October 12, 2016
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
A guy goes to see his rabbi. He tells the rabbi’s secretary that he must see the rabbi because he is so depressed.
He starts by reminding the rabbi his father died just three weeks before. The rabbi says, “I know, I’m so sorry. Your father was a wonderful man. Everyone loved and appreciated him. I did his funeral and was at the shiva.”
“I know, rabbi,” the man says. “Thank you again.”
“Of course,” says the rabbi. “You are depressed because you need to talk about the loss of your father.”
“Well, rabbi, not so much,” the man answers, “But I do need to tell you that my dad left me five million dollars.”
“Oh,” says the rabbi, “Well he was a remarkably successful businessman, and I’m sure he wanted you and your family to be well provided for.”
“Yes,” the man continues, “But what you don’t know, rabbi, is that two weeks ago, the week after my dad died, my uncle passed away, too.”
“Oy,” says the rabbi, “And is that why you are depressed, so much loss all at once?”
“No,” says the man, “But you should know that he, too, left me five million dollars.”
“Goodness!” says the rabbi. “That was very generous.”
“Yes,” says the man, “And then, just last week, my cousin Bernie the orthodontist died also, he had several clinics, and he left me five million dollars, too.”
“All this death must be very devastating and terrible. You have my deepest condolences,” says the rabbi. “No wonder you are depressed.”
“No, rabbi,” says the man, “You don’t understand. I’m depressed because so far this week—NOTHING!”
There are times in our lives when our expectations truly exceed reality. Usually this is not because we receive multi-million dollar bequests with regularity—we should be so lucky—and are disappointed when we do not. It is because we float through life thinking that nothing major is going to go wrong. Until it does.
Sometimes it is something minor that discomfits us, shakes us out of our equilibrium. Sometimes it is something major. But the best way to reorient our priorities and remove us from the cocoon we ordinarily live in is to have to confront the reality of our own death.
In theory, we know that we are mortal, finite beings, with only a short time on this earth. But since we have not yet experienced death ourselves, thank God—after all, we are here today, alive!—we don’t really have to think about its implications most of the time. We live, and expect to stay that way, and that’s that. We float along with a kind of amnesia about the reality that we won’t live forever. In truth, most of us pretend very successfully that we are not concerned about dying. It might be denial, but it works quite well most of the time.
It’s like one of my favorite jokes. A priest, a minister and a rabbi are all asked the same question, "What would you like people to say about you at your funeral?"
The priest answers, "I want people to say that I was able to rise above the scandals that are plaguing the Church. I want people to say that I was able to shepherd my flock through this crisis and help them to understand the absolute love that God has for all Catholics."
They ask the minister next, "What would you like people to say about you at your funeral?"
The minister answers, "When I die I people to say I saved many souls by bringing them to belief. I want to be remembered as a caring, thoughtful man who always spread the Word, and a faith everlasting in God, through powerful sermons.”
Finally, the rabbi is asked, "Rabbi, what would you like people to say about you at your funeral?"
Without pausing, the rabbi answers, "Look. He's moving! "
I use a poem frequently before the Mourner’s Kaddish near the conclusion of services. It reads, “We are all born knowing no one who has died, and believing we will live forever.” And most of us go along pretending that is actually true.
Until we hear the bad news. A cancer diagnosis, God forbid. A bad heart exam. Breathing trouble that can’t be treated. Something untoward with our liver or kidneys. Spine problems. Alzheimer’s. Parkinson’s. Frightening words. And we begin to consider the fact that we will not live forever, and nothing truly is guaranteed.
My friends, we will not live forever. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. We are here today as a gift from God. We do not know the future, and we can’t be sure we will be a part of it. What we can do is live today as though it truly matters.
In Yizkor we mourn the people in our lives who have died, and we know that their death has left an emptiness behind. That is because they lived lives that had meaning to us, and because their absence highlights that they were very present for us in life. In order to be missed, you must have lived, and shared love.
Usually the people we mourn are those we knew well and loved: grandparents, parents, siblings, husbands, wives, children, grandchildren. Often they are cousins or uncles or aunts, close friends, mentors, even protégés. But sometimes they are people of larger accomplishment who influenced our lives or our world. As we remember those we loved and lost, today, we should also remember two prominent Jews who lived as though every day mattered, and taught us to do the same.
In recent months we have been affected by the deaths of two very different great Jews. Each taught us something unique about the character and quality of being Jewish. Each lived life fully. Each left a void.
Last summer Elie Wiesel died. Wiesel was a Holocaust survivor, a journalist and author who became the conscience of the world—and believe me, this world needs a conscience. He survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and testified to the horrors of the Holocaust in incredible books and plays like Night and The Trial of God. He spearheaded the creation of the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, and stood up to President Reagan when he chose to visit an SS cemetery in Bittburg. Surviving the Holocaust shaped him, and his mission to testify against genocide impacted the world.
But Wiesel also lived an incredibly rich life after the Shoah, writing a total of 56 books, speaking, teaching, co-founding Moment Magazine, winning the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, untold awards and honors. And he did all of this while standing up for causes of profound importance to all humanity. Respectfully but with great moral strength he spoke against the denial of the Armenian genocide, and against the reality of the Bosnian genocide. He stood up for Soviet Jews and Ethiopian Jews, for South African blacks, for Desaparecidos, for Sri Lankans, for Tamils, for Kurds, for Miskito Indians. He was an eloquent, deeply Jewish voice for justice, freedom, and righteousness.
Elie Wiesel also was known as a man who had lost his faith in God in the Holocaust. But when I met him and interviewed him for Too Jewish and asked him if he no longer believed in God, he answered, “Then to Whom am I praying three times a day?” He was an extraordinary man. In your prayers today, remember Eliezer Wiesel, from Sighet, Rumania.
Two weeks ago Shimon Peres died. He was the last of Israel’s founding fathers and mothers to go, and he lived an incredibly full life. He was part of a great generation of Israeli leaders who helped lead the country to independence, and developed the institutions of the State of Israel. Peres was the founding father of the Israeli Navy and crucial to the development of the Israeli Air Force, and the key figure in Israel acquiring nuclear capability. As Minister of Defense he organized the Entebbe rescue. He served as Prime Minister on four different occasions, twice unofficially, won the Nobel Peace Prize along with Yitzhak Rabin in 1994 for the Oslo Accords, and long after most of us would have retired from public life Peres was an extremely effective President, largely a ceremonial office before him, from 2007 to 2014. As president, Shimon Peres united Israel, and became, perhaps for the first time in his colorful political life, a beloved figure within Israel. While the parties he led were often unexpectedly defeated in national elections, Peres was an extremely important leader of both Israeli and international importance. He will be remembered as Israel’s greatest statesman—a man who spoke for the good toward which humanity should aspire, even in the Middle East, a region capable of incredible evil.
Oh, and by the way, he was one of the best-read men in the world, and he wrote lovely poetry. He lived every day of his long life optimistically, with passion, right up to the end. If you don’t believe that, you must view a Youtube video made when Peres retired as president at the age of 91. It shows him—the actual nonagenarian Shimon Peres!—applying for work with a temporary agency, pumping gas, serving falafel, trying to figure out what his next career will be. It is hilarious—he is known as “Shimmy P” in the Israeli video—and it testifies both to his indefatigable spirit and the Israeli talent for self-deprecation. Shimon Peres should be mourned, but we also must learn what he, too, taught: live fully each day, so that you will deserve to be mourned.
As we prepare for Yizkor now, we call to mind the people we remember well who have died, our beloved relatives and friends. And we also remember those who made a difference in so many people’s lives, and who inspired us, by reminding us to live fully, vitally, every day.
We don’t truly know what to expect in life, or how long we ourselves will have. But we do know that regardless of our expectations, we must learn to treasure each day, and make every one have meaning and purpose.
As we remember, may we also be inspired: by their lives and their lessons, to live full, good, engaged, committed, loving lives ourselves.
Ken Yehi Ratson.