My friends and colleagues call Shavuot the forgotten holiday. Even with the Yizkor service we don’t get as many in synagogue as we do for Pesach or Shemini Atzeret, not to mention Yom Kippur. If you were to go home and ask your Jewish friends why they were not in shul today they probably have no idea that today is one of the three major holidays on the Jewish calendar.
We live in a free country. There is all kinds of talk today about how people are opposed to government interfering with their personal lives. We don’t like our government getting involved in ALL of our private affairs. Whole movements in this country have revolved around telling Washington to leave us alone. From the beginning of this country, with the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania, to the Civil War to our Modern Tea Party Movement, citizens of this country protest or fight when they feel the federal government has become too intrusive in their private lives.
Judaism, has no trouble at all intruding into our private lives. After all, one of the four great freedoms in this country is Freedom of Religion, and Judaism tells us Jews just how we are supposed to be Jewish. It tells us what we can and can’t eat. It tells us when we can and can’t work. It tells us what is right and what is wrong and does not give us any vote in the matter, and it even tells us when we can and when we can’t have sexual relations with our spouse. I don’ t think you can find anything on this planet that is more intrusive in our private lives than our religion.
Maybe the reason that so many people are NOT here today is because they have chosen to forget the responsibilities that Judaism puts upon them. Just like the secular government, they don’t want Rabbis, Torah or even God to tell them what to do. They want to be completely in control of their own lives, or at least they want to have what seems to be control of their own lives. But when their lives spin out of control, they look to government and to their religion to help them get back on their feet. It would be easy to call this kind of behavior hypocritical, but I am afraid that it is just human nature. From the time of the biblical prophets, human beings have taken all the credit for the the good things in life and blamed God and authorities for all that has gone wrong.
What makes this intrusion in our lives by Judaism even more interesting goes back to the very beginnings of our religion. We were once slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. The despotic ruler of the land alongside the Nile River made sure that we knew our place in society, a place he made for us on the lowest rung of the social ladder. He told us where and when we were to work, he told us when and what we could eat. We had no control over what was right and what was wrong; we were told that we must do what the taskmasters said we were to do and we were to do it quickly without complaint. They told us when we were allowed to have sexual relations with our spouses and if we did not give birth to the right gender of child, then the unwanted boys would be thrown into the river. Anyone unhappy with this arrangement would feel the sting of the taskmaster’s whip.
God heard our cry of pain and rescued us from Egyptian slavery. God told us that nobody should have to be a slave like that. God redeemed us with a mighty hand, sending plagues so that the people of Egypt would know the kind of suffering we were enduring and be moved to let us go, and then at the Red Sea, the entire army that backed up Pharaoh’s iron hand, was destroyed in the blink of an eye. Why? Why did God do this for us? That was the reason we came to Mt. Sinai at this time of year 4000 years ago. God did not want us to serve Pharaoh in Egypt. God wanted us to serve only God. No government was to have the power to tell us what to do. We were to follow the laws and commandments of God, and that would be all we needed to live better lives.
In my class in Pirke Avot, that I teach each morning before Minyan, we find the saying of Rabbi N’hunya ben HaKanah, who teaches, “Whoever accepts the yoke of Torah will be spared the burdens of the government and the burden of earning a livelihood. But whoever throws off the yoke of Torah will have to bear the yoke of Government and the yoke of earning a livelihood.” What is Rabbi Nehunya saying? That if we want to stop paying taxes and no longer need to earn a living we should just study Torah and God will provide for us? Is this what he means? I don’t think so. The Sages in his day studied a great deal of Torah and they still had day jobs that provided food for their families and they certainly paid their taxes. What does he mean when he teaches that the yoke of Torah spares us the yoke of taxes and the yoke of earning a living?
I think Rabbi N’hunya is trying to teach us that serving God is not at all like serving a government nor is it related to earning a living. Our relationship with God is based on a covenant, a contract between God and the People of Israel. We agree to faithfully follow God’s rules and God is there, in good times and bad, to help give us strength, support and understanding about all aspects of our lives. God is very much like a large safety net, so that when disaster seems to be crashing down upon us, we do not fall, but we are supported and encouraged by our faith in God. Without God, life is a yoke we must carry. When we accept the yoke of God, however, we no longer feel that the rest of life is a burden at all.
Today we recite the prayers of Yizkor. It is a time when we remember those members of our family who may have died, but who are not forgotten. There are many Sages who point to our relationships with our family when explaining how to comprehend our relationship with God.
Family relationships come with responsibilities. The love and support we get from a brother or a sister, the love and protection that we receive from our parents do come with obligations. We look out for each other. We take care of each other when we are sick or in a time of trouble. Those of us who are married happily understand that joy in life is never complete until we share that joy with our spouse. The unconditional love that can come from children make their loss one of terrible tragedy. If we cry when we recite Yizkor for our family, it is not because the memories are terrible, it is exactly the opposite, we cry because the memories were so good. I remember a story about a man who cried bitterly over the death of his spouse. “Why do you cry?” asked a well meaning friend, “Your tears will not change anything, your crying will not help.” The man cried harder and responded, “That is why I cry, because my tears will not help.
I have said many times, that our tears are the price we pay for loving somebody. We cry over the death of one with whom we shared so many happy times because those happy times are over. I once came to a hospice room where a 97 year old lady was sitting in bed, and her 70 year old daughter was with her. The older woman looked at me and said, “I have lived my life for 97 years with no regrets. I have accomplished everything I set out to do and have had wonderful experiences throughout my life. I am facing death now with the serenity that comes from being at peace with myself. The only problem is my daughter here. Rabbi, please tell her that she does not have to cry after I am gone, because I am not sad at all about how I have lived my life.
I looked at this gracious lady and told her, “I think you need to mind your own business.” She looked at me shocked but I went on. “You may be content with your life but your daughter is going to miss you when you are gone, and every time she misses you she is going to cry and there is nothing you or I can or should do to stop her. If you would have been a mean and nasty mother your whole life, then I doubt your daughter would care. But you had to go be a kind loving and gentle parent and your daughter is going to miss you when you are gone.”
We make a mistake when we think that Kaddish or Yizkor is about the person who died. Our prayers for the dead don’t change their life or the fact that we still miss them. All these prayers can do is help ease the burden of our sorrow and help us be comforted for our loss. That God commands us to be here on the second day of Shavuot is not about God’s need to tells us what we should be doing every minute of our day, but God is helping us to understand that the same memories that cause us so much pain, can also be the source of great strength, courage and joy in our life. It is God’s way of embracing us in the dark moments in our life, to let us know that light and joy are never really far away. The burden of death is no longer a yoke we must bear because of the teachings God sends to us through the Sages and through the Torah. Our Judaism is not about law and ritual, our Judaism is about kindness and love.
Just as our parents tried to help us live better lives by sharing with us the lessons they learned the hard way in life, so too Judaism tries to share with us the combined wisdom of thousands of years of experience in dealing with the trials and tribulations in life. We like to think that our modern world is vastly different from the world of our parents, our grandparents and all of our ancestors. And it may be true. The ancient Rabbis did not know from computers, the internet, YouTube or hybrid automobiles. The ball point pen was not invented until after WWII. The Torah and Talmud may not know much about modern inventions, but it does know a whole lot about human beings; their emotions, their drives and all of our weaknesses. Our Sages put together a way of living that could help us be strong when we are weak, grateful when we are happy and united when we fall alone. No matter how sure we are that we are doing the right thing, if Judaism says that it is wrong, if the Torah teaches us that this is not the correct way to act in life, we better pay close attention.
Judaism does need to change from time to time. Living in an urban world was different from living on the farm. Living in exile was different from living in our own state. Women have taken their rightful place on the world stage and that is different from the patriarchal societies of the past. Judaism did have to adapt to accommodate these changes.
But we human beings still get up every morning and worry about how we will feed our family. We go to work each day and we watch the rise and fall of our investments. We still try to teach our children to be Menchen, We try to be a good child to our parents and a good partner to our spouse. We still want to be known as honest and dependable. We still are hurt when someone abuses our trust and blames their mistakes on us. We still want to do what is right especially when it is not at all clear what the right thing to do really is. We still want to know that our lives have meaning and that the works of our hands will make a difference. And we want to live the kind of life that others will remember even after we have gone.
We could be like all the others who are not here and pretend that it all doesn’t matter to us. That we are doing fine all by ourselves and we don’t need Judaism, Rabbis or even God to interfere in the way we live our lives. But we who are here for Yizkor today understand that the memories that we recall today, will also be the memories that our children will recall when we are gone. Our faith, our religion, our Judaism does not interfere in our life, it IS our life. And the yoke of everyday living is easier and lighter because we have chosen to take the yoke of Torah upon our shoulders. We have chosen to remember Shavuot. We have chosen to be here in honor of those we loved in life. And we have chosen to love God with all our heart and soul and might.
May we always be blessed with memories filled with love and may we be blessed with a life filled with faith in God, faith in Torah and faith in our fellow human beings as we say….. Amen and Hag Sameach