Monday, September 27, 2010

Yom Kippur Yizkor sermon 5771/2010: "My Eulogy"

The old man asked me, “Will you do my eulogy?”
I don’t understand, I said.
“My eulogy?”  The old man asked again.  “When I’m gone.”
His eyes blinked from behind his glasses.
His neatly trimmed beard was gray, and he stood slightly stooped.
“Are you dying?” I asked.
“Not yet,” he said, grinning.
“Then why -
“Because I think you will be a good choice.  And I think, when the time comes, you will know what to say.”

This was a dialogue that took place between two men, one of whom was a rabbi.
But probably not the one you would guess.

I just read to you the opening words of Mitch Albom’s book, “Have a Little Faith,”
Published earlier this year.

And these words are a transcript of a conversation that Albom,
the best-selling author of “Tuesdays with Morrie” and other books,
had with his childhood rabbi in Cherry Hill, New Jersey,
Rabbi Albert Lewis of blessed memory.

Rabbi Lewis was a giant among contemporary rabbis.
There are actually a number of people in our community who knew him.
He retired after serving his congregation for over 40 years,
as it grew from just a few families to over one thousand.
And shortly after his retirement, Rabbi Lewis contacted his former student, Mitch Albom,
and made this unusual request.
“Will you do my eulogy when I’m gone?”

Well, Mitch Albom was certainly surprised and completely intimidated by this task.
While he had a strong Jewish upbringing, he had been very distant from Judaism since he graduated from high school.
But what ensued was a series of meetings between the author and the rabbi
over the course of the next eight years --
meetings ostensibly so that Albom could learn what he needed to learn about Rabbi Lewis’s life
so he could deliver an appropriate eulogy.
But, as Albom writes, “As is often the case with faith,
I thought I was being asked a favor,
when in fact I was being given one.”

Albom’s friends thought this was the most crazy and disturbing thing they had ever heard.
“You go to his house like he’s a normal person?”
“Aren’t you intimidated?”
“Does he make you pray while you’re there?”
“You actually talk about his eulogy?:  Isn’t that morbid?”

But, as Albom writes, the opportunity to have frank and direct conversations with someone about all those things you don’t discuss in polite company -
issues of faith, life mission, aging, illness, death -
was an extraordinarily powerful and liberating experience.
And presumably, this was exactly according to Rabbi Lewis’s plan.

Jewish tradition has a sneaky way of getting us to think about death
at moments when it would otherwise be the farthest thing from our minds.
The traditional text of the ketubah -
the marriage contract, signed on a day of maximum joy in a couple’s life -
includes a provision for what would happen upon the death of one of the partners.
When a baby is born, we tend to give the baby a name that echoes the names of previous generations, so the birth of a baby is often commemorated by focusing on prior deaths in the family.
Every single synagogue service includes the Mourners Kaddish - a memorial prayer and an opportunity to comfort mourners in our midst.
In a world in which we can shut out the news that we’re not interested in,
we can associate primarily with people of whatever age and life stage we choose,
where death tends to take place under sterile conditions in a hospital, rather than at home surrounded by family -
being part of a religious community is one of the few ways that people at EVERY life stage
are continually reminded of death in a concrete way.

In fact, this Jewish confrontation with death is one of the significant themes of the High Holidays,
and especially of Yom Kippur.
and in fact, this theme figures prominently in one of the most famous contemporary Jewish stories of spiritual awakening.

The story takes place in Germany, in 1913.
It’s a story about a university student in his mid-20’s named Franz.
Franz is Jewish - kind-of.  He had a Jewish upbringing,
but being Jewish has been of only marginal importance in his life.
Mostly because it was experienced as a kind of a barrier,
that could potentially make it harder for him to pursue a career, get a university appointment,
or to be regarded as an equal to all other Germans.
Many of Franz’s Jewish friends, actually, had converted to Christianity.
In the intellectual community of his university,
Christianity was presented as a dramatically more advanced religion than Judaism.
Trust me, there was no ‘Hillel Foundation’ at the University of Leipzig in those days;
No one to guide Jewish young adults to develop a positive relationship with Judaism.

Finally, Franz resolved to convert to Christianity.
But he was an intellectual, so he decided to convert to Christianity in a particularly thoughtful way.
He thought:  Jesus was Jewish -- so the most appropriate route into Christianity would be first to re-attach myself to my Jewish roots,
and then to embrace Christianity from within Judaism.
So even though it had been years since he had taken part in any Jewish ritual or holiday,
he decides:  the High HOlidays are coming up.  I will go to synagogue for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur,
and then - after Yom Kippur - I’ll convert to Christianity.
he writes home to his mom.  Mom, guess what?
I’m coming home for Rosh HaShanah.
Get me a ticket, because I’m coming to shul with you!
And his mother practically screams for joy.
and they go to Rosh haShanah services together
at the Reform synagogue in the city of Kassel, where he grew up.
Then, a couple of days later, mom asks him:
Tell me, Franz, you haven’t set foot in a synagogue since your bar mitzvah!
Don’t get me wrong!  I’m delighted!
But why the sudden change of heart?
And Franz patiently explains:  Well, you see, mom,
I decided to convert to Christianity,
and I thought I would convert to Christianity from within Judaism, like Jesus,
so I’m giving this Jewish thing one last hurrah,
and next week I’ll go for Yom Kippur, and then I’ll become a Christian.
and mom interrupts him and says:  What?!  Like hell you are!
Don’t you DARE come to synagogue to make a mockery of us!
I’m going to tell the ushers at our synagogue
that if you show up, they should throw you out!

Franz may or may not have realized that his mother’s anger was not primarily about theology,
but about the tragic relationship between Jews and Christians over the centuries.
From her perspective, Franz had decided to defect from the oppressed
and join the oppressors.

But Franz is thinking:  I can’t believe that the one time in my life when I really DO want to go to synagogue - they don’t even want me.
So Franz is forced to locate a different synagogue -
he goes to Berlin and finds a much more traditional synagogue than he had ever been to in his life.
And he goes there for Kol Nidrei -
and then he comes back for Yom Kippur day.
And what he experiences there -- changes his life forever.
Not long after Yom Kippur, he writesin a letter to a friend,
"After prolonged, and I believe thorough, self-examination,
I have reversed my decision. ....I will remain a Jew."

Some of you already know that Franz in this story is Franz Rosenzweig,
one of the most influential Jewish theologians of the 20th century.
He retained a life-long admiration of Christianity,
but after his Yom Kippur experience, he knew that he would live his life as a Jew.
He never wrote about exactly what it was that he experienced in that synagogue that utterly transformed him.
Perhaps like most spiritual experiences, some element of it was ineffable - beyond words.
But we can guess what moved him, based on his passionate writings about Yom Kippur.
Franz Rosenzweig seemed to have been especially moved by the way that the people in that community
came face to face with their own deaths.
He would write about this as one of the central themes of Yom Kippur.
The people in that synagogue wearing white,
wearing the kittel that is modeled after the Jewish burial shroud,
even lying prostrate on the floor, as we will do shortly -
Rosenzweig described all this as a kind of rehearsal for death,
as a confrontation with mortality,
but done in such a way as to permit the worshippers
to go on living, maximally engaged in this world
while also looking ahead to the next world.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg details additional ways that Yom Kippur helps us to confront death.
The fearsome Unetaneh Tokef prayer, describing ‘who shall live and who shall die,
who shall live out his days and who shall not live out his days.
Fasting makes some of us look and feel like ghosts.
Even the Shema, which we will recite together at the very conclusion of Yom Kippur,
resembles the final words of the Vidui’, the death bed confession.

This confrontation with mortality may be one of the most important and powerful themes of Yom Kippur,
but that doesn’t mean that anyone actually wants to think about it.
We would take any opportunity to deny that death is something that is ultimately going to happen to us.

You know the story about the rabbi who in the middle of his Yizkor sermon on Yom Kippur,
pounds on the table and says ‘Wake up to the fact that
Every single person in this congregation, myself included, is going to die!”
And as he expected, everyone’s suddenly very alarmed,
except for one man in the 3rd row whose face breaks out into a broad smile.
And the rabbi is so shocked, he points to this man and says, ‘so why are you so amused?”
And the man shrugs his shoulders and answers, “Well I’m not from this congregation.  I’m just visiting my sister.”
(Have a Little Faith: A True Story, by Mitch Albom, p. 231, adapted.)

One of my colleagues has noticed that recently there has been a profound sociological shift in the American Jewish community. -
that it used to be that one of the things that a Jewish adult would naturally do
would be to make some kind of arrangements for his or her own burial -
whether in a family plot, or with one of the thousands of Jewish burial and benevolent societies that thrived in immigrant communities in the United States.
But today, he says, it is not uncommon  for there to be a mad dash immediately after death,
with the surviving relatives struggling, within 24 to 48 hours, to make all the decisions about burial location and rituals,
based on their ‘best guess’ of what the deceased would have wanted.
And my colleague suggests that this is because, for many of us,
that mad dash after death --
is actually easier than -- having a conversation with our loved ones about death.
And that’s a reality that he as a rabbi finds very disturbing.

There’s a precedent for this attitude in the Talmud -
this extreme fear of death that makes loved ones shudder at the thought of death
such that they refuse to even say the word.
This classic and disturbing story tells of the final days of Rabbi Judah the Prince,
Such an outstanding leader that -- when the Talmud simply refers to someone as ‘Rabbi,’ he’s the rabbi they’re talking about.
He was deathly ill, and his distraught followers made a prayer vigil around his bed
And they announced:  Anyone who tells us that Rabbi has died,
will be slain by the sword!
(In the world of pastoral care, we refer to that as ‘denial.’)
But it’s Rabbi’s maidservant who notices what the students are oblivious to:
that he’s suffering terribly,
and that he has made his peace with the end of his life.
First she prays that he die a speedy and painless death,
but to no avail.
then she takes bold and provocative action.
She throws a jug from the roof to the ground.  It smashes, making a loud sound
that startles the students, who momentarily stop praying -
and at that moment, Rabbi dies.

There are numerous ways to interpret this story.
But it’s clear who comes off looking good in the story -- the maidservant,
the caregiver, who has a greater understanding of what the patient is actually going through.
And it’s clear who comes off looking excessively personally needy in this story - the students,
who are so distraught by the approaching loss
and its effect upon THEM
that they can’t talk about it or think about it in anything resembling a realistic way.

Some of us read the article in the New Yorker last month by the physician and writer Atul Gawande about end-of-life medical care
that has quickly become a must-read for anyone involved in medical decision-making.

At one poignant point in the article, a physician who is herself a palliative care specialist
speaks with her father,
who is going to have serious surgery that has a chance of leaving him paralyzed.
Knowing that she will be his health care proxy, to make decisions in case he is incapacitated, she asks him directly - despite all of the difficulties and the awkwardness-
she asks him directly
to tell her what kind of medical interventions he would want.

She said, ‘I need to understand how much you’re willing to go through to have a shot at being alive and what level of being alive is tolerable to you.’
And her father thought for a moment and then responded,
‘Well, if I’m able to eat chocolate ice cream and watch football on TV,
then I’m willing to stay alive. I’m willing to go through a lot of pain if I have a shot at that.’

And she was surprised - she thought he would have made a different choice -
She never remembered him watching a football game on TV even once.
But she used his statement - about chocolate ice cream and watching football on TV -
to guide all her subsequent decision-making.
She would ask her father’s doctors about his chances of being able to do these things.
And as a result, she provided the doctors with medical decisions based on this criterion -
in the aftermath of the surgery, and then for the following ten years, whenever there was a need for a health care proxy.
And she says, she is so grateful that she got those instructions from her father.
She would never have wanted to do something that he would not have wanted -
not, God forbid, to keep her father alive if he didn’t want to be suffering,
and not, God forbid, to allow her father’s life to end if he would have preferred to stay alive despite the pain.
That conversation, awkward as it was, was a beautiful and sacred gift
from father to daughter, and from daughter to father --
just as hard and awkward conversations often make for the holiest of moments.
But how much better when those hard and awkward - and holy - conversations
take place earlier, under conditions of good health.
This is why – when I work with couples who are preparing to get married,
I give them a list of lots of difficult questions to ask each other –
Including questions about these hard issues, like health care, and death, and burial. 
Because the right time to have those conversations is not at the moment of serious illness.
And having a sacred conversation about those issues,
Early on, and in detail,
can help a couple to cement their spiritual bond.

Of course, I am leaving one important question unanswered.
What happened with Mitch Albom
and his eulogy for his Rabbi, Albert Lewis?
Well, in the year 2000, when he was first asked,
Mitch wondered how he could possibly eulogize Rabbi Lewis -
the man who himself had given thousands of eulogies throughout his lifetime..
Well, he had eight whole years to think about it.
Through numerous meetings, he amassed audio tapes, notes, photos,
newspaper clippings, the texts of Rabbi Lewis’s sermons,
all for the purpose of creating for him the most fitting eulogy.

And in the year 2008, Rabbi Albert Lewis died, at age 90.
And yes, Mitch Albom delivered the eulogy -
and he did not have to consult a single note, or photo, or newspaper clipping, or audio tape.
He learned something that all rabbis and clergypeople quickly learn -
that a eulogy is not like another journalistic assignment.
Because of the circumstances of his relationship with Rabbi Lewis -
because of the spiritual depth of their sacred conversations -
he had only to search his memories and open up his heart.
When he stopped speaking, there was not a dry eye in the synagogue.
As the old Jewish proverb says,
devarim ha-yotz’im min ha-lev nichnasim el halev.’
The Words that come from the heart
are the words that enter the heart.

But Mitch Albom’s eulogy did not quite compare with what came next.
One of Rabbi Lewis’s grandsons walked up to the bimah, holding a cassette tape,
Put it in the player, and pressed play.
And a familiar voice rang out over the loudspeakers, and it said,
“Hello my friends, this is the voice of your past rabbi speaking!”

Unbeknownst to anyone -- Rabbi Lewis had recorded a farewell message
shortly before his death - only his caretaker and companion knew about it -
and she delivered it to the synagogue on the day of the funeral.

And Rabbi Lewis spoke briefly, as if from the grave, for perhaps one minute.
He alluded to moments of special joy in his life,
as well as moments of terrible pain,
like the loss of his daughter at a very young age,
and how his faith and the strength of his family and community
had helped him to endure.
And he answered the two questions
he said he had been asked the most throughout his life.
One was, “Do you believe in God?” He said that of course he did.
The other question was, “What happens when we die?”
Does the soul have an existence that is separate from the body?
To which he answered:  “ My yes.
but friends, I'm sorry, now that I know, I can't even tell you.
You’ll have to find it out for yourselves.”
And the room dissolved in laughter.

Rabbi Lewis had given Mitch Albom the gift of gentle but frank conversations about the end of life.
And in an unusual and even playful way,
he gave that gift to his community,
by presenting death not as a word to be whispered, feared and avoided,
but as something to be approached with courage and confidence,
and even with a bit of laughter.
Not everyone faces death this way, and not everyone should.
Just as every life is unique, so is every death.  There is no ideal.
But we are wiser when we take the invitation that Jewish tradition offers us
To think about death from time to time, from year to year.
About how our life would be summed up.
About how we would want to be remembered.
Rabbi David Wolpe tells the story of a man at age 93
Who continues to be comforted by the consoling words that his mother had said to him
While lying on her deathbed, seventy years earlier:
“Do not be afraid.  It happens to everyone.”

And as the book of Psalms reminds us -
limnot yameinu ken hoda ’ - ve-navi levav chochma.
Teach us to count our days, teach us to regard our days are numbered -
then may we attain a heart of wisdom.

Let us now take a moment of silence as we call to mind the faces and voices of those whose memory we recall today during our Yizkor memorial prayers.

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