September 26, 2012
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, AZ
I mentioned last night that the proper name for Yom Kippur this year might well be “The Hunger Games”. And by this time of the afternoon it certainly feels that way.
But in a larger sense, and a more intimate one as well, on Yom Kippur there is a significant, and sometimes, troubling focus on survival. I don’t just mean whether you can survive the many long prayers and songs and self-criticism and endless sermons and especially going a full 24 hours without food or water. I mean that this survival challenge is in the liturgy itself, the prayers and readings we speak and sing. It starts with our greeting, g’mar chatimah tovah, to be “sealed in the Book of Life” for a year of, well, life and therefore not death. Many times already we have prayed to be written in the Book of Life, and not left out; we ask again and again for life—which means we are also thinking about the possibility that we won’t make the cut and will be left out of the Book of Life. That, of course, means death.
This morning in the BeRosh Hashanah section of the Unetaneh Tokef we chanted about the fate of all who will pass away in the coming year, “Who shall live, and who shall die? Who by fire and who by water, who in war and who by wild beast? Who by thirst and who by hunger? Who by earthquake and who by flood?” We wear these white robes on this Yom Kippur not just because we seek the purity of forgiveness, which we do, but because we also imitate the white linen shroud in which the dead are buried. On this holiest holy day of the year there is an overtone of potential ending for each of us.
So why all this focus on death? Certainly, some of us will not survive this year; this is a sad and tragic fact, but it is also a fact the other 364 days of the year. So why today, when we are all together and praying and fasting and seeking forgiveness, do we look so much at death?
It is not really that on Yom Kippur we are supposed to focus more on death. It is instead based on the fact that so often in order to appreciate life we must first realize that we will someday die. And presumably, if we are willing on Yom Kippur, symbolically, liturgically, even sartorially to confront death perhaps we can also remember how it is that we should live. And how we live begins, in one way or another, with our parents.
I’ve been thinking about the relationship between parents and children. So does our liturgy on Yom Kippur; as the prayer Ki Onu Amecha puts it, anu vanecha v’Ata Avinu: we are Your children and You, God, are the parent. The Avinu Malkeinu, which we read and chant all through the High Holy Days, reminds us continually that God is the ultimate parent.
All of us, of course, are children; and most of us are or will become parents. In many ways, these are the closest and most powerful and influential relationships we will ever have. All of us are shaped initially by our parents, biologically first and then pedagogically, emotionally, personally, even professionally. You can make the case that the way our parents interact with us, and the ways we interact with them, influence every aspect of our lives.
Sigmund Freud popularized the theory that early child-parent relationships, and our subsequent struggle to come to terms with the conflicting needs embodied in those relationships, have a decisive impact on later adult relationships and behavioral development. Of course, Freud was not the first one to recognize that fact: the relationship between parents and children is explored in complex ways all the way back to the dysfunctional families in the Book of Genesis, in which every single family whose story is told has serious challenges in the relationships between parents and children. The Bible often seems to be teaching us about parenting by showing us what not to do, from Abraham binding Isaac, to Isaac favoring Esau while Rebecca favors Jacob, to Jacob favoring Joseph, to David favoring Absalom—each Biblical family seems like a unique combination of bad parenting and worse results.
No wonder we have to be ordered in the Ten Commandments to honor our fathers and mothers. With parents like these… In fact, without God’s divine involvement it is difficult to imagine how any of this would have even resulted in the continuation of the Jewish people.
Fortunately, when we get past the Biblical period, things improve in this crucial aspect of human development. There are powerful statements from the rabbis about the centrality of the parent-child dynamic. In the Babylonian Talmud we are taught, based on a Midrash, (BT Niddah 31a) that "There are three partners in a person—HaKadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One of Blessing, one's father, and one's mother. The Holy One of Blessing says to the ones who honor their parents, 'I rest over them as if I dwelled among them and they honored me.'" The Talmud goes on to explain that it doesn’t intend to refer only to biological parents; it is the parents who raise the children, who teach them and foster values, who are the ones we are to honor.
Whether we see this family as a biological, and resident, father and mother, or in the contemporary sense of family that often includes stepmothers and stepfathers, or two mothers, or two fathers, the meaning is the same. In a very real sense we are the product of our parents.
To which some of us might say, “Oy vey—I am nothing like my mother” or “My father and I are vastly different.” Which demonstrates that in spite of the prevalence of intensive psychotherapy we don’t always understand the implications of these complex relationships.
And they are complicated relationships, which set a tone for the ways in which we live and work with other people ever after. So how do we honor our parents?
Some of you here today revere the memory of a mother who gave you life and support, who nurtured you and your dreams and ambitions, whom you still miss every day. Some of you here today remember with great love a father who protected and cared for you, who taught you and played with you, who gloried in your successes and comforted you when you failed, whom you respected and admired. Some of you are children of parents of great accomplishment, whom you still try to emulate.
On the other side of the ledger, there are here among us those of you who experienced abuse in your own homes, who cannot easily share in the notion of honoring a parent who treated you badly, who damaged your life. Finding reconciliation, letting go of the pain you suffer can be an ongoing process, a search for wholeness. Your struggle is one we honor, and we pray that you find that consolation today in our Yizkor service.
And some of you—most of you perhaps—remember parents who had many great qualities that you loved, and some aspects of their personalities and actions that were harder to love or admire. Today you honor their memories, and what you learned from them, both good and bad. And one thing you learned from them was to do some things the same way they did, and to try to do some things in very different ways than they did. When you became a parent—if you have become a parent—you knew that you would not make the same mistakes they did.
And you didn’t. Instead, you made different mistakes…
And for some of us yizkor is a time to come to terms with what we wish we had done in our relationships with our parents.
Rabbi Jack Stern used to tell the story of a funeral a rabbi conducted for a man in his congregation. The service concluded and everyone departed the gravesite. But the son of the deceased man didn't move. He just stood there, alone, staring at the open grave. The rabbi went over to him and put his arm around the man’s shoulder and said, “Come, it’s time to go home now.”
“I really loved him, rabbi, you know,” the man replied.
“Yes, of course you did. Now, let's go,” said the rabbi.
“But you don't understand, I really loved him.”
“I know you did, and he loved you, too,” said the rabbi. “We should go now.”
“No rabbi, you don’t understand, I really loved him… and once, I almost told him.”
If your parents are gone now, Yizkor is a time to tell them. If they are still here, it is the time to remind yourself to tell them now, when you are sure they can hear it.
Although sometimes I think that there are ties to our parents that go well beyond the grave. One story about just that.
Bert Lee, the father of our member Josh Lee, father-in-law of Christine Lee and grandfather of Alyssa and Daniella, passed away last year. Bert truly loved animals, and he would foster care for them, any kind of animal nearly—someone once left him a pot-bellied pig, which he took care of for months and then got someone to adopt. He loved animals so much that he would even feed wild animals, which is not always a good idea. In fact, Bert used to even feed the coyotes in the desert near his home, over a wall. Coyotes! He fed coyotes!
Well, when Bert grew too weak from his final illness to go out and feed the coyotes he would sometimes leave them food right up at the house. His son Josh told Bert it wasn’t a great idea to feed wild animals, especially carnivores like coyotes. But of course Bert did it anyway. It’s hard to tell you parents what to do, isn’t it?
When Bert died last fall his daughter-in-law Christine took his granddaughters with her to pick out a plot for Bert at Evergreen Cemetery. They drove into the area near where the plots were, and parked—and there was a coyote waiting for them at the cemetery. Being intelligent, prudent people, they stayed in the car and waited a while for it to move away—after all, it was a coyote—and then tried to find a suitable plot. But oddly, the coyote just moved slightly ahead of them, as though leading them. So, from a careful distance, they followed the coyote. It trotted on just slightly ahead of them to a different section of the cemetery, and they followed behind, across the large expanse of Evergreen. And the coyote led them to the section where Bert’s uncle and aunt were buried. And then the coyote entered that section, and it sat down on an unoccupied grave next to Bert’s uncle and aunt. If ever there was a kind of sign, that was it… So they decided to buy that plot. And that’s where Bert is now.
Or at least his body is. Because those parent-child relationships don’t really end with death. They continue beyond it, into our own lives, in the ways we relate to our own families, in the ways we use the lessons our parents taught us, in the ways we are as parents, even as grandparents. And in the memories we bring back now during our Yizkor service.
Whatever we become in life, we will always be the children of our parents. May that influence, however we shape it and remember it, in whatever ways we come to terms with it now, bring only blessings.