Friday, September 25, 2015

Yizkor Sermon: In the Land of the Remembered

If you visit Mexico or even some Mexican restaurants in the United States, you will see a lot of decorative skulls and skeletons, often engaged in normal everyday activities. For example, on my desk I keep a little sculpture of a skeleton man wearing a yellow cap, walking a skeleton dog. These sculptures are humorous but they are deeply rooted in a Mexican cultural belief. About a year ago there was a very successful animated film, The Book of Life, which explored this belief. Many Mexicans believe that the line between this world and the next is somewhat porous, and that the souls of the deceased continue to exist as long as they are remembered. In the film The Book of Life, there are two realms in the afterlife: The Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten. One of our tasks as human beings, according to this belief, is to keep the souls of our ancestors in the Land of the Remembered, where they continue to commune with us and even enjoy the pleasures that they enjoyed while living, and to make sure they don’t wind up in the Land of the Forgotten. And thus it is that Mexicans observe Dia de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, when they spend the night in the cemeteries and play the music that their deceased loved ones enjoyed and bring them offerings of food and drink. And the skeleton folk art is part of this tradition as well.

These beliefs and traditions originated well before Columbus and the arrival of Catholicism in Mexico; the film makes this quite clear in that the spirit who rules the Land of the Forgotten is Xibalba, a Mayan word which means “place of fear” and was the Mayan name for the underworld, ruled over by twelve lords each of which is associated with a different form of human suffering. Although the Maya originally observed their day of the dead in late summer, it is now observed November 1 and 2 which corresponds to the Catholic All Saint’s Day.
At first glance these practices may seem thoroughly pagan and certainly not similar to anything we have in Judaism. And yet . . .

Four times a year, on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of Pesach and the second day of Shavuot, we recite the Yizkor service. The heart of this service is the Yizkor prayer itself, which begins “Yizkor Elohim et nishmat . . .” “May God remember the soul of” whoever it is we are remembering. But if we think about it, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why are we asking God to remember? Does God forget? Does God need our reminder? Yizkor exists not to remind God to remember, it exists to remind us to remember. While in theory we can and should remember our loved ones all the time, we don’t always do so. Yizkor serves the same function in Judaism as Dia de los Muertos serves in Mexico; to give us an occasion where the calendar reminds us to remember, so that our dead won’t be forgotten.

But what does memory mean? What does it do?

David Brooks in his recent book The Road to Character distinguishes between what he calls “Resume Virtues” and “Eulogy Virtues.” He’s certainly not the first person or even the first active Conservative Jew to make this type of distinction; Rabbi Harold Kushner said many years ago that “no one ever said to me on his deathbed, gee, Rabbi, I really wish I had spent more time at the office.” But Brooks captures the distinction nicely. “The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?”

Why are the eulogy virtues what we speak about after a person’s death? It’s because the purpose of engaging in active memory is to provide us lessons about what it means to live life well and thus give us examples to emulate. I will never have the athletic skills of a Roberto Clemente or the acting skills -- or the looks-- of a Paul Newman, but I can emulate their dedication to using whatever skills I do happen to possess for the benefit of those who are hungry and homeless. A eulogy is not meant simply to make us feel good about the deceased, to bring back memories and raise a tear or a chuckle, or both. It does that, of course; but a eulogy also should tell us something about the deceased that we could emulate and in so doing, perpetuate the person’s legacy and in some way that we can’t really explain or understand, keep them alive.

The halachic/rabbinic tradition places a tremendous emphasis on the obligation of a student to quote his or her teacher accurately and by name. In Pirkei Avot Chapter 6, Mishnah 6, we read that “one who says something in the name of its speaker brings redemption to the world.” But there is another citation which is similar albeit not as well-known. In Yevamot 96b we read : Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, “Whenever someone in this world repeats a teaching in the name of a Torah scholar who has ‘passed’, the lips of that Torah scholar move in the grave.”

At the beginning of July I lost my rebbe. Some of you may remember him -- the black-suited gentleman with the long white beard who gave the benediction at my formal installation as your rabbi almost three years ago. It may be unusual for a Conservative rabbi to claim a Jesuit priest as his rebbe but so much of what I strive to be as a rabbi I learned from Father James Walsh, SJ.

Although a Catholic priest, Father Walsh’s area of expertise was the Hebrew Bible. Most of his teaching and research focused on the concepts of power and politics in the Tanach. One of the things that Jim taught his Georgetown students for four decades was the importance of looking at the Hebrew text of the Bible and not just translations. He reminded us that the Bible didn’t use terms like “righteous” and “wicked,” “mercy” and “justice,” but rather tzadik and rasha, hesed and mishpat. When you hear me remind you during a Shabbat discussion of the Torah portion that the ten commandments say neither “thou shalt not murder” nor “thou shalt not kill” but rather “lo tirtzach,” you are now a student of Father Walsh once removed, and Jim’s lips move in the grave.

For many years Jim was a member of the committee of the U.S. Catholic Church which was in charge of the Bible translations authorized to be used liturgically, and on occasion he would discuss with me an issue the committee was deliberating and ask me how Rashi or some of the other commentators read a particular verse. Through him I learned to understand the two main schools of thought about translation. One school insists that any particular Hebrew word should always be translated by the same English word, so that readers who were familiar with a particular Hebrew concept would understand that a verse was talking about “hesed” or “mishpat.” The other school of thought thinks that slavishly insisting on a one-to-one correspondence can sometimes mislead and often leads to translations that are stilted and awkward, since after all Hebrew and English are two very different languages. Both of these points of view have their plusses and minuses, and by understanding their differences we also come to understand that every translation is in fact a commentary.When I take the time to point out where I think our siddur or chumash has mistranslated a particular verse,  I’m not simply being pedantic. I’m hoping that through a greater understanding of our texts and concepts, we can grow intellectually and spiritually. I’m sharing with you something that I learned from my rebbe, and Jim’s lips move in the grave.

At that installation where Jim gave the benediction, I quoted him in the remarks I gave. Some years back Jim won an excellence in teaching award from Georgetown, and used that occasion to speak about the nature of education. He said “education is a matter of “conversation.” It has to do with listening to and taking part in a conversation that has been going on for four or five thousand years. It tries to bring you into that conversation, with Shakespeare and Aquinas and Freud and Plato and Isaiah and a great many other people. It forms habits of mind that make you capable of being part of that conversation: reverence, a historical sense, a certain critical (and self-critical) awareness, an ability to enter generously, sympathetically, and imaginatively into the lives and feelings of people of other times and cultures. It forms in you the ability to listen; to go out of yourself; to be friends. And what do you need to take part in this conversation? Why, those same qualities: the ability to listen, to go out of yourself, to be friends. The goal and the way to the goal are the same. In this conversation, there are people who have been at it for some time, who want to bring you into it—to share with you what they love, and to enjoy it with you as friends.”

I went on to say that while we Jews often argue about whether Judaism is a religion, an ethnicity, a nation, or something else, that Judaism really is also a conversation. “And what is the Talmud if not precisely a conversation about "what the Bible means" and how to live our lives according to its teachings? One of the most amazing experiences a new student of Talmud can have is to follow a sugya, a discussion about a law or the interpretation of a text, where two sages are debating back and forth and attempting to refute each other, only to pick up a history book or a guide to Talmud study and realize that these two rabbis lived several hundred years apart and one lived in Palestine while the other lived in Babylonia. Obviously, these two sages were not in direct conversation with one another, but their teachings were known. Each had his disciples, and the rabbis of the Talmud were very careful to attribute teachings properly. And so, the editors of the Talmud some 1500 years ago were able to, as it were, reconstruct the conversion that would have taken place between the two -- a conversation across the generations.”

Jim’s obituary in the campus newspaper noted that he was among the first Jesuits to earn a Harvard Ph.D. But his scholarly output was fairly small -- he published one book and a handful of articles. I am not sure why he didn’t publish more, but I suspect it was because he prioritized relationships over pure scholarship. He served as an often-uncredited editor and mentor to many younger scholars, he sang with the Georgetown Chimes and served as the announcer for the women’s basketball team. For most of his career he served as a “Jesuit In Residence” in one of the dorms and he hosted countless students for meals and other get togethers. He travelled the country performing weddings and baby namings; he came to Cincinnati for my ordination as a rabbi and to Atlanta for Keleigh’s and my wedding. Jim taught me a lot about pedagogy and about the Bible but mostly he taught me how to listen, how to nurture, and how to be a friend.

David Brooks again: “We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.

But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys. Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet.”

Resume values show themselves in the newspapers and on television. Eulogy values reveal themselves in the small minutiae of life, in the encounter of parent and child, husband and wife or wife and husband, or, Baruch Ha-Shem, husband and husband or wife and wife. You will rarely see eulogy values highlighted in the newspaper, but they are the stuff which makes life tolerable.

Loss is the toll we pay to cross the bridge of life. As I look out over our kehila, I see so many who have suffered loss. Some of these losses were recent, some long ago. Some of these losses were tragic, others less so -- the loss of a parent to old age after a life well-lived. But all of these losses bring pain; life is not a competition and no one dare compare their pain to that of someone else.

A few days before Rosh Hashanah a gathering was held at the Pearlstone Center outside Baltimore to mark the shloshim, the 30th day after the death, of Neely Snyder, the daughter of our congregants Sheila and Jody Harburger. Neely was a Jewish educator who worked and taught at Pearlstone and as we all know she was killed in a traffic accident on her way to work there at the beginning of August.

The shloshim is the end of formal mourning for any loss except for that of a parent, and it marks the time when one stops reciting Kaddish daily. In Israel and in more traditional communities in the Diaspora, a memorial gathering is often held to mark the shloshim, usually including some Torah study as well as tributes to the deceased, and of course prayer services which facilitate the last recitations of Kaddish.

At the shloshim, we were studying a familiar text which among other things explains that all human beings are of infinite value and all of us are unique. In the discussion, Jody compared the teaching of Torah to the planting of seeds. He noted that among those attending the shloshim was the son of one of his own professors, and that the seeds that professor had planted were nourished by Jody and then transmitted to Neely. Neely then transmitted those seeds to so many others, and on and on it goes.

William Shakespeare in Julius Caesar has Mark Antony say that “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” Our tradition, however, teaches us that this is not true, or at least, it need not be true. The good that men -- and women - do, can and does live after them if we emulate it and dedicate ourselves to transmitting it. May those we loved and lost always be kept in the Land of the Remembered.

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