What Really Counts: Yom Kippur Yizkor Drasha 2015
Thursday, 08 October 2015 | 25 Tishri, 5776
Earlier this year celebrated N.Y. Time columnist David Brocks wrote a national best-seller, The Road to Character. In it he distinguished between what he calls résumé and eulogy virtues.
Résumé virtues are the ones that we write on our CVs. They are the things that are valued in our society and marketplace, our achievements, our qualifications, our skills. But it is the eulogy virtues that we will be remembered for: our acts of kindness and thoughtfulness, our bravery and our generosity, our honesty and integrity.
We may not write them on our résumés, society may not exalt them, but deep down most of us know they make all the difference to who we are and the impact we have on those around us. “We live,” says Brocks, “in a society that encourages us… to have a great career but leaves many of us inarticulate about how to cultivate the inner life.”
If there is one day on the Jewish calendar that encourages us to examine and articulate what really counts it is this day, Yom Kippur. And if there’s one occasion, more than any other that sharpens our awareness of time passing, of life’s fleeting loveliness and of how to focus not only on what am I going to live from, but also what do I want to live for, it’s right now- this Yizkor pause.
It gets us to move beyond the selfie, to the real self, from “The Bachelor” to the “Brocha”, the superficial to the substantial. It’s not that the resume virtues are unimportant- we need them to live and achieve things (and even to nurture the other values) but they’re not the all –important things we strive for.
Yom Kippur is like a turbo-charged Shabbat a Shabbat Shabbaton, but it also reminds us not to neglect the other 52 Shabbatot. Days that help get us off the relentless racetrack of life, enable us to switch off our nagging phones, demanding emails, a moment to twitter with a neighbour and talk to my friend in real time – a face look not a Facebook. To find out what’s really happening with my spouse or friend and not just Whatsapping them.
The celebrated neurologist and author Oliver Sacks who died on 30 August wrote about the Orthodox upbringing he had abandoned in one of his last articles (published shortly before his death). During the 1990’s he had reconnected to an Israeli cousin (Nobel Prize winner Robert John Aumann). When he joined Robert for a Friday night meal he writes: “The peace of the Shabbat, of a stopped world, a time outside time was palpable, it infused everything and I found myself drenched with wistfulness…. wondering what if… What sort of person I might have been? What sort of life might I have lived? ...And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good worthwhile life- achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Shabbat, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”
There are probably few more eloquent words than these on eulogy virtues. To plug into your own virtues don’t forget to join us and the rest of the Jewish world when we will be keeping Shabbat together in Melbourne and across Australia on 23/24 October.
A different Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan points out that what makes David Brocks’ book especially fascinating is the way he explains how he came to see the distinction between the two kinds of virtue. He arrived at it, he says, after reading Rav Soloveitchik’s great essay, The Lonely Man of Faith. Rav Soloveitchik noted that the Torah contains two accounts of the creation of man, one in Genesis 1, the other in Genesis 2. Genesis 1 is about creation of humans as part of natural order, Homo sapiens, the biological species. Genesis 2 is about individual people, Adam and Eve, capable of loneliness and love.
The reason the Torah does this, said the Rav, is because there are two basic elements that make us what we are. There are, as it were two Adams, there is Adam 1, “majestic man”, the language-speaking, tool-making animal, highest of all life forms, capable of monumental scientific and technological achievements. But there is also Adam 2, the “covenantal” personality defined by our relationships with other people and with God. Majestic man has the résumé virtues, the covenant man has the eulogy virtues: humility, gratitude, integrity, joy, the willingness to serve and to make sacrifices in the name of high ideals. We are of course a composite of Adam 1 and 2. As Jews and human beings we strive for majesty, success and accomplishment but we also yearn for meaning and connection. Success is not only about what you take out of the world but what you put back into it.
At times, like now, of great change when the world is faced with so many challenges and difficulties ranging from global warming to failed and failing states, from a huge tide of human misery, to a growing inequality between rich and poor from Isis to crisis, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, to turn inwards, focus on the I – IPhone, IPad, IPod, zone-in on the alone-ness of Adam, on my own narrow circle. But Yom Kippur will not allow us to just focus on our own selves.. That's why we read about Jonah and the whale this afternoon. Jonah wanted to stay safely at home on Jaffa beach enjoying his success, the surf and sunshine but God had other plans and it was in the dark silence of the whale and in the turmoil of Nineveh that Jonah would learn and write the script for his eulogy.
And so the fight against extremism today is yours and mine. It’s torched our fellow Jews in Paris and in Brussels, it’s online in Broadmeadows and in the Lindt Cafe in Sydney. The extremist are the ultimate narcissists more interested in what they can control, than what they can elevate. More driven by the need to leave their own calling-card of fear and cruelty than to make the world a better place, a CV rather than a eulogy, a Caliphate rather than a noble state.
And we in the West, including our ADF, will need to fight this twisted and perverted form of Islamic religious messianism for a long time yet. And we will need to help their moderates find their voice and the courage they are too often lacking. And we will need to find our own courage not to stereotype and condemn all Muslims. We can do it, for as Tagore put it: If adversity is great, humans are greater than adversity.
And to our own Jewish extremists of Tag Mechir, the lawless wild radicals of the outposts who claim to speak in the name of God, who will kill a baby and a family without compunction. To them and to our Chareidi fanatics who help promote an atmosphere of homophobia which allowed a disturbed individual to stab 16 year old Shira Banki at a gay parade to death, just exactly whose God’s name are you speaking in? Not my God. Ultimately though we are all responsible- In a free society some are guilty but all are responsible. (Heschel). We have to take a strong and determined stand against our own radicals and I’m proud that Israel’s PM and President have done just that. They should not be backwards in treating them for the terrorists they are.
Jonathan Sacks has just written an impassioned book on confronting religious violence called Not in God’s Name. Today, writes Sacks, God is calling us, Jews, Christians and Muslims to say what they failed to say in the past: we are all the children of Abraham. We are all precious in the sight of God. We are blessed and to be blessed no one has to be cursed. We can and must work together and train a generation of religious leaders and educators to embrace the world in all its diversity. We need to recover the absolute values that make Abrahamic monotheism the humanising force it has been at best: the sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, the twin imperatives of justice and compassion, the moral responsibility of the rich for the poor. We need to passionately teach the commands to love the neighbour and stranger, to insist on peaceful modes of conflict resolution and respectful listening to the other side of the case, to forgive the injuries of the past and focus instead on a future in which the children of the world, of all colours, faith and races, can live together in grace and peace.
These are the ideals on which Jews, Christians and Muslims can converge, widening their embrace to include those of other faiths and those of no faith. This does not mean that human nature will change, or that politics will cease to be an arena of conflict. All it means is that politics will remain politics, and not become religion. The time has come for people of all faiths and none to stand together and declare Not in God’s Name!
Its Yizkor time, for some a time of fresh loss, for others the dull ache and void that’s always in your heart.
For those who haven’t experienced loss an opportunity to reflect on life’s transience.
For all of us it’s a time to turn to those eulogy virtues. I love Yehudah Amichai’s sad and poignant lines, they talk to me personally: “I am sitting here now with my father’s eyes and with my mother’s greying hair on my head. In the middle of my life, I begin gradually to return (to many things) for I wish to be a decent and orderly person when I’m asked at the border: Have you anything to declare?”
It’s also time to declare that even if we have things to be ashamed of (and who hasn’t?) we can move on. One of the most remarkable antidotes to shame is empathy, the caring and understanding of another human being. Shame, it’s been said, needs three things to grow: secrecy, silence and judgement. You need just one person to reach out and tell you, that despite what you have done, you are still a worthy human being, you remain connected to and infinitely important to God. Surely among our eulogy ethics we should count our capacity and courage to move from shame to renewal and our ability to help others move from humiliation and aloness to self-respect and togetherness.
Look at it- here in my hand I’m holding 2000 years of Jewish history. It’s a simple piece of pottery, a triangular fragment from a shule destroyed many generations ago. It was given to me by Father O Bryan in Magdala, a Catholic centre on the shores of the Kinneret a few months ago. When constructing the Multifaith centre they excavated this ancient shule which has been dated all the way back to the time of the 2nd Temple. This makes it the oldest synagogue uncovered in Israel.
Before receiving the stone I had been standing with a group behind the roped-off mosaic floors and remains of the Beit Knesset. Suddenly the priest lifted the rope, called me over and invited me to sit down on a large flat stone surrounded by a semi-circular stone bench.
“Rabbi- you are the first rabbi to sit here in 2000 years- please teach us something…” Well I'm not usually at a loss for words (and assuming he doesn’t say this to all visiting rabbis) but at that moment I was simply overcome, a stunned mullet… I was for that instant the story of my people, part of its divine destiny, touched by its covenant, inextricably connected to its long line of fabulous teachers and scholars and saints, prophets and seers, priests and mystics.
This stone that now rests calmly in my palm, this fragment of our past says “amen” to the wonder of Jewish survival, “amen” to the rebirth of our ancient land, “amen” to the incredible ingenuity and energy of the modern Medinah. “Amen” to the children of Avraham and Sarah who choose the eulogy virtues of the life and family and community, who defend the vulnerable and protect the challenged, who choose the path of moderation. “Amen” to the people of the book, the people of freedom and hope. A nation of memory and destiny…