The D’var Torah by Rabbi Peter Knobel
delivered on Rosh Hashanah 2011
One of my favorite quotations is by the African American poet Langston Hughes. It is a great place to begin. He wrote:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
As I was preparing to come to Auckland I wrote a note to some of Beth Shalom’s leadership asking them to suggest topics for my Dvar Torah on the Yamim Noraim. One of the suggestions I received was from Naomi Johnson. She wrote the following:
“At the high holy days it is a time when you reflect on the past 12 months. The past 12 months have seen some terrible disasters, more than would normally happen in 12 months or maybe they were just closer to us. Christchurch has had two major earthquakes but the February quake saw such loss of life and destruction on a scale rarely seen in NZ. The quake and tsunami in Japan were even worse – destruction and loss of life on a terrible scale. We had the Pike River Mine disaster in November and Australia had bad flooding in January. Our shul lost a member to illness, Terry Haffern’s wife Gail, in January, which was unexpected. You will see her legacy in the shul over Yom Tov with the ribbons we use for decoration that was her design, she was an artist. It still seems hard to believe that Gail has gone. There were of course other deaths but the people were older and had lived full lives unlike Gail who was cut short at 64. Each of us could add our own list of calamities to this list.
The destruction from the quakes, tsunami and the floods really bring life into perspective – that it is human life that is of the utmost importance and all our material things are nothing in comparison.
The poignancy of a tragedy is not its size but how it touches our hearts and our lives. This reflection is at the heart of the meaning of the Yamim Noraim. During the month of Elul we have been preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Hopefully each of us has done a Chesbon Hanefesh – a serious review of our behaviour over the past year and as well as the blessings and curses that we experienced during the past year. What is most precious to us? Is it our material possessions? Is our professional success? Is it the accolades we receive from our achievements? What should be most precious to us is our lives lived in relationship with others.
Our lives alternate between the blessing and the curse, between the good and bad, between sorrow and joy. This comes into focus today more than at any other time of the year. We feel the poignancy of our situation most intensely when we listen to and recite the powerful and dreadful prayer, Unetaneh Tokef. It is a rich, complex and deeply disturbing poem. For me it is one of the emotional high points of the High Holy Day season. It is a mixture of the tragic realism and hope. It is about the mysteries of fate and our reaction to the uncertainty of the future. It is about God’s eternality and our fragile mortality. As with every great piece of liturgy or literature it has multiple meanings. The words strike us differently depending on the circumstances of our lives. The imagery is complex. There are multiple metaphors for God but the concept of judge seems to dominate. It is not surprising because today is Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment. God is also the shepherd who cares for us and the patient parent who waits for our return.
Let us spend a few minutes examining the text.
God of pardon and forgiveness,
let these words of sanctity ascend to You.
The sacred power of this day
inspires us with awe and fear.
For from Your throne, Your rule holds sway;
with love and truth, You draw us near.
In truth, You are
Judge and Arbiter, Counsel and Witness;
You write and seal, record and tally.
As You open the Book of Remembrance,
You remember deeds we have long forgotten.
What is written proclaims itself,
for it bears the signature of every human being.
While we do not determine our fate, the story of our lives is written by us. Who we are and we have become and what we can yet become is in large measure determined by us.
The great shofar cries:
t’kiah, sh’varim, t’ruah, t’kiah
Then a subtle whisper of sound is heard
that holds even the angels in fearful suspense,
as they declare: “This is the Day of Judgment” —
for in judgment You review the hosts on high.
None of them escapes Your judgment,
while all who dwell on earth pass before You like sheep.
As a shepherd examines the flock,
causing each sheep to pass beneath the staff,
so do You collect and consider, record and recount
every living soul, setting the bounds of each life
as You decree its destiny.
This is a fateful day. We stand both in awe of the magnificence of this world and its endless possibilities and in fear of the uncertainty of what the future will bring. The poem and this moment capture the essence of human existence. Ultimately the poem does not answer the question – Why do things happen? But it addresses who we are and can be, when things happen. The real question is – How do we respond to the ups and downs, the highs and lows, the joy and the terror.?
On Rosh HaShanah it is recorded.
On the Fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed:
How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be,
who shall live and who shall die,
who shall see ripe age and who shall not,
who by water and who by fire,
who by warfare and who by wild beast,
who by hunger and who by thirst,
who by earthquake and who by plague,
who by strangling and who by stoning,
who shall rest and who shall wander,
who shall be tranquil and who shall be driven,
who shall be calm and who tormented,
who shall be poor and who shall be rich,
who shall be humbled and who exalted.
This litany of possibilities, blessing and curses is the reminder that we must live each day to the fullest. Our sages taught us repent one day before you death. The students responded – But we do not when we will die. The sages responded – Treat every day as if it were your last. The prayer continues now to its most decisive line and its most important insight.
But repentance, prayer, and righteous giving
temper the severity of the decree.
Rabbi Edward Feld in his essay in the book , Who by Fire and Who by Water, reminds us: “Human life is fragile, vulnerable, and finite. We possess three divine gifts (Prayer, Repentance and Righteous Giving) that enable us to transcend the limitations of the human condition: we are free to shape our character. We are able to share our common suffering and celebration in prayer and in song. We are equipped to heal and to help one another and to bring a measure of peace to the world. We bravely affirm the meaningfulness of human existence and our faith that God is present among us.” The key is not the hand we are dealt but what we do with it.
You are everything that we praise You for:
slow to anger, quick to forgive.
You do not wish the death of sinners,
but urge them to return from their ways and live.
Until the day of death, You wait for them;
You accept them at once if they return.
Since You created us, You know our impulses;
and, truly, we are but flesh and blood.
Man, woman —
our origin is dust, and so is our end.
We wear out our lives to get our bread —
like broken vessels, like withered grass,
like a flower that must fade,
a shadow moving on, a cloud passing by,
mere dust on the wind, a dream that flies away.
Your presence, unbounded by days and years, is everywhere —
a glorious mystery none can decipher.
Your name is worthy of You, and You are worthy of Your name.
And our name You have linked with Yours.
Our mortality is contrasted with God’s eternality. Our life has meaning in that is linked to purposes greater than us. Rabbi David Stern in his essay reminds us. “As Victor Frankl writes: “Human freedom is not freedom from conditions, but freedom to take a stand toward the conditions.” We do not choose our suffering, or the diseases that afflict our loved ones, or the crises that beset our families. But we do choose our way: whether to find new meaning in our moments or to stay stuck, whether to be present for the ailing or to let our own discomfort trump their need, whether to find healing in our homes or to hunker down in self-justification and denial.”Top of Form
While we cannot control the exigencies of our lives we can control our responses. Repentance means living our lives in relationship to others, consciously building and strengthening the connection through constant self-analysis and evaluation. Prayer is reaching out beyond ourselves to seek meaning and connection with God, but even for those who doubt the existence of God, prayer can be reaching out to discover the beauty in nature and the potentiality of human beings to transcend conflict and jealousy and create a better world. Tzedakah (righteous giving) is doing that which it takes to mitigate suffering and create a better world. Judaism teaches us that we are created in the Divine image and are God’s partners in the ongoing creation and perfection of the world. Rabbi Elyse Frishman offers the insight: “All humans suffer. Yet pain is diminished when serving others.” Bottom of Form
To put things into context I want tell you the story of John Boss. Up until a few years ago John Boss, a ninety-seven year old Holocaust survivor who was married to my father’s cousin, was the last living link to my family’s past. Age and dementia had a robbed him of much of his memory and his connection even to my immediate ancestors was tenuous as best. When his wife Ilse, herself a survivor and a victim of Nazi sterilization experiments died, my late mother promised John, or as the family called him “Hans”, that she would take care of him. My mother died in 1991 and gradually Hans became Elaine’s and my responsibility. His later years were filled with torturous loneliness and horrendous flashbacks to Auschwitz.
I was fortunate that for many years my national involvements in Jewish life took me to New York with some frequency. Each of my trips began with a flight to LaGuardia Airport and a short taxi ride to his increasingly shabby and filthy apartment. When he arrived in the United States in 1947, the building had a doorman and a middle class elegance which disappeared long ago under layers of paint and refurbishing, limited by rent control. The neighborhood, once the home of many Jews, had gradually become home to Asian and Hispanic immigrants. As it was in the past, it is a stop along the way to the fulfillment of the American dream.
Gradually his illness and dementia became very severe. He would call me in a panicked rage accusing me of not visiting or calling. The truth was that I spoke to him only the day before and visited less than a week ago. His hysterical telephone calls, his knocking on the Super’s door at all hours of the day and night, his accusations against a neighbour who cared for him that she stole his late wife’s jewellery, and his declining hygiene called for greater and greater intervention. It all came to a head when he was mugged and his health care management from long distance became a nightmare for Elaine and me. My eldest son Seth and I flew to New York and brought him to Lieberman Geriatric Center in Skokie against his will. Our journey from the hospital in New York to Lieberman was a sad and unwanted adventure.
For years when he was well Elaine and I begged Hans to move to Chicago and begin life anew. He consistently refused. I take some small solace that during the last nine months of his life he was well taken care of and we were able to see him on an almost daily basis. But he never smiled again. He ended his life, as he feared in an institution and not in his apartment.
On the final day of his life the staff at Lieberman told us that he wandered the halls very agitated and kept insisting that he had to go shopping for a present for his deceased wife, Ilse. When he was well, even in the early days of dementia, he spoke constantly about how much he loved her and how much he missed her. During all the time he was at Lieberman he never mentioned her. To calm him the staff gave him a flower to give to her and then that evening at dinner he died, suddenly and peacefully. I believe he decided it was time for him to leave so he could give her the flower.
Hans’s funeral was one of the saddest days of my life was. Elaine and I flew to New Jersey to bury him next to his wife. It was just the two of us. I did a complete funeral and I gave a eulogy. My hope is the words were carried by the wind and were heard on high so that they provided the tribute he deserved. Therefore, today, I want to share a couple words about Hans because his attitude towards life is very important for us to contemplate. Hans was orphaned, he was cheated by his step-brother; and he was an inmate in Auschwitz. After he was liberated from Auschwitz he met and married Ilse Salomon who had been a sterilised by the Nazis as part of their infamous medical experiments. In 1947 they moved to the United States and he worked his way up from the loading dock at Sterns Department Store in New York to a buyer for lady’s dress. He retired early to take care of his beloved wife who was suffering terribly from the aftereffects of the Nazi experiments. After she died, he met a wonderful woman named Hilda. He was so happy but after a very brief period she was diagnosed with cancer and died soon after her diagnosis.
A pretty miserable life, we might say. But that was not his evaluation. He felt he lived a good life. He never became bitter and he spent a great deal of his time helping other victims of the Shoah get their proper compensation from the German government. He lived independently until he was 96 years old and felt proud of his personal and financial success. He was honest, generous and outspoken. He possessed what all of us would want a keter shem tov, the crown of a good name.
What does it mean to live a good life? For Hans it meant to be able to look back and in spite of the pain, in spite of the many losses, to say “I made the best of the hand I was dealt. I worked hard and lived by my values and you know what? The world is just a little bit better because I lived.” I will never forget him and I thank God for the privilege of allowing Elaine and I and my family to take care of him when he could no longer care for himself. He and Ilse are now together. Zicrono levracha – His memory is a blessing.
As we stand here today, let us remember now is the time to write or rewrite the story of our lives and determine its meaning. We do not choose its length or its conditions. Those factors are beyond our control. But we can choose the way we react and act to mixture of blessings and curses that the next year will bring. I want to leave with words of Jack Layton, a Canadian Jewish politician who struggled on behalf Canadians, and just after his greatest political victory his cancer returned and he died. On his death bed he wrote a letter to the Canadian people. It concludes with: “My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”
Now let us remember where we began
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.