Yom Kippur Yizkor
2011 – 5772
Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg
- Shabbat Shalom and Gemar Tov
- There was a Hasidic Rabbi who insisted that everything in the world had a lesson in it if we would only look closely and learn. His students were skeptical and put the Rabbi to the test: “What can we learn from the Telegraph?” they asked. The Rebbe replied, “Every word is counted and charged.” “What can we learn from a train?” asked the students? “One hot one can pull many cold ones.” was the Rebbe’s answer. “What can we learn from a telephone?” asked the students. “What is said here is heard there.” replied the Rebbe. The Rebbe thus taught his students not that the world is as important as Torah, but that Torah incorporates the whole world.
- This past year was the year that the terrorist Osama bin Laden finally met the justice he long deserved. He was killed in a United States commando operation, his body removed from his home, positively identified and then buried at sea lest later terrorists make his tomb a place of pilgrimage. The commandos who were chosen for this special raid in Pakistan were members of the elite Navy Seal Team Six. The commando team that trains to do operations that otherwise would be impossible. Not one of the team members was hurt or killed in the operation and they became instant heroes in our country, even though they are so undercover that we are not permitted even to know their names.
- Rabbi Wayne Allen, my colleague in Toronto recently sent out a sermon where he does something similar to the Hasidic Rabbi in my story. He found some important lessons in the soldiers of Seal Team Six. Just about the same time as the raid in Pakistan, a former member of Seal Team Six, a man who retired from the unit before they were sent to kill bin Laden, wrote a book about the team and how they train to become the elite of the elite among our commando forces. Howard Wasdin was interviewed by Time Magazine about his book and in the answers he gave inspired Rabbi Allen, and frankly they should inspire us all.
- The first thing Mr. Wasdin noted was that the Seals trained every day, carrying fifty pounds of equipment and firearms and told to run up and down stairs all day long, learning how to clear rooms of potential threats. They keep up this training day after day until they are summoned to go on a mission. Many people are surprised that what makes a commando better than any other soldier is that he trains daily over and over again. What makes Seal Team Six so special? It is not in the psychology of the men or in their hidden talents, but that they train relentlessly so that they are prepared for whatever may come. They don’t have super-human traits, they don’t have sharper reflexes or better skills than anyone else, they just never stop learning and practicing.
- What should we learn from this constant training? We should understand that the soldiers don’t consider this training boring, useless or monotonous. The members of the team understand that their training could be the difference between life and death as well as to the success or failure of their mission. By sharpening their skills, they know that they are ready for whatever they may encounter when called upon by their country. So Rabbi Allen notes that the first lesson we learn from Seal Team Six is that “Training, and practice and repetition do not make us bored they make us better.”
- There is a story of two men with little education and culture who decided to visit Paris and the Louvre museum to see what all the fuss was about the art there. As the docent took their tour through the artwork, they were not very impressed with what they saw. Every painting evoked a comment like “my grandchildren can paint better than this” or “I’ve seen better colors at the paint store” on and on they “critiqued” the paintings until finally the docent could take it no more. “Gentlemen, let me tell you that every painting in this museum has been examined and critiqued by some of the greatest artists and critics in the history of the world. Each painting has passed their test and been chosen as one of arts greatest treasures. They are not here for you to judge them. Instead, they are here to judge how cultured you are.”
- If you were to ask any of the thirty men and women who are the core of our “Minyanaires” why they come to minyan every day, day after day, in rain and heat and in spite of busy days, I think they would give you the same answer as the soldiers of Seal Team Six, the daily recitation of prayers, the study of Jewish texts and the practice of Jewish ritual every morning and every evening, does not make them bored, they will tell you that it makes them better. Their daily Jewish practice makes them better parents and grandparents. It makes them better Jews and human beings. It is not monotonous or repetitive; it is part of the essence of life and living. They don’t look at the siddur and say “What kind of a silly prayer is this” or “I can’t believe I am reading this stuff. They don’t say, “I read this Parsha already” or “What has this lesson to do with my life?” They know that the siddur has passed the test of time. That centuries of scholars found meaning and important lessons in each page of the Mishna and Midrash. They understand that each ritual is designed to help someone rise spiritually higher and higher. Prayer, Study and Ritual help us to see the world from God’s point of view. It is this kind of practice, if we make it a regular part of our life, that can help us deal with all the challenges that life throws at us. When we pray every day, when we learn Torah, when we take upon ourselves the regimen of the daily rituals that define a Jewish way of life, this is the kind of training that helps us to face tragedy and uncertainty, to confront our fears and to overcome disasters. It is the lifelong practice of Judaism that is always there for us to help us, throughout our life, move forward.
- The second thing we can learn from the Navy Seals is that their training is designed so that they can learn to react instantly and reflexively. The term that former Seal Wasdin used is “muscle memory” that if we practice some activity enough, our muscles will eventually respond with the speed of our reflexes. Wasdin noted in the interview that even ten years after he retired from the Navy Seals, his muscle memory was so good that at a shooting range he still could group all his shots within a quarters diameter of the bull’s-eye. Athletes also use this kind of muscle memory to improve their performance and reactions in their competitions.
- Clearly Judaism is not about “muscle” memory, but Rabbi Allen notes that our religion is instead about “goodness” memory – that is repeating acts of nobility, kindness and compassion so that they become second nature to us.” The Rabbis of the Talmud did not live in a fantasy world. They knew from personal experience that the world can be a hard place and that people will do what is in their own best interest and trample underfoot whoever might get in their way. If humanity was created with two inclinations, a good inclination and an evil inclination, a yetzer tov and a yetzer ra, the sages understood that the inclination to do evil, the yetzer ra was by far, the strongest of the two. If human beings were to want to be good, we would need to find a way to nurture and support our yetzer tov, our good inclination.
- That is the role of Torah, the role of Jewish law. When we know what God wants of us we can use that instruction, that call from God to be better, to overcome our evil nature. We want to take our better nature and we want to be able to activate it reflexively. We have to not only know that we are to treat our neighbor as we would treat ourselves, but we need to practice the acts of kindness called for until those actions become instinctive. We need to notice when a friend is missing from services, we need to immediately call them to find out if they are OK. We need to offer them what they might need in order to quickly come back and take their seat. They may need someone to take them to the doctor, someone to pick up something from the pharmacy, someone who can help them get to a beauty parlor or to the supermarket. Maybe they need a ride to shul or maybe they just need a friend to sit with them at the kiddush and listen to what went on in their world this week. I know that sometimes we all are there when we are needed but if we are to learn the lesson from Seal Team Six, we will need to respond with our own “goodness memory” acting instinctively and reflexively to provide for others all that they need.
- The third lesson from the Seals is the lesson of teamwork. There is no one person in the world that can do these missions by themselves. Each member of the team not only has his own role to play on a mission, but he must know many other roles he might have to perform should the mission have unexpected problems. The missions are too complex and demanding for one man alone. There was only one soldier who shot and killed Osama bin Laden, but it was the members of his team that made that shot possible. Judaism is all about the obligations we have to each other. The Talmud teaches, “All Jews are responsible for each other” and our entire faith is built around those responsibilities.
- At a recent program, my friend and colleague Rabbi Irwin Kula noted that the Kol Nidre service that we attended last night is a service to release us from our obligations. At Kol Nidre we solemnly release the entire congregation from the vows and promises that were made in the past year. Rabbis like to teach that this release is only for vows and promises made to God, and that the vows between us and our fellow human beings are not annulled on Kol Nidre. But Rabbi Kula took this lesson a bit further. He asked us to think about all our obligations and what it would mean to be released from them. What would it mean if Kol Nidre was saying to us “I release you from your obligations as a parent. I release you from your obligations as a spouse. I release you from your obligation as a brother or sister. I release you from your obligations as a friend. I release you from all your obligations from your organizations. I release you from all your obligations from life.
- How does it feel to be released from all our obligations, from all our vows and promises? Maybe for just a moment there is a feeling of release, but it doesn’t last long. The only people who have no obligations are the dead. We the living are defined by our obligations. So let us reaffirm our obligations, but let us reaffirm them one by one. Are there obligations that we gladly reaffirm? Are there some obligations we would prefer to leave behind? When we reaffirm an obligation we suddenly realize how important it is to us and we can no longer take it for granted. Do we take our obligations as a spouse, a parent, a friend or as a Jew seriously enough? What can we do in the new year to show how important these vows are in our lives? It is important to show how much we appreciate the vows we have taken.
- The final lesson from Seal Team Six is that without the ability to plan and anticipate we are all doomed. It is not enough to know where we are and what we can do. We have to be prepared for whatever might come. When the Seal Team attacked the compound in Abbottabad, one of the two helicopters had an engine failure and crash landed. The Navy Seals had anticipated all the things that could go wrong so they were able to complete the mission using just the second helicopter. How does the nursery rhyme go… for want of a nail the Kingdom was lost? Seal Team Six had a backup for every nail.
- Jewish wisdom literature tells us that wisdom is the ability to foresee the outcome of an event. The patriarch Jacob, on his deathbed tells his sons, “come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in the days to come” Rashi, the great Torah commentator notes that “He desired to reveal Israel’s future but the Divine Presence withdrew from him”, in other words, Jacob wanted to tell about the future but all he could speak about was the present. Judaism does not believe that the future can be seen by human beings; astrology, Tarot Cards, tea leaves and other ways to see into the future just don’t work. The reason they don’t work is because the future does not exist until we make the decisions that give it existence. The future is just the consequences of our present.
- There is a story about a man named Sam who was going to work one morning when he saw his neighbor dressed up and walking down the street. “Good morning, where are you going all dressed up today?” he asked. The neighbor looked at the man with a puzzled look, “ I am going to shul, it is Shavuot today, did you forget that today is a Jewish Holiday”. Sam was stunned. He HAD forgotten the holiday. If he would not have met his neighbor he would have gone to work and violated an important holiday, one that celebrates the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Sam was very upset. He went to daven in shul but his mind was elsewhere. He just could not believe that he could have forgotten a major Jewish holiday. When the holiday was over he went to see his Rabbi and told him what had happened and asked to be forgiven. The Rabbi looked at Sam and said, “You made an honest mistake and for that you don’t need to be forgiven. But I sense that there is more to this story than just being forgetful.” Sam sighed and said, “I just can’t believe that I could forget such an important thing. How could I be so distracted that I almost forgot a major Jewish Holiday?” The Rabbi put his hand on Sam’s shoulder, “When something is important to us, we always find a way to remember. If this is so important, than you will find a way to make sure you never miss a holiday again.” Sam realized the Rabbi was right and finally figured out a way to make sure he never missed a Jewish holiday again. He quit his job and took the position of gabbai at the synagogue. Working in the shul, he never again had to worry about forgetting Shavuot or any other holy day.
- Wisdom is not knowing the future, it is creating a future that we can be proud of. It means, like Jacob and his sons, knowing who we are and what are our strengths and weaknesses so we can prepare for whatever the future may hold. If we are forgetful, we can plan to have reminders of the things we wish to remember. If we are shy we can learn from others to be more outgoing. If we are afraid of public speaking we can join a club like Toastmasters to learn the art of making speeches. If we never had the chance to go to Religious School we can sign up for Adult Education. If we never learned to daven, we can find a teacher to train us. If we always wanted to read a haftarah, then there is always a way to acquire the skill. We can compensate for all our deficiencies if we take the time to plan for the future. If we can envision what can go wrong, we can also envision how to make it right.
- If we are serious about having a good new year, we could learn a lot from the lessons of the Navy’s Seal Team Six. Faithful practice of Judaism, with daily prayer, study and the practice of Jewish rituals. Reflexively acting for the good of the world. Seeing our obligations and vows as our commitment to the “team” of the Jewish people and looking ahead to make our faith stronger and safe. This works not just on a personal level, it will also work to make the Jewish People better as well. Just as the soldiers of Seal Team Six not only make up a successful anti-terrorist squadron, but they make our country stronger, so too if we do our part for our people and our faith, then Judaism will be the stronger for our efforts.
- Thirty-five years ago, in 1976 we took pride in Israeli Commandos who rescued 102 hostages at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. Then as now, the lessons of practice, sharp reflexes, teamwork and planning made that rescue mission one that is still remembered as the most effective counter-terrorism raid in modern history. Perhaps we also remember with pride and honor the commandos of the Palmach that made possible the modern state of Israel thirty years earlier. At the beginning of the twentieth century all Jews looked with pride to the early Zionists who were the first Jews to settle in what was then Palestine. In every generation the lessons of practice, trained reflexes, teamwork and looking to the future made modern Judaism possible. If we wish to secure the blessings of our faith to future generations, we need only follow the lessons of our ancestors, the lessons of the modern Seal Team Six. If we can make these lessons part of the core of our religious life, we will create a strong, vibrant faith to pass on to the generations yet to come.
May the lessons of faith, mitzvot, peoplehood and preparation serve us this year and every year as we say … Amen and Gemar Tov
- Jews do not set foot in the future without acknowledging the past. We cannot enter the new year without remembering the lives that have past, the lives of those we loved, the lives of our parents, loved ones, mentors and heroes who shaped our lives as much as we have shaped the lives of those who will follow us. On every major Jewish holiday, we cannot end our celebration until we have remembered the empty seats at our table, the empty chairs in our synagogue and empty places in our hearts.
- Before we turn our gaze to fully embrace 5772, let us take this time of Yizkor, this time of memory, to call to mind those who made our lives possible and our faith strong. Perhaps there are still lessons as we remember their lives that can help us as we enter a new year.
Please rise as we prepare for the prayers of Yizkor