Why Is Hayyim a Collective/Plural Noun?
or Life Doesn't Have To Be Perfect To Be Wonderful - Yom Kippur 5777
I never married
Or - I got married but it didn’t work out
Or - I got married but we barely communicate
I didn’t have children
Or - my children don’t talk to me much
Or - my children never got married
Or - my children married the wrong people who have influence over them so they barely communicate with me
I didn’t get grandchildren
Or - I didn’t get Jewish grandchildren
Or - my grandchildren basically just communicate with me when they have to
I never had money
Or - I never had a house
Or - I never had the kind of house my sister has
Or - I’ve had just enough money to get by but I never put anything away and now I’m getting older and I’m terrified
These are the things we think about all the time;
we think about something that we don’t have,
what we lack, our lacks rather than our lucks,
and these things get to us in our core.
And for some of us, what we don’t have overwhelms us.
And for some of us, it completely overwhelms everything. Suicide is obviously a very complex issue, due to all sorts of things, including drugs and mental illness. Still, the fact that the suicide rate has surged to a 30-year high in this country is a sure sign that a lot of us are only thinking about ourselves. If it’s all about me, and I’m unhappy, if nothing else and no one else matters except me, and I can’t face the next day, why not just end it all?
Obviously, suicide is the extreme example.
But for the rest of us, the truth is that if we don‘t come to terms with what we don’t have, you will never be happy.
How did we get to this point? Why did this happen that we’re so consumed by our unhappiness?
It started a long time ago.
When you’re a child, you dream about the life you will have when you grow up,
you write a script.
And then, at some point, the dream comes crashing down.
You realize that you are never going to be 6’6 and play basketball for Duke.
It hits you that may be a good dancer but you’re never going to play Giselle in Swan Lake.
You find out that Prince Charming is really …. a frog.
You find out that this degree that you went into strangling debt for/ doesn’t even guarantee you a job.
So Stage 1 is the Dream and Stage 2 is the Trauma that the Dream has not come true. The German word traum means dream. Maybe the dream produces the trauma.
We need Stage 3.
Stage 3 begins when, to quote my AppleMaps lady, you do some “recalculating.” Today, I want to recalculate how we think about our journey.
The usual Jewish sermon that tells us how to think about our lives follows Pirke Avot and Bing Crosby. Pirke Avot, the Talmudic tractate often called the Ethics of our Ancestors, states: “Who is happy? He who is content with his lot.” The idea is that you should be happy with what you have. This is very true, and I think about this all the time. Life does not have to be perfect to be wonderful. It’s never going to be perfect, so if we want to be happy, we have to get our heads to a different place.
It’s like Bing Crosby sang:
When I'm worried and I can't sleep
I count my blessings instead of sheep
And I fall asleep counting my blessings
When my bankroll is getting small
I think of when I had none at all
And I fall asleep counting my blessings
Bing was the original search engine. In this song, he is searching for ways to be happy, emphasizing things that are better than they used to be.
This is very good, but it doesn’t tell us what to do if what we have is still not very good.
I want to explain a different approach to life by talking about one Hebrew word, a word almost all of us think we know, perhaps the most familiar Hebrew word of all, Hayyim. It’s impossible to think about the word Hayyim without picturing Tevye, in Fiddler on the Roof, dancing on the table shouting, LeChayyim, ‘To Life.” It’s how we toast, wishing each other all the best. We even have an organization here at the shul called L’Hayyim, meant for those of us who are older and who want to enrich their lives with social and intellectual activities.
But as famous as the word is, it reflects a profound approach to life. The word Hayyim and its form are very interesting. You need to know a little Hebrew grammar to get the point. Every language has a way to describe what is singular and what is plural.
In Hebrew, when a noun is masculine plural, you usually add the suffix eem. If a tree is etz, “trees” is eytzim. If a boy is yeled, “boys,” plural, is yeladeem.
But there are some nouns with the eem ending that could be called “collective” nouns. So may-eem, with the -eem ending, means “water,” and there is no way to differentiate between singular and plural, no way to say one drop of water as opposed to a lot of water.
Hayyim means life, singular, but in a sense it is a plural noun, meaning “lives,” and in another sense it’s a collective noun, meaning “Life” in general.
What I will call the Hayyim approach tells you that you make a mistake when your think of your life as just your life.
If you just think of your life as your life, your singular life, you are going to be very depressed. The singular life is intolerably short, filled with trouble and travail; it quickly flies away.
But thinking about a life as hayyim, as plural “lives,” as collective life, is a very different way to think.
Let me tell you when and how this thought came to me. Last Thanksgiving, I found myself at my father’s grave with some of the members of my family. And I heard myself saying that it’s a mistake to think of my father’s life as the years represented on that stone at that plot in that cemetery. My father didn’t just have one life. The word Hayyim tells us otherwise. His life was “lives,” there were many lives in his life and there still are. He had many lives, and I don’t just mean the stages of his life, growing up in poverty in Texas, serving in the army in Korea, being a wise father; being a rabbi of a congregation for a generation. I don’t just mean all those aspects of his life. I also mean that his hayyim, his life/slash/lives, includes his four children and thirteen grandchildren and who knows how many great-grandchildren to come. My father’s hayyim was, or is, in many ways, a blessed and lucky one. His life was what a friend of mine calls “generationally correct.” He really had the whole package.
But the truth is that there were plenty of disappointments and agonies in his life, as there are in every life, and it’s important to know that even those of us who say we “have it all,” are making the best of things, knowing deep down what we don’t have.
There are lives in a life, and so hayyim is a plural noun.
I look at family photographs sometimes, and it all feels strange, a kind of twilight zone.
I look at photographs and I know of course that the young man with all that brown hair was me, but I only vaguely remember him. It’s like he’s somebody else. When I see myself standing there with people who have since passed away, it feels like something from another lifetime.
So I’ve already had a few lives.
A life has stages.
And like my father’s life, your life includes the lives of your ancestors and your descendants.
That’s the plural nature of hayyim.
But what I want to emphasize is, because it could be true for all of us, that hayyim is a collective noun.
I mean your life as an American
And I mean your life as a Jewish person
If you have been a part of the life of a synagogue or a Jewish institution, that is another one of your lives.
But what does this really mean?
If you’re a part of a Jewish community, you are part of the perpetuation of Judaism and the Jewish people, the passing down of values to the next generation, the caring that the people in the community give each other.
I officiate at a lot of life-cycle events. At all of the happy ones, the brises and baby-namings, the Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, the weddings, there are two kinds of people, the ones who are 100% happy, and the people who are trying to be 100% happy. The latter group find certain things bittersweet, and I feel for them; they never had a child or a grandchild, their kids never married, their own marriages didn’t make it. And so they sit there and smile and they don’t let on. That may not be their grandchild on the bima, but it’s a wonderful kid whom they feel pride in.
They rise above their own needs and wants at that moment because being a part of a family or a friendship or a community stretches you to transcend yourself.
And this is a very good thing.
You have to see a bigger picture than your mirror.
You have to see a bigger picture than your mirror.
And in this way, you find hayyim, you find the plural lives.
The two middle letters of Hayyim are two yuds, a name for G-d.
Whether you know it or not
G-d is in your life
And you are in the life of G-d
There is this life but there is also what we call an “afterlife”
There is an eternity of existence after this
This is another reason that Hayyim is plural,
Because this life is not the end of us.
During these High Holidays, I’ve tried to say, in different ways, that our lives cannot just be our singular lives.
The Jewish holidays are special moments that are supposed to bring us out of our individual concerns.
I’ve talked about our circles of responsibility.
I’ve talked about balancing our needs with the needs of others
And how our society has to balance capitalism and socialism
We can’t let the pirates steal from us; pirates are irresponsible and care about no one but themselves.
Are we fulfilling our responsibilities to our loved ones and to our people and to our country?
Do we balance the needs of today with the needs of tomorrow?
Sometimes I think we think so much about tomorrow that we forget about today.
And on this note, I want to conclude my thoughts for these High Holidays with a personal story. I’m really blessed that I have three grandchildren, Alexander, Avi and Leah, who I see all the time; it’s a blessing beyond words. I have another grandchild, Talia, who lives in Chicago. A few weeks ago, Talis’s parents were kind enough to let her stay with us for a few days, and the two little girls, 2 ½ year old Leah and 1 ½ year old Talia, had the time of their lives being together. It was pure magic; every moment was precious. So the night before Talia’s parents were going to come back for her, I was trying to be a wise grandfather and I wanted to prepare Leah for Talia’s departure the next day.
So I say, “You know honey, we’re going to miss Talia after she leaves tomorrow.” Without missing a beat, Leah says to me,
“But Baba, we have her now.”
Leah is so much wiser than I am.
For everything that was and everything that will be,
we have/ who we have now.
For all of our hayyim, all of our lives, we have this life now.
For all the things we never got,
For all the things we don’t have,
For all the people we remember in sorrow,
let’s remember who’s with us.
In the coming year, let’s remember who we have now, and hold them close.