2013: WHO KEEPS THE DEAD ALIVE
So my father was lying on his deathbed, shrunken, skeletal, in the process of transitioning from life to death. And my son Danny walks into the room. He had just become engaged a few days before. He was almost the same age that my dad was when he got married. I’d seen all the pictures of my father at that age, tall and blond and skinny and full of life and confidence and ambition. And here was Danny, his spirit and image, tall and blond and skinny and full of life and confidence and ambition.
And here’s me, standing between the two composites of the same genes.
That moment was eerie, traumatic, but also wonderful in a startling way. I realized more than ever who I am; I’m just a bridge between my wonderful parents and my wonderful children.
Every day, I see my late father-in-law in my son Josh’s face and mannerisms and likes and dislikes.
Our loved ones are literally in our DNA.
Life does go on through our families, through the kids.
You see your mother’s eyes in your daughter’s eyes.
Our loved ones go on through our children and their children.
All of us can relate to this thought. This is the easy way to think about immortality.
But Judaism believes that our loved ones live on and do not just go on through us. I give lectures all the time about Judaism and death, and audiences always are surprised by what I say. Somehow, there is a popular notion that Judaism does not believe in the afterlife, and I’m busy fighting that notion.
Let me give you the lecture in a few sentences.
Judaism has never been one thing, and so there have been different beliefs about the afterlife over the thousands of years of our history.
In the time of the Bible, the afterlife was called Sheol; when you died, your spirit lived on in Sheol.
In the time of the Talmud, the afterlife was called Heaven or the Garden of Eden, but the wicked did not get to go there.
In medieval times, mystics even developed a concept of reincarnation that most did not accept but that was a Jewish belief.
In modern times Judaism, meaning Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, all believe in an afterlife, in the eternity of the soul.
In our prayer book, every day, three times a day, we say: Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheynu Melech Haolam Mechayeh Hamayteem; Blessed Art Thou O G-d Who keeps the dead alive.
Not just “who will resurrect the dead.”
Who keeps the dead alive right now.
The dead are not dead; G-d is taking care of them right now.
G-d keeps the dead alive.
That’s not the question.
G-d will keep the dead alive, but will we?
The question is: How can we keep our loved ones alive?
We say, all the time, that our loved ones live on in our memories. But many of us don’t really remember that much or that often.
We miss our loved ones so much, our grief is so painful; a lot of our memories are so difficult to think about, that we move one and live our lives and don’t dwell on the past. It’s as if our coping mechanisms have instructed us: “Don’t think about the past; it’s just too sad and you’ll get too depressed.”
I get this in my heart. I get this down to my toes. I know how hard this is.
But memory does not have to be the same thing as grief.
Grieving can be turned to memory and memory can be wonderful and inspiring and uplifting and instructive for our lives.
And our memories about our loved ones should not just be wistful nostalgia for bygone days when life was simpler.
These are the people we care about.
These are the people who made up our lives
Who made us who we are.
So how can we keep the dead alive? How can we do right by them? What is the right way to remember them? How do we remember without causing ourselves constant pain?
We have to keep our loved ones alive by perpetuating their memories.
A very Jewish way of remembering is by invoking the power of our loved ones’ names. Why do we have a memorial book with all our loved ones’ names? Why do we have memorial plaques with all our loved ones’ names? Why do I stand here, week after week, reading the names of our loved ones who passed away on that week in past years?
It is all about perpetuating their names as a way of perpetuating their memories.
There are many Jewish cemeteries in Europe where the Nazis desecrated the tombstones of Jewish people. They couldn’t even let them rest in peace. They wanted to obliterate their names. And after the Holocaust, Jewish organizations such as Yad Vashem, which means Monument and Name, in Jerusalem have striven to remember every name of each innocent person who was murdered. We will not forget those who perished in the Holocaust.
And we will not forget our own loved ones who have passed on. And so every Friday night and every Shabbos morning, we read the names of our loved ones and say the Mourner’s Kaddish on their yahrzeits, the Hebrew anniversaries of their deaths. We believe in the power of the name. We believe that honoring the name in public is a way of making sure that they are not forgotten and that their memories are perpetuated. I can never understand why more people don’t cherish this sacred way of honoring their loved ones. It is such a wonderful thing to come and honor and love your parent or your spouse or your sibling or your child on this sad anniversary. Reading the name is a way to KEEP THE DEAD ALIVE. When people come and do this, we often have wonderful conversations after the service and we remember and cherish and tell stories about the people we have just named.
And this is why it is so precious to pass on the names of our loved ones to our children and grandchildren. The names, the identities of our ancestors become the names and identities of our descendants, and this is a way that we keep the dead alive.
Let me give you a different example. One of the nicest things in my life is when my grandsons come to shul on Shabbos morning and the three of us walk back to my house. We tell three stories, a Bible story, a Matzohball Monster story, and a superhero story, and throw pinecones in the stream and watch them float.
It’s heaven on earth. Literally. Because as wonderful as it is, the power of it comes from all the Shabbos mornings I walked home from shul with my father. It all melts together. My memories of my walks with my father envelop and embrace my walks with my grandsons. It’s all one; it’s all seam-less. My father is so alive at those moments that the whole concept of death seems like an irrelevant detail.
The past and the present are united through a Jewish action: walking back from shul on Shabbos.
If you want to make your loved ones live, think about perpetuating them through your actions, by doing the things they did. Isn’t this one of the main reasons you’re sitting here right now, because they went to Yizkor? You are with them now because of what you’re doing.
We need to remember what it means to be Jewish.
What are your Jewish memories that you carry around in your mind and your heart? A recipe, a Bar Mitzvah tutor, a song, a Jewish summer camp, a trip to Israel.
Maybe it was singing the Shema with your mother right when you went to sleep at night before she kissed you and tucked you in.
Maybe you remember the man who you sat next to in shul when you were a kid who used to hand you a peppermint candy whenever the rabbi began to speak so that you wouldn’t make noise.
Maybe it was the same stupid joke that Uncle Julius cracked every year at the Passover Seder.
These are all experiences that make up your Jewish past. You may be new to Judaism and your memories are more recent, like the moment when you emerged from the mikveh as a member of the Jewish people.
We all have these memories, new or old. They are who we are as Jewish people and as people. Consciously or unconsciously, it is Jewish memory that drives our Jewish identity.
Remembering aspects of our Jewishness is fine but it is not enough. Waxing nostalgic about the past is not enough. We need to remember, but then we need to do, to act.
Solomon Schechter once wrote that, “every generation must write its own love letters.” We can’t be satisfied reading our parents’ love letters to Judaism. We are not museum curators; we are stakeholders in the Jewish future.
As parents and grandparents committed to Judaism, the most important gift you can give the next generations is a steady stream of Jewish memories. You light candles at a Friday night table, not as a workshop in theology, but because you are impressing the power of Shabbat on your children You don’t take or send your kids to Israel so that they will become experts in Middle Eastern geopolitics; they need to go to Israel so that when they grow up, they will have an intense love for the land of our people. When you take your children to shul and sit here next to them, not drop them off but sit next to them, you are creating memories that will last a lifetime. The key to building a Jewish future is to create Jewish memories right now.
Memory, not history, is the Jewish mode.
This is why I’ve talked on these holidays about the meaning of Zachor, of remembering by doing. That’s why I want all of us to learn more about the history, the facts of our family histories, but also to search for memories of the people who make us us. We must know more about our past so that we can truly remember who we are as a people and what we have experienced.
On these High Holidays, I also have talked about what it means to be good, and I have asked whether being good enough, which we define as not being bad and taking care of yourself and your loved ones, is really good enough. But now I’m asking: You’re a good Jewish person, but are you good enough to perpetuate our people and the memory of your loved ones’ love of Judaism?
I talked about being one, about being single, feeling alone, and how our society and our Jewish community must adapt to this changing reality, but I also pleaded with you to let G-d into your life because He is the One who can help you when you are only one. And I ask you to think about the people who you know right now who are alone, and to help them and to reach out to them more than you have.
We have to help each other up and down the mountains of life and wait for the other person when he or she falls behind.
And I talked this morning about hope, how we have to create hopes for every day, how we often close that gate and refuse to see the possibilities of life that lie ahead of us. We have to open up the golden gate of hope for the future, we have to open that gate with all our strength.
And now, the gates of the High Holidays are closing.
Remember your loved one, zachor at Yizkor, but think about how, in the new year, you will make new memories that will keep all of us alive forever. Remember who you are. And then go and live your life accordingly.
Blessed is G-d, Who keeps the dead alive.
Blessed are we when we do the same.