Going Home – Rabbi Nosanchuk, Yom Kippur Yizkor Sermon, 2018

This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk at the Yizkor Memorial Service for Yom Kippu, 2018.  We encourage you to share comments below, or to post the link to this post on social media such as Facebook or Twitter, or to share with others by email, to continue the conversations it engenders.

This year I went to see the movie Every Day. It was only briefly in the theaters, but my daughter had seen trailers for it on YouTube, so out we went. The film tells the story of a soul who every day wakes up in a new body. But also, every day the soul finds the same mate. It always falls in love with the very same girl.

After the movie, a unique conversation arose. She pointed out that the girl only experienced that soul within her boyfriend’s body for one day. So every day thereafter she knew the difference between being with a boyfriend and being completely loved. We talked about what love feel like, and decided that love begins when you feel truly utterly accepted and at home.

At home. What makes you feel at home? For some, it is a run they take in the evening to learn the city where they’ve traveled. I also know people who wear a necklace or bracelet once worn by a person whose presence is a comfort. This past year, I traveled to Israel and tried to remember how I came to feel “at home” thousands of miles from where I was raised. Without knowing every street name and sign, I remain amazed that I can navigate the ancient old city in Jerusalem. I didn’t grow up there, but my soul surely did.

Many of you have told me this sanctuary is  your home. You come here to reflect on your doubts and aspirations. You come to share community and experience the sacred. On Yom Kippur, thousands of people make our temple their home for a day. Together we pray for atonement to be sure. But we can only atone once we know we are sheltered, safe and at home. In a way, this service, Yizkor, is an open door to us, a door that says, come home.

  • At Yizkor, we remember the people with whom we have made a home. We miss them. We feel their absence deeply. When we fell, these were the ones who helped us to stand and brush ourselves off.
  • At Yizkor, we remember the friends who became our chosen family. They’d come over for a night of Chanukah or go out with us the night after Thanksgiving. They are the friends with whom you can make up traditions as you go along.
  • At Yizkor, we experience the weakest moment of our Yom Kippur day. So it is not surprising that our minds wander to difficult questions. We might ask of our loved ones, why did you have to struggle so much? Why did you struggle to feel my love and acceptance? Why didn’t you know you could be “at home” anywhere I stood with you?

There is a story, told by Rabbi Ed Feinstein (in his book Capturing the Moon) about a man who had given up on his life. He found no joy in his work, his family, or community. So he prayed that he might be allowed to leave this world. “Show me the way to Paradise!” he implored of God, who then responded to him, “Are you sure that’s what you want?” The man said, “I am entirely sure.”

“Very well,” replied God. As it turned out, Paradise wasn’t far away. It was just a few days journey. So late one afternoon he set out on the path shown him. Walking until nightfall, he lay down to rest. Just before falling asleep, it occurred to him that in the morning he might become confused and forget the way to Paradise. So he left his shoes by the roadside with the tips pointing toward Paradise, so all he’d have to do was jump into his shoes and continue.

But sometimes unexpected things happen. Sometimes shoes get turned around. In the morning, the man arose and prepared to continue his journey. He went to the roadway, stepped into his shoes, and began walking, completely unaware that he was returning to his home. By noon he could see it on the next hillside. His heart leapt. “I’ve arrived in Paradise!” he thought. He ran into the valley and up the hill, not stopping until the village gates.

“What a beautiful place!” he thought. “My village was always so crowded, so noisy. This is different, so filled with life and joy!” He sat down on a bench in the square and witnessed the life of the village. He heard the songs the children sang at school and the sounds of the adults at work. He felt the vitality, the energy, and the love of life present in Paradise. He sat in the square and listened to the joyful sounds of families reuniting at home and the fragrance of the meals being enjoyed by each family. This made him feel hungry.

Soon… a woman came to the front door of the closest house to the square. The woman called out to him, asking him to come to her house. His heart again leapt. “They know me in Paradise!” She responded, “Well, I don’t know about that. But I can tell you that your soup is getting cold. Come inside!”

He entered the house, and quickly realized that it was nothing like back home. The house in his village always seemed to him to be crowded, cluttered, and filled with commotion. No, this new place was cozy and homey. It was filled with life. He sat at the table and ate the best meal he’d ever had. He complimented the woman on her heavenly soup. Afterward he went to lay down and drifted off to enjoy the most restful sleep he’d ever known.

In the morning the woman woke him and handed him tools to use that day at work. At first, he was incredulous. Who ever heard of working in Paradise? But then it occurred to him that even in Paradise, things must be done. And even his day’s work was different from before. Not dull or tedious, the work of Paradise filled him with purpose. That night he returned to the same home and was greeted by the same woman who had warmed more delicious soup.

For the rest of his life, no one could convince the man that he hadn’t traveled on all the way to Paradise! From that point on, he was filled with wonder, purpose, and joy.

It’s quite a story. I tell it from time to time to Religious school students. It reminds me of a time, early in my career. I was doing a summer internship and at a particular meeting, I saw a work colleague having a high pressured difficult day. She was being judged unfairly by our bosses. We were only acquaintances. But I saw she was really hurting.

So I took a chance. I went to her office and asked her if she minded if I suggest a change to her office decor. She assented. So I grabbed the photo of her husband and their sons on the filing cabinet behind her desk. I moved it to where she could face it most of the day. Then I pointed to the picture, and like Tarzan might say to Jane, I simply said, “home.” I then pointed out to the conference room and said “work.” Once more I pointed to the picture and said “home” and pointed to the wider office and said, “not home, work.”

Do you ever get confused between work and home? A bad day at work arises and suddenly your whole life is bleak. It happens. Things get out of balance. That day was just her turn to forget that work is entirely different than home. Home is where you go to rest and recharge. Home is where they keep your soup warm. Home is where no one is impressed by all you achieved today. At home, they just want to hear you giggle at something funny. At home, the commotion and drama is your own. Home is where you are truly utterly accepted and loved.

Even in the presence of wicked witches and mighty wizards, Dorothy would click the heels of her slippers to say- “there’s no place like home, no place like home.” But I’m pretty sure it didn’t matter which direction she pointed her slippers! For paradise was never over the rainbow! It was always back in Kansas or Cleveland or wherever, even after a wind storm, your soul could be sheltered. That’s why to me, on the day of atonement, Yizkor is home. It is the place we intentionally connect to our people, even if they live in our childhoods.

Columnist David Brooks has written about the power of journeys we take to our childhood homes  In his New York Times column on March 20, 2014, he warned his readers that “the events of childhood are like the Hebrew alphabet; the vowels are missing, and the older self has to make sense of them.” He encourages our return to our childhood homes as an adult in a way that can help us “recapture original aspirations.” As an example, he shares how around Passover Seder tables  “Jews go back to Exodus every year.” I love that idea! I especially love that David Brooks didn’t say we go back to Egypt. He said that we Jews intentionally go home when we go back to Exodus.

That can be hard to do right now, during Yizkor. Why? Because it happens at the weakest moment of our Yom Kippur day. So naturally, we remember how we last saw our loved ones. We remember the fights we had, the things we said or neglected to say. We remember their arms all bruised and battered from intravenous needles at too many hospital visits. We remember the regrets they offered and the fears they wouldn’t admit. We remember all the people who ignored them or us when we needed their love and support. These thoughts can be so consuming. Like work invading your home, such thoughts color everything in bleak.

But Yizkor is about shooing those doubts and grievances away. At Yizkor we come to remember our loved ones in Exodus. We are here to remember them free and untethered to human frailty. Free! Yizkor is remembering the sound of them cheering at the top of their lungs for the Indians, Buckeyes or Browns. Yizkor is remembering them strong enough to grab our hands and reassure us during a scary or sad movie. Yizkor is remembering them lifting us out of the car when we fell asleep on a long drive back home. At Yizkor we should remember them in Exodus, free, and able to go with us where we travel. We are their friends or lovers, their nieces and nephews, their children, their grandchildren. We are their home. They reside with us!

I went with my family to Israel this year. We hiked and sand-surfed. We got in a sailboat and took a ride in the Red Sea off the southern coast of Eilat. We also went where modern Israelis have truly made desert lands bloom and to where Jews have sought meaning for generations.

Our guide took us on a tour of Yad Vashem. My wife and son had been before, but it was my daughter Hope’s first time. Those of you who’ve been to Israel’s Holocaust memorial know that it can be intense and haunting.

I saw that it was getting overwhelming for Hope, so I offered to walk ahead with her, and we would just pick and choose which exhibits to see.

Near the end of our one-on-one time, we sat in front of a screen where there was a film interviewing survivors about their experiences in the displaced persons camps established after the war. The interviews were subtitled. The people in them were telling about what it was like to be liberated but not free.

To respond to their struggle between faith and hope, the people in the displaced persons camps began to do two important things. First, they shared stories with one another and documented those stories. They wrote the names and the thoughts and memories down of the people and places they once called their home. They wrote of yearning for wholeness and blessing and they published these yearnings in Yizkor memorial books like the one in your hand right now. They also began, even in the displaced persons camps to bring about new life. The woman in the film we were watching was talking about how many people around her brought new babies into their families. Believe it or not, the first few years after the Holocaust, the birth rate in the displaced persons camps was among the highest in the world!

Just then…a girl about 9 years old walked up and stood in front of the screen where we were watching the interview and pointed to a picture to the right of the screen. The picture was of a woman and a man on the stoop of a building in the displaced persons camps. There was also a baby crawling on top of their laps. She stood there for a moment. She then turned around and looked over our heads at the group of people with whom she was touring Yad Vashem. She pointed at the baby, and she said…she said…”There’s Nana.”

There’s Nana. I kid you not, seconds later, a woman in her 80’s stood in front of us. She pointed at the picture and then looked at her family. She pointed at the baby in the picture and said, “You’re right. There I am.” She then turned to the picture and she said, “Mom, Dad, these are my grandchildren.”

It’s Yizkor. It’s time to come home. It’s time to look through the photos in your minds eye and say “there’s Nana. There she is.” Even though she has died, introduce your Nana or your Bubbe or even your wife or your sister, to your children and your grandchildren. Show them who you are right now, surviving their loss, remembering them eternally!

For it is Yizkor, and on Yom Kippur that means, it’s time to come home. Come home, or your soup will get cold. Come home because every day of this life, every single day, your soul is going to be in this body. This is the one body we get. One day, each of us will die and our souls will be set free. Free! So listen to your souls while they are within you.

It is Yizkor, and it doesn’t matter which way you point your slippers. For right now every place is paradise, and every way you walk will take you home. Go home. Home.