Rosh Hashanah is the new year (Rosh Hashanah translates as “Head of the Year”) in the Hebrew Calendar. Its origin is traced back to the Bible, where it’s called Yom Teruah, The Day of Blasting [of the shofar]. Rosh Hashanah, like all Jewish holidays, starts in the evening. It lasts two full days, and thus ends a bit more than 48 hours later. Rosh Hashanah is a holiday that, with a couple differences, has the same requirements and prohibitions in observance as Shabbat does.
Practically and spiritually, Rosh Hashanah (as well as the month leading up to it and ten days following) provides an opportunity for us to reflect on the past year and look forward to a better upcoming year, guided by changes in our behaviour. To learn more about Rosh Hashanah, please click here.
Rosh Hashanah at Beth Israel is a very special time. We have evening services at 6:00pm (as we do throughout the year), guided by the beautiful tunes and a story/derash by one of our rabbis. Morning services on the first and second days of Rosh Hashanah start at 9:00am, and include beautiful singing by our High Holy Day Cantor, Ba’alat Tefillah, and choir, shofar blowing, and programs and services for all ages of children and teens.
Did you miss the Rabbi’s 2018/5779 Rosh Hashanah Sermon? Please Read Below:
Rosh Hashanah Day – Happiness: A Noble and Important Goal
Shana Tovah. A cat died and went to heaven. God met her at the gates and said, “You have been a good cat. Anything you want is yours.” The cat thought for a minute and said, “All my life I slept on hard wooden floors. I would like a real fluffy pillow to sleep on.” God said, “Say no more.” Instantly the cat had a huge fluffy pillow. A few days later, six mice were killed in an accident and went to heaven. God met them at the gates with the same offer that He made to the cat. The mice said, “We have had to run all of our lives: from cats, dogs, and even people with brooms! If we could just have some little roller skates, we would not have to run again.” God answered, “It is done.” All the mice had beautiful little roller skates. About a week later, God decided to check on the cat. He found her sound asleep. God gently awakened the cat and asked, “Is everything okay? Are you happy?” The cat replied, “Oh, yes. I have never been so happy. The pillow is so fluffy, and those little ‘Meals on Wheels’ you have been sending over are delicious!” On a more serious note; Just a couple months ago the world was completely focused on the rescue and survival of the young Thai soccer team trapped many kilometers inside a cave. Once they were freed, the Thai Health Secretary reported, “Everyone is happy to be out.” Survival in the face of certain or likely death is one of the greatest source of happiness. In order to be complete human beings we need to find, reflect on and pursue our true source of happiness. We must ask: Does happiness just arrive to us on a set of wheels? Do we have to work for our happiness? Can we achieve happiness without hurting others? Sigmund Freud taught:
The goal towards which the pleasure principle impels us of becoming happy is not attainable; yet we may not, cannot give up the effort to come nearer to realization of it…. Very different paths may be taken toward it: some pursue the positive aspect of the aim, attainment of pleasure; others the negative, avoidance of pain. By none of these ways can we achieve all that we desire…There is no sovereign recipe in this matter that suits all.
We know that we must seek happiness as part of the human condition. But we must ensure that we are doing so in a controlled and moral way. Emanuel Kant taught, “To secure one’s own happiness is a duty. He then asks, “But what sort of [duty] can that be, the conception of which must determine the will, even without paying any regard to the effect expected from it?” Kant answers “I am never to act other than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” It is natural for us to continue to pursue happiness even as an asymptotic dream. But it must not be mutually exclusive of or tread on other people’s happiness.
There is a concept of collective happiness determined by our home country. According to the 2018 World Happiness Report the following countries are among the happiest.
- United States
All the top countries tend to have high values for all six of the key variables that have been found to support well-being: income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust and generosity. There are many other factors that affect our happiness and our ability to pursue it that go well beyond where we live. Our happiness can be affected by external factors. But much of it quite frankly is personal. Much of our happiness depends on us. There is a lot in Jewish tradition to help us find happiness in life.
In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses said that during holidays, “You shall rejoice before the LORD your God with your son and daughter .. the Levite in your communities, stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst…”
The 11th century rabbi Rashi explained that this includes all of the people who are part of the house and life of the individual. If you gladden the individual, then they will be gladdened and visa-versa. The Italian medieval rabbi Sforno explained that their rejoicing will take the form of collecting the portions of the harvest set aside for them by the Torah, i.e. the פאה, corner of the field; the gleanings, and what the farmer had overlooked. We rejoice when others think about our needs. We are also happy when we take care of people in need. And we are happiest when we allow ourselves to be happy.
In the early third century we learned in Mishna Pirkei Avot that Ben Zoma Omer, said, “Eze Hu Ashir? Hasamech Be Helchko.” This is usually translated as Who is wealthy? The one who is happy with his lot.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks translates it as, “Who is Rich? One who rejoices in what he has.” Such a person is always pleased with life but can continue to seek more. Rabbi Marc Angel comments that:
Ben Zoma teaches the need to view reality with our eyes closed, contemplating ultimate truth rather than focusing on shallow appearances. With our eyes open, we may think of a wise person as one who has attained great knowledge. But with our eyes closed, we realize that wisdom is measured by quality not quantity…. With our eyes open a rich person is one with many possessions. With our eyes closed, we understand that real wealth is embodied in an attitude of satisfaction and gratitude for what one has.
When Rick Hansen spoke at Beth Israel a number of years ago he explained that he would not be Rick Hansen if he had not thrown out of the back of a pickup truck by a drunk driver and thus paralyzed for life. Hansen was truly Sameach B’Chelcko.
Ancient rabbis in the Talmud teach us about the importance of happiness, and how to achieve it. In Talmud Pesachim we learn:
Rabbi Yehuda says: One should enable each member of his household to rejoice with an item that pleases them…Rabbi Yehuda elaborates: Men … with wine. And as for the women, with what should one cause them to rejoice? Rav Yosef teaches: .. with new clothes, in Babylonia with coloured clothes and in the land of Israel with the pressed linen clothes …
The rabbis acknowledge that part of our joy is physical. In the Shulchan Aruch it even teaches us that we are to have sex on Shabbat for the measure of Oneg, the pleasure or happiness that comes from it. The late Malcolm Forbes once said he who dies with the most toys wins. Material wealth can help in life. We are so lucky for what we have. Money can help buy happiness not only in terms of shopping therapy, but also in terms of alleviating the pains of poverty that diminish one’s happiness. It is easier to be happy when you are not hungry all day or living with chronic mouth pain that could have been helped by a trip the dentist that costs real money. But money is not the only thing. We always need more. Once we use shopping as therapy for our problems we need more and more of it to fix our emotional self. Material goods are not all that a person needs. Many people who die with lots of toys are not that happy. This is why the Torah teaches us that humans cannot live by bread alone.
Talmud Megilla states that in the “Book of Esther we learn that the Jews enjoyed light, gladness, and happiness.” Rav Yehuda expounded “Light refers to Torah… Gladness refers to the festivals…Happiness refers to Brit Mila…” Brit Mila is certainly a happy occasion for the family, but maybe not the boy. According to Jewish tradition, happiness is not limited to just holidays. It can be found in Torah study and in other special life celebrations.
Life cannot just be about finding happiness for us. We need more. In the 11th century the Rambam explained in the Mishna Torah:
When a person eats and drinks [in celebration of a holiday], the person is obligated to feed the… destitute and poor. In contrast, a person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is [not indulging in] rejoicing associated with a mitzvah, but rather the rejoicing of his gut.
While it is okay for us to rejoice and be happy on holidays and the Sabbath, we cannot be truly happy while others suffer. Only part of our joy comes in helping others celebrate. The modern Jewish thinker Viktor Frankl, who survived concentration camps wrote, “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning…” True happiness is found in meaning. We need to know that we are contributing members of society. We need to feel our value to be happy. Family, friends, work and God give us meaning. Helping others gives meaning. That in turn gives us happiness.
Rav Nachman of Bratzlav, a great chasidic rebbe, stated, “The main thing is that one must struggle with all of one’s strength to be joyous always. It is the nature of people to be drawn into sadness, because of the things that happen; every person is filled with sorrows.” According to Rabbi Arthur Green, Rav Nachman was prone to depression, often directly related to the fear of not being close enough to God. We all seek happiness in this world through God and spiritual attainments. But the irony is that for some of us not achieving the happiness that we seek becomes an impediment to our own joy. We all struggle with challenges and depression at times. For some of us it is a very serious illness. According to the chasidic masters we must do all that we can to continue to find joy in this world. But we must not worry about it.
The great Musar, ethical teacher, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv wrote in a letter to his son “a person can enjoy the light of the sun and can enjoy this great luminary anywhere in the world, …So now it’s not strange for those who understand that the essence of joy for a person is life itself.” Joy and happiness should be found in the very idea that we are alive today. I have to admit that I often marvel at the fact that I am in this world. I am able to breathe and enjoy all of life’s great blessings. Even the simplest aspects of life are amazing.
A story is told of the Kotzker chassid who was on his deathbed with family all around him. In a weak voice, he asks his wife to bring him some wine. She is puzzled but brings him wine upon which he says the blessing and shouts “l’chaim.” The family is shocked. The man replies: “I lived my life, doing my best to fulfill God’s will. I did it with a joyous heart. My death too is part of God’s plan. Why should I not celebrate it?” This is the attitude of the person who led a happy life. In Pirkei Avot Rabbi Tarfon said, “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to stand aside from it.” Rabbi Marc Angel explained, “One might mean to live a good life but can become despondent when recognizing the impossibility of accomplishing all of one’s goals.…”
To be successful human beings we live life for ourselves and live life for others. At the end of life, when others give our eulogy they are the key points by which a person is remembered. We must continue to seek happiness throughout life. We must find meaning. While it is impossible to find that perfect spot that will work forever, we must enjoy the happiness when we find it and continue the search as long as possible. Shana Tova.
Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement in the Hebrew Calendar. In the month ofElul, leading up to Rosh Hashanah, and especially in the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we have been reflecting on our actions during the past year, and on Yom Kippur we put our apologies into a culminating day of prayer.
Yom Kippur is well-known as a full day fast(from sunset one evening to dark on the next day), and also includes other things such as refraining from wearing leather shoes. To learn more about Yom Kippur, please click here. Yom Kippur at Beth Israel is quite special as well. We start with the Kol Nidre service a bit before sunset. It is powerfully led by our High Holy Day Cantor and choir, and the rest of the service includes Selichot and Vidui, which contain some of the most well-known prayers of Yom Kippur. Our morning services start at 9:30am and last until early afternoon, including Musaf with the Avodah and Martyrology. There is a short break, during which many congregants stay for a teaching/discussion, led by one of our rabbis. Our Mincha (afternoon) service is followed N’ilah, the concluding service of Yom Kippur. We finish with Havdalah and a final blast of the shofar.
Did you miss the Rabbi’s 2018/5779 Kol Nidre Sermon? Please read below:
Kol Nidre 5779 – Kvetching
Gmar Chatima Tovah. A monk joined a monastery and took a vow of silence. After the first 10 years his superior called him in and asked, “Do you have anything to say?” The monk replied, “Food bad.” After another 10 years the monk had an opportunity to voice his thoughts again. He said, “Bed hard.” Another 10 years went by and again he was called in before his superior. When asked if he had anything to say, he responded, “I quit.” “It doesn’t surprise me a bit said the superior. You’ve done nothing but complain ever since you arrived.” As a synagogue rabbi I am used to complaints. The one class I failed to take in rabbinical school but should have was HVAC system management. No one ever says, “Rabbi I want you to know that the temperature is perfect.” Half the people think it is too cold and half think that it is too hot. Just months after graduating from Rabbinical school in 2002 I organized the one-year anniversary interfaith memorial for Marlboro, NJ’s 14 residents who were killed on 9/11. We had 1000+ people attend this moving and important ceremony. Knowing that there would be so many people, the synagogue maintenance staff turned the air conditioner on high. A few minutes before I began the service a woman I did not know came up to me and bitterly complained, “It is so cold in here. If you do not do something about it I am leaving.” That was my official welcome to the rabbinate.
In my last sermon on Rosh Hashanah I discussed happiness. Today I would like to address the exact opposite, Kvetching. We need to complain sometimes. But in order to be happy we need to limit our complaints and make sure that they are appropriate and productive. Just as happiness relates to our concern for ourselves and others, the same is true about complaining.
There are times when one should complain. Sometimes we should complain for personal needs such as to minimize our suffering. Suffering is not a Jewish virtue. We do not seek to suffer to purify or improve ourselves. We can also complain to minimize substantial personal loss. Or we can complain to help our relationships. This is a form of direct complaining. It is known as tochacha, which means rebuke. It is a mitzvah to rebuke others when needed. In Leviticus we learn that “you shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your fellow, but you shall not bear a sin on his account.” Rashi explains that when the Torah tells us not to sin on someone else’s account it means that we should not rebuke others in public. We need to complain in a compassionate way so that the rebuke is effective and holy. Through proper tochacha we are able to help ensure that we will continue to like the other person.
There are also times in which we need to complain on behalf of others. The prophets in the Jewish Bible are complainers. The late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote “To the prophet, no subject is as worthy of consideration as the plight of humanity. Indeed, God is described as reflecting over the plight of humanity …In the prophet’s message nothing that has bearing upon good and evil is small or trite in the eyes of God.” We may not ignore other’s pain or needs. Elie Wiesel addressed this in a speech at the White House saying, “indifference can be … seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid…rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes…Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred…” When we see suffering we must not be indifferent. We must complain on behalf of others. We know what happened when no one complained on our behalf. When people were complacent we were slaughtered in the greatest genocide known to the world.
When others are suffering there can be no waiting to complain. Savlanut means patience in Hebrew. It comes from Lisbol, to suffer. From a Hebrew perspective patience is the degree to which one can bear the suffering. We need savlanut, to be able to bear suffering in this world. But there are times in which we can have no more savlanut and need to complain to hasten the speed at which we and others receive needed help.
Kvetch is the best-known Jewish word for complaint. It comes from Yiddish, and has made it in to the English lexicon as well. According to the book The Joy of Yiddish kvetch comes from German qutschen which means to squeeze or press. It explains that a kvetch is a person who complains, frets, or gripes and magnifies minor aches. A chronic complainer is one who diminishes the pleasures of others, and others don’t invite to a party. From the Yiddish we know that someone who kvetches bothers us in annoying but not overly harmful way. The kvetch tends to push people away socially because of their pinching ways. The late Stephen Hawking once said “People won’t have time for you if you are always angry or complaining.”
The Torah has significant amounts of complaining with terrible consequences. It is a salient theme of the Torah. The Israelites complain often. First they complain about their conditions in Egypt as slaves. That is reasonable. We are told that the reason that God is moved to help the Israelites in Egypt is because he hears their cries. It states in the book of Exodus:
וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־נַאֲקָתָ֑ם וַיִּזְכֹּ֤ר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־בְּרִית֔וֹ אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֖ם אֶת־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽת־יַעֲקֹֽב׃ “God heard their cries, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” God responded to the Israelites’ legitimate complaints. The Israelites needed to complain at that moment to lead God to respond and take care of the situation. One would imagine that after the Israelites had been freed the complaints would have stopped. But that was not the case.
The Israelites complained no less than ten times in the desert. For example, after the Israelites were freed from Egypt, Pharaoh sent his army after them. They were cornered with the Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds on one side and the Egyptian army on the other side. The Israelites did not have enough faith in God despite what they just saw and experienced. They complain to Moses: ‘Were there no graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What is this that you have done to us to take us out of Egypt?’” Then God told Moses to lift his staff and stretch out his arm over the sea and split it. The Israelites were saved again.
The Israelites complained again and again in the desert that they did not have enough water or food. This was despite a well of water that traveled with them as along as Miriam was alive, according to the Midrash, and the fact that they were provided with manna which was the great biblical tofu type of food. But this was no ordinary tofu. Manna fell from the sky and was there for the Israelites to harvest every morning except Shabbat.
At one point the Israelites complained in the book of Numbers, ‘Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge; the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. But now, our life is parched, there is nothing; we have nothing to anticipate but the manna!’” The Israelites seem to have forgotten very quickly what it was like to be slaves. They have forgotten to be grateful for the food that literally just falls into their laps. They complain and complain. For their complaints they are severely punished. They are stricken with the plague, die by choking on heaps of meat and are forced to wander for many decades. Because of their complaints they prove that they are not yet ready to enter the land of Israel. There are no good outcomes in the Torah from the Israelites’ complaints. Even when they get their way because of their complaining, their dessert is served with a dose punishing medicine.
The Talmud teaches that when Rav Dimi came from Eretz Israel to Babylonia, he said, “In the West, Eretz Yisrael, they say an adage: If a word is worth one sela, silence is worth two.” This certainly can be said about someone who wants to complain. Compliments are rare enough to be expensive. Complaints are common enough to be cheap. Complaining is often bound up with anger. In fact, complaining does not usually abate anger. It often exacerbates it. It adds fuel to the fire. Reish Lakish said in the Talmud: “Any person who becomes angry, if he is a Torah scholar, his wisdom departs from him, and if he is a prophet, his prophecy departs from him” The act of complaining can make us so upset that we become like a different person. In Talmud Berachot it teaches that:
One is obligated to recite a blessing for the bad that befalls him just as he recites a blessing for the good that befalls him, as it is stated in the Torah: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” The Mishna explains this verse as follows: “With all your heart” means with your two inclinations, with your good inclination and your evil inclination…, “And with all your might” means with all your money. We need to recognize that life will not always go as we want. Just as many of us are willing to spend more money on kosher food in comparison to non-kosher food we should be we willing to do the same when it comes to a kosher lifestyle. Are we willing to lose a little money so not to complain?
In modern Hebrew there is a word for the person who gives in and gets a raw deal. The person is called a frayer which means sucker. It is not clear if it came into Hebrew from German by way of Yiddish or to Hebrew from Russian. But what is clear is that no Israeli wants to be a frayer. It is a grave sin in modern Israeli culture. Maybe it’s a mistake. Maybe sometimes it is not only easier to be the frayer, but even healthier, mentally and physically.
We need to be careful about complaining for many reasons. Complaining is often a privilege. We do not know how good we have it. Moshe Chayim Luzzato wrote:
The rich may easily become poor; If one can so easily be reduced to a condition which he finds so shameful today, how can he feel pride in his own condition, with which he cannot be secure? How many different kinds of sickness is a person prone to, which could make it necessary for him to beg others for assistance? …This should serve to remove a man’s pride from his heart and to clothe him in humility…
As our pride diminishes so do our expectations. As our expectations diminish so does our propensity for complaining. The more entitled we feel, the more we complained about small things. We may complain about something one day and then the next day our situation has become far worse than it was the day before. The situation that we were complaining about yesterday becomes our new dream for today. There is a cost ratio benefit of complaining. Complaining usually does not make us happier. The outcome of the complaint often puts everyone in a bad mood, even the complainer. It is worth it for some things. I would rather complain than lose a few thousand dollars because the bank made a mistake. By the way, it did happen to me recently. I have to admit it ruined my weekend because I felt bad about complaining. Even in the case of thousands of dollars I have to ask whether it was really worth it. My father of blessed memory never complained about his massive losses from the Holocaust. He lost his childhood, most of his family, and his family’s substantial wealth. But my father understood that mulling over the losses, holding on to discontent and expressing it regularly would only make the losses worse. The late Andy Rooney said it best when he stated. “I’ve learned…. That when you harbour bitterness, happiness will dock elsewhere.” People often wrong us. We can keep the anger in our hearts about that and complain bitterly. But it does not help.
Moses comes down from the mountain and has 10 commandments. Everyone complains, “What, just ten?” So Moses adds another 603. And now it is too many. Now I cannot eat brisket and cheesecake together or even shrimp at all. We need to be careful about complaining. It can always bring on something worse. Complaining can help us and others at times. But we need to be very mindful of the complaining that we do and limit it to a minimum.
G’mar Chatima Tova.
Did you miss the Rabbi’s 2018/5779 Yom Kippur Sermon? Please read below:
Yom Kippur 5779 – Yizkor Sermon – Appreciating Our Inheritance
Gmar Chatima Tovah. Brian walked into work and saw his coworker looking particularly sour. “Hey what’s wrong buddy?” His friend looked up with a forlorn expression on his face. “You remember last month how my Grandmother’s sister passed on and left me $2,000?” “Yes,” said Brian nodding his head. “And you remember how the month before that her brother passed on and left me $5000? “Uh huh” said Brian again. “Well this month is almost over,” said the coworker with a wave of his hand “and………………NOTHING!”
Last night I spoke about complaining. Sometimes we complain for appropriate reasons. Other times not. This joke is not about an appropriate complaint. But inheritance is a fact of life. We do not want to leave this world. We do not want our loved ones to leave this world. But death is inevitable. Even for those of us who think that we are masters over every aspect of our life, death is one thing that we cannot control. But we have some control over our inheritance. Therefore, some of us think a lot about our estates. We want to ensure that the inheritance we leave is more than just money. We want it to create a legacy. On May 26th the New York Times reported:
… a recent $6.24 million donation to the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side… It was not donated by some billionaire benefactor, but by a frugal legal secretary from Brooklyn who toiled for the same law firm for 67 years until she retired at age of 96 and died not long afterward. Her name was Sylvia Bloom and even her closest friends and relatives had no idea she had amassed a fortune over the decades. She did this by shrewdly observing the investments made by the lawyers she served… [The money will] endow the settlement’s Expanded Horizons College Success Program, which helps disadvantaged students prepare for and complete college.
Inheritance comes in many different forms. In the case of Sylvia Bloom, the inheritance was financial. Her family and a well deserving organization received the money. Her decisions reflected Mrs. Bloom’s values. And that of course is the major form of inheritance that we have received and can leave to the next generation. Inheritance does not only come in the form of money and material goods. It also comes in the form of values. Just as it is important for us to appreciate the inheritance that we receive today we need to actively think about the inheritance that we are going to leave to our children and future generations.
Winston Churchill once said, “A nation that forgets its past has no future.” This is also true for an individual. But the opposite is true as well. By receiving our inheritance and remembering our past we guarantee our future. Our families worked hard to pass on the financial inheritance that we may have received. There is good reason to be grateful for that. But most important is that we all need to think about the values that we have received. Our family members served as examples of how we should act today. We need to not only be grateful but help ensure that that inheritance is realized and manifest in our own acts.
We also receive the chochma, the wisdom learned through experience. Rabbi Maurice Lamm attached the translation of his late grandfather Rabbi Yehoshua Baumol’s Ethical Will to his book The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning. This was written in the hospital as he was dying at the age of 68. Rabbi Lamm explained that the entire will had been penned on the back of blank cheques which I assume was the only paper he had around. But it was profound. Lamm said of his grandfather. “He wrote on checks that contained no dollar amount but were intended to have an immortal message on the back endorsed by every generation to follow. The symbol is too compelling for me to avoid interpreting it. He left us a heritage, not an inheritance.“ At the end Rabbi Baumol wrote, “A person’s soul may be purified by the performance of mitzvot and good deeds out of full love and desire …The main thing is to be good to all and compassionate to all; at the least, to be able to tolerate their pain and to rejoice in their welfare and tranquility.” Rabbi Baumol left great insight and wisdom of a well learned and experienced person.
Jewish texts and traditions have dealt with inheritance since the very beginning of our religious intellectual existence. Almost the entire book of Devarim, Deuteronomy, is Moses’ valedictory before he is about to die. It is a book of history, review of law, and encouragement. Moses knows that he will not be with the Israelites when they set out to do something far more challenging than wandering in the midbar, the desert of Sinai. Moses uses the book of Devarim as his living will. He tries to ensure that the Israelites will act in the way he taught them. Moses wanted the Israelites to take with them all that was important to him. They had very little in terms of material wealth except for the gifts that the Egyptians bestowed upon them as they escaped Egypt. But the inheritance that the Israelites took into the land of Israel as Moses departed from them was far greater. It is was the crown jewel of Torah and all of the spiritual and moral riches that come with it. That is the greatest inheritance of all.
The rabbis are extremely concerned that we leave a proper inheritance to our children. There are many teachings in the Talmud about this, that not only includes values, but memories and even emotions as well. In Talmud Bava Batra, Rabbi Yehoshua teaches that “A person may plaster his house, but he must leave a small amount without plaster to remember the destruction of the Temple.” We pass on feelings for thousands of years. Both positive and negative memories are included in our inheritance.
In Talmud Sanhedrin Rabbi Akiva met Rabbi Eliezer’s casket as it was being carried from Caesarea to Lod…. “Rabbi Aviva began his eulogy as the sages were gathered around Rabbi Eliezer’s remains, crying out loud, Father, Father, Israel’s chariot and Horseman…I have a large number of coins, but no banker will change them.” Rashi explained that this means that Rabbi Akiva had many halachik, Jewish legal questions to ask, but no one to answer them. When we die we want the initial reaction to be that no one can fill our shoes. But we also want to leave a world in which others can go on. We want disciples who can carry on and teach our values. Akiva went on to be one of the greatest rabbis ever. We read before about Rabbi Akiva’s death in the Martyrology service. The truth is that no actual details are known about his death. Thus, we have created stories about Akiva’s death. We also do not know exactly how many students Akiva had; Some say 12,000 and others say 24,000. Professor Barry Holtz explains:
We are compelled to grant ancient text… an exemption for what we might call hyperbolic license. So in the case of Akiva, the number of students should not be taken literally but as a way to express in figurative language his enormous influence… The number 12,000 or 24,000 is meant not only to say a large number, but to connote something else, namely fullness and completion. The twelve months of the Jewish calendar, the twelve sons of Jacob, and the twelve tribes of Israel are all signs of wholeness associated with this number.
Rabbi Akiva started to learn Torah at the age of 40. This teaches that it is possible to leave a tremendous inheritance and wholeness even if we start late in life, just like Rabbi Akiva.
We need to think about what we are giving to our children and future generations. There is an expectation of payment in return for our inherence. The expectation is twofold for us as Jews. Firstly, we are expected to say Kaddish for a loved one who has passed. There is also an expectation for us to leave a moral inheritance to future generations. When we leave this inheritance, we should expect the same from our own children.
Many of us think a lot about the material that we are going to leave our children. We think about how to build our RRSPs and TFSAs so that we will not only have enough to retire on but so that we can leave enough to the next generations. Many of us have financial consultants called wealth managers. But do we think about the other forms of inheritance enough? How often do we visit our spiritual advisor to work on that aspect of our inheritance?
I once stepped inside an expensive silver shop in Israel. I saw a large train made from pure silver. Each part of the train formed a different Judaica item. The train sold for tens of thousands of dollars. The store owner said he had recently sold the train to someone who wanted to leave it to his child as part of his inheritance. The buyer explained that the silver train would best reflect what was most important to him instead of cash.
The late Jewish philosopher Martin Buber once wrote that “We know nothing about death, beyond the one fact that we shall die – but what is that to die? We do not know.We must therefore assume that death constitutes the final list of what we are able to imagine…Instead of imagining ourselves to be alive yet dead, we will prepare ourselves for a true death.”
If we assume that Buber was correct, there is only one thing that we can do in the world to prepare for our passing. We need to think about and prepare for our inheritance. What were we left? What will we leave? As we anticipate our own passing we must be aware of the fact that we should ensure that our own children receive that which is most important to us. The late poet laureate of Israel, Yehuda Amichai wrote the following poem, My Parents’ Lodging Place.
- I passed the cemetery where my parents are buried —
in a poem Ibn Ezra called it “my parents’ lodging place.”
I didn’t go in, just passed by on the road outside the wall.
I wave to my parents whenever I pass, my soul shaped like a hand.
My soul changes shape: sometimes my eyes, my eyelids,
sometimes even my eyelashes — all these are my soul.
Peace to my parents, peace to their dust,
peace to their lodging place in Jerusalem.
- In their great love my parents saved me from disappointment,
from pain and sorrow. Now I am left with their savings
plus the pain I would like to spare my children.
How all those savings have piled up on me!
My parents always told me, “I’ll show you,”
sometimes threatening, sometimes in a voice of sweet love:
I’ll show you. Just you wait, I’ll show you.
“Someday you’ll learn,” sternly. “Someday you’ll learn,”
in a soothing, reassuring voice.
“Do whatever you want,” yelling and screaming,
and “Do what you want, you’re a free person,”
like the good angels singing in chorus.
You don’t know what you want,
you don’t know what you want.
- My mother was a prophet and didn’t know it.
Not like Miriam the prophets dancing with cymbals and tambourines,
not like Deborah who sat under the palm tree and judged the people,
not like Hulda who foretold the future,
but my own private prophet, silent and stubborn.
I am obliged to fulfill everything she said
and I’m running out of lifetime.
My mother was a prophet when she taught me
the do’s and don’ts of everyday, paper verses
for one-time use: You’ll be sorry,
you’ll get exhausted, that will do you good, you’ll feel
like a new person, you’ll really love it, you
won’t be able, you won’t like that, you’ll never manage
to close it, I knew you wouldn’t remember, wouldn’t
forget give take rest, yes you can.
And when my mother died, all her little predictions came together
in one big prophecy that will last until the vision of the end of days.
- My father was God and didn’t know it. He gave me
the Ten Commandments not in thunder and not in anger,
not in fire and not in a cloud, but gently
and with love. He added caresses and tender words,
“would you” and “please.” And chanted “remember” and “keep”
with the same tune, and pleaded and wept quietly
between one commandment and the next: Thou shalt not
take the name of thy Lord in vain, shalt not take, not in vain,
please don’t bear false witness against your neighbor.
And he hugged me tight and whispered in my ear,
Thou shalt not steal, shalt not commit adultery, shalt not kill.
And he lay the palms of his wide-open hands on my head
with the Yom Kippur blessing: Honor, love, that thy days
may be long upon this earth. And the voice of my father —
white as his hair. Then he turned his face to me one last time,
as on the day he died in my arms, and said, I would like to add
two more commandments: the Eleventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not change,”
and the Twelfth Commandment, “Thou shalt change. You will
change.” Thus spoke my father, and he turned and walked away
and disappeared into his strange distances.
As we are about to say the Yizkor service we must remember the gifts that our love ones left and think seriously about the gifts that we will leave to the next generations.
G’mar Chatima Tovah.