Rabbi Ain Sermon Yom Kippur Yizkor 2020

Who sits beside us this year? A tribute to My grandmother, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, Rabbi Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and all of those we remember

Yom Kippur Yizkor Sermon, September 28, 2020

Click here for a PDF of the sermon text.

Don’t go to bed angry

Use Vicks VapoRub to solve any medical ailment

Watch How You Go

These are three of the many pearls of wisdom that my grandmother, Sybil Haberman would offer to me in our decades together, before her passing last November. Mama, as I called her, was a strong, fierce woman, who lived and died on her own terms, and who was a constant presence in my life, even though I lived in NY for more than half my life, while she lived in the suburbs of Washington DC. 

Over the past 6 ½ months, I have thought a lot about her-thinking about what it would be like for her if she hadn’t died last November, thinking about how afraid she would be for all of us right now-her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and quite frankly her utter confusion as to how America, the greatest country in the world, got where we are. You see my mama, was a deeply proud American. She appreciated the history and the values of this country, and she wouldn’t understand why things are so divisive right now. And honestly, I also thought about her a lot in preparations for these holidays. I kept saying that I didn’t want each of you watching a service that felt like C-Span-a deeply distant cold version of these services. Why did I think about her with that? Because C-Span was mama’s favorite channel during her final years. 

I miss my grandmother a lot. I miss that my kids can’t measure their growth by how much taller they are than their Gigi and I miss that my greatest fan, my mama, isn’t here. 

Now, i will say, she wouldn’t want to be here right now. I truly believe that she lived and died on her terms and she wouldn’t want to be living in a world where she would have to be isolated, a world where she would be scared, a world where she couldn’t see family.

And yet, she would say to me “Rachel, the holidays are coming, are you ready? I am sure you will be great. They will love you.” When talking to my grandmother, i could do no wrong.

But we know that for many conversations between the generations, people actually don’t know how to talk to one another. 

We are seeing that today, and it is so sad.

We have boomers berating millennials and millenials referring to Gen Xers as “karens” and no one talking to each other in a way that will make any kind of positive change.

But i don’t want to reflect on the challenges in our world, i did that last night. Today, in preparation for yizkor, i want to reflect on the power of what we can learn when we evoke the wisdom and memories throughout the generations and throughout our lives. 

And so I began to recall a famous teaching by Rabbi Yehuda Ben Teima from Pirke Avot: Pirke Avot 5:24 – Judah ben Teima used to say: At five years old a person should study the Scriptures, at ten years for the Mishnah, at thirteen for the commandments, at fifteen for the Talmud, at eighteen for the bridechamber, at twenty for one’s life pursuit, at thirty for authority, at forty for discernment, at fifty for counsel, at sixty to be an elder, at seventy for gray hairs, at eighty for special strength (Psalm 90:10), at ninety for decrepitude, and at a hundred a man is as one who has already died and has ceased from the affairs of this world.

Now, we might agree or disagree with the specifics here, but what I take from this is that at each age we learn different things and we have different expertise to share. 

Unfortunately, we often forget that we can learn from people younger or older, depending on perspective. Young people feel it is only older people who get recognition and older people often feel that they have been passed over to focus on the next up and coming thing. 

In fact Pirke Avot teaches: You should be affable with your juniors, compliant with seniors, and greet every person with a cheerful face.

What Judaism reminds us is that we can learn from people at all ages as we can value that at any given moment they have had an experience that we can gain wisdom from.

In thinking about this, I began to reflect on what my grandma saw in her lifetime-almost 98 years. She saw a depression, a world war, wars without end, she saw growth, she saw opportunity, she saw and felt love, she witnessnessed heartache and she witnessed love. She mourned the loss of her Irving, and she celebrated the birth of all of her great grandchildren. She did that as a proud Jew a proud American, a proud member of our family. Saying goodbye to her was closing the chapter, in many ways, on so much of the 20th century-it became part of history not current events. So it wasn’t that she didn’t have anything to teach me once she got older, the opposite. Learning from her was a gift. 

And over the past year, I didnt just say goodby to her. In fact, I have had the privilege of being with many of you as we buried your loved ones-both in person and then virtually. One person’s funeral that I officiated at was that of Jeanette Landis, Sara Angrist’s 100 ½ year old grandma. We recalled that she had a FIOS powered rotary phone installed in her house. WOW. This is what it means to live over a century. She saw growth and expansion and I am sure she saw challenges as well in this country. 

So the question is, how do we learn from people after they are gone? How do we hold people up? 

It starts with our liturgy. Three times daily we recite the amidah where we recall God’s power by blessing God for being able to revive the dead. Does this mean that there is bodily resurrection? Maybe. I don’t know. But what I do know, what I do believe, is that the resurrection of the dead happens when we recall the vision and the values of those who have passed on. When we are able to evoke their experiences and expertise to provide wisdom to our own lives, even if they aren’t physically next to us.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote, “When I sit down to study, I immediately find myself in the company of the scholars of tradition. The relationship between us is personal. The Rambam is at my right. Rabbenu Tam to my left. Rashi sits at the head and explains. They are all in my small room, sitting around my table. They look at me with fondness, playful with me regarding the logic and the text, encouraging and strengthening me like a father. The study of Torah is not simply a didactic act; involvement in the words of Torah is not simply a technical formal matter concretized via the creation and exchange of ideas. It is a powerful experience involving the closeness of many generations, the joining of spirit to spirit and the connection of soul to soul. Those who transmit torah and those who receive it meet one another at the same historic juncture. 

When I first encountered this quote, I began to think, if I were to have the opportunity to sit at the table with the masters of Jewish tradition, who would I invite and how would I invite them? Would I want Abraham Joshua Heschel? Moses? Rashi’s Daughters? Masters from the Talmud? What would we possibly talk about? How would I, with my limited knowledge have the fluency to ask the questions appropriate to the masters of our tradition? I would want to have the tradition at my fingertips but I am not even sure what to say. 

As I think about this dining room table, I realize that I want to access the traditions, the customs, the laws, and the lore that will help fuel my Jewish spirit and my soul. 

But yizkor gives a chance to cross space and time-to link generations-to think about what the conversations we should have not just about our Jewish lives, but our lives overall.

SO, let us think about, who would we want sitting next to us as we go through these difficult days?

For some of you it could be your parents or your siblings. People with whom you grew up but who have since passed on. Maybe you feel their presence when you wear a certain outfit, when you cook a certain dish.

For others, it may be your children that you are remembering. You have experienced something that is unthinkable and yet you have put one foot in front of the other. You have kept them by your side as you have continued to walk the path of life.

It might be a spouse, it might be a friend, it might be a teacher.

And of course, it might be someone that caused you pain but you still think about. You have anxiety over that relationship but you think about them and you try to find something good. And if not, you can learn what not to do but thinking about them. Give yourself permission to feel that as well.

Over the past year our world has lost many giants. People, who through their life’s work and dedication made all of our lives better.

People that i know we will be sitting with as we think about the year ahead.

There are two people in particular that I would like to recall this morning as I think about our upcoming themes of SPS this year as we focus on being citizens of the synagogue and citizens of the world. A year where we will focus our connections to Israel, a year we will focus on justice, and a year we will focus on re-engaging with Judaism. 

The first, is  Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. A man of greatness. A man who expanded torah learning for so many. An orthodox rabbi who translated the talmud from aramaic into hebrew making it even more accessible to people. A Rabbi, who created the Global Day of Jewish Learning an online platform for learning and in-person study which created a deeper connection to Torah. 

There are three messages of Steinsaltz that I would like to share, which i think are helpful during these tumultuous times.

The first is that: “If anything is clear, it is that a rigid, unchanging way is wrong.” 

Second, that  “The concept of time in the Jewish way of thinking is not one of linear flow. Time is a process, in which past, present, and future are bound to each other, not only by cause and effect but also as a harmonization of two motions: progress forward and a countermotion backward, encircling and returning.”

And so crucial for today: “Righteousness and evil are not character traits determined in advance or by heredity, but lie rather in the hand of each one of us.”

How true is this. ON a day where we are asking for forgiveness and examining our ways, we realize that we can’t blame our behaviours on those who came before us or get special privileges because of them. Rather, we need to take what we know, take what we have learned, and make the world better.

Which of course brings me to a 2nd giant that died this year. A true Judge. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I had the honor of meeting the justice a year ago with a small group of rabbis from the NY board of rabbis. 

Let me paint the picture of that meeting. There were about 30 of us, together. She walked in. Small in stature but a giant in wisdom.

She shared with us that Zedek zedek tirdof hung in  her office, reminding us that the Law exists to serve all of the people

She said that she had a Silver mezuzah on her doorpost from girls from Shulamith school for girls in Brooklyn

And that she once wrote the following:

I am a judge, born and raised and proud of being a Jew-the demand for peace runs through Jewish history and tradition. In all her years she wants the strength and courage to remain steadfast in service of that demand.

When asked, regarding her relationship with Scalia-how can two people who were so different so close? She answered that 

She entered through a glass ceiling to help him out of dark room..”why do you want to help him, he is your enemy: he isn’t my enemy…we are different, we are one. Different in approach but one in reverence for the constitution and for the institution that they both serve.”

She felt deeply that, like Torah, the constitution as a living document? Who would want to be governed by a dead document!

So today, i want to recall some of her messages, her pieces of wisdom that can guide us during 2020

1. “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”

7. “I’m a very strong believer in listening and learning from others.”

9. “In every good marriage, it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.”

13. “Don’t be distracted by emotions like anger, envy, resentment. These just zap energy and waste time.”

14. “You can disagree without being disagreeable.”

16. “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.”

17. “I would like to be remembered as someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability.”

RBG was an inspiration. An inspiration to women and men, to Jews and Non Jews. To people who appreciated the process of law even if they disagreed with how she judged. When people, on both sides of the aisle, could come together, as they did for her nomination, and affirm her, almost unanimously. 

So what do we take as we start our prep for yizkor.

We know that so much of our liturgy starts with Eloheinu V’elohei Avoteinu V’Imatenu-where we say God and God of our ancestors…

Our ancestors are ancient. They are the ones we never met.

Our ancestors are our family, the ones who have passed on.

Our ancestors are our community-the people who taught us.

In all cases, we learn and we grow. 

This summer, I read the book, Nobody will tell you this but me, by Bess Kalb, an author who will be speaking at SPS in May.

Bess, a millennial, wrote a memoir about her relationship with her grandmother, based on her grandmother’s voicemail messages on Bess’ phone. It is charming and meaningful and has many universal truths.

But what I would like to end with today, as we prepare for Yizkor, is a selection of the book where Bess imagines the final moments of her grandmother’s life. She wrote:

“You know what I would have wanted? I got it at the very end. I wanted to fall into a very deep sleep.


To wake up in silk pajamas in a big bed at a grand parisian hotel. To light up a cigarette and breathe it all the way in.


To twirl in a yellow skirt on a dance floor at a sorority mixer. To fall into your Grandfather’s arms. 


To shout “l’chaim” at the chuppah as your mother kissed her husband.


To be a little girl, floating on a tire attached to the dock, so sure I’d never drift away. 


To see my mother’s face, flushed and wet, her hair matted to her forehead, looking at me with a love I’d never seen.

To die with every memory alive.

Every memory in you

Every story to tell

My story

And my mother’s story

And your mother’s story

And your story

And your childs

And for you to live so much and then for you to die.

And to leave the stories behind, to scatter them to the wind. The myths and the legends and the truth and the heart.

And they’ll live on. And so will I.

As we recite yizkor-let us learn from those that we invite to sit with us. Let us be inspired to live their values. To fight on for what they believed in. To be the continuation of the change that we know is needed.

And, as we begin this new year, just remember, as my Mama would say, watch how you go. 

May the memories of all of our loved ones forever be a blessing.