Yom Kippur 5778 – Yizkor

Six weeks ago, I traveled to Atlanta to give a talk commemorating the yahrzeit of an old friend who passed away very suddenly, in his 50’s, a man named Moishe Esral.  What was most striking about the experience was the clarity I received from his still-grieving family, from the first call asking me to come, through every part of the event itself:  They were absolutely clear what the evening was going to be about, and it was the same thing it had been about each of the past few years when they had the sad opportunity to commemorate his Yahrzeit.  This was going to be an evening about Integrity.

Why?  Because their wonderful husband and father lived a life of integrity.  It was a value that he held dear in his personal life, in his business and community.  He stood for it and they knew that he stood for it, to the point that there was no question.  A night in his memory would be a night where he would continue to speak, to share the message that he shared in his life: Live a life of Integrity.

Today, we are not going to discuss integrity.  Instead, we are going to speak about how we can have that clarity, how we can craft the message that we will continue to communicate after 120 years, after we have left this world.

Two weeks ago, I was speaking to my mother on Erev Shabbos, and she shared with me a Chassidic thought on the Parsha.  וילך משה וידבר.  “And Moshe went and he spoke…”  Even when Moshe went, even when he left this world, he continued to speak to us, his message continued to resonate.  My mother was saying it about my father, that his messages, his words and what he lived for continue to speak to us even though he has gone.

On Rosh Hashanah, we spoke about how that day was the anniversary of our creation, of the day that G-d said “Let US make man”.  We learned then the words of the Zohar (I:13b), that “us” was an invitation to man – the man being created – to join in the act of creation.  G-d is telling us, “I will create the ingredients, the raw materials, but you must finish the job.  I will draw the basic portrait, but you must add the glow to the cheeks and the color to the eyes.”

Today we will add a piece to that.  Our Sages considered the ultimate element within man to be the power of speech, the רוח ממללא.  G-d gave us the power of speech in our lifetime.  When we follow the mandate of נעשה אדם, when we live our lives as we should and complete His creation, we grant ourselves the power of speech beyond our lifetime.  We continue to speak, our life’s message continues to be heard, long after we are gone. 

As you know, a little more than half a year ago my father הכ”מ passed away.  I was not shocked by my father’s passing.  My father was not in his 50’s; I was in my 50’s.  My father was 89.5 years old, a Holocaust survivor, and had been in very poor health for several years.  We were not foolish or naïve.  We knew the day would come, and sure enough it did.

I miss my father very much.  It is not an exaggeration to say that I shed a tear for him virtually every day.  We spoke on the phone every day, and I miss that.  I think of him and how he would react to this or that event or experience that he would have or that I would report to him.  I miss how his eyes would light up when we came to see him, and watching him sit and sing Zemiros or share Torah.

But I am not devastated.  In fact, every day I think about him, and I feel him and hear him.  He is still speaking to us, because he made so clear what he stood for.

As observant Jews, we went through an amazing process called Shiva.  During that week, we sat in mourning, on the ground with our shoes off, and we spent the week as Shiva is meant to be spent – invaluably – focusing on who our father really was, distilling the messages that he gave us in life, so that we would continue to hear them, and we could continue to share them.

Our first moments of Shiva gave us one of those messages.  Our uncle, my father’s younger brother, joined us at the Shiva house right after the funeral.  While his own poor health precluded him from spending the full week with us, he did want to at least start the Shiva with us, before continuing to his home in Bnei Brak for the rest.  We of course wanted to hear what he could share about our father and their early life together, and he told us things that we never knew.

He told us about how when they were in Mohilev, the area of the Ukraine (Transnistria) where my father and his family had been banished to during the Holocaust, my father – then a yeshiva bachur, a young religious student with glasses – was singled out to be tormented by the commandant of the labor camp.  He made my father haul logs that were bigger than he was.  When they were digging footings for a bridge, the hole became filled with water and they had to form a bucket brigade to empty the water and dump it elsewhere.  The officer had my father stand last in the line, and told the person before him to dump the water on my father.

All of us were shocked.  Our father had never told us anything about this.  Sure, he had told us about the years spent in Mohilev, but he described it as something like a ghetto.  The stories he shared were about his study sessions with Rav Yosef Shtern zt”l, where they would learn an extra page of Talmud to make up for the lack of food for supper.  He told us about the great rabbis who were his roommates in the cramped space they lived in, and about the excitement of the time the Rebbe of Seret appeared on a Motzei Shabbos while they were reciting Kiddush Levana for the month of Nissan.

Inspiring memories he shared.  The misery he hid.

This brought out to us one of our father’s messages, an idea reflected in the last line we inscribed on his Matzevah: א”ך טוב וחסד ירדפוני כל ימי חיי.  “Surely goodness and kindness shall pursue me all of the days of my life.”  My father at his own 80th birthday explained that he chose this verse (Tehillim 23) as his mantra in life, because he was born on א”ך אלול, the 21st (=כ”א) of Elul.  He was very positive, seeing all the good he had in his life.

Yes, the good.  This man who lost his mother at ten years old; who was exiled with his family to a miserable labor camp at 14; who survived the Holocaust but then had to leave his father and siblings to avoid being drafted by the Romanian army at 19; who came to a new country and a new language, essentially walked himself down to the Chuppah, and worked hard until he found a proper career position.  He felt that only goodness and kindness pursued him all of the days of his life, until he left this world on א”ך אדר.

That was one of his enduring messages.  Be positive, happy, and see the good in life.

The Netziv (Devarim 25:9) offers a fascinating explanation of the unusual ritual of Chalitzah, the removal of the shoe of the surviving brother who refuses to perform the Mitzvah of Yibum, to marry his deceased brother’s childless widow.  He explains that the shoe represents the physical body of the person, as we find that Hashem instructs Moshe to remove his shoes – to step out of his physical existence – when encountering G-d at the burning bush.  The Mitzvah that this man was presented with was the opportunity to step out of himself and to do something to perpetuate the life of his deceased brother.  By marrying his deceased brother’s wife – not as his own but for the sake of his brother – he would be carrying forward the spirit and life of his brother, continuing his presence in the world.

We do the same thing when we mourn.  We take off our shoes.  Evidently, this is the time for us to step out of ourselves and to realize that it is now our task to consciously do that which we have been unconsciously doing every day of our lives:  Continue to share the message of our parents.   We step out of our own selves to be them, to be their continuity.

There is a fascinating Halachic irony.  As we all know, the mourner returns from the funeral to eat a hard-boiled egg.  One of the basic reasons for this is the symbolism in that the oval egg has no opening or “mouth”; so too a mourner is silent, closed-mouthed.  Yet, the Halacha states that when visiting a mourner, the visitor should be silent until the mourner speaks first.  But isn’t the mourner supposed to be closed-mouthed?  Why should it fall to him to be the conversation-starter?

Perhaps what this custom tells us is the following:  We spend all our life talking, using that power of speech that G-d gave us.  But now that our parent is gone, we have to stop talking.  No, not stop for the week or even for the day, but for long enough that when we start speaking again it will be with the realization that from here and on these are not my words.  I stepped out of my shoes, I stepped out of myself, and I stepped out of my voice.  I am now speaking דבריו של מת, I am carrying forth the power of speech of my parent, who will live on through my words.  שפתותיו דובבות בקבר.

Perhaps this is part of the idea of the mourner saying Kaddish and leading the Davening.  The essential nature of these obligations is that they are Devarim SheBikdusha, matters that are specifically said in community, where the mourner’s job is to lead and to bring out the responses of others.  The mourner does this because it is his duty to realize that his voice is a voice that was brought out by another.  The community is responding to his call to bless G-d; he is responding to his parent’s call to bless G-d.  We are continuing each other’s voices.

The Talmud (TB Taanis 11a) teaches that after a person is gone from this world, the walls of his house tell the story of his life, כי אבן מקיר תזעק.  As we go about life, we come to realize that we grant everything around us the power of speech, we make everything around us reflect our values and our message, tell our story.

Sitting Shiva brings that home as well:  The enduring messages of our loved one are embedded in their environment.

Our father’s house was filled with Sefarim, Torah texts.  He had Sefarim everywhere, with bent corners and pen marks and with notes stuffed in them.  To him, learning was the Shira, the song of Torah.  He did not study Torah just because it was an obligation; it was his love.  He studied it all the time.  He studied it as a child in Chasidic yeshivos in Europe, as a teenager in the labor camp, as a rabbi in adulthood, and as a retiree in Yerushalayim.  And he especially sought out and found the inspiration that would come from the words of the Torah.

This enduring message of his is reflected in the verse my mother תלחט”א had inscribed as the first line on our father’s Matzevah: מה אהבתי תורתך כל היום היא שיחתי.  “How I love your Torah; I discuss it all day.”

Koheles (7:2) taught that is good to go to a house of mourning, as the living take what they see there to heart.  The living come there and they see the walls of the house, the environment the person created, and they hear hopefully good things, the discussion of what about this person – the deceased – is going to live on.  And they take this to heart.  “What will be said about me?  Have I crafted the message – am I living the message – that will continue to speak for me long after I am gone?”

Rav Elchonon Wasserman HYD wrote many Sefarim, and all of them were called קובץ, “a collection of”:  Collections of שיעורים, lectures; of הערות, notes; of מאמרים, essays.  I read once – I do not recall where – that he did this because he felt that what he was writing was not his own but the collected insights of those who had taught and guided him.

I feel the same way.  I am not a clone of my father.  We are very different in many ways.  But the more time goes by, especially through Shiva and during this past six months, the more I realize that the things that I say and teach are really the collected values and insights, the strength and passion that I was privileged to receive from him.  It is not my voice, it is his.

I once asked one of my mentors, Rav Moshe Shapira z”l  – who also passed away this year and who my father admired very much and learnt from – if he would give a shiur to a group I had brought for a visit in Eretz Yisrael.  He demurred and encouraged me to focus on traveling the land, saying, אין תורה כתורת ארץ ישראל.  While the conventional understanding of that statement is that no Torah compares to that learned in Israel, he explained it as celebrating the Torah we learn from the land itself, from the connections and memories it makes for us, from how the land speaks to us.

I shared this thought with my father.  It spoke to him.

My father’s greatest thrill for the last 24 years of his life was living in Yerushalayim.  As a friend from Baltimore who came to the Shiva correctly pointed out, whenever my father visited here he spoke about Eretz Yisrael, as if he was the ambassador.

Is there any place where even the stones speak to us like they do in Eretz Yisrael?  My father heard them speaking to him.

I wonder if that is why Moshe was condemned to remain outside of Eretz Yisrael because he hit the rock and did not speak to it.  Indeed, the very nature of the land of Israel is that the stones speak to us. This is the land of ונתתי נגע צרעת בבית ארץ אחוזתכם, where the stones that make up the homes, or the threads of the fabric, turn colors to send us messages.  As Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook z”l said about the stones of the Kotel, יש לבבות ויש לבבות, יש לבות אדם ויש לבות אבנים, ויש אבנחם ויש אבנים, יש אבני דומה ויש אבנים – לבבות, “There are hearts of stone but there are also stones with heart and vitality.”  Moshe could not enter Eretz Yisrael if he could not hear or speak to the stones.

We are in the moments before Yizkor when many of you have your thoughts appropriately turned to your own fathers and mothers, and I was hesitant to crowd your important thoughts with memories of my father.  But I chose to do so, and I hope it is okay.  I felt that this is the best story I can tell you, the best example and illustration of what we are discussing now – of crafting a message that will continue when we are gone.

All of us need to find that eternal voice within ourselves.  And all of us who will proceed to say Yizkor must remind ourselves of how we will continue the voice, the eternal voice, the lasting messages of those who brought us into this world.  We should find that voice and those messages, and we should carry them forward, loud and clear.

And that is the task we all have today, on Yom Kippur.  This is the day that we stand and pray to be granted another year of life.  But we must not only seek a year; not even 120 years.  We must go for the gold.  We take off our shoes, we step out of our physical, temporal selves, and we say to ourselves: What can we do to make ourselves eternal?  What can we do so that we will speak forever?

That is what each of has to do.  Step out of our shoes and into eternity.