Rabbi Scolnic shares his favorite sermons.
I’d like to tell you two stories at this solemn time before Yizkor on Yom Kippur.
One is from an experience I had in my late grandmother’s apartment; the other is from my father’s notes, as I’ll explain in a couple of minutes. Both stories are about remembering and keeping, about what remembering means. Yizkor means to remember. But what does it mean to remember? That’s the question I want to pose to you at this hour: What does remembering mean?
I’m always in the car, going to visit someone or to officiate at something. Wherever I go, I have a driving companion and his name is Tom.
Tom has an Irish accent. In a very charming way, he calls highways “motorways” and traffic circles “roundabouts.” When I need to turn, he gives me advance warning and reminds me immediately before the turn comes. When, nevertheless, I take a wrong turn, he patiently tells me to turn around as soon as possible. He never says that I’m stupid or criticizes me in any way. Worse comes to worse, when I still get it wrong, he tells me that he’s “recalculating.” And when I finally successfully get where I’m going, he triumphantly exclaims: “You have reached your destination.” This always makes me feel like a million bucks.
When I was growing up near Washington D.C., George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were two of my great heroes. I lived in the Washington area and rooted for the Washington teams; my family often went to Washington’s home called Mt. Vernon and Jefferson’s home called Monticello, near the re-created colonial town of Williamsburg. Along with Davy Crockett (whose coonskin cap I wore and for whom I named my little brother) and Biblical figures like Charleston Heston, Washington and Jefferson were my heroes. They were the epitomes of what made America great. They were two of the Founding Fathers, legendary geniuses who with seemingly divine wisdom created the greatest political system known in human history.
Do you remember the card game “I Doubt It”? On every turn, a player claimed to be holding the required card; she would say, “I have two threes” or “I have one four.” And then everyone else had to guess if she actually had two threes or one four; if you thought she didn’t, you’d say, “I doubt it.” And if she were lying, she couldn’t get rid of any cards. The goal was to get rid of all your cards before anyone else. If you were smart, you paid attention to what players said on every turn and you remembered what they had and didn’t have. In this game, intelligent doubt was good.
About ten years ago, there was a popular movie called Unbreakable starring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson.
Jackson plays Elijah Price, who was born with Type I osteogenesis imperfecta, a rare disease in which bones break easily. As a child, other children taunt him, calling him "Mr. Glass." He is always in and out of the hospital. At one point, Elijah comes up with a theory, that if he is frail to such an extreme, then there may be someone who is strong at the opposite extreme. He spends his life trying to find someone at the other end of the spectrum, someone who is unbreakable. He creates disasters, killing hundreds of people trying to find someone who cannot be destroyed. When he orchestrates a horrific train wreck that kills 131 passengers, he finds the person he’s been looking for.
As soon as we find out that we’re going to have a baby, we begin to worry. When the baby is born, what we want to know first is whether, as my father always put it, the child has ten fingers and ten toes, whether we have a normal baby. But the hard truth is that lots of babies have one disability or another, and that parents have to go through a process of adjusting to this fact and then have to do everything they can to make the child’s life everything it can be. The stories of our lives include adapting to the realities of our lives.
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