One of the most popular cultural phenomena of the last few years is a trilogy of books called The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. It is a dystopia, which is the opposite of a utopia; it is a terrible vision of America in the future. In high school, we read dystopias like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. Now this new dystopia called The Hunger Games portrays an America where a rebellion against the ruling elite is punished with annual games in which young representatives from the twelve districts are placed in an arena and must kill each other until only one victor is left.
Over the years I’ve told you a lot of stories about people I’ve known. Before I told those stories, I asked the people’s permission and changed their names and other elements. The story that I’m going to tell you today is about two people who came to me at least partly so that I would tell their story to as many people as I could. They are not members of this congregation but read something I wrote and decided that they wanted to tell me about their lives, and, for a reason it took me a while to figure out, wanted me to tell their story for them.
Last year on Yom Kippur, I asked you, “Who is sitting at the table in your head?” I asked you who, alive or dead, is most precious to you.
People really responded to this question. Over the last year, I have had countless conversations with people who wanted to use this image to talk about the people in their lives. Many seem to draw comfort from the image of all the people they love, sitting together again around a table.
But others say that the question is a very painful one that has led them to think, in wrenching ways, about their feelings and their relationships.
If you’re Jewish, you are proud of what the Jewish people has contributed to civilization. Our belief in One G-d has transformed the world and affected history in countless ways. Our laws and commandments, our morality and ethics, have defined the ideals and values of much of the world.
All this you know. So let me tell you something you don’t know: Jewish people brought glassmaking to the world. In a book called The Glassmakers: An Odyssey of the Jews published in 1991, Samuel Kurinsky shows that for centuries, even millennia, Jewish people were the exclusive glassmakers in the world for much of that time. If you took a map of how the making of glass spread through the world, and superimposed it on a map of how Jewish people migrated to different countries, you would have a match.
I don’t know how grief feels to you. All I know is how it feels to me. Over the years, as I’ve lost more and more people, I find that grief has become very real, actually physical. I feel the grief in my stomach, in my chest. When it gets bad, I may not feel it every minute, but there are times in the day when it gets unbearable. And yet what we have to do is bear the unbearable, to go on and live and be happy despite these depressing and horrible feelings.
It is impossible to go on. And yet, somehow, we must.
My grandson Alexander puts out fires. Like a lot of kids with active imaginations, he sees himself as a fireman. We’ve put out countless fires in houses, cars, and even this synagogue.
He knocked on my door one day, dressed as a fireman, and asked me if I had any problems. I didn’t understand at first, but then I saw that he was holding yellow caution tape in one hand and red danger tape in the other and he was ready to place tape wherever it might be needed in my life. He was there to protect me and fix anything that I needed.
In his world, fires occur, but he can deal with them.