My Father's Tallis
Yom Kippur Yizkor – 5773
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel, Denver, CO
Our son, Ethan recently was given an assignment for a photography class at his school. The teacher asked the students to create a photographic montage of the items that they would take with them if they had to quickly evacuate their homes in case of fire. Ethan chose wisely. Among the items in his collection were a guitar, a book of letters from the friends he made in while studying in Israel last semester, his Confirmation Bible, a book that my mother gave him, a quilt made out of old T-shirts, his Ultimate Frisbee Jersey and our dog, Roscoe's collar. When I asked him why the collar, he told me that Roscoe wouldn't sit still for the picture.
While I was fascinated by and pleased to see the items he chose, the assignment, itself, got me thinking: what would I take with me if I had to gather up my most prized possessions at a moment's notice? There are many items that came to mind – photographs, guitars, jewelry, but the first thing that popped into my head was this prayer shawl that I am now wearing.
This was my father's tallis. He used to wear it every Shabbat morning at our synagogue when I was growing up. My sister and I have so many memories of sitting next to him in shul when we were children. I remember playing with the fringes on the edges of this tallis when I was fidgety in services. My Dad, Sidney Black, co-led a small minyan in our Reform synagogue in Evanston, IL that was a mixture of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform traditions. I started playing my guitar there when I was in Jr. High School. In many ways, I credit those Shabbat mornings for instilling in me a love of prayer that set me on the path to this pulpit. I remember how my father would chant torah – fast – often making up his own tune as he went along – but nobody really cared – we just loved hearing him chant. He was as close to a Chazzen – a Cantor – as they had in the "downstairs minyan." He would wrap himself in his Tallis, sway to the music and sing in a beautiful baritone. After he died this past November, he had very few possessions left. The one thing of his that I wanted more than anything else was this Tallis.
I wear it now and I breathe in the aroma of fine wool – mixed in with a bit of garlic, coffee and other earthly aromas – and I'm instantly transported back to those days of my youth when he was vibrant– and full of life. I hear his laugh. I remember his touch. I prefer to remember him in this way – not as he was at the end of his life when the ravages of Alzheimer's robbed him of his strength and dignity.
It's amazing how physical objects can be so important. The Talmud teaches us that monuments need not be erected for the righteous – their deeds are their memorials – and yet, the act of going to the cemetery to dedicate or visit a gravestone is an essential piece of our collective journeys through the mourning process. We touch the stone and remember how that sacred place was the last time we were in physical proximity with our loved one.
As human beings – made of flesh and blood we need touchstones. At a funeral service, the mourners perform the mitzvah of keriah – of tearing a piece of fabric. Whenever I explain this custom to a grieving family, I always say the power of this ritual can be experienced because we need something to do with our hands at a time of trouble and sorrow. Of course, keriah is also a powerful symbol of the tear in the fabric of a family. It also marks a transition for the mourners – from taking care of details and planning a funeral – to allowing others to take care of them.
The objects and the heirlooms that we pass from generation to generation help us to tell the stories of our loved ones. As Rabbi Immerman taught us so powerfully this morning, it is the act of telling our stories that creates a sense of holiness in the midst of our everyday interactions. There is a reason that Rabbi Foster began the tradition that I have also embraced of telling the story of the Synagogue furnishings and torah scroll from Kolin that hold an honored place in our chapel. Each time I tell that story, I am keeping the memory of those who perished in the Shoah alive. Nothing is more sacred.
This is the first time that I am participating in a Yom Kippur Yizkor service as a mourner. Like most of you here this afternoon, I feel the ache of loss. There is a powerful intimacy in this large sanctuary – felt by all who understand the surreal quality of wanting to share this moment with loved ones whose physical presence is no more – but whose memory is very much alive in the moments that we treasure, and in the legacy of love and caring that we have inherited.
The reality of loss that we all feel at this sacred moment is painful and palpable. We hold on to our precious heirlooms and keepsakes to remind us of what once was – and can never be again. And yet, if all we do is feel our grief – if our only response to loss is to remain rooted in the past, then we have not yet fully emerged from the depths of grief into the heights of life.
We mourn our dead. We feel their loss. While each of us tread the same path, we do so at our own pace and tempo. Some are quicker than others – but we also know that, at some point, we must emerge once again out of the darkness into the light of day and live our lives so as to honor the memories of those who gave us life. The true legacy that our loved ones bequeath to us is not found in the possessions we treasure – but the values for which they lived and wanted us to embody as well.
A story is told of a very wealthy orthodox Jew who died. After he had bequeathed a sizable majority of his estate to Charity, he still left behind a huge fortune for his children. He left two wills, directing that one be opened immediately, and the second be opened after the Sheloshim (30 days of mourning after burial).
Among the instructions left in the first will was a request he be buried with a certain pair of socks that he owned. The man's children immediately brought the socks to the Chevra Kadisha (Jewish burial society), requesting that their father be buried in them.
The Chevra Kadisha refused their request, reminding the family that it's against Jewish law to be buried in anything other than a traditional burial shroud.
They pleaded, explaining that their father was a very holy, pious and learned man, and he obviously had a very good reason to make this request. The Chevra Kadisha remained firm in their refusal.
The family frantically went to their rabbi for help, and he gently explained to them, "Although your father left that request when he was on this world, now that he's in the world of truth, he surely understands that it is in his best interests to be buried without the socks."
The man was buried without his socks.
30 days later, the second will was opened, and it read something like this:
"My dear children. By now you must have buried me without my socks. I wanted you to truly understand that a man can have 1 billion dollars, but in the end, he can't even take along one pair of socks!"
My dear Friends: This story teaches an important lesson. Life is finite. It is precious. While we are here we can and should treasure all the goodness of God's creation. After we are gone, our treasures mean nothing. But – If and when we live our lives to the fullest, when we take advantage of every moment – every opportunity to share our lives and our love, then the reality of our own mortality can be offset by the legacy we leave behind to those whose lives we have touched.
As this holiest of days begins to wane, as we prepare ourselves for the final t'kiyah gedolah that will take place at the end of Neilah that follows this Yizkor service, let us strive to live our lives to the fullest. Let us remember to treasure the gifts that our loved ones have left us – both the tangible and the intangible. And let us commit to repairing our all too imperfect world – for their sake and for those who will come after us –
G'mar chatimah tovah – may we all be sealed for a blessing in the book of life. AMEN