And here we are again. We have made it through another year. We have had successes and failures. We have laughed and we have cried. And here we are, preparing to bid farewell to our beloved, complicated, tormented leader, Moses. Moses, who led the Israelite people through thick and thin, did not make it into the promised land. There are the various reasons given within the text. Some say it was when he struck the rock, instead of speaking to it, he embarrassed God. Some say he wasn’t let into the land of Israel b/c of his lack of faith in God. At this point however, it doesn’t really matter. Because that is not why we are here today.
Moses, is a figure in our Jewish community that we can literally say yizkor for each year, because his death, was in essence, today. Tonight we will close the Torah only to reopen it tomorrow, with the stirring words of bereshit. And so, we are forced to think about what did Moses leave us? What legacy can we get from him? And how do the other people in our personal lives, as well as the lives of our country and all humanity, leave an impact on this world.
And like Moses, just as when people that we love die we rarely focus on that which was difficult and that which was complicated. What we remember is that they lived and made an impact on our lives.
We are here today to remember those in our families and our friendships who have passed on.
Like I have done for the past several years, I would like to use this opportunity to reflect on other public and not so public figures that have passed on. I do this because yizkor is an opportunity to recall the actions and values of those who came before us, in order that we go out and do what we can, to live up to what they might have done.
On Yom Kippur I spoke about 4 people, including Elie Wiesel and Shimon Peres. Therefore, my omission of them in detail today is not out of disrespect to them but as a way of paying homage to others.
There are different ways to remember people and I could spend the time reading a list of names of quote un quote “famous” people that died in the past year. I could ask each of you to talk about those people that you are here to remember today. What I have decided to do is highlight a few people which for me, fit a theme this year. It is the theme of making us feel joyful. This is because so much of our world is dark, sad, and divided, so I decided today, on zman simchatenu, the holiday of our joy, to focus on those that made us happy.
So, who do we remember?
We remember Gene Wilder
Legendary actor Gene Wilder died on Aug. 29 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 83. Wilder is best known for his work with Mel Brooks, including The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. He also originated the role of Willy Wonka is 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factor. Gene was an actor that gave so much joy to people. Even his role in Willy Wonka was to demonstrate that true joy is found in gratitude of what we have not just happy because we have those things.
When we think of Gene Wilder as the frisco kid we feel pride that though it was a parody, we in America were able to celebrate that we could bring our Jewish tradition from the old country, to the wild west, make it our own, and make it last.
The second person is much more personal. Fyvish Finkel-from ages 9-94, Fyvush brought the world joy. From his acting, to his singing, to his performing, and in our case here at SPS, his davening. We were so lucky that Fyvish was a part of our community and it was clear that he brought so many people joy. I saw it at the funeral-his family, his friends, those who watched him, the community, and more.
But as we know, in Judaism, we can never be fully joyful. We need to recall that there is still brokenness, still loss in the world. And so just as we break a glass at the end of a wedding, we must today also consider the sadnesses that people confront. In this past weekend’s NY Times there was a terrible tragic article that offered a glimmer of home. Written by a dad, he reflected on the death of his 2 year old daughter and then subsequent birth of his son. He shared “My daughter, Greta, was 2 years old when she died — or rather, when she was killed. A piece of masonry fell eight stories from an improperly maintained building and struck her in the head while she sat on a bench on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her grandmother. No single agent set it on its path: It wasn’t knocked off scaffolding by the poorly placed heel of a construction worker, or fumbled from careless hands. Negligence, coupled with a series of bureaucratic failures, led it to simply sigh loose, a piece of impersonal calamity sent to rearrange the structure and meaning of our universe….Seven weeks ago, our second child was born; a son, Greta’s younger brother. They would have been exactly three and a half years apart. With his birth, I have become a father to a living child and a spirit — one child on this side of the curtain, and another whispering from beneath it. The confusion is constant, and in my moments of strength I succumb to it. I had a child die, and I chose to become a father again. There can be no greater definition of stupidity or bravery; insanity or clarity; hubris or grace.
This is what Shmini Atzeret and this holiday over all is about. The balancing of joy and fragility. Braving the unknown elements and still getting up each morning.
Jayson Greene, the author, concluded, I talk to him about his sister, whom I think he met before arriving. “Your daddy will always be sad your sister’s not here,” I tell him. “But you fill Daddy’s heart up with joy and he loves you more than everything.” I also want to say, but do not: I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I’ll never be the same father I was before. I’m sorry that you will live with me, to some degree, in grief.
But life is good: Greta loved it. She found every second of it delightful, and at its best when appreciated with others. I think of her hand touching my cheek and I muster up every drop of bravery I can: “It is a beautiful world,” I tell him, willing myself to believe it. We are here to share it.
And that is what today’s yizkor service is about. The fact that we commemorate yizkor on the day that we will say goodbye to Moses, reminds us that we need to find ways to tell Moses’ story, the story of those who came after him, and the stories of the lives of our loved ones. For some of you it is your parents, your spouses, your children, your friends. The yizkor service is about memory. As we begin our service how, let us understand what brings us joy? Is it a good song? A great book? Is it a deep conversation? Is it a walk in the woods? Understanding what brings joy will allow us to understand how we want to live our lives. And let us remember that if our joy is tempered, that is normal. The holiday of Shmini Atzeret is unique because it was God’s way of saying to the Israelite people-stay one extra day with me. Don’t leave the booths quite yet. You bring me joy even when I am sad, even when I am scared. When you leave here today, remember the joy that the people you loved brought you. And go out, and be grateful that you had those experiences.
May the memories of all of your loved ones be a blessing.