection from the lake. To which Rafiki says back to Simba my favorite line in the whole film. It is what I am trying to get across to you. He says: No, look harder!

Look harder! Look closer. This is what Yizkor demands. It is the reason we need one another right now. It is why so many of you come to pay honor and respect to the lives in your family that you’ve lost. It’s because Yizkor is when we look harder than any other time of the year to the generations that came before. We don’t just look at our loved one’s names. We look and listen to what their names meant in our world.

  • Look harder, Yizkor directs us: if you are remembering your mom, ask yourself, what did she stand for and what would she not stand for, in this life?
  • Look harder, Yizkor tells us: if you are remembering your spouse, don’t just remember snapshots of your wedding day. Look harder…eel their lips pressed on your forehead. Hear them tell you they love you once more.
  • Look harder, Yizkor encourages us: if you are remembering your brother or sister…find a time in the coming year or so to take a walk by your childhood home or school. Look hard. You may feel their sustaining presence walking beside you again. Do it. I promise you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.

Even the Talmud tells us to look hard for what matters most to us. In the Talmud [Babylonian Talmud Tractate Megillah 6b] we read, Im Yomar Lecha Adam Yigati Vlo Matzati, if someone says to you, I have searched and did not find, do not believe them. Look harder, Judaism admonishes us. For perhaps God wants us to search for the treasure more than God needs us to find it.

When I search back at treasured moments with those who came before me, I am drawn to memories of the condominium where my Zayde and Bobe lived for a short while, after they left my dad’s childhood home. You’ve got to understand: I am one of their 11 grandkids and my cousins grew up in places all over the country. But all of us remember that condo in Michigan at the corner of 13 Mile and Middlebelt Rd. Why? Not because of the things inside their home. Rather, we remember my Zayde taking each of us and all of us on walks to a creek just a short distance behind their building.

Zayde would hold hands with us as we walked to the creek. We would watch him crouch down low and bring his face close up to the water. Then, after a moment of great and heightened anticipation, into the opening of the creek, he’d call out “hello,” and we’d hear his booming “hello” echo and reverberate over and again. “Hello hello hello” was heard, alongside the giggles of granddaughters and grandsons. We called that place “the echo place.” And Zayde’s been gone 15 years now!  He’s buried at a cemetery seven miles from that creek. But he lives, he lives inside of the hearts of his grandchildren, each of us striving to life a life that echoes his.

Look harder, our tradition says. If you come up empty on your search, don’t let it end there. Look harder. In searching for treasure among the stories of those who have died, you will most certainly find some things that are now obsolete. I’m telling you right now. You no longer need the reasons you fought with them or the ways you struggled to forgive them their faults. I encourage you: keep looking… keep searching, and you may even hear the echo of their voice once more, speaking to you, encouraging you.

It is Yizkor…it means remember. It is soothing to remember. So take this one hour of our holiest day and do it. Remember your loved one’s hands holding yours. Remember the sound of their voice. Look harder. Recall the look in their eyes when they watched you blow out birthday candles. It is Yizkor, and you are alive to remember them. So remember them with all their flaws and all their humanity. Remember how they overcame their mistakes. Remember the meaning they found in family and in holidays. Remember their generosity of time, spirit and substance.

That IS the ticket. Don’t sit on your ticket. They are not giving out new ones. We have one life, one life, and it is ours to live well. Amen.