School Days

Shemini Atzeret 2009

Hag Sameach

Do you know what a “master class” is? It is not a college course for an advanced degree. It is a seminar, or a series of seminars that are designed for those who are already at the top of their field; artists or musicians, doctors or lawyers, teachers or businessmen and women. A master class is for all those who have excelled in their field and want to expand their knowledge beyond the conventional.

Teachers from the pinnacle of the field, the most innovative and respected; offer these master classes to those who would wish to follow in their footsteps. The assumption of the class is that all the students have already mastered the basics of their field. They have already succeeded in the normal sense of the word. A master class will not go over the basics, proficiency in the topic is assumed by all who are in the class. The teacher will show the students how to raise their skills even higher; to become artists in one’s chosen field, with all the creative and innovative talent implied.

Rabbi Bradley Artson, the Dean of the Rabbinical School at American Jewish University, recently wrote that we all should think about our life as a master class. This does not mean that we are exempt from the basics. In Judaism, this means we need to learn Torah and History, Hebrew and philosophy, Prayer and Mitzvot. These are the basics that are assumed in our master class. If we need work in these basic areas, we should not let the year go by without finding the proper seminars to help us gain proficiency in the areas that make up the foundation of our religion and our faith.

But if we are already beyond the basics, there are still important lessons to be learned. The first lesson is that real learning comes not from just reading or hearing the words of a teacher, but in encountering and engaging our teacher. To hear the passion in the voice, the authenticity in the lessons and to open our hearts to the truth that underlies the lessons. The deepest lessons in life do not come from following in the footsteps of a master teacher, but in creating new lessons from the experiences in your own life. What is it that we can bring into our life that no one else can bring? We can not be clones of our teacher, but we use their wisdom to make our lives a life without precedent. My teachers would constantly remind us that we should not despair that the great teachers of Torah and Talmud lived in previous generations. We should not be concerned that compared to their genius, they were giants and we are but dwarfs. My teachers in rabbinical school taught us that there is a way for a dwarf to see beyond the vision of a giant. The dwarf need only stand on the giant’s shoulders. So too we who do not see ourselves as intellectual equals of the Sages of long ago, we can see beyond their horizon if we but stand on their shoulders and build our vision upon theirs.

The next level, in the master class of life, teaches us that with learning and living comes great responsibility. We can’t live our lives only for ourselves; we need to open our hearts to others. Will we stand in prayer and only pray that God forgives our sins? Or will we also pray fervently for God to forgive the sins of others who are in need of forgiveness? There is a story of Rabbi Meir who was being harassed by a gang of hoodlums. He prayed that they should die. It didn’t help. His wife, who was so much wiser said, “Pray instead that they should repent.” Rabbi Meir did pray on their behalf and they did repent. We need to rise beyond our own needs and pray for the welfare of others. Our future is always tied to the future of others. We don’t label the “others” in life; we do all we can do to help to bring their lives to a higher level with us.

Finally, we live in an age where it seems that religious people are being asked to submit to the will of God. We are told that true religious people negate their own needs and submit to what they think God is asking of them. Every detail of the law is exceedingly important. Anyone who violates a single precept is an infidel, an apostate or worse. Obedience is the prime directive. But those who aspire to a deeper understanding of life know that life is fluid and opportunity is everywhere. We use our Judaism to paint with a multicolored pallet so that all the majesty and splendor of life will become apparent. There are passages in the Torah and in the Bible that do not make us proud. We like to think of the Torah as a document of love and understanding. Sometimes, however, Torah is not so loving. It has passages that tell us to hate people, and to kill those who do not agree with us. Are we required to teach such verses because they are in the Torah or are we prepared to refuse to teach them, to refuse to further spread their message of hate and intolerance? We must not justify what is hateful just because we think this is the word of God. We must use every tool we can find to turn that hatred into new ways to love each other.

The theory of life as a Master Class is beautiful and inspiring. But who will be the teacher who can give us such gifts? I would venture to say that we already know such teachers in our lives. They are the ones who came before us and gave us, through their words and deeds the very essence of who we are today. These are the people who we remember this day, at this hour of Yizkor.

Perhaps some of us here today are here out of a sense of duty. That after all, these were our parents, our loved ones, and we carry the Jewish obligation to pray at Yizkor in their memory. I understand that sense of duty and I share with you your devotion to the performance of this sacred responsibility. But there are other important reasons to be here this morning, at this hour of memory. This day can be our testimony, our monument, to the faith and meaning our loved ones brought into our lives. Through the lessons we learned at their sides, as well as the lessons we learned when we examined their lives, our lives are richer, deeper and better.

We have a choice at this junction in our lives. We can remember what we have lost and be sad, or we can recall what we have learned and be grateful and maybe even a little happy that the ones we remember today passed through this life and were our mentors and master teachers.

Poet David Harkins in his poem “Remember Me” penned these words:
You can shed tears that he is gone, or you can smile because he has lived.
You can close your eyes and pray that she will come back, or you can open our eyes and see all that she has left.
Your heart can be empty because you can’t see him, or you can be full of the love you shared.
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live for yesterday, or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.
You can remember her and only that she’s gone, or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.
You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back, or you can do what he’d want, smile, open your eyes, love and go on.

Life is a Master Class and some of our greatest teachers were those who shared with us precious time from the short number of years we are all allotted. Maybe we now have new teachers who continue to guide us through the many shoals of life. But it is those we remember today who are the teachers that first took us beyond the level of basics and fundamentals. They showed us how to really use the sacred time of life so that we could not only live a life of blessing but showed us how we can pass those blessings on to those who will remain when it is our time to go.

This is the ultimate honor we can give our beloved dead. Not to merely pass on the lessons we learned at their side, but to take those lessons and, with an artist’s loving hand, embellish it, color it and beautify it through our own life experiences so that our lives too will testify to a life lived with love of self, love of others and love of God.

May the examples of those we remember today be a blessing to us. May their lives serve as an example in our own lives. May our examination of their lives help us to examine and refine our own lives. And may their teachings serve as the foundation to the Torah that we are writing with the deeds we perform each day. May the memories we honor today help lead us to serve, as they served, our God with faith and with Love.

Amen and Hag Sameach.

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