Saturday, September 30, 2017

On Becoming An Orphan. Kol Nidre 5778

My Dear Friends,
I want to begin this evening with a story.  One Yom Kippur morning, Rabbi Resnick noticed little Adam was staring up at the large plaque that hung in the foyer of the synagogue. It was covered with names, and small American flags were mounted on either side of it.
The seven-year old had been staring at the plaque for some time, so the Rabbi walked up, stood beside the boy, and said quietly, "Good morning, Adam."
"Good morning, Rabbi," replied the young man, still focused on the plaque. "Rabbi Resnick, what is this?" Adam asked.
"Well, it's a memorial to all the young men and women who died in the service."
Soberly, they stood together, staring at the large plaque. Little Adam's voice was barely audible when he asked: "Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur service?"
It’s an old joke…but I still like it.
The truth is, these sacred days – from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur – take us on a journey that explores the essence of our mortality. The messages of these High Holy Days, in their purest form – are about life and death.  Think about it:  10 days ago we celebrated the birthday of the world.  We reveled in the new-ness of creation.  Rabbi Immerman’s powerful and poignant Rosh HaShanah sermon- dedicated to his soon-to-be born child – inspired many of us to tears as we shared in his and Jenny’s hope, fear and joy in anticipation of new life.  As he so beautifully taught us, on Rosh HaShanah we say: “Hayom Harat Olam” – on this day the world was created.
On Rosh HaShanah we are reborn. We are called to action – to make a difference – to do the work of Teshuvah and prepare ourselves for the awesome power of THIS DAY – This moment – yom ha kippurim – the day of Reckoning.
While Rosh HaShanah is all about celebrating life, Yom Kippur is about coming to terms with death.  The traditions surrounding this sacred day both reflect and revolve around our own mortality.

  • We recite a confessional similar to what our tradition teaches is said upon a death bed. 
  • We refrain from eating and focusing on the physical 
  • We deny ourselves – in essence, we rehearse our own death.

The Kol Nidre prayer – chanted so beautifully by Cantor Sacks, is preceded by the ancient formula:  B’yeshiva Shel Malah, u’vyishivah shel matah, anu matirin l’hitpaleyl im ha-avarynaim:
o   In the heavenly court of judgement, and in the courts here on earth, we are permitted to pray with “Avaryanim”.
In previous years, I have talked about the meaning of the word, Avaryanim.  It usually is understood as referring to those who have committed Averot - transgressions, but there are other possible translations.
Another way to understand the meaning of Avaryanim can be found in the most basic translation of the word.  The Hebrew word, Avar – the root of Avaryanim – means “that which is past.” In this light, the prelude to Kol Nidre can thusly be translated: 
o   In the heavenly court of judgement, and in the courts here on earth, we are permitted to pray with “those who have passed on”.
You see, Yom Kippur is not only about confronting our own death, it also is about acknowledging the fact that those whom we love are also mortal.
One of the truths of synagogue life is that people like to sit in the same seats every year.  As we gather together in this sacred place, at this holy time, I see so many faces of men, women and children who, over the past 7 years have become an integral part of my life and that of our congregation. I know where to look for you – in the same seats, every year. And yet, I can also see there are also faces that are no longer here.  We have lost many wonderful members of our community over the past year. So many of us tonight are thinking about loved ones who used to sit among us – but who are now among the Avaryanim – the ones who have passed on. 

This has been a very difficult year for our family.  Amos Rosenbloom, Sue’s father - my father in law – died in April. Two months later, my mother, Sophie Black, was taken from us.  Death and loss have been very prominent in our thoughts. This year, I stand in front of you, for the first time, as an orphan.
It seems strange, at 58 years old, to be calling myself an orphan, but the process of coming to terms with the finality of losing both parents – no matter how old you are or they were -- is both sobering and startling.  For those of us who were lucky enough to have parents who lived to a ripe old age, while intellectually we understood that one day they would be gone, the pain of loss after having shared the blessing of their presence for so long is still palpable.
My mother was fairly healthy until she had a stroke one day after we celebrated her 91st birthday.  4 months later she was gone. Prior to her stroke, we used to talk on the phone several times a day - and she would invariably call me at the worst possible time – usually in the midst of a staff meeting.  My colleagues would joke whenever my cell phone would ring and say “Hi Sophie” before I answered her call. Sometimes she would have a question for me, or she would have important news to share. But as the realities of aging meant that her world grew smaller and smaller, her calls were less about sharing information than they were about just wanting to hear my voice. Sue thinks that, in hindsight, perhaps she wanted to gift me with hearing her voice. 
As inconvenient as her frequent calls were at the time, I miss them.  To this day, I still find myself instinctively reaching for my phone to call her – or wanting to share a sermon or article with her that I have written. She was my biggest fan. Her phone number is still on my speed dial and I haven’t been able to remove it just yet. I still have several of her voice mails on my phone as well.  I can’t bring myself to erase them. 
The truth is, I’m not ready yet to be an orphan.  It’s still too raw.  There is a reason that, in Jewish tradition, a clearly defined path of mourning is set before us.  There are specific steps that take us from the shock of the immediacy of death, through the pain of the funeral, to the 7 days of Shiva, the 30 days of Sheloshim and the 11 months of mourning until the Yahrtzeit.  Not everybody chooses to observe each phase of the traditional mourning process. But the wisdom of our tradition is powerful in the way that it helps us to process our loss.  As your rabbi, I feel incredibly humbled and honored to have been able to help many of you walk the same path.  As Sue and I follow it now, we feel blessed to have had many of you by our sides who have provided comfort and consolation during the immediacy of our parents’ death and continue to send notes and check in with us to see how we are doing.
As I thought about what I have learned and continue to learn as I make my way on this journey of mourning, I focused on one of the central prayers in the High Holiday Liturgy – the Unetaneh Tokef - that compels us to contemplate our own mortality during these 10 days of coming to grips with both life and death.
“Unetaneh tokef k’dushat hayom”  it teaches.Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day.” Today God sits in judgement:  Who shall live and who shall die?”
For those who have lost loved ones since the last time these words were uttered, the message of the Unetaneh Tokef is painful. It also is very real. 
This year, in preparing for this sermon, I found new meaning in the text. There was a message that was hiding in plain sight – but I could not see it without the perspective of loss.  The last words of the prayer are:
Uteshuvah, Utefillah, Utzedakah maavirin et roa ha gezerah
 But Repentence, Prayer and Righteous acts -- temper judgement’s severe decree.
It’s important to note that the text does not say that these three actions change God’s decree.  Our mortality is not subject to bargaining or manipulation.  The text teaches that these three acts temper God’s decree.  The truth is, it’s hard to accurately translate Ma-avirin in English.  It comes from the same root as Avaryanim – the word about which I spoke earlier.  Its root is also Avar - to pass.  Perhaps, in this light, the Untetaneh tokef is being addressed – not only to our awareness of our own finitude – but also towards how we might confront the death of those whom we love.
Perhaps these three actions: 
  •  Teshuvah – repentance,
  • Tefillah – Prayer, and
  • Tzeddakah – righteous acts,
can help those of us who mourn pass through the stages of grief and come to terms with our loss. Maybe this powerful prayer is teaching us how to live our lives as we become increasingly aware of our own mortality and that of those whom we love.

So with this understanding, let’s explore together what this means for us on this holiest of nights:
Teshuvah, which we translate as “repentance,” also means “return.”  The process of returning and repenting forces us to go back to our roots – to trace our actions that led us from wholeness to brokenness. 
One of the difficult tasks that faces every orphan is settling one’s parents’ estate.  In addition to certifying death certificates, closing bank accounts and insurance policies, we also go through personal papers and records.  In the process of sorting through my mother’s things, my sister and I discovered that she kept everything - and I mean everything. She was a librarian – so she kept a veritable treasure trove of report cards from elementary and Hebrew school, letters from camp, attendance awards, artwork, embarrassing photos, old papers from high school and college and just about anything else you can imagine – all catalogued and in the proper place.
The process of emptying out the remnants of a lifetime’s worth of possessions also brought back a flood of memories.  An image that will be indelibly linked in my consciousness is that of my sister, Nina and me, and all of our children and spouses, sitting on the floor with piles of papers – deciding what we needed to keep and what could be discarded.  There was a lot of laughter.  There were quite a few tears as well.
For several years, my mother wrote and delivered an address at her synagogue about her memories of living through Krystallnacht – the “night of the Broken Glass” when, on November 9th, 1938 – as a 12 year old girl - she witnessed Nazi thugs parading through the streets of her city, Leipzig, Germany - smashing the windows of Jewish-owned businesses, burning Synagogues and chanting anti-Semitic tropes – some of the same chants that we saw and heard on the streets of Charlottesville, VA this past month. Each one of these memories is both powerful and painful. Finding and re-reading them together as family was both discomforting and cathartic.  As I wrote in the eulogy that I delivered at her funeral, I am thankful that, at the end of her life, my mother was not aware of the political upheaval that is taking place in America.  I don’t think that she would have been able to handle her fear of history repeating itself in this, her beloved adopted country.
But the process of returning that Teshuvah represents is not only limited to pouring through old records and artifacts.  Part of our task as mourners is also reclaiming relationships.  My father died 6 years ago, but the truth is that the man I remember from my childhood and early adulthood was taken away from us many years before his heart stopped beating.  His memories were stolen by the cruelty of Alzheimer’s disease.  The last few times I saw him, he didn’t recognize me.  Part of the process of returning – of Teshuvah - that I now find myself engaging in revolves around remembering and celebrating who he was when he was in his prime.  I remember his beautiful voice as he chanted Torah in our synagogue. I remember his laughter and the twinkle in his eyes – as well as the joy he felt in playing with his grandchildren.
When our loved ones are alive, we see them in the present.  We see their decline as death approaches as well.  If there is a blessing to be found in orphanhood it is in the capacity to recapture the memories of our parents in their prime – full of life without the debilitating indignities of disease.  Returning to these precious memories is an essential part of the mourner’s path that can be defined through the process of Teshuvah.

Tefillah -prayer – does come easy to most of us.  When we pray, we look inward and take stock in ourselves and our souls.  Prayer is one of the most personal acts that we can perform. It is also one of the most public. If prayer is talking to God, faith in God means affirming that someone is listening and that someone cares about who we are and what we have to say.
Becoming an orphan can lead us to prayer.  When our parents are living, we know that we are not alone: there is someone who loves and cares for and about us unconditionally.  Even when illness robs them of their ability to function, their physical presence assures us of where we came from and, hopefully, reminds us how we learned to love others by their example.  When they are taken from us, we need to find an avenue to replace that assurance. 
When we pray, we reach out to something beyond ourselves.  While prayer can be a solitary experience, Judaism teaches that it is vitally important that we not pray by ourselves, if possible.  Prayer is best experienced and carried out in community.  The act of saying kaddish - of standing up and exposing our grief – supported by those around you – is both agonizing and affirming.  When we pray we are not alone.  In confronting death, we reach out to the Source of Life and stand together with others who support us in our time of grief.
After we buried my mother in Chicago, we returned to my sister’s home for Shiva.  My sister is Orthodox and lives in a neighborhood that has the process of comforting mourners down to a well-oiled machine.  Friends had arranged food delivery and set up prayer-minyans for every day of the week except Shabbat – when, according to custom, Shiva is suspended.  Since my mother was a member of a Reform congregation, we had multiple services in Nina’s house – one for mom’s Reform community – with mixed seating, and another for the Orthodox community – with men and women separated. When Sue and I returned to Denver, our closest friends and colleagues organized services in our home so that we could pray in the midst of our community.  I will never forget the feeling of warmth we felt - knowing that we would not be alone in our grief. It gave us great comfort.  We experienced the same feeling when Sue’s father died earlier in the year and our friends rallied around us that time as well.

The third and final mitzvah listed in the Untetaneh Tokef  is, Tzeddakah – Acts of Righteousness.
In many ways, Tzeddakah is the ultimate act of coming to terms with loss.  Our actions reflect our values. Our values are bequeathed to us by those who gave us life. When we give Tzeddakah in the form of money, or when we perform acts of righteousness, we are carrying out the legacy of love that we have received.  As an orphan, I now realize that I am taking my place as an elder in my family and community.  As a parent, I understand that I have a responsibility to teach my children by example as my parents taught me.
My parents, while not wealthy, understood the importance of Tzeddakah – of righteous action.  They were very generous with their limited resources. They showed my sister and me, by example, how to help others in need.  They also taught us to speak out when we saw injustice and cruelty perpetrated by others.  The best way that I can honor their memory is by continuing to act in ways that they would – sharing what I have with others and not being afraid to call out and stand up to injustice wherever and whenever I see it.
There is a great deal of comfort in knowing that when I carry out the values bequeathed to me by my parents, I am celebrating their lives.

Uteshuvah, Utefillah, Utzedakah maavirin et roa ha gezerah
But Repentence, Prayer and Righteous acts temper judgement’s severe decree and help us to remember and honor those who have passed on.

My Dear Friends, tonight I speak to you both as your Rabbi and as an orphan.  For those of you who still have loved ones in your life, hold them close.  As I say every year from this pulpit on Yom Kippur – if you have any unfinished business– if there are words that are unsaid, if there are hard feelings or discord between you and the ones closest to you – what are you waiting for?  Life is too fleeting and precious to allow petty grudges  - or even our legitimate grievances – to keep us from giving and receiving the love that God gave us to share.  All of us are Avaryanim  - we are sinners and we are mortal.  Someday, we, too, will pass on. Don’t wait until you are an orphan to tell your parents that you love them.  Celebrate and share your love today and every day.
Gmar Chatimah Tovah – may we all be inscribed for a blessing in the book of life.
And call your mother.



  1. Thank you for sharing this beautiful piece.
    I don't think we will ever stop reaching for the phone.
    Gmar Chatimah Tovah..
    Monique Petan

  2. Beautiful! The Jewish process of mourning has given me great comfort over the last 3 years since my mother unexpectedly passed away. Being at services is both a comforting and painful experience as it always brings such a sharp moment of reality in which her absence is felt & honored intensely.