Shemini Atzeret

  1. Hag Sameach
  1. My friend and colleague, Rabbi Robert Scheinberg in New Jersey, recently wrote about Anne Frank, the young girl who died in Auschwitz but left a moving diary of her feelings of hope and faith even during her most difficult days in hiding in Amsterdam. Her diary has been an inspiration to both young and old since its publication after the war. Many people of all faiths visit the house where she and her family hid. It is now a museum dedicated to all those who died in the Holocaust.
  1. Visitors to the museum immediately notice a large chestnut tree that grows just outside the house. Anne Frank mentions this chestnut tree in her diary. During the long months of hiding, it was one of the few things she could see in the outside world. She recorded this in her diary: “From my favorite spot on the floor, I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops shine, appearing like silver, and at the seagulls and other birds as they glide on the wind. As long as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for any sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be.”  One of her last entries in her diary was about the chestnut tree being in full bloom.
  1. That tree was over 100 years old when Anne Frank made her observations about it. Like the diary itself, the tree became a symbol of perseverance and hope. It represented not only the eternity and continuity of the world; it also stood for the pain that humans can sometimes inflict on others. Rabbi Scheinberg noted in his remarks, that the last 60 year, since the end of the war, the years have not been very kind to the chestnut tree. Inside, the tree it has been attacked by a fungus; outside, moths have eaten away at it. It had become so bad that the city of Amsterdam finally had to condemn the tree, it was unstable and in danger of falling. They scheduled it for removal.
  1. He writes that it should not surprise anyone that there was an international uproar about plans to chop down the tree. This inspiring symbol just had to be saved. Money was raised. Tree scientists and naturalists from around the world came to Amsterdam to and each made their suggestions as to how the tree could be saved. In 2007, they finally agreed that it WAS possible to save the tree. They constructed a metal brace around the trunk that should have enabled it to survive for several more decades. The trees’ supporters were jubilant. The brace was put in place.
  1. Just last month, in August of this year, during a heavy storm in the city, the chestnut tree was toppled by the wind. The huge tree crashed through gardens, fences and walls. Thank God nobody was hurt. It was now painfully clear that those who wished to save the tree had made a very serious mistake. If the wind of the storm had blown just a bit in a different direction, the Anne Frank house itself would have been demolished. The city came and removed the fallen tree and left behind only the stump. The story of Anne Frank’s chestnut tree was over.
  1. But just a couple of weeks ago, at the end of August, there was a great surprise. From the splintered trunk of the tree, a green shoot was seen growing. There was new life in the trunk of the old tree. The trunk will remain in its place and the next chapter in the life of the chestnut tree is now beginning.
  1. Rabbi Scheinberg writes, “Why make such a big deal about it? It is just a tree. But for so many, the story of the tree seems symbolic of the story of the Shoah and the story of the Jewish people itself. Something that seemed to be eternal – that came perilously close to complete destruction. A symbol of hope that tragically became a source of danger. A somewhat sympathetic international community that reacted too late. A world that seems alternately capricious and terribly unfair and destructive. A living entity that managed to persevere against all odds gaining a new lease on life. [We say in our prayers] “Hashiveny adonai elecha ve-nashuva, hades  yemeinu ke-kedem”  “Return to us, Adonai, and we will return to you. Renew our days as of old. We can understand this in the conventional way, “renew our lives to the condition they were before: or we can understand this in a deeper and richer way by saying, “just as you renewed our lives in the past, helping us to persevere after crises, dislocations and traumas, so may you renew our lives today.”
  1. I have been thinking of this story for weeks now. It is a story that I have been a part of many times. I have watched more times than I can remember, friends and neighbors, who lived wonderful lives, lives that were an inspiration to their families and to many others around them. People who we thought would live forever. But over time, the years were not always so good to them. Disease weakened their bodies from the inside, the trials and tribulations of life weakened them from the outside. My friends remained, for me, the symbol of a life well lived. And out of love for all they had done for us, we worked long and hard to give them as much life as we could.
  1. It is never easy to make the decision to place someone we love so deeply into hospice. We know that the men and women who work in the hospice programs are caring and loving people; that they have dedicated their lives to bringing comfort to those in their final days and to helping them and their families say goodbye. Our problem is not with hospice, but with our own need to come to the realization that nothing is forever. That even those we love, and those who love us, will eventually die. We instinctively want to cling to them forever.  And yet, even when we know that the will to live is powerful and strong, we also know that continuing pain is worse than death and that sometimes death can be better than a life of illness. Sometimes we have to love someone enough to let them go. So we let them go, and we cry. We cry for what we have lost. We cry for the love that is no more. And we cry because all we have are memories of what we once had that is now gone forever.
  1. Now we come to the hour of Yizkor. Yizkor means “May God Remember” and the name comes from the first word of the memorial prayer we recite today. We ask God to remember what we remember, the life, the lessons and the love that was once shared in life that is now gone. But is the love really gone? The life of those we loved may be over but the love still remains. It is the love that we once had that brings us to this service, and I think that it does a lot more for us than we can fully realize.
  1. I like to compare love to the light of a candle. To be sure, a candle flame is not one of the most enduring images in life. The singer, Elton John, in his song, compares love to a candle in the wind. The image is that the flame is always in danger of being extinguished. The mere puff of wind can leave a wick cold and dark, where once stood the warm glow of a flame. Love is very perishable. If we don’t care for the flame, anything can come along and put it out, and even if we do care for it carefully, soon the candle will burn up and the flame will, eventually sputter and die. That is the way it is with candles.
  1. But I also like to remember that the flame of a candle can also be eternal. That from one flame many others may be lit, without reducing the original flame at all. Just like love, we can give love away every day we are alive and never will our capacity to love be diminished. And those other flames we light, can light other candles that can light other candles and soon the whole world is glowing with the light that started with just one flame. When we sit here, contemplating the love that we once had, we realize that the love we once shared still burns in our hearts and we can still share that love, share what we learned about life and meaning with others, who can share it with others, and so the flame of love will never really die.
  1. From the stump of an old tree, grows new shoots. We rebuild our lives on the meaning and messages that our parents, our spouse, our siblings, and yes, even our children leave behind for us after they are gone. If we look at the stump, if we look only at the burned out wick that remains, then we will never notice the golden flame that burns still in our hearts, and we will never notice the new green shoots that are growing from what we once had that now is gone. If we only consider what we have lost, we will always be lost. If we realize what we have because of the love we once shared, we will never find ourselves groping in the dark.
  1. “Hadesh Yemeinu Ke-kedem. Renew are days as of old.” No, this is not about going back to the good old days.  This is not about our vain attempts to make everything just the way it used to be. No matter how hard we try, what is in the past remains in the past. Our hope lies in carrying the memories, the lessons and the love into the future. We don’t pine away for a light that once shined and now is gone, we are supposed to work harder today to insure that we pass on the flame to the generations that will follow ours.
  1. God made our lives richer and more beautiful by allowing us to share our days with those who we remember today, those who were once an important part of our lives but who are now gone. We do not ask God to bring them back. We ask God to make sure that the love we once shared, in spite of the traumas, dislocations and crises in life, we ask God to make sure that we never lose the love we have, and that we never should miss an opportunity to pass it along.
  1. May the memories and tears that this Yizkor service will evoke, inspire us to create the memories and love in the hearts of others, so that the love we remember today will never die but will serve as an inspiration to all those looking for the kind of love we once knew and which still burns inside of us.
May this be the blessing that always gives us strength in our hours of sorrow as we say, Amen and Hag Sameach.
  1. Before we continue with Yizkor there is another tradition that we all must address. The tradition of remembering those we love with a pledge to make a contribution to our synagogue. For thousands of years, synagogues have relied on these contributions to pay for some of the most basic expenses that a shul must cover, electricity, water, repairs of the building and for the ritual items that we need to provide for the spiritual needs of our members. It is important that everyone consider what kind of a Yizkor pledge, what kind of a memorial contribution would be appropriate.
  1. I don’t want to drag out this appeal. There are many special ways to make a contribution in the name of our loved ones. If you have not dedicated a memorial plaque, this is a good time to make that kind of a contribution. If you would like to buy a leaf on our tree of life in the lobby, that too would be an appropriate way to honor those whom we remember this day. Our Siddurim are not even a year old, and dedicating a Siddur would be another way to remember with love, those who are no longer here. You have in your Yizkor books, a pledge card. If you can send a check after the holiday, you can use the envelope to return it by mail to the office. If you would prefer to send a check later, then return the pledge card so we will know your intentions when you send in your gift later.
  1. Help us meet our day-to-day expenses with your memorial gift. Every dollar helps us serve our membership better. I thank you for your generosity and for your participation in this appeal. May God bless you with wonderful memories and the ability to make a difference with a contribution in their name. Thank you and Hag Sameach.

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