Rosh Hashana Second Day Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg 5772 – 2011

  1. L’shana Tova

  1. Earlier this month, National Public Radio had a report by Alix Spiegel called, “For the Dying, A Chance to Rewrite Life.” It was a long report but here are some of the things it said “For several decades, psychiatrists who work with the dying have been trying to come up with new psychotherapies that can help people cope with the reality of their death. One of these therapies asks the dying to tell the story of their life. This end-of-life treatment (is) called dignity therapy … (the) need people have to assert themselves in the face of death. … The patients would be asked a series of questions about their life history, and the parts they remember most or think are most important. Their answers would be transcribed and presented to them for editing until, after going back and forth with the therapist, a polished document resulted that could be passed on to the people that they loved.” The report went on to say that those family members who read these documents, often carried them around wherever they would go as a way of holding on to a parent or loved one who had died.

  1. The therapists who designed these dignity documents were trying to give their dying patients a chance to asses their lives and make clear the lessons they had learned and the path they recommended to those of the next generation. In this sense, these dignity documents are just an updated version of a very ancient Jewish practice called, Ethical Wills. A regular will disposes of the property of the deceased. An ethical will dispenses advice and lessons to those who are important in our lives. Both ethical wills and dignity documents, are one way we can speak from beyond the grave to those who wish to have one more moment with someone they love. I know one man who claimed that he had written emails to his children that were scheduled to be sent out 20 to 30 years after he had died in order to drive his children and grandchildren crazy. I don’t know about email but I suspect that there are many people who would love to get one more letter, one more phone call from their parent who died long ago. An ethical will is one way we can continually reach out to our children from beyond the grave. Every time the children read it, they will discover new insights for the changing times in their lives.

  1. Here, at the beginning of the new year, we have to ask ourselves, why do we need to wait until we are near death to reach out and teach our children? Why don’t we use the time that we have to speak of important topics and give much needed advice? I know that sometimes, unless we are asked, our children don’t really want our advice, but I am not talking about advice over a given problem they may encounter in life. What about the real lessons from our life that we would want to share with our family? Why do we wait so long to share those stories with our children?

  1. One of the problems with sharing life lessons with our children is where are we supposed to go to have this kind of a conversation? Should we have it while we sit with them at the pool or on the beach? Is the mall the right place to have these important conversations? When the family sits down for a holiday or family party, is this the time to have a meaningful discussion? One of my favorite stories from the comedian Myron Cohen is when he confronted his father, an avowed atheist, as to why his father went to shul every Shabbat. The father replied “There are lots of reasons people go to synagogue. My friend Garfinkle goes to synagogue to speak to God. I go to synagogue to speak to Garfinkle.

  1. The famous Rabbi Harold Kushner commented on this story noting that the synagogue is one of the few places we can go to where we can have important conversations. Just being in shul, with others who are worshiping changes the very nature of the conversations we are having and it raises them to a higher plane. Myron Cohen’s father understood that only in shul could he have the special kinds of discussions he craved from his friend.

  1. In a recent discussion at the American Jewish University, Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Temple Valley Beth Shalom in Los Angeles asked where we are supposed to go in this day and age, to participate in conversations that really matter? He is not talking about getting the latest gossip or the hot investment tips of the day, nor does he want to know where on TV or radio he can find a pundit who will tell him what he should think. He wanted to know where we should go to discuss Israel in a serious manner, to talk about politics, the war between the sexes, the status of Judaism in America, the kinds of discussions that can affect the way we view the world and the way we look at ourselves. Where do we go to have these kinds of meaningful discussions?

  1. Rabbi Feinstein noted that when he was a child, there was only one place he could go to have these important discussions. That was at his parents’ Shabbat table. Around that table, he said, we could talk about anything and everything. We could find out what our parents thought about the issues of the day and they challenged us to articulate our own position and to defend it to my family. Did anyone here have a similar experience? I know that when my children were very little they could not wait to get away from our Shabbat table and the boring adult conversations there. But as they grew, slowly they stayed longer and longer, eventually offering up their own ideas and opinions. When we are together for Shabbat and Holidays, we still use that time for deeply meaningful conversations.

  1. I should mention here that these discussions were just that, discussions. I did not use the time to indoctrinate my children to my point of view. I really wanted to know what they saw in the world and what they thought of it. They respected my positions and I respected theirs. They gave me some room to explain from my long experiences, and I gave them my attention and my appreciation for their candor and their thinking. We sometimes argued a point or two, but mostly we explained our position and tried to understand each other.

  1. Best selling author Wendy Mogel, who was also a participant in the AJU roundtable, noted that we live today in a world that is very impatient. We do not like to wait for anything. We want instant access to our computers, to our contact list on our smart phone, to music from our ipod and to books on our Kindle. People today expect instant gratification. But Judaism is not about instant anything. Judaism teaches us that for the things that really count, we will have to learn to wait.

  1. We are the students of a lifetime of learning. Some of that learning we did in school, some we learned from our parents and mentors and some we learned in the College of Hard Knocks. There is a lot of information we have to share with those who might really appreciate the knowledge we have to give. But if we don’t find the place to have the conversation, there is a real possibility that we may never have the chance to communicate with those we love the lessons from and of our lives. On Yom Kippur we implore God “Al tashlichaynu l’ayt Zichnanu – Don’t cast us away in our old age” We still have much to teach, so don’t let us go too soon. It is not enough to share the photographs of our life, we need to let our children and grandchildren know that our memories and experiences are very relevant to their own lives.

  1. We read today the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. This is a story that we can discuss at lunch today as we gather with our family. Can we put ourselves in the shoes of Abraham? He is setting out to do the unthinkable, to sacrifice his son, his only child, to God. What was he thinking? How do you think Abraham would describe what he had done to his family before he died? According to the Torah, after this event on Mt. Moriah, he would never talk to Sarah, his wife, again because she will die before he returns. He will never talk to Isaac again; the Torah does not recall any further conversations between father and son. And the Torah also fails to record any more contact between Abraham and God. It is as if God and Abraham’s family never want to talk again to the man who almost sacrificed his beloved son.

  1. What do you think Abraham would say to his family in his dignity document? What would he record in his ethical will about the lessons he learned from this pivotal moment in his life? Would he claim that he was loyal to God to the very end, following exactly what God wanted from him? Or, would Abraham say that in his blindness of faith in God, that his piety almost destroyed his family and that he failed God’s test? Then again, maybe Abraham might claim that while God was testing him, he was testing God, that if God would require such a sacrifice, then that call would be the rift that would end Abraham’s connection to the Divine. It is even possible that Abraham was the paradigm for religious fanatics, he had such a strong faith in God that even if he martyred his son, God would return his son to life.

  1. Which explanation do you think, is the true motivation for Abraham? The answer to that question is not found in the Torah, it depends on the kind of person who is reading and interpreting the story. When we read this story, it is our own personal character that we imprint into the life of our Patriarch. WE are Abraham. So the real question we have to answer is, “Why did WE do it? Why did we go out to sacrifice our beloved child?

  1. And let us not be so quick to say that we would NEVER do such a thing to our children. If we look at the facts of our lives, we don’t always see the pretty picture we all too often paint of ourselves. We have some very difficult questions we need to answer in our own lives before we can point a finger at Abraham. The first question is: Did we sacrifice our children for our work? Did we miss out on all the important moments in their lives because we were busy earning a living and climbing the social ladder? Did we miss out on the important moments when they needed our guidance and support? The second question: Did we sacrifice our children to our need to succeed? It was not enough that we were successful in our lives, we needed our children to match our success with successes of their own. Today we have “Tiger Moms” who know best what their kids need and force their children to give up what they want so that Mom will be proud. Did we let our children go their own way in life or did we decide for them how their lives would unfold? The third question: Did we sacrifice our children to our own need to be loved? Did we convince them that nobody would ever love them like we do? Did we teach them that they had a loyalty to the family, to their parents that came before anything else in their lives? Did we show them that we would NEVER let them go and that they were destined to sacrifice their lives for us? Finally there is the question: Did I sacrifice them to others who paid more attention to them than I did? While I was looking after my own life, were they being raised by the parents of friends, or the other kids in the street or maybe they were raised by television. Have we forfeited our standards and gave them only the lessons of the media: movies, gossip and sports? Modern culture demands that if we don’t give proper values to our children, the values of Media culture will fill their lives. Are these the values that we want them to pass on to our grandchildren?

  1. Now we understand that if we are to put ourselves in Abraham’s shoes, we need to understand Abraham’s character. And if his character is a projection of our character, we have some important questions that need to be asked even before we are ready to pass our values down to the next generation and to the one beyond that. This time of year calls us to do a Heshbone HaNefesh, a full examination of our soul. Only if we fully understand who we are, what we stand for and what gives our lives meaning can we hope to transfer those values into the lives of those we love.

  1. What do we really want for our children? We want them to be happy. We can only teach them about happiness if we ourselves are happy with our lives. The therapists understood that, at the end of life, documenting all the happy times and important events puts all of life into perspective. It is a lesson that not only do our children need to hear, it is a lesson that they want to hear. But to find out what makes us happy, and to teach happiness to others, we will find that we need to redefine all of the things we think will make us happy

  1. The Sages of the Talmud noted two thousand years ago that the things we think will make us happy will only do so if we radically redefine what they stand for. Ben Zoma redefined the meaning of wealth, strength, wisdom and honor. We think that these four things will make us happy. That having money, athletic ability, wisdom and honor are the marks of accomplishment in this world. But they only will make us happy if we can learn to see them in a different light, A Jewish light that is quite different from the way they are defined in popular culture.

  1. Wealth will not make us happy until we realize that we are rich only when we are happy with what we already have. Mitch Albom, the best selling author in his book, “Have a Little Faith” writes, “Wanting what you can’t have, looking for self worth in a mirror, layering work on top of work and still wondering why you weren’t satisfied – before working some more (are problems not solved by taking pills). I knew. I had done all that. There was a stretch where I could not have worked more hours in the day without eliminating sleep altogether. I piled on accomplishments. I made money. I earned accolades. And the longer I went at it, the emptier I began to feel, like pumping air faster and faster into a torn tire. … I didn’t turn things over to fate or faith. I recoiled from people who put their daily affairs in divine hands. … Such surrender seemed silly to me. I felt that I knew better. But privately, I couldn’t say I felt any happier than they did. So I noted how, for all the milligrams of medication he required, (my Rabbi) never popped a pill for his peace of mind. He loved to smile, he avoided anger. … He knew why he was here; He said: to give to others, to celebrate God, and to enjoy and honor the world he was put in. His morning prayers began with ‘Thank you Lord for returning my soul to me.’ When you start that way, the rest of the day is a bonus.”

  1. Wisdom is not about knowing, it is about learning. Rabbi Neil Kurshan in his book “Raising Your Child To Be A Mensch” writes, “A friend who grew up in Boston received daily Bible lessons from his grandmother who lived with the family. A self-educated, deeply religious woman, she found teaching her grandson was an uphill struggle. He was frequently distracted by the other children playing outside, and his eyes and mind would drift out the window. She would chide him gently, ‘David, David, you will have so much time to play ball during your life, but will you find time to become a mentch?’” What good is knowledge if we think we know it all?

  1. What is honor? Rabbi Feinstein tells a story about honor. The Rabbi went to Victoria, British Columbia and visited the famous Butchart Gardens. They are extraordinary gardens that reflect beautifully every season of the year. Robert Butchart made his fortune in cement. He became a leading figure in Victoria and ran for public office. He died in 1943 and there are very few people who remember him just two generations later. His wife, Jennie, set out to reclaim the old limestone quarry and created there beautiful sunken gardens. Section by section the gardens were developed and today, while her husband’s accomplishments are forgotten, her gardens are known around the world and visitors come to see what she created. The garden is an everlasting testament to her memory. Honor is not what you get, it is what you give.

  1. Real strength is not what you move around on the outside, but what you are able to control on the inside. Remember when your children were very small, and you had to go and tuck them in at night? Sometimes, when you thought they were asleep, you walked out of the room and they would yell to bring you back inside, “There is an alligator under my bed!” And if you were a good parent, you went back into the room, looked under the bed and said, “there is no alligator here, tomorrow is another day, you need your sleep, good night” But now, just ask yourself, who was right? Was there an alligator under the bed? Is the world filled with random violence and disease, does the darkness of night contain unseen dangers? Who was right, your child or you, who left the room claiming that there will always be a tomorrow? The child may be right, the world is a very dangerous place, but we teach them to control their fears by giving them the faith in tomorrow.

  1. And I think that is where I want to leave you, all of you who are my children. I know that tomorrow is not guaranteed to anyone. Maybe it is already written who will live and who will die. But I want us to go forward into the new year with the faith that there will always be a tomorrow. I don’t want anyone to think that they have only a little time to work on their dignity document or their ethical will. You have all the time in the world. What I ask everyone to do, starting tomorrow, is to examine your own life, the story that someday your family will cherish, and if you don’t like the story so far, there is still time to create a better ending. We need to examine our lives, not to find the things we need to repent, but to find the lessons we have learned and the moments that give our life meaning. What matters most is not the mistakes; we all make mistakes, but the lessons learned and the meaning we give to all we have accomplished. Life is not about races won, books published or money made; it is about happiness and love. Don’t spend any time worrying about the time you have lost, pay attention to the moments you have today. If you start every day with the prayer, “Modeh Ani Lefanecha She-hechezarta bi Nishmati – Thank you God for returning my soul to me” if you start out there, no matter the weather, the trial or the tribulations, if you start out grateful to God for your soul, then all the accomplishments of the rest of the day will be for you, a very treasured bonus.

  1. L’shana Tova tikatevu – may all of us be inscribed for good and for life in the new year.
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