Yom Kippur Yizkor 2018-5779
On Yom Kippur 1967: Yehuda Amichai and Me
For the first time in our lives Lenore and I have a reason to say kaddish. As you know, her father, my father in law, Ephraim Leibowitz died last week. We were out of town for the funeral last Friday and for shiva which ended yesterday morning. Lenore and I can’t thank you all enough for the outpouring of love and support that you have expressed to us over these past several days. Some of you came to the funeral, some of you made a shiva call, many of you coordinated or contributed to the delicious shabbat lunch for our family during shiva and to meals at our home this week, and so many of you sent condolence messages that were so touching and meaningful. Though I’ve always been heartened to see our community respond to others in our shul family in this way, it is that much more emotional and uplifting to experience it personally.
As I said as I conducted the funeral last week, it is hard for me to switch hats. On the one hand I’m the rabbi conducting a funeral or sharing this yizkor sermon and on the other hand I’m a person who has experienced the death of a close family member. It is hard to compartmentalize those roles and often one or the other appears in unexpected ways. Though I’m usually able to be dignified and keep my emotions in check while conducting a service, my family side of me came out as I had to pause to cry as I shared my eulogy.
And so it is this morning as I try to share a message with you that will provide the comfort and inspiration you need as you continue to survive the loss of your loved ones, be that loss just several days ago or many years ago. I always think about my grandparents and cherished members of our shul as I recite the yizkor prayers and as the “el maleh” is chanted, but now I also will be thinking about my father in law and the impact he had on Lenore’s life, on my life and on the lives of my children, his grandchildren. So please excuse me if I get emotional at some points today.
In the process of looking for a text about which to base my remarks this morning, I came across a poem. Thanks to classes I have taken at rabbinic conferences I have seen the power poetry has to express thought and emotion. Just as a painting expresses a particular vision the artist had at that moment so too a poem expresses a verbal response to a particular moment or thought in time. Through the words themselves one can explore many layers of meaning that can even change over time. Classic Shakespeare sonnets for example though written centuries ago still provide us with a sense of beauty and meaning today.
So as we all approach this moment in which we are called upon to focus our attention on memory I want to share this poem with you. I want to explain what I find meaningful in it and in that process I hope that we all can be comforted.
“On Yom Kippur 5728, I donned Dark holiday clothing and walked to Jerusalem’s Old City. I stood for quite a while in front of the kiosk shop of an Arab, Not far from Shechem (Nablus) Gate, a shop full of buttons, zippers and spools of thread Of every color; and snaps and buckles. Brightly lit and many colored like the open Holy Ark. I said to him in my heart that my father too Owned a shop just like this of buttons and thread. I explained to him in my heart about all the decades And the reasons and the events leading me to be here now While my father’s shop burned there and he is buried here. When I concluded it was the hour of N’eilah (“locking the gates”). He too drew down the shutters and locked the gate. As I returned homeward with all the other worshippers.”
This poem was written by Yehuda Amichai - one of Israel’s great poets. He was born in Germany in 1924 and immigrated to Israel with his family in 1936. Amichai lived in the German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem and died in the year 2000. Yom Kippur 5728 (we’ve just begun the year 5779) was October 14 1967. That date is significant because it was only 4 months after the Six Day War. Four months after for the first time in 2,000 years the Jewish State of Israel had access to and control of the Old City of Jerusalem and the Kotel - the Western Wall. As a resident of the German Colony in so called new or west Jerusalem Amichai like so many other Jerusalemites could only have looked across the valley and dream about entering Mt. Zion and the Old City. Our own beloved Cantor Gershon Levin, may he rest peace, a native Jerusalemite, used to reminisce about walking with the masses of people just one week after the Six Day War to the Old City and the Kotel to observe the holiday of Shavuot.
At the most basic level - the historical context of the poem - we already understand a powerful message this poem conveys. As someone who cares deeply about the State of Israel, as someone who grew up as an ardent Zionist and who has lived, studied and visited Israel many times, I immediately connected to this poem. I could picture where Amichai could have been standing and I could picture how he actually walked from his home to the Old City. That description came to life and I instantly placed myself in the same location.
And on a slightly deeper level we as a Jewish people celebrated Israel’s 70th birthday this year. As a people we rejoiced when the State was declared in 1948 and just this past summer the 21 people who traveled with me visited the very auditorium and heard a clip of David Ben Gurion reciting the declaration of Israel’s statehood. So in a way for all of us we can connect to the excitement that Amichai was conveying as the hoards of people were making their way to the Kotel to observe Yom Kippur.
But now we go deeper. We too have joined the 13 million other Jews around the world observing Yom Kippur today and like Amichai we also respond to this day in a very individual and personal way. Amichai recognized the power and the history of that moment just 4 months after Israel’s capture of the Old City. And in that moment he can’t help but think about his family and what they endured to get to Israel. He sees the Arab’s shop of trinkets and sewing supplies and remembers his own family’s shop back in Germany. In that moment he recognizes that century upon century of Jewish history has come crashing upon him. How just by seeing an inconspicuous storefront he could be thinking of the Jews who came before him, the torture and oppression they had to endure just to be Jewish, and how fortunate he was to be of that generation that could witness the return of Jews to Zion, to Jerusalem.
We too can think about the family history that has brought us to this sanctuary. Some of us are here for the first time having just moved into the area. Others of us may be third generation Shaare Tefila members. All of us bring our personal history to this moment and with over 500 individual stories here today we become a community of prayer.
Now we go even deeper into the poem. We’ve left the community history and we’ve understood our personal history and now we explore our personal story. In just a few lines Amichai expressed how he spent the entire day in thought and reflection. The sight of the Arab’s sewing shop prompted him to think about his family, to think about his country, to think about the Holy Ark. As his mind went on those tangents and went on that imaginary journey hours went by. Before he knew it the Arab was closing his shop and before he knew it Yom Kippur was over and in that moment he could join the worshippers as they were heading back home.
This to me, today, resonates with me in a deep and powerful way. I, like Amichai, have allowed myself to let my mind wander a little as the service goes on around me. I look into the Ark and see the beautiful white Torah covers and I think about how spiritual it is for me to be the one to take the other covers off and put these on every year. I’m usually by myself on a Sunday morning and I afford myself those few moments of solitude as I spiritually prepare for the new year.
I also think about different sections of the service and connect to our shul’s history in the process. When we open the ark for “u-ne-taneh tokef” for example, I think about the people who used to open the ark for that prayer. I think about what family crisis they had gone through and the strength and courage it took them to stand at the ark for that theologically challenging prayer. When I stand in front of this ark I remember placing the Torah scrolls in them for the first time 7 years ago. I reflect upon the tremendous amount of work it took us to move the congregation from Silver Spring to Olney and how all of us can appreciate and be grateful for that achievement. I, like some of us here today, can remember that ark in Silver Spring and can remember weddings that were held on the bima in front of it and bnai mitzvah and tragic funerals. We remember being on that bima for a variety of occasions and remember our connection to our synagogue. And there are several people here, founding members of our congregation and/or their children who remember the ark of our building on Riggs Rd. When I see Hal Epstein and his son in law Ben Cahen open the ark for our Neilah service every year I can’t help but think about how Hal’s father and grandfather opened the ark for Neilah in our synagogue on Riggs Rd. The history of our shul comes to life and we all have associations with our building when we look at the ark.
And on the most personal level too our minds wander. Just as Amichai described seeing the spools of thread and thinking about his father’s shop, so too we just have to look at someone’s clothing, or where someone is sitting, or see a twinkle in an eye or a turn of the mouth, or just look outside the window and can’t help but think about our loved one. As I’m standing on the bima and look out at my children I can’t help but think about how much they’ve grown. I look where Lenore is sitting and think how much my father in law enjoyed visiting us and coming to shul with me. My father in law enjoyed talking to everyone and he enjoyed the relationships he established with so many of you. I know that he reached out to many of you to ask about your health or wish you a happy birthday or happy anniversary. And I know he was so much looking forward to being at the wedding of my son and future daughter in law next year. My father in law was a special person and he will be missed by his family.
Before we know it then, as our mind makes this journey, time quickly passes by. As we sit and stand in shul today our mind takes this remarkable trip through history. The rabbis knew that we did that. They knew our minds wander and that it’s difficult to concentrate for hours upon end. Why else would some prayers today be recited over and over again? Perhaps one time, the rabbis thought, we’d come out of our reverie and focus better attention on the matter at hand.
But that’s not to say that this spiritual daydreaming and time travel is distracting or even wrong. Quite the opposite in fact. As Amichai so eloquently stated it, the wandering of our minds today helps reawaken our connection to objects and people. Those connections perhaps long forgotten, perhaps reminded in a way not remembered, help us better appreciate the people in our lives. The words of the prayer book help us focus on the values we are to hold dear in our lives and the thoughts and memories in our head help us focus on the people and our story that we are to hold dear.
As we prepare to spend a few moments remembering our loved ones in the yizkor service let’s let our minds wander. Let our minds wander throughout this day and let us smile and cry as we remember our family and remember those precious moments we had with them. As we listen to the music of the musaf service let our minds wander through our associations with services past. As the sun goes down this evening let our minds wander through the stories of our family. And as the gates of heaven symbolically close at the end of this day let us depart this sanctuary, like everyone in Amichai’s poem, as fellow travelers through our spiritual history.
Let us strengthen one another today and let us gain confidence and trust in each other as we take these Jewish journeys today. Let these memories touch us and inspire us so that we can feel that we will have been inscribed and sealed in the book of life. Amen.