My father’s funeral was on a Tuesday. My siblings and I sat shiva with my mother in Maryland until Friday morning and then left to spend Shabbos and the last couple of days of shiva in our own communities. It was hard to leave and it was a long drive on a summer Friday. I had not been home in a week and it had easily been the worst week of my life. So as I drove the last few blocks to my house, I was quite ready to get out of the car.
But just then, my mother called, and told me that the death certificates had been sent to my house instead of hers, and that she needed them immediately. “Here’s what I need you to do,” she said. “You’re going to go in your front door and grab the envelope with the certificates. You are not going to even say hello to anyone, because if you do, you’ll get lost and then it will be Shabbos before you know it. You will get back in the car and drive over to the FedEx office and send the certificates by overnight express.”
“But Mom,” I said, “It’s been a long day and a longer week. I don’t think I can be in the car another minute. And you can’t do anything with those certificates until next week, anyway. And you don’t need to send them anywhere so fast, anyway.”
And she said, “I need those certificates tomorrow morning.”
“But Mom,” I said.
“Right now,” she said.
So, complaining all the way, I went in the house and grabbed the envelope and drove to the FedEx office and sent them the fastest possible way, and I called my mother and told her that the envelope with the certificates would be there between 9 and 12 the next morning.
The next morning, I’m walking to Shul at 9 AM and the phone rings. A phone call on Shabbos is usually bad news, and I looked and it was my mother. I thought that she was distraught with grief.
“Mom?” I asked.
“Where are the certificates?” she demanded.
“Mom,” I said calmly, “They will be there between 9 and 12.”
“But it’s now 9:01,” she said.
“I didn’t say 9:12, Mom; I said between 9 and 12.”
“I understand,” she said, “And it’s now 9:02 and they’re still not here.”
“Mom,” I said, “I am going into shul. I will not look at my phone all morning. If there’s no message from you when I look at my phone after services, we’ll do something.”
“It’s now 9:03,” she said.
When I looked after services, there was a text message that the certificates had arrived at 10:30. When I called her later, I asked if she felt better. “Yes,” she said, “I have the certificates.”
“Great,” I said.
“But,” my mother persisted, “I have another question: How much did you spend sending them overnight?”
“What difference does it make?” I said. “Everything is all set.”
“I’m asking you again: How much did you spend?”
“Fifty dollars?!” she shouted, slamming the receiver, “Who told you to spend that kind of money?”
I thought this was the funniest thing I’d ever heard. I was laughing for three days. And the friends to whom I told the story laughed out loud and said that it seemed like an episode of Seinfeld and that I was talking to George Costanza’s mother.
After I stopped laughing, I recognized that by focusing on a detail, the death certificates, she didn’t have to deal with the bigger realities, like my father’s death, like a life without him.
But then I thought some more and I realized that the death certificates represented finances, fear, finality.
Death certificates may be the heaviest documents in the world; they are stark, cold, official.
You look at a death certificate and it is all so chillingly real, like someone is throwing cold water on your face and telling you to face the truth.
And then still another wave came and I started to feel badly about the way I had acted.
And I started to think about what love is. My late teacher Dr. Yochanan Muffs, may he be remembered for a blessing, showed that in Biblical Hebrew, the word ahava, which we usually translate as love, and the word simcha, which we usually translate as joy, both can also mean to do something willingly, with alacrity. To do something with love, to do something with joy, is to do the thing with enthusiasm, happily.
A trivial story, but one that has stuck with me for over forty years. I was 16 and I was in Israel for the summer. And I was invited to an Orthodox home for Shabbos lunch. I realized that I had lost my yalmulka some place between shul and the house, and I was embarrassed that I didn’t have a yalmulka for this traditional meal. So with some chagrin I asked the man if I could borrow a yalmulka, and I remembered he looked at me and said, “With the greatest of pleasure,” and he rushed over to a drawer, (you have the same drawer in your dining room, filled to the brim with kipot of every color), and happily offered me an array of yamulkas. He could have given me a bad look, or a condescending look, but instead he made me feel relaxed and comfortable.
I know this is a trivial story, but I have always remembered it, and I’ve asked myself: With all of the experiences I’ve had in my life, after all of the homes I’ve been in, why does that one stand out in my mind, why do I remember it so vividly over forty years later? And I think it has to be that this is not the way people usually act. We are always so quick to to criticize. “You don’t have a yalmulka? Some rabbi you’re going to be!” Especially with the people we love, we love to put each other down.
And more than anything, we love to complain. Sure, we do what we have to do for our loved ones, but we do everything begrudgingly, as in “with a grudge.”
“I cooked that wonderful meal for you and you didn’t lift a finger to help me!”
“It would have been nice if I heard a compliment once in a while.”
“I picked you and your friends up at the movie and little Fred didn’t say thank you!”
“When you were sick, I stayed up all night worrying about you and this is how you act?”
I’m walking into Walmart, and I walk through the door, and a man says, sarcastically, “You’re welcome.” I realized that he had held the door open for me, and that I hadn’t noticed, so I said that I was sorry, and I thanked him. When I walked out of the store a little while later, I saw that the same man was holding the door for all of the people walking in, and as they walked through, he shouted, “You’re welcome!” with the same harsh tone.
It took me a minute to realize that he was playing a game, holding the door to see how many people would not say ‘thank you.’
He’s like the rest of us: we do good things but we do them for the ‘thank you.’ In every case, we have the right to complain, but doing something lovingly means that you should not complain, you should be happy that you did it. To do something be-ahava, be- simcha, with love, with joy, is to do it with a full heart and to ask nothing in return.
So what if I did not understand why my mother was so consumed with getting those certificates in her hands? It should not have mattered what she was asking for or what I had to do to help her. This is what my mother needed and so what if I were tired of being in the car? I complained all the way. I did not do an important act be-ahava, I did not do it be-simcha, with love and with joy.
On these High Holidays, I began by talking about how the Jewish people have always been glassmakers; we have always been the ones who made windows for the world, the ones who made mirrors so that people could see themselves. And even in our moments of great joy, we break the glass and remember how everything is easily broken, especially us, and our relationships. Remember that you and the people around you are fragile
We are all made of glass and we are easily broken
Handle with care
Handle the people around you with care.
I spoke about how the High Priest on Yom Kippur offered sacrifices for his country and people, for his family, and for himself.
In the same way, we have to do what we should for our country, our families, and ourselves.
We should be happy to share the sacrifices for our country; we should pay our debts to this wonderful nation. My father, zachur la-tov, paid property tax in Maryland even though clergy did not have to, because his kids went to public school and benefited from everyone else’s property taxes. No one even suggested that he do this, but he was willing and positive about doing it. He wanted to share in the sacrifice. The rest of us begrudge every penny of taxes. We have no sense of shared sacrifice. We have no willingness to pay our debts. And our country has suffered as a result. Our political leaders seem to have lost the nerve to ask us to share so that we can restore our nation to its greatness. If we do not act soon, our children and grandchildren will suffer for our selfishness.
In the same way, we should be happy to share in the sacrifice for our Jewish community. I talked on these holidays about how a community works, and how we want everyone to have a place here, we want everyone to feel that they belong here. This can only happen through our shared sacrifice, by paying our debts. And we should not do so begrudgingly but willingly.
Don’t spend your time figuring out how you can sacrifice less
Spend your time figuring out how you can sacrifice more
We should be happy, willing and joyful to make sure that others who are in real financial distress have their place here and feel that they can belong to our synagogue.
I spoke about the loving relationships that we have in our lives and how, all too often, our love, our willingness, our enthusiasm to have a relationship, is not reciprocated and we are often used and abused by those we care about. And I said that after trying everything, at some point, we have a right to protect our hearts. So while I’m talking about love and joy and willingness, sometimes we have to draw back so that we can give our love to the people who truly deserve it. But to the people who deserve it, we should do things be-ahava and be-simcha.
And I spoke about the loves that they, the negative realities of life, cannot and should not take away from us. We must be willing to look at death and time in the face and continue to love the people who are so-called gone as much, if not more, than before.
I want to tell you one more story, and it’s about this shul’s finest day in the last year. It was Monday evening, July 23rd. Our shul had had one of the worst weeks ever. Two of our members and the mother of one of our members had passed away, and on that night, we needed three shiva minyans in three different towns, Hamden, North Haven and Branford, all at the same time. It was literally the middle of the summer, and a lot of people were away, but we had three minyans that night. Some of the people who came to make those minyans did not know the people who were mourning, but they came so that the mourners could say Kaddish in their own homes. That we pulled that off was not what made me so gratified. It was how willing our people were to help, it was the faces of our people who understood what community is, it was the faces of those who know what it means to do for others in their times of need. For me, that was our community at its best.
At Yizkor, we remember people who we love and people who loved us. Think about the way they loved us. Our joy was their joy. Our success was their success. No sacrifice was a sacrifice. No wonder we miss them so much. The ones we really miss, who we really loved, were the ones who loved us with ahava and simcha, with willingness and joy.
And as we enter this new year, I am thinking about the way we live our lives
Don’t say, “How am I going to face another day?”
Don’t begrudge the day
Be enthusiastic about the day
Don’t be consumed by yourself and your aches and pains and worries
Don’t say, “Oh, what do I have to do today?”
Ask: “What are the possibilities of today?”
This is how I want you to live the next year
Happy, willing, loving, without so many complaints and grudges and putdowns.
When someone calls you in their time of need, it doesn’t matter what you think. If my mother wanted those certificates, that should have been enough to send me running. That the thing is important to the person should make it important to you and you should be happy to help. That’s what it means to care. That’s what it means to love.