Sermon – Kol Nidre
September 18, 2018 | 9 Tishrei 5779
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler
Ah, the old letters you sometimes discover…
Really something, aren’t they?
They can bring a smile, they can bring a tear…
… and they always awaken a memory from a distant past… especially because that is when people wrote letters and mailed them… in the distant past.
Susan was recently cleaning up the house and alleviating the clutter.
She came across a trove of those old letters.
Love letters? – Susan, did you find any of those?
(Not certain? – we’ll leave it at that!)
I do remember some of those letters that Susan found.
And some of them did make us laugh.
Let’s just say that I have changed over the course of forty years.
That’s a good thing.
Here’s another occasion that may lead to the discovery of letters from the distant past —
The death of an elderly parent.
Every now and then, during shiva, I visit with the children of an elderly parent who has just died.
“Rabbi, we were cleaning up the house and came across these love letters that Dad wrote to Mom.”
“They are absolutely precious!”
The sentiments expressed in those letters – often in fading ink on yellowed paper – bring smiles and tears of joy on the faces of those who are the greatest legacy of their parents’ love.
Elderly parents who became infirm – often with dementia that made them largely unrecognizable as the parents they had once been – are suddenly transformed.
They become young lovers again.
That is the power of those letters.
Perhaps we hold onto one or two of them, but we hardly have occasion to read those letters again.
There’s another kind of letter, one potentially filled with important content, that is quite different from those love letters.
And unlike those letters, this letter should be read over and over again.
As we read it, it may bring a smile to our lips or a tear to our eyes, but it should move us in other ways too.
It should encourage us to reflect on the life of the writer and on our own lives.
It should challenge us, perhaps, and encourage us to act.
You see, this letter reveals something very important about its writer and what is enduringly important to him or her.
It is meant to motivate us to reflect on the writer’s message and to act in certain worthy ways.
This letter now has a name.
It is called “The Forever Letter.”
That is the title of this book authored by Rabbi Elana Zaiman – The Forever Letter
So what is a “forever letter?”
I think I have already told you essentially what it is, but let me put it succinctly.
A forever letter is a letter written by an individual to be shared with loved ones.
Its purpose is to encourage its recipients to reflect on their own lives in light of the letter’s content.
From time to time, they should take it out and reread it.
For example, the forever letter of a parent to a child might best be looked at again on the child’s birthday.
A wedding anniversary would provide the perfect backdrop to reread a forever letter from one spouse to another …
And, of course, if forever letters are most naturally written by an aging parent to a child with the hope that his/her voice will remain a presence for many years, eventually a yahrzeit will provide the opportunity to look at that forever letter again.
What more valuable gift could a person give to loved ones than the continuing presence of a treasured voice?
What legacy could possibly be richer and more enduring than the words of a loved one that say – “This is what is important to me/
This is what I think really matters in life/
These values have been important in my life, and I hope they will always be important to you?”
Rabbi Zaiman has done all of us a tremendous service by writing this book.
That’s really an inadequate characterization of her work.
We have a tradition that prescribes how to live a holy life.
Some call that “halacha;” others call it “Jewish life.”
However, seldom are we shown personal and creative ways to add sanctity to our lives and to the lives of those who mean the most to us.
That is what Rabbi Zaiman does.
A forever letter enables us to share and, ultimately, leave something profound…an expression of enduring holiness… with people we deeply care about.
Many of us would find it difficult to write a forever letter.
Let’s be honest.
It’s alot easier to say something like, “My children know what’s important to me. They know my hopes and expectations for them.”
Maybe they do.
But maybe they are not as certain as you think they are.
Rabbi Zaiman offers a number of reasons why we ought to write forever letters.
She gives us a little push to do what, if we are honest with ourselves, we know we ought to do.
Here are a few of the reasons Rabbi Zaiman shares as to why we ought to write forever letters:
The most obvious one?
It’s a tangible, lasting gift.
Here is another reason – Sometimes we find it easier to share our innermost, deeply-held thoughts in writing rather than trying to verbalize them.
When we write, it’s much tougher to “beat around the bush” than when we are speaking to someone.
Writing encourages us to get to the point and to share our truth about what matters most to us.
Finally, writing a forever letter provides us with time to reflect before we actually frame a message for others.
It can often raise to the surface an important need – like the need to forgive someone who has wronged us or to ask forgiveness of someone we have hurt.
We sit here at the beginning of the day that to most us represents the climax of this penitential season, the day to seek and to offer forgiveness.
But we also know how infrequently any of that actually happens because it’s just too difficult, perhaps too embarrassing or too threatening to actually do so.
A forever letter can help us overcome those feelings in order to express remorse and ask for forgiveness…
or to forgive someone who hasn’t yet been able to approach us.
This High Holiday period only adds to the list of reasons Rabbi Zaiman provides for writing a forever letter.
Three times in the Musaf service on Rosh Hashanah we offered familiar words – “Hayom harat olam” – “Today is the birthday of the world.”
Every year the world’s “birthday” brings its potential renewal, and each year we continue to live on this earth we, too, may be renewed.
We can see our lives as specks in the continuum of time or we can choose to see them as significant in this moment and, potentially, meaningful to our loved ones for years to come.
A forever letter can solidify that lasting significance.
On the High Holidays, we are reminded that our actions do matter.
Not only, as the High Holiday liturgy would have it, will our actions determine our fate and impact on how others will remember us when we are no longer here.
Our actions can also influence the choices our loved ones make.
A forever letter can only reinforce that influence.
Finally, in what is surely one of the most evocative moments of our Yom Kippur liturgy, we plead “Sh’ma Kolenu!” (“Hear our voice!”)
In that prayer, the object of our plea is God.
But the words – “Al tashleechaynu l’et ziknah” – “Don’t abandon us when we grow old” capture a human reality – fear of abandonment as the end of our lives approaches.
A forever letter can link us in powerful and redeeming ways with our loved ones at a time when we most need to feel their presence.
Many of us here this evening, probably most of us, lost our parents a number of years ago.
I still hear my mother, of blessed memory, sharing something of her goodness with me.
My father, thank God, is still alive, but no longer able to share the wisdom of his experience, Jewish and otherwise, with me as he did when I was a young rabbi.
I know what was important to my parents.
I know what they wanted for me and what they expected of me…and I wish I had it all in a letter in which each of their voices would be as clear to me now as they were when I stood next to each of them thirty or forty years ago.
My children know what my greatest priority is for each of them too.
It’s the same one my parents had for me – “Zai a mensch” – Be a good, caring person to the core and act accordingly.
But I can still write that letter, and with both Ariel and Aliza, God-willing, getting married in the next few months, I have this wonderful time of transition in their lives and our lives beckoning me to sit down and write each of them a forever letter.
So, friends, I know what my blessed task is.
What about you?