Kol Nidrei

In loving memory of Mrs. Bess Krivitisky, Pesha bas Harav Chaim Rafael, who passed away Shabbos January 2, 2016, at the age of 100, and to whom every word of this message applied.

This year, I officiated at funerals of three people who lived more than 100 years.  One died at 100, one at 103, and one at 104, and all of them were very much “with it” until the end.  There is a fourth I would like to add to this group, who was not quite 100 – he was a Holocaust survivor who died in his 90’s – and I did not quite make it to his funeral, but in every way he belongs in this group.

What was unique about these people was not only their advanced age, but that they had the most wonderful relationships.  I am referring to two sisters, Leah Zaid and Rose Cohen, and to two dear friends, Paul Sperling and Rabbi Yehuda Friedman.

Many of you knew all these people; many of you did not have the opportunity to know any of them; and some of you knew some of them.  So let me fill you in a bit.

Leah was born in 1910 and passed away at the age of 104. The night following her passing I went to see her younger sister Rose Cohen, a beloved long-time member and regular here at shul. I had never before been involved in the funeral of someone 104 years old. And – as I have told some of you before – I have rarely seen such genuine and heartfelt grief as I saw that evening from her 103 year old sister. Why?  What was it?

Mrs. Cohen told me their story. When they were very young in their native Lithuania, their father – like so many others – sought a better life for his family in America. In 1914 he travelled here hoping to establish himself quickly and bring over his family, rescuing them from the economic hardships and the persecution the Jews were facing in the area of Russia.  While he was away the First World War broke out, delaying the family reunion until 1922. But that is only part of the story.

In 1917, their mother contracted the flu and was taken to the hospital, where she died, leaving her three young children without a mother, and with a father across the ocean in wartime. When their mother was being taken to hospital, Rose told me, she called over her eldest child Leah – then all of six or seven years old – and told her, “Leah, please take care of your younger brother and sister until I return.”

As Rose told it, Leah took those words to heart and lived by them for the rest of her life.  She was a little girl, a regular older sister, but at that moment she grasped the awesome opportunity of building a fundamentally different relationship with her sister. And so she did, living without seemingly ever slipping into the mode of sibling rivalry and contention, but instead worrying and caring for her sister selflessly, as a mother would.  When it came time to marry, she had Rose go first so that Rose would not be left to care for their father.  When Rose was blessed with children and she was not, no sense of jealousy or bitterness was ever visible. Instead she loved those children as if they were her own, and they loved her right back.

Each of them – Rose and Leah – were very pleasant to be with.  Always pleasant, and always grateful.  And their relationship with each other was simply beautiful.

Mr. Sperling and Rabbi Friedman were not brothers, but they were.  They not only came from two different sets of parents; they came from two different worlds.  Mr. Sperling was American-born, raised in Washington DC, married for seventy years to another American, his wonderful and beloved wife Helen.  Rabbi Friedman was a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, who lived through the hell of the concentration camps, lost his first wife and a daughter, and then married another survivor, his beloved wife of more than fifty years, Chana.  Both Mr. Sperling and Rabbi Friedman were privileged to be great-great grandparents many times over.  And they had the most amazing friendship.

They lived together in Washington for decades.  Rabbi Friedman arrived there as a survivor-refugee, working first as an auto mechanic, then as the “Baal Koreh plus” in the shul in which Mr. Sperling davened.  They developed a warm friendship and a learning partnership – a Chavrusa – that lasted decades.  They both moved here, to the Imperial, within a short time of each other, to live closer to their children.  After davening together here in the morning, and after attending the Daf Yomi together, they would go home, each would do their own thing, and then rejoin later to learn the Ramban on the weekly Parsha.  They would sit together, weekday and Shabbos and Yamim Noraim, and almost all of us would spend some of our time here in shul watching them.  The way they davened, the way they interacted – they drew others to them in so many ways.

All four of these people – Mrs. Zaid and Mrs. Cohen, Mr. Sperling and Rabbi Friedman – lived long, very productive lives – and they all had the capacity for beautiful relationships; not only with each other, but with every person with whom they came in contact.  What was their secret?

They knew the secret of the Chafetz Chaim.

When I say “the Chafetz Chaim,” you think of a person, the saintly Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, who passed away in 1933, and who was the author of many important works, including the one that was his greatest pride, the Sefer Chafetz Chaim.

That work is on the laws of proper speech.  And it has that title because of a verse in Tehillim 34 – מי האיש החפץ חיים אוהב ימים לראות טוב נצור לשונך מרע ושפתיך מדבר מרמה, “Who desires life, loving each day to see good?  Then guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit….”  This verse describes the one who is careful in speech as one who desires life, implying that somehow careful speech is the key to life.  The Talmud and the Midrash in fact tell parallel stories of a sage who used to go into the market place and say מאן בעי חיי מאן בעי חיי, “Who desires life?  Who desires life?”  People would crowd around, expecting some miracle drug that nowadays would have its own paid-for radio show.  Instead he would read to them this verse, and tell them that this is the secret to life.

And so the Chafetz Chaim – Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan – when he wrote the book on proper speech he called it the Sefer Chafetz Chaim, and when that name became attached to him – he was pleased.  He was an incredible tzaddik, a person whose piety in interpersonal matters was unparalleled.

But his name – the one who desired life!  Isn’t that what we all are, standing here on Yom Kippur?  זכרינו לחיים מלך חפץ בחיים וכתבינו בספר החיים.  “Remember us for life O King Who desires life and inscribe us for life.”  It is pretty clear that we are חפץ חיים, that we desire life.  So what can we learn about the desire for life, about that advice on life, from the Chafetz Chaim’s life’s work?

And what can we learn about the love of life, and the successful pursuit of a long and full life, from Mrs. Cohen and Mrs. Zaid, from Mr. Sperling and from Rabbi Friedman?  To paraphrase the Talmud, במה האריכו ימים?  What might have given them their longevity?

I think we should go back to the first slanderer, the first בעל הלשון, and that is – according to our Sages – the snake of the Garden of Eden.  Because the snake came to Eve and tried to get her to defy G-d’s command not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, a tree that could have accurately been called the Tree of Death, as G-d had warned that eating from it would render them mortal.

But the snake did not represent G-d quite that way.  Instead the snake said to Eve, “Did G-d not tell you to refrain from eating from any of the trees of the garden?”  That would have been hard.  After all this was the Garden of Eden, Paradise.  The trees were attractive and delicious.  And G-d does not want you to enjoy them.  G-d is out to get you.

“No”, responded Chava, “He wants us to eat from those trees.  He wants us to enjoy the beautiful world he created for us, and told us to eat from those wonderful trees.  It is only this tree, the Tree of Death – that he warned us to avoid because he wants to protect us from harm.”

The snake did not accept this.  “No, you will not die if you eat from it.  Actually if you eat from it you will become even greater than you are now, and in fact you will become like G-d Himself.  G-d does not want you to have it because he wants to hold back from you that which is most precious.”  You see if the snake could not get Eve to see G-d as withholding from them everything, at least he could get her to see that he would withhold from them the really good stuff.

That was it, the first bit of Lashon Hara.  The snake slandered G-d.  The snake took a relationship of giving and goodness and twisted it in Chava’s mind, so that instead of seeing herself as blessed to live in Paradise, provided by G-d with everything wonderful, she would see herself as cursed for not having the one thing that was withheld from her.  And her loving Creator became instead – in her mind – the insecure villain.

That is the magic – the very BLACK magic – of Lashon Hara.  And that perspective saps from anyone the desire for life.  Because life is nourished by a sense of gratitude, of satisfaction, of feeling like you are in a good place, cared for, nurtured.  But when you see yourself as stuck and manipulated, limited and deprived at every turn, when the cup is always half empty because the host kept the other half for himself, well – then life is not sweet, and the host is nobody you want to be around.

Yes, on the day they ate from that tree they would die.  Not because its fruit was poison.  But because if they ate it, they were feeling cheated without it.  If they ate it, they felt that those closest to them were really out to get them.  And that kind of thinking does not spell life.

Who desires life?  One who does not speak bad about others.  How do you avoid that?  It’s so hard; EVERYBODY does it.  I will tell you the easiest way, and the most effective way.  Because indeed if you see bad in others it is hard not let your tongue loose.  But if you don’t even see the bad in others….

That was the secret of the Chafetz Chaim, of Mrs. Zaid and Mrs. Cohen, of Mr. Sperling and Rabbi Friedman.  Life to them was filled with gifts; and the people around them were just wonderful.  They knew the Mishnah that says קנה לך חבר והוי דן את האדם לכף זכות, to have a friend you need to give them the benefit of the doubt.  Don’t be so suspicious.  אוהב ימים לראות טוב.  You want life, see the good in life; see the good in people; that will keep you going.  Your kishkes won’t be eaten up by worry and insecurity, by a sense of being deprived and cheated.

And this attitude and love of life is not reserved for these four, or for those with great lives.  Many of you remember Guta Fieldman.  Guta was a refugee from the Holocaust, who left her family behind to be murdered by the Nazis when she moved from Lodz to Palestine.  She lost her first husband – a brilliant scholar – very suddenly to a heart attack, after 25 years of marriage.  Her second husband, Eugene, was stricken with Alzheimer’s.  She had no children; her closest living relative – thanks to the Holocaust – was a cousin of her late first husband.  And she was the happiest person around.  She would say, “How can I complain?  Look what I have!  I am alive; I have such friends; I have my faculties!”   אוהב ימים לראות טוב.  If you see the good, you do not need to hold your tongue.  “It’s all good,” as they say.

And that is perhaps why in our tradition guarding our tongue was not just about saying negative things about people, or slandering, but about speaking carefully and positively.  What our Sages called לשון נקיה, polished language.  Jews do not get “sick”; they are sometimes “not well”.  Because we want to look at the world as a good place; we want to desire life, אוהב ימים לראות טוב.

So these people,who saw it as all good, they indeed made lots of Shehecheyanu’s.  They deeply felt the privilege, the gift of life.  But what, you may wonder, does this have to do with Yom Kippur?

A short and simple answer would be to point to the many, many times we will ask forgiveness in the Viduy, in the confessions of Yom Kippur, for various forms of improper speech.  For that alone it would be worth discussing the Chafetz Chaim tonight.  But there is more.  And the best way I can think of to convey it is with one more story.  This one is not about a long life; it is about one cut tragically short.  And it reminds us that no attitude guarantees anything in this complex world of ours, certainly not long life.  But it is a profound lesson.

A long-time acquaintance of mine lost his wife – ר”ל – several years ago, at a young age.  She had battled cancer, and it came back at a certain point with a vengeance.  It came back in the summer, while the younger kids were at camp, and the parents made a decision not to share the development when it happened, to allow the kids to have a good summer.  They felt nothing would be gained by cancelling their plans and having them home to watch their mother suffer.

But when the kids came home they found their mother still very aware, very alive, but very, very sick.  And one of the kids, seeing her, broke down, and said “Mommy, why you?  Why does this have to happen to you?”  She held her child and she told her, “You know I have had the most wonderful life.  I was blessed with you and with your brothers and sisters.  I was blessed with wonderful parents, with Daddy, with good friends and many good times.  When all that happened, when I had all that, I never asked “Why me?  Why does all this good happen to me?”  If I did not ask it then, I will not ask it now.

Perhaps the most important line of Yom Kippur comes at the end of Viduy, when we say – ואתה צדיק על כל הבא עלינו, “G-d – You are righteous in all that has befallen us.”  For a change, instead of talking like a snake, instead of spending life feeling cheated and hurt, asking “Why me?” whenever something goes wrong, for a change on Yom Kippur we look at G-d and we say, “We are not perfect, far from it.”  We pound our chest to accent it; and we say, “You, G-d, have been so good to us.”  We look kindly at G-d.  We see the good in Him.  שהחיינו וקיימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה.  The cup is half full; and He filled it.

This is indeed the day לראות טוב, to see the good.  This is the day when G-d sees the good in us.  This is the day when we look at ourselves and see that we are not perfect, yet we know that we are good, and that allows us to look at those around us and say – hey, they are too.  I can cut them that same slack.

It is cleansing; it is revitalizing.  It is Yom Kippur.  It is time to see the good that surrounds us, the good in those around us, to feel the love of Hashem and the blessing of life.