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Yizkor: Uniqueness of Each Life Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Aron

Sept. 23, 2015

One of the readings that families often chose for baby-namings, comes from the writings of Martin Buber. With the newborn in our arms we proclaim:

“Every person born into this world, represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique…there has never been someone like him or her in the world before, ( for if there had been, there would be no need for him or her to be in the world.)

Every single person is a new thing in the world, and is called upon to fulfill that particularity.”

In their book Wise Aging, Rabbi Rachel Cowen and Dr. Linda Thal, question what those words might mean at the other end of our lives, not at birth but as we contemplate aging and mortality.

Before the Yizkor service this afternoon we read a section of our new prayer book which took the traditional Eilah Ezk’rah, a part of the service originally about the ten rabbis martyred by the Romans, and recast it as a remembrance of more contemporary Jewish heroes, who lost their lives, yet left a legacy of courage, service and compassion.

The stories are inspirational but there is the danger that we will compare our lives with the lives of these famous people and feel insignificant. And it is not just about these heroes. As I mentioned on Kol Nidre, whatever our success in life, it is unlikely that we cannot think of someone, someone in our area of endeavor, who was more successful or better known. I understand that this is true even for those we might consider the most successful, noble prize winners and concert musicians, for it is human nature to see each achievement as a stepping stone to even greater success and to compare ourselves with others.  But envy mars our life; jealousy as we read in this morning’s Torah portion, is considered by some the very first sin, and coveting gives us no peace.

In one sense then Yizkor comes as a great leveler. Rich or poor, famous or unrecognized, the brilliant inventor and the shlub:  in the words of Rabbi Chaim Stern, editor of our old prayer book, “the grave levels all distinctions and makes the whole world kin”. Steve Jobs, one of the most successful men in the world, was still unable to spare his wife and daughters, the pain of losing their husband and father to illness, and we have experienced that closer to home as well.


Some claim that Yom Kippur’s power comes from it being a mini-rehearsal for our own deaths. We stop eating, traditionally Jews dressed in the white kittel  in which an Orthodox Jew would be buried. Facing death for one day, is a sort of hard reset for our whole operating system. It forces us to reconnect with our deepest values.

The imagery of final judgement is often harsh. We tend to imagine the Pearly Gates guarded by a stern judge who is seeking to uncover all of our failings. Cowan and Thal ask, what if we imagined it differently. What if we imagined our exit interview being conducted by a sweet and kindly social worker, who is sitting by our side and is interested in helping us articulate only the good parts of our lives. If a negative thought arises in our mind, “there will be time for all that later,“ says the Social Worker. Do we have a sense of the good that we already do? Do we stop to think about it? Some say that improvement comes more easily from doing more of what we do well rather than trying to work on what we are not good at. Where might that lead each of us?

What would happen if we thought deeply about Buber’s idea of each person’s uniqueness and asked ourselves: What was the need for which I uniquely came into the world? What is left for me to do?

Those we remember sitting here this afternoon left us a legacy of goodness. They had their quirks and failings, and in some cases these failings may have been very significant, but for most of us there is a legacy of devotion, encouragement and caring. I think of all the goodness in those who have died who were members of our congregation, and the unique gifts they brought and shared with us. From one I learned how to walk into a class of teenagers and mean business, and I still channel him in teaching Confirmation. From another I learned that challenging questions can be an invitation to engagement and not a reason to withdraw. From a third I learned to understand the difference between being friendly and having good friends, and to cultivate both. What did you learn from those you are remembering this afternoon? How have you been changed for good by knowing them?

I had always assumed that the leadership on the problem of global warming would come from young people, because they are the ones who are going to be alive 50, 75 and perhaps even 100 years from now, to deal with the resulting problems. But I read an article this summer about how it is often an issue for octogenarians. Why?  I think it ties into legacy. For some people there is comfort in the idea that, though we die as individuals, life continues.

That’s an old Jewish value- for the ancient Israelite farmer it was “though I die, my family continues on its ancestral land, and so I am not totally lost.” Later generations thought about it this way: my life is finite, but I am part of something larger, am Yisrael, am netzach, the people of Israel, an eternal people.

For some octogenarians, meaning comes from doing what they can to insure that life will be good for those who come after them. Thus it matters deeply to them that we protect our world from the possible consequences of global warming: it is one thing for us to die but quite another for the human enterprise to come to an end. Legacy is another way of transcending death, of remaining present in the world, of continuing to shape what will happen after you are gone, of knowing that things that were important to you will be able to continue.

The rabbis tell many stories about people who were not righteous at all throughout their lives, but do some one good thing just before they die, and in that way change the meaning of their entire life. I think the message in those stories is not so different than Yogi Berra’s old baseball adage, “it’s not over until it’s over.” I remember when we lived in Brooklyn in the late 1980’s and the Met’s won the World Series, in the seventh game of the series, in extra innings.  It can happen.

Whether you are 30 or 50, 70 or 90 there is still the question of what you are going to do with the rest of your life.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav taught: If you won’t be better tomorrow than you were today, then what need do you have for tomorrow?

The Sacred Aging book includes the story of a 93 year old man who is dissatisfied with his life. After hearing that his law partner of many years has been diagnosed with lymphoma and wanting to be a better partner to his wife, he goes into therapy. It takes. Nine months later his wife calls his psychiatrist to ask whether her husband has received a brain transplant, things are so much better. He himself writes the doctor a note, “Life has new meaning now.”

For some the meaning of our lives is one continuous story and for others, a change at any time, can bring new meaning and purpose, in that sense fulfilling the words of Unetaneh Tokefteshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah  maaverim et roa hagzerah, we have the tools to transform meaninglessness suffering.

So often in our innovative  valley I hear people quoting Albert Einstein’s words: "Insanity: is  doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." 

What is the one thing we are going to do differently next year, that will, in Irv’s words,  enable us to earn our oxygen on this earth?

“Every single person is a new thing in the world, and is called upon to fulfill that particularity.” May this new year enable you to share your gifts with the world.


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