October 3, 2023 -
This sermon, Time Flies, was shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk during the Yom Kippur Afternoon Yizkor Service, Oct. 5, 2022.
We are here at this Yizkor Memorial Service and I want you to know…I am also positively heartened by seeing many of you physically present in front of my eyes. I feel your presence and I also feel the investment of those using our virtual means to catch a glimpse of this radiant sanctuary, inspiring our prayer on Yom Kippur. You are with us, in person and virtually! We feel you. There is power to how our community is drawn together by gravity, a term I apply to more than planets and suns. Gravity summons us to this sanctuary on one of the most challenging days on the Jewish spiritual calendar. It is the Day of Atonement. Today we withdraw from our workplaces. Today, our rituals are intended to effect what the rabbis called an eynui nefesh, an affliction of our souls.
The prayers we offer during these 10 days of repentance express to us that as merciful and gracious is the source of life, we’d better begin to realize that now is the time for healing and repenting.
Gravity summons us here on Yom Kippur to listen to a message that’s no fun to hear. The message is: one day someone will point toward our lives. They’ll drive to our homes. They’ll remember the kindnesses we offered them. They’ll recognize the fragility and impermanence of life. They’ll be drawn to support our families. They’ll point to us and say “what happened to him? How did she die?”
Yizkor, this service of remembrance held on Yom Kippur, which we will hold in a more intimate way at the end of Sukkot, and then again at Passover and Shavuot. This memorial service, Yizkor, is not about how people died. But as one of your rabbis, I still can’t afford to pretend that’s not in the room. Some of you still demand answers about how your loved one’s health slipped so hard and so fast. You didn’t get to say goodbye. You weren’t ready to surrender your lovers, your friends, your spouses, and the people who loved you so well. Some of you come here not just upset, but trembling with anger. There must be some mistake. Your sister, your son, your friend should not have gone into some Book of Death.
I’ve been with you at Yizkor before. I know and honor how this service can make you cry. Our community is here to accept your tears with patience and kindness. But I am also here this year to tell you that Yizkor is not about how our loved ones died. It’s not. There will be time for those questions and, if you want, I’ll bring you before the open ark even later today or tomorrow, to plead your case about the unfairness of the deaths you’ve sustained and the pain of your grief. But that’s not Yizkor. Rather, Yizkor is about imagining our kids, grandkids, our life partners, and God pointing at us and asking: How have you lived? How are you living? How will you live?
The answers to those questions are messy. Rabbi Irwin Kula wrote in his book, Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, about the messy tasks of living humanely in chaotic times. There is a chapter on the messiness of forgiveness, mentioning how Yom Kippur draws so many people to observance. He says that we fear not being forgiven for what we’ve done wrong. Honestly, my fear is about not being forgiven for the wrong I’m still contemplating doing. I’m only human. It is natural for any of our hearts to beat faster when at Yizkor. For here I must anticipate what would happen when I die.
Rabbi Kula’s message to people like me getting out ahead of myself…seems to be one of grabbing back control. When the repetitions of our Yom Kippur prayers instruct me about a Book of Life, Rabbi Kula says I should imagine it being something that is ours to open in this world.
In Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, Rabbi Kula instructs us to picture the entire year since last Yom Kippur as if on film. Look at it carefully, “frame by frame, at yourself, at your interactions with people, your mistakes, your love-making, your fights, your triumphs. This is the Book of Life, [a] record of what [we] did and didn’t do. To be inscribed is to take note, to be conscious of ourselves.” (Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, Irwin Kula & Linda Loewenthal, New York: Hyperion Press, p. 176.)
Thinking about consciousness and intention in our lives makes me remember a tragicomic film from the 1990s called Defending Your Life, written by Albert Brooks where he stars opposite Meryl Streep. The movie depicts a short period after our lives which, like on Yom Kippur, features an imagined courtroom. But in the movie, various days of our life are screened.
There is a lot to judge. Some scenes are funny, like when Albert Brooks’ character mouths off to friends about the stock market, explaining why he turned down investing in a little company named Apple which he says will never get anywhere. His character even laughs a little at himself as he sees several clumsy falls he took. But he is no longer laughing when he watches on film the day when he’d prepared to negotiate a salary with confidence, but then caved and accepted a low-ball offer from an employer. He had lived without seeing his own worth and value.
You can’t help when watching Defending Your Life to wonder what moments of your life would be screened. They don’t have to be serious. I think of a day when I hadn’t noticed until 4 pm that because of static cling, my wife’s sock was stuck to my sweater. Or when I boasted to friends about the final score of a game my team won…before waiting for the actual clock to finish by which point my team had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Some of these kinds of stories happened on the Book of Life film between last Yom Kippur and today. Other days which might be screened and examined took place long ago in our childhood.
In his life’s story, Billy Crystal writes about his anticipation of the only day of the week his family-of-origin spent entirely together. Billy tells about how he’d sit in his parent’s doorway for [his parents] to get up, just to see what we were going to do together that day. He just couldn’t wait for Sundays.
Do you remember that feeling? Maybe sometime this year or this past month you awoke with great anticipation, for someone, anyone, to get up and begin your Sunday with you? Billy Crystal remembers his dad’s Sundays because his dad’s two jobs kept him so busy that the 700 Sundays they spent together turned out to be all the time they’d ever have to discover and understand one another. On Sundays, they might go to the boardwalk, or to the batting cage, or bowling, and always out to eat together. “We’d always go out,” he says, “for Italian…or Chinese food, because on Sunday nights, Jews are not allowed to eat their own food. That’s in the Talmud. On the seventh day, God rested and went out to Twin Dragons for dinner, because He loved the ribs….” Then he jokes: “Have you ever seen a Chinese family at a deli on Sunday having pickled herring and chopped liver? It doesn’t happen.” (700 Sundays, Billy Crystal, (New York: Warner Books, 2005)
That’s the memory of the Crystal family. But when you hear him tell it, you recognize that the most important moments to be examined after we live this life are not necessarily the most momentous occasions. The momentous activities already stand out.
These things already stand out. You keep them in obvious places. But Yizkor makes you do something different. This hour of Yom Kippur places you on an expedition. You’ve got to find the smallest key in your drawer or on your ring and drive to the bank, which may be across town. You’ve got to find the time and the energy to go see and examine what you’ve kept thoughtfully inside a safe deposit box. Most of the time, you cram a lot of memory triggers and maybe a few legal papers into one compact and safe box.
At Yizkor, we go to that safe deposit box in our memories. There you can take a moment to not concern yourself about how your loved died, but rather to remember the little ways that were signatures of how they lived. Give it a try with me. Review as if on a film you can screen, the Book of Life of the people you came here to honor. Remember now:
Those memories can only be placed somewhere for safe-keeping if we are intentional about them. They only are produced by lives where we put energies into finding kinship, proving friendship, and healing the wounds we’ve sustained. Kinship, friendship, healing…It’s hard to get there. You’ve got to drive clear across town. You might even be driving a loved one to their safe deposit box, staying at close distance, or waiting by the car. But in this sacred place on this holy day, we wait here for someone we love to emerge from the vault where our most special and holy memories have been stored.
You know, Billy Crystal published his life story, 700 Sundays in 2005. That was than 40 years after his dad ran out of Sundays for his son to anticipate with such joy. The book became a Broadway show where in one of the scenes, Billy talks about a time in 2001 when he was on the way back home after a Yankees home game against Arizona in the World Series. Then, what he describes metaphorically as a “bank robber” broke in to steal whatever the Crystals had saved up in the vault of precious memory.
What happened was he was getting onto the West Side Highway when his brother called and said: “Billy, listen. We have a big problem. Mom had a stroke…I found her in the living room. The doctor said she’s going to make a complete recovery, but it’s bad. She’s really confused. We’re at the Long Beach emergency room so get here as soon as you can. Alright?”
He assents and later that night opens the E.R. curtain on his mom, ready to say all we’d want to say to reassure a confused loved one. “I’m here now. We’re all here. Mom, I spoke to your doctor. He said you’re going to make a complete recovery. Isn’t that wonderful news?” But she looked back at him with confusion in her eyes, she looked truly worn out. All she could say was “my head hurts.” He responds with love, “I bet it does, ma. I bet it does,” he massages the back of her head. “I will always take care of you, Mom, always.”
Then she stopped talking. No speech. She just began to stare straight ahead…the rest of that day and well into the next day. So he ran to the doctor, fearfully asking… “Did you tell me everything? She’s not speaking.” The doctor replied, “Billy, calm down. She can speak if she wants to. But she doesn’t want to right now. Her brain is making new connections, trying to figure out what happened. And right now… she’s angry…And I heard you tell her she’s going to make a complete recovery, which I believe she will, but she can’t hear that now.”
“How can I talk to her?” I asked. “Just talk about everyday things. Try to engage her… Just talk about everyday things.” So Billy Crystal wandered his way back to his mom and started to speak to her and to tell her everyday things of October 2001. He says: “Mom, this game last night was unbelievable. The Yankees are losing three to one, ninth inning, two out, O’Neill is on first, Tino’s up, and he hits a home run. Ties it up. The Stadium went nuts! Then later, Jeter hit a home run and they won the game. It was great!” Then his mom suddenly turned her eyes to her son and said, “Well, it’s about time. Jeter hasn’t been doing anything.”….You can imagine his elation when an everyday topic like when Jeter would make a clutch hit for the Yankees helped re-engage his mom’s vivacious spirit, her loyalty and her essence.
Crystal says he was just filled with joy. It was great. He couldn’t stop smiling from ear to ear. But it only lasted a few hours because a “cunning, nasty illness” was taking his mom from him, and striking her down each time she’d make a sign of progress. One day his mom would be resilient and persevere in her recovery, and the next day, what he calls, the bank robbers would come and steal another piece of something precious from her vault of strength and the very things she needed to ever make progress.
Several days later, a previous obligation pulled Billy across the country to perform. He couldn’t get out of it. So he flew out and did his shtick, but called his mom at the hospital right afterwards. “How did the show go?” she asked. “How many people were there?” He replied: “Oh Mom, it was a big joint. You know it was almost like Radio City.” Then, following her doctor’s instructions, he went into great detail about the everyday things, like how the show worked, where the laughs flowed, and then she found a moment to just stop him mid-sentence, saying “Billy, were you happy?” “Yeah, Mom.”
“Well darling, isn’t that really all there is?”
To which Billy was speechless. He then promised: “Mom, I have one thing I can’t get out of tomorrow, a big meeting in Los Angeles, but I’m going to make the red-eye in. I’ll be there Tuesday and we’ll have breakfast.” She then reassured him, “Don’t worry about any of that, Billy. I’ll see you when I see you.”
I’ll see you when I see you. Are you happy? Isn’t that all there is? These words of a dear loved one were the last words Billy heard from her. The very next day in his words… “the bank robbers broke in again.” She was gone.
You have to figure on how lucky he was… to have a last conversation as memorable as this one. If we are blessed, there are a few days, or a few hours over dinner with good friends, or a few minutes to hear our loved ones express their thoughts and feelings. Most people are not that lucky. Most of the time, what we thought was stored in huge amounts in the safest of places, flies swiftly from our midst. It is time that flies!
Time flying to make us age with grace or with frailty poses to our loved ones a challenge. It is to remember that no one wants to be recalled for how we appeared after an embolism stole their energy, or for how weak the cancer treatment made our once-strong body. No one wants to be remembered for the way we looked after a fall made our face hurt and our brain bleed.
After this life, we want to be remembered waiting excitedly for a new day to begin. We want to be remembered listening to our loved one’s everyday things. We want our loved ones on holy days, to make the effort, set aside their daily work, and travel safely to a safe deposit box of memory, where for a few moments we can hold them close again. We want them to know that time flies, and so you should savor every part of the day-to-day hugs and conversations you exchange. For those everyday conversations are the best. They all comes down to two simple questions, the ones Billy Crystal’s mom asked him. It’s all about: “How was it?” and “Were you happy?” For isn’t that all there really is?