Yom Kippur Yizkor Sermon
September 30, 2017 | 10 Tishrei 5778
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler
Early morning Sunday, July 16th, Don Damond gladly grasped his phone to answer the call.
He thought it was his financé Justine calling to let him know that the disturbance she had heard outside their Minneapolis home, just a few blocks away from where I grew up, had settled down.
Everything was OK now.
Only … it wasn’t OK.
It wasn’t Don’s financé on the phone; it was a police officer.
A shooting had taken place, and a woman had died.
“We can’t give a positive ID,” the officer said, “but we think it’s Justine.”
Suddenly and unexpectedly, Don Damond’s world was shattered.
Hyperventilation gave way to uncontrollable sobbing.
Perhaps you recognize this story because it remained a national news story for several days this summer.
Here is another somewhat similar story that never made it into the news.
But you can still read about it whenever you want to do so.
It appears in the Torah in the Book of Leviticus, chapter 10.
Two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, offered what the text calls “aysh zarah”, “alien fire,” and in response presumably as punishment for this uninvited offering, God caused fire to consume these men.
“Vayeedom Aharon” – “Aaron was silent.”
The Torah makes no other explicit reference linking Aaron to what he had just witnessed.
Within three verses of Aaron’s stunned, likely overcome, dumbfoundedness, Moses is giving Kohen – related instructions to him.
Two verses later God is giving Aaron more instructions.
Only three verses later, Moses is speaking to Aaron as if the entire episode never even occurred!
All the while, we never hear Aaron’s voice; we only hear his silence.
Did Aaron simply suppress his reactions so that he could continue his task of spiritual leadership? – Maybe.
Did he mourn in a healthy manner so that he could emerge from this shattering moment in a way that let him continue his life? – Perhaps.
The Torah is sparse regarding such details.
Aaron somehow managed to move forward.
It’s too early to know about Don Damond. We certainly pray for his well-being and for the well-being of Justine’s loved ones.
But we do know about Sheryl Sandberg whose life was shattered in 2015, and who has now been able to share what she has learned with us.
Some of you know this story.
Sheryl and her husband, Dave Goldberg, went on a vacation to Mexico in May 2015. While working out in a gym, Dave collapsed and died almost instantly. He was 47 years old.
In addition to his wife, Sheryl, Dave left two young children.
Dave’s sudden death gained prominent mention in the media at the time because he was the Chief Executive Officer of Survey Monkey, and his wife was and still is the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook.
But we did not feel the utter devastation that Dave’s death caused until Sheryl posted a long letter thirty days after his funeral.
In fact, Sheryl’s letter began with these words – “Today is the end of sheloshim for my beloved husband.”
She went on to describe both shiva and sheloshim.
And then she described the devastation … the same devastation that Don Damond and Aaron undoubtedly felt.
“I have lived thirty years in these thirty days,” Sheryl wrote. “I am thirty years sadder.”
Yet, only a month after her beloved husband had died and Sheryl Sandberg was still enveloped by grief, she was learning how to move forward.
And she began to teach us.
Listen to what she wrote:
I was talking to one of those friends about a father-child activity that Dave is not here to do. We came up with a plan to fill in for Dave. I cried to him, “But I want Dave. I want Option A.” He put his arm around me and said, “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the s**t out of Option B.”
That’s when the seeds of this book, Option B – Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy published earlier this year, were planted.
While Sheryl views things from the perspective of one whose world has been shattered by sudden and unexpected loss, her experience may not necessarily be all that different from one whose pain could have been anticipated.
I have seen how to some loved ones, the death of an elderly parent or spouse after a lengthy illness is just as devastating as if the person had died with absolutely no warning.
No matter what the circumstances, for all of us following a sudden death and for some of us, even after an expected death, the road to recovery may be difficult.
It is a road founded on human resilence and a belief in our capacity to recover, change and eventually flourish again.
Resilience is the incredible, God-given ability that helps us to move forward at difficult moments.
It gives us the capacity to persevere when it seems utterly impossible to do so.
Sheryl Sandberg recognized that resilience was the soil in which the possibility of a future that had been unalterably changed could take root.
When Dave Goldberg died, Sheryl Sandberg had absolutely no idea what to do.
She was completely overwhelmed.
She didn’t know how she was going to make it from one day to the next!
She had little sense of how she could provide a secure presence for her son and daughter.
But the renewing potential of resilience began to take hold, and Sheryl managed.
Option B contains a number of thoughts about how to move forward after a devastating loss and how to help others do so.
One of the cornerstones is to be found in the incident I already shared with you.
When Sheryl was overwhelmed by the thought of her husband’s absence from a father-child activity, a friend was there to put an arm around her and say, “We can’t do it that way, but we can do it this way.”
That is what a friend does.
That is what a community does.
It wraps its arms around that person and says, “I am with you, and I will help you to do it.”
Then it acts in reassuring ways to reinforce that message.
In a single sentence, Sheryl Sandberg captures the meaning and redemptive power of community for one who has been devastated by loss.
She writes, “We find our humanity – our will to live and our ability to love – in our connections to one another.” (p. 141)
That is the potential power, again a renewing power, of community, whether that community is a circle of friends, neighbors or a kehillah kedoshah, a genuinely caring congregation.
One of the most important traits that Sheryl writes about, one I have spoken about previously, is the potential for what she calls “post-traumatic growth.” (p. 78)
Sheryl tells the story of a physician, Joe Kasper, whose world was upended when his teenage son was diagnosed with an incurable disease.
Dr. Kasper was devastated, but he was determined to persevere.
He learned about how people recover from such trauma based on the studies of two university professors, Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun.
He came across what he found to be a transformative quote as he read their research findings – “I am more vulnerable than I thought, but much stronger than I ever imagined.” (p. 79)
Again – “I am more vulnerable than I thought, but much stronger than I ever imagined.”
Those words could describe many of us here.
The death of a loved one, especially when unanticipated, has already or will utterly devastate many of us.
But we are stronger and more capable of recovery than many of us think.
If we have yet to learn that through personal experience, a time will likely come when we will do so.
Near the end of her book, Sheryl writes:
When we marry, we promise to love ‘till death do us part.’ Our images of love are active – we love by being there for a friend, taking care of a child, waking up next to someone – all of which depend upon the person being alive. One of the most important things I’ve learned is how deeply you can keep loving someone after they die. You may not be able to hold them or talk to them, and you may even date or love someone else, but you can still love them every bit as much. (Sheryl concludes) – Playwright Robert Woodruff Anderson captured it perfectly: “Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship.” (p. 168)
The deaths of those who mean the most to us – whether their deaths occurred unexpectedly in an instant or after a long life and over the course of sometime – may shatter our world.
I’m sure that Don Damond is still devastated today.
But as both our ancestor Aaron and much later, Sheryl Sandberg, learned, the limitless divine gift of resilience provides us with a means to begin to live again.
Loved ones, friends and a caring community can give us strength to move forward so that we can be stronger than we ever imagined.
When such a moment arises in our lives, may we be blessed with all these gifts and with the reassuring sense that God grieves with us and strengthens us.
“Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship.”
May we come to recognize the enduring and reassuring truth of Robert Woodruff Anderson’s realization and be comforted by it.
Sermon – Rosh Hashanah Day 2
September 22, 2017 | 2 Tishrei 5778
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler
Around my house, when I was growing up, Yiddish was the language my parents used when they didn’t want my sister and me to understand what they were saying.
That was the point.
Yiddish was Mom and Dad’s personal language – somehow very Jewish, yet foreign to their children.
Baubie Sandler’s Yiddish sounded different to me than my parents’ Yiddish.
It matched her wet kisses.
It was loving.
I really had no idea what Baubie Sandler was ever saying, but whatever she said to me, it always sounded like it was said with kisses.
As a teenager, I began to pick up Yiddish words and phrases.
Some I used in conversation quite naturally.
Others I couldn’t quite translate, but I gained a sense of their meaning.
And others, well, others I just can’t talk about from the bimah or in polite company.
But some of those Yiddish phrases I understood shared important lessons.
Two phrases I can think of said, “You’re different; you’re Jewish; some people don’t like Jews.
Don’t do anything to give them a reason to dislike Jews.”
The first phrase was “Shanda fur die goyim.”
“If you do something wrong, especially something that lots of non-Jews will learn about, you will bring shame to all Jews because non – Jews will think that all Jews do whatever you did.”
“So, don’t do it!”
Honestly, I’m not certain anyone thinks like that today – that non-Jews attribute one Jew’s behavior to all Jews.
“Shanda fur die goyim?” – Not so much anymore.
The second Yiddish phrase is also becoming irrelevant, but not because the way Jews are perceived by their neighbors has changed.
Here it is – “Ess passt nicht” – “It’s not becoming.” “It’s not appropriate.”
Boy, if you heard that one from your Baubie or Zayde, your head sank in shame.
The implication was, “That’s not the way a Jew behaves. You let us down.”
Like the phrase “Shanda fur die goyim,” “ess passt nicht” said to the unlucky object of its biting quality – There are worthy values that are timeless. Anything that denigrates them is unbecoming.
But you know what?
Over the course of time, that assertion has changed.
First came moral relativism which said, in effect, there are no timeless values anymore.
Values change over time.
Then came the 60’s – “Do your own thing” triumphed … implying that whatever that thing was was just fine.
No amount of moral teaching in the past fifty years has changed that reality.
In the end, the notion of “ess passt nicht” has become …. Ess passt nicht!
“It’s not becoming” has become unbecoming!
It just doesn’t seem to be relevant today.
The expression has disappeared from Jewish households and the concept, along with its impact, has faded.
Each of us, it seems, gets to determine what is appropriate and what is not.
And you know what?
We’re not just talking about Jews and the Jewish community.
If the notion, if not exactly the phrase “ess passt nicht” was ever operative in American society in general, it has utterly disappeared in recent years.
The soul of our society has hardened.
The difference between truth and falsehood has been blurred.
The dignity of words and the uplifting power of thoughts have been diminished by harsh language…words that show disrespect and insensitivity and much, much worse.
We see such things at the highest levels of American life…and we may recognize it, at times, in our own interactions with others.
Far too often today, in public discourse and in our own lives, language is used as a weapon to cause harm.
Sometimes, it exhibits unimaginable moral equivalences that assault our sensibilities.
Again, we see such things in the highest places … and among us too.
Perhaps our memories fail.
But if we are honest with ourselves, most of us will be able to recall a time in the recent past when we said something we never should have said or hurled hurtful words at someone.
It’s not just the people we see on the news programs; it is us, too.
What he or she said? – Ess passt nicht! There’s no question!
It is unbecoming … but what can we do?
That’s the way it is today in a world that no longer sits in judgment of such things.
Really? Do we just have to resign ourselves to it?
Our tradition teaches us precisely the opposite, and these High Holidays urge us to recognize what we may have forgotten.
Our spiritual father, Abraham, was called “Avraham ha-Ivri” – The “Hebrew,” but “ivri” literally refers to one who crosss over.
To our Rabbis, that was Abraham’s nature and greatness.
He crossed over, the Rabbis said … to a place where he recognized the God of Israel, to a place of caring.
And the rest of the world just stayed where it was.
Perhaps today we need to cross over to where Abraham was, and let the rest of the world figure out where it will go.
If we have forgotten the power and uniqueness of being a human being, these High Holidays annually remind us – Change is possible, and we must seize the opportunities it brings.
Yes, our High Holiday liturgy tells us that we are sheep in the flock.
But it makes equally clear that we are God’s sheep, preciously tended to by the Holy One and therefore little less than divine.
Yes, the High Holiday liturgy often reminds us how small we are.
But the whole purpose of these Days of Awe is to remind us about how significant our lives may become.
Rabbi Harold Schulweis, of blessed memory, taught us many years ago that because we are created in God’s image, we are godly.
We must act with that recognition constantly in mind.
Our tradition reminds us of our responsibility every day.
In our daily prayer book we can read this midrash:
“Follow the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 13:5). What does this mean? Is it possible for a mortal to follow God? The verse means to teach us that we should follow the attributes of the Holy One. As God clothes the naked, you should clothe the naked. As the Holy One visits the sick; you should visit the sick. As the Holy One comforts those who mourn; you should comfort those who mourn. As the Holy One buries the dead; you should bury the dead. (Sotah 14a).
The midrash views our spiritual task as imitating God’s actions.
To imitate God, to act godly in the world today means to act in caring ways.
But what about speech?
The midrash hints at speech too – “As the Holy One comforts those who mourn, you should comfort those who mourn.”
And how do we comfort mourners?
In large measure with words that reassure them of our presence at a difficult time in their lives and of the difference their loved one made and continues to make.
In other words, if we understood God to speak aloud just like I am speaking to you now, we comfort mourners, as the midrash suggests, with God’s words.
God’s words are sacred words.
And whether we share comforting words with mourners or other words with people in entirely different circumstances, we ought to strive as much as possible to speak in sacred ways.
I know. I get it.
“Sacred,” “Holy” – who speaks in those ways? – Men and women of God, of course.
You’re saying to yourself, “That’s not me!”
If none of us are women or men of God, why are we wasting our time here today?
Sacred speech is rooted in the Torah’s concept of kedushah, in recognizing that as human beings, little less than God, we alone have the ability to elevate how we relate to each other.
Sacred speech, therefore, is respectful and never hateful.
Sacred speech seeks to include and never to shun.
Sacred speech lifts up the spirit and never seeks to injure or humiliate.
Sacred speech encourages learning and openness and never discourages new opportunities.
Sacred speech encourages those who are in need and never seeks to isolate them or hold them up for ridicule.
Sacred speech heals brokenness and never exacerbates it.
In our world today, from leaders to all of us, too many people denigrate this understanding of sacred speech.
“Ess passt nicht” – “It is unbecoming.”
So much of what we hear – on the news and in our conversations – is unbecoming.
So much of it demeans our values and diminishes the recognition of God’s presence among us.
Today we must resolve, by our example and by the expectations we place on our leaders, loved ones and friends, to reclaim sacred speech as the fitting way of human interaction.
Now is the time to seize the moment – this moment – for our own sake and for the sake of our country.
May the year 5778 be a year of blessing as it reflects the presence of sacred speech and uplifting action.