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My Father’s Words of Wisdom – Kol Nidre

September 27, 2020

Watch recording on our YouTube channel

Last year, as we read about being inscribed in the Book of Life, my family prayed that we would get one more year with my father. As you know, we lost him the week before Thanksgiving. It’s been ten months, and most days, I still don’t believe that he’s not here anymore.

All the holidays have been hard without him, but the High Holy Days are particularly difficult. Rosh Hashana was the one holiday where my parents always joined me for services, no matter where in the country I was leading. They also played an active role in reviewing my sermons.

My mother continues to offer generous praise, gentle suggestions to include more personal stories, and soothing reminders that I do, indeed, finish this task every year.

My father, on the other hand, was eagle-eyed when it came to logical inconsistencies, and often poked holes in my arguments. He was deeply concerned with questions of theodicy—why we suffer—and of justice—how we make things right. He asked good questions, and gave hard-earned praise. And on nights like tonight, he would sit in the sanctuary with a look of quiet contemplation on his face. I miss all of your faces in the sanctuary this year. But I miss his the most.

So it’s only fitting that my dad would help me write one more sermon from his seat in the heavenly beit midrash, where in addition to Talmud, I hope they also have the Wall Street Journal and RadioLab.

My father was not a religious man, but he always walked to synagogue on Yom Kippur. This was his tribute to Sandy Koufax, who refused to play in the World Series on the Day of Atonement. He wasn’t much for praying, but he liked to read the stories of the sages in Gates of Repentance, and later, the footnotes in Mishkan HaNefesh.

In a way, my father’s life was a High Holy Day sermon. At this season, we recognize our shortcomings and pledge to work on ourselves. As the middle child of first-generation parents, my father never thought he was good enough. Some of this was humility, a willingness to work behind the scenes and let others shine. Some of this was a crippling imposter complex that he generously passed down to me.

My father lived with a constant awareness that his time was limited. His father had also died in his sixties. My dad had already successfully fought a terminal illness in his thirties. He didn’t take life for granted, and he wanted to make the most of it, though he didn’t always know exactly how.

He was always trying to improve himself and learn new things. In midlife, he took up woodworking and learned to play the oboe, hoping one day for the privilege of tuning the Philadelphia Orchestra, then leaving the stage immediately before he could do further damage. At my brothers’ insistence, he tried meditation and hiking. At my urging, he studied Pirke Avot, the Ethics of Our Fathers. 

I am fascinated by the Jewish custom of ethical wills, in which generations of Jews have shared their wisdom, values, and formative experiences with their descendants. By the time I summoned the courage to start working on an ethical will with my father, it was too late for a meaningful conversation.

But he didn’t entirely leave us hanging, because, tacked above the computer in his office, were a list of his own rules for life:

Be here.

Be good.

No evil.

Priorities.

Say what you need.

 I naively thought this sermon would be the easiest to write, since my dad had essentially outlined it for me. But this was the first one I started and the last one I finished, because I so wanted it to be worthy of him. Part of me wanted to just drop his teachings and walk away, but my dad would have called that lazy and demanded further exegesis on the source material.

For my dad, the best sermons were a fulfillment of a riddle from my favorite childhood movie, Sesame Street’s Don’t Eat the Pictures. “Where does today meet yesterday?” So I thought I’d see where I might connect my father’s wisdom to yesterday’s tradition and our current moment.

My father’s first rule was: Be here. One commonality between the private grief of losing a loved one, and the collective grief we are experiencing during this pandemic, is that we feel robbed of both our present and our future. When we lose a loved one, we miss their daily presence, but also the experiences we won’t get to share with them in the future. This is also true in our global situation. We are limited in what we can do in this moment, and also in what we can plan for the future, because we don’t know how things are going to unfold.

This has always been true. But when things are going well, we often live under the illusion that we have control, that there is always going to be more time, and that there is always going to be somewhere else to be and something else to do. We forget that everything can change in an instant.

Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School, wrote about this phenomenon in her book, Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved. As a happily married young mother, a successful academic and writer, Bowler thought she had a lot to look forward to, and spent a lot of time doing just that: looking forward. After her own terminal cancer diagnosis, she realized that she hadn’t really been present at all. She writes:

“I believed that I was living in the center, but I rarely let my feet rest on solid ground, rooting me in the present. …. On long walks I forever roped [my husband] into my favorite topic: the next thing. How could we improve our lives? What should we do next? As we walked through the tall Carolina oaks on a fall trail dusted with Technicolor leaves, my mind hummed with possible futures. … If I were to invent a sin to describe what that was …. It was the sin of arrogance, of becoming impervious to life itself. I failed to love what was present and decided to love what was possible instead” (Bowler 155-156).

We might not have committed many of the “big” sins listed in our confessional tonight, but we’re probably all guilty of this one.

Hillel’s teaching, “If not now, when?” (Avot 1:14) can be a call to action, but it is also a reminder to be present. It is tempting to just “power through” these difficult times. But if anything, these times have made me realize how many of us are doing that all the time.

If we are not cultivating gratitude and seeking joy NOW, if we are not being present with our loved ones and considering the direction our lives are taking NOW, if we are not practicing kindness and pursuing justice NOW, when so much is on hold, when, exactly, do we plan to do that?

My father’s second rule was: Be good. Rabbi Shimon tells us that “There are three crowns: the crown of Torah; the crown of priesthood; and the crown of royalty. But the crown of a good name is greater than them all” (Avot 4:13). My father would point out that this actually makes four crowns.

Having a good name was important to my father, and, sharing his name with the serial killer Son of Sam, this was no easy task. But if there was anything that was widely known about my father, it was that he was a fundamentally good person.

Still, my father was deeply concerned about his legacy and his impact. Having been sick during our childhood, his greatest wish was that he would live long enough for us to remember him. Many who worked with him valued him as a colleague and a mentor, and this was important to him, too. And years ago, at the funeral of a colleague who had been active in their church, my father decided to find more ways to contribute to his community. This was, in part, he said, because, “I don’t want the new rabbi to call me, ‘Daddy.’” He wanted to establish his own name, and he did, first on the board of our synagogue, then on the board of Main Line Health. In both places, he became known for his intellect, his hard work, and his equanimity in heated situations, something I am striving to learn from him still.

These days, it is necessary to distinguish between one’s good name and one’s social media “brand” (my dad hated social media and refused to participate). Having a good name is not about making sure everyone knows who we are, or that we have a lot of “likes” and “followers.” It is what people know of our character, whether or not they can rely on us, and whether knowing us enriches their lives.

The humorist Leo Rosten once said: “The purpose of life is not to be happy—but to matter, to be productive, to be useful, to have it make some difference that you lived at all.”

My father’s third rule was: No evil. There is a story about a man that says to the ancient rabbi Shammai, “I will convert to Judaism on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah while standing on one foot.” Thinking he’s being a wise guy, Shammai smacks him with a yardstick. But when the man visits Hillel, the response is different, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. That is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary. Go and learn” (Shabbat 31a).

Doing no harm can be difficult enough nowadays. In the television show The Good Place, the characters learn that humans are disproportionately punished in the afterlife because everything has become so morally complicated by globalism. One character insists that he was a good person, then exclaims, “Oh no! I used almond milk in my coffee even though I knew about the negative environmental impact!”

My dad was known amongst his colleagues and friends as being fiercely moral, living and working with honesty and integrity. He also supported many causes that combatted poverty and injustice, because “no evil” means more than doing no harm. It means rooting out evil where we find it, and leaving no space for it to flourish.

Many have said during the past few years that if we wonder what we would have done during the Civil Rights Movement, or the Holocaust, it’s whatever we are doing right now. “No evil” means that we must be willing to stick our necks out to fight the injustices in our society.

We are still in mourning for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who prayed that she would be remembered as: “Someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability and to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has. To do something … outside myself.” Or as Hillel said, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” (Avot 1:14).

For awhile, I tried to figure out what my father meant as the difference between “be good,” and “no evil.” But it’s actually the similarity that strikes me. They are both active. We can’t just mind our business. We have to actively put good into the world, and combat evil when we see it.

My father’s fourth rule was: Priorities. One of my favorite Passover teachings is that the word matzot shares its letters with the word mitzvot, our sacred obligations. Just as matzot need to be cooked quickly, or risk rising and becoming hametz, or fermented, so do mitzvot need to be done right away. Rabbi Yoshiah says, “Just as one does not let matzah sit and sour, so too do not let the mitzvah sit and sour” (Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael Bo 9).

Contemporary rabbis Michael Katz and Gerson Schwartz turn this sentiment into a pun extravaganza:

“Just as the matzah dough eventually rises, whether we want it to or not, and is spoiled, so too opportunities slip by, like it or not, and are lost. … we may cause the various meanings of the Hebrew root hametz to happen to us: Our relationships may sour. We may find ourselves in a pickle with those we care about most. We may no longer be able to get a rise out of those whose love and opinions matter so much to us (Searching for Meaning in Midrash, by Michael Katz and Gershon Schwartz, pp. 98-99).

Once again we hear an echo of Hillel’s teaching, “If not now, when?” (Avot 1:14). My father is the second generation in his family who worked hard their whole lives and didn’t live long enough to enjoy retirement, who gave everything to their families and rarely asked for anything for themselves. Which leads me to my father’s last rule:

Say what you need. The Shabbat before my father died, I listened to Asher Weinstock read his haftarah portion at his bar mitzvah. In this passage, a poor widow approaches the prophet Elisha, telling him: “My husband is dead, and… now a creditor is coming to seize my two children as slaves.”

Elisha responds, “…Tell me, what have you in the house?” She replies, “Nothing at all … except a jug of oil.” Elisha instructs the woman to borrow empty vessels from her neighbors, then pour oil from the original jar into the empty vessels, until it runs out. But it doesn’t. The oil miraculously keeps flowing until all the vessels are filled. When the widow relays this to Elisha, the prophet says,  “Go sell the oil and pay your debt, and you and your children can live on what remains.” (II Kings 4:1-7)

In this rare moment of respite between trips to the ICU, I found comfort in Elisha’s promise, as if he had taken my hand and said, “You and your family are going to be okay.”

Elisha solves the widow’s immediate problem with a miracle. But he also does something important for her community. He requires the woman to ask for what she needs. Her neighbors must bear witness to both her family’s private sorrow and this systemic injustice of debt slavery. A prophet might bring about a miracle, but ordinary people must also play a role in our redemption.

Sometimes that means we have to bear witness for our neighbors and for the stranger in our midst. And sometimes that means having to ask for what we need ourselves.

My father was diagnosed with lung cancer a month before I arrived at Kol Ami. Keeping his illness private for those 18 months was my parents’ wish: they wanted all of us to keep working and living our lives, until we couldn’t anymore. But it was also my wish. As your new rabbi, I didn’t want you to feel like you had to take care of me. But one thing I learned, when the worst thing imaginable happened, was that this community could take care of me when I needed it. And you still continue to do so.

We support each other best when we show up and when we bear witness to each other’s pain. But sometimes our pain isn’t visible to our neighbors. Only by saying what we need can we invite others to support us. As Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” (Avot 1:14).

This was my father’s ethical will: Be here. Be good. No evil. Priorities. Say what you need. But perhaps the most important part of this teaching was that, although he probably never thought he had it quite right, he took the time to crystallize what was important to him, place it in the forefront of his vision, and leave it somewhere where his children could find it.

My father didn’t mean for this to become our family credo. That wasn’t his style. He left it for us so that we could use it to develop our own rules for living. Mine might look a little different. And so might yours. But the task of our lives is to gather wisdom from those who touch our lives, to live our lives as best we can in alignment with that wisdom, and to leave something behind for the next generation to make sense of.

There is no easy way to end this sermon. Making sense of my father’s life, his words, and his absence will be a lifelong process for me. So I thought I’d share a piece of his favorite poem, by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, who likened each lifetime to the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle:

 

“But know this.” Kushner writes, “No one has within themselves

All the pieces to their puzzle. …

 

Everyone carries with them at least one and probably
Many pieces to someone else’s puzzle.
Sometimes they know it.
Sometimes they don’t.

And when you present your piece
Which is worthless to you,
To another, whether you know it or not,
Whether they know it or not,
You are a messenger from the Most High.”

 

 

 

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz