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Yizkor 5771

Yizkor – 5771 “The Death of Moses” September 18, 2010

A tale from our Sages: When, at age 120, Moses realized that the decree of death had been sealed against him, he drew a small circle around himself, stood in it, and said, “Master of the Universe, I will not budge from here until You void that decree.”

He donned sackcloth…and persisted in prayer and supplications before the Holy One, until heaven and earth – indeed, all things made during the six days of creation – were shaken, so that they said, “Perhaps God intends to remake the world!”

What did the Holy One do then? God had it proclaimed at every gate of every Virmament that Moses’ prayer not be accepted…because the decree concerning him had been sealed…

Then Moses said, “Master of the Universe, if you will not let me enter the Land of Israel, allow me to remain alive like the beasts of the Vield…” But God replied, “Enough.  Speak to me no more of this matter.”

When Moses saw his prayer was not heeded, he implored heaven and earth [and when they refused to intercede for him] he went on to demand the stars and planets ask God for mercy on his behalf, who also refused.

Moses begged the mountains and the hills and sea and even God’s ministering angel, until Vinally God said, “If you wish to cross the Jordan, then Israel will die, for I must execute judgment on them for the Golden Calf. Who will go to the Promised Land, you or they?”

Moses relented and said, “Let Moses and a thousand like him perish but let not a Vingernail of one person in Israel be harmed.”

After Moses became reconciled to his dying, the Holy One asked the angel Metatron to take Moses’ soul. He refused. God asked the angel Gabriel, who also refused.  And after that, the angel Michael declined as well.

God, sorely provoked, asked the evil angel Samael to take Moses’ soul. The angel confronted Moses, who banished him forthwith. All of the angels were terriVied of Moses!

Finally, God, the Divine Self, came down from the highest heavens, to take the soul of Moses. Only when God appeared did Moses appear calm. But then Moses’ soul, his neshama, spoke up in protest to God and said, “Is there a body in the world more pure than Moses? I love him and I will not depart from him!”

God said gently, “If you depart Moses, I will take you up to the highest heaven of heavens and I will set you by me always. Moses’ soul, his neshama, Vinally agreed to be taken.

In that instant, God kissed Moses and took his soul with that kiss. Even as God kissed Adam to breathe life into him, God gently kissed out the life of Moses. And all the hosts of heaven and earth declared, “Let him enter in peace and rest on his couch.” (Is. 57.2)

Moses may have been our greatest hero in the Torah, but he didn’t want to die any more than we do.  Unlike other faiths that deem their leading Vigures to be immortal or divine, Moses dies in the Torah, but our Sages say it was a narrow thing: Either Moses would live and there would be no Jewish People or Moses would die and our history would unfold.

The irony is this – if Moses didn’t really die, we would be stuck with a real life Moses, with real life challenges and behaviors, great and not so great. Because Moses died, we can walk the garden of his life and Vind the blossoms to behold and to inspire us rather than wondering what nonsense he’s gotten himself into now, or whether or not he has simply become another cranky old man.

Our legacies are shaped during our lifetimes, but they become real after we are gone. The challenges of daily life are such that we lose sight of what made our beloved dead so memorable, what makes them so worthy of emulation.

A Chasidic master, R. Uri of Strelisk, once taught:

“None of us serves our generation alone. For example, David continues to inspire the downcast with his Viery passion, generation after generation.

And Samson’s heroics continue to give courage to the meek ‘til this day.”

Who gives you inspiration at Yizkor? Who gives you courage? Who is your David, your Samson?

Is it a mother who worked two jobs and still kept the house spotless, so you “could eat off the kitchen Vloor?” Is it a father who labored his kishkes out so his children could get a good education and have a better life?

Is it a brother who was there for you in all of your tough scrapes, not only as a kid, but when life hit you even harder after growing up?  Is it a sister who showed you the ropes of high school, where the rules were obscure and the  customs bafVling?

Is it another relative, who, when you found yourself in a different city, far from home, gave you the entre you needed to get a start, an apartment, a foothold, a job?

Is it, God forbid, a child, who died before his or her time, who taught the essence of courage and perseverance and hope, even when hope was nowhere to be found?

Or is it your partner, with whom you learned the dance of life from in your 20’s or 30’s or even later, who knew your every mood, your smiles, your frowns, your ups and downs, with whom you could face almost any adversity?

Is it your friend, to whom your soul was drawn early in life, who laughed with you, who did all the outrageous things young friends do, who provided support, presence and wise counsel, even over the phone? Your friend, who knew the arc of your life from childhood on, who knew when you should be taken seriously and when a gentle laugh would pop your pretensions?

Or maybe it was someone who touched you that you didn’t know well, but the contact you had was deep and meaningful, and you so respected and admired this person that even after death, you hold this person close in your heart?

I lost two such friends this year, someone young and someone older.

Last Yom Kippur, a colleague of mine, Rabbi Eric Bram of Suburban Kol Ami Temple in Cleveland, felt funny while he was leading services. He lost his place, he had difViculty speaking, he lost his balance and he was taken from the pulpit to the emergency room while the congregation held its breath.

It turned out that he had a glioblastoma, a brain tumor that grows very quickly and is quite deadly. Within weeks, though, a network within and beyond the congregation had been established, a caring connection on the internet. That way people could contact the family with their offers of assistance and Debby, Eric’s wife, could post updates without having to Vield calls and explain the situation repeatedly.

For the Virst several months, the news was good – Eric was responding to treatment, he was bearing up well and was upbeat. He was able to do a limited amount of work while undergoing chemo and radiation.

In the winter months, I stopped following his internet link. Things seemed to be stable and the last thing the family needed was to be even more inundated with greetings and calls of concern.

And all of the sudden, it was summer already. It was getting close to a year since the cancer was discovered and I hoped that the lack of news indicated that things were still going in the right direction.

And then, In August, there was a brief notice in the rabbinic listserv that Eric had stopped active treatment and was entering hospice. It was like a thunderbolt.  I was at camp when I got the news and I felt helpless.  I hoped that he would have a few months of ease and comfort to be with his family and friends in the congregation.  Five days later, he was gone.  He was 52 years old.

God kissed him and he was gone, but his legacy of joy, humor and honesty will live on in his congregants and friends and colleagues like me he inspired with his heroic battle over this last year against a foe that was relentless and showed no mercy to a man who certainly deserved it. As Rabbi Uri taught, Eric’s courage and decency continue to inspire me and so many others, and will for generations to come.

Another colleague, Rabbi David Hachen, who died this past June at age 82, was one of those amazing mentors who never told anyone what they should do, just listened as they articulated their struggles or their pain.

I knew David from the time I was a child, as his parents were my informal third set of grandparents in New Jersey. As I entered the rabbinate, David always found time for me at meetings, conferences and long conversations on the phone. He had a unique neshama that valued everyone as an individual gift of God. Whereas most rabbis clamor to get to the front of the room, David was usually in the back, talking to someone who otherwise might never have opened his or her mouth.

He was the Director of the Reform movement’s Northeast Lakes OfVice, serving dozens of congregations and their rabbis. He was a consummate peacemaker, listening to disputes and problems and often guiding people to their own solutions, rather than imposing one of his own.

He was a personal friend and mentor to me. He bucked me up when I was down and glowed in my achievements. And he did it all with a warmth, humanity and devotion to the Jewish people that inspires both my admiration and my desire to emulate him.

One of his daughters is a Reform Rabbi.  Two of his grandsons are Israeli Orthodox. One son is a kibbutznik. Another, a wonderful professional and a dedicated synagogue supporter.  And his wife, Pearl, what can I say? She was the gadabout, the one who ended his sentences for him for 5 decades. Despite a wide range of religious belief and practice, in David’s presence there was love and respect and caring. That’s what he inspired in those who knew and loved him.

And this spring, God kissed David Hachen and a sweet, sweet soul left this world. Except that the best parts of David live on through not only his family, but the tens of thousands of people who felt the power of his simple caring and humanity. That, too, as Rabbi Uri teaches, will inspire generations to come.

I am honored to bring their lives and legacies to light this Yizkor. I am humbled to know that each of you brings stories, lives and legacies just as powerful to this sacred moment of memory as well. I pray that memories of your parents and partners, siblings and children, near and distant relatives, friends, mentors, teachers and heroes give you comfort and inspiration this day.

God did not kiss Moses out of vengeance or anger, rather out of love for him and desire for our people to live and thrive. Not one of us is indispensable. But together we are all essential. And even beyond death, we matter more than we will ever know, even for our few, brief years on earth.

Together we create a community of love and faith, trust and caring to last for generations.

May these souls, whose legacies bring us to tears at Yizkor time, inspire us to reach to the high heavens of life, not be drawn down to the pit of despair.

The wonderful, infamous, irascible R. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk once told his disciples, “I have the power to resurrect the dead. But I would rather resurrect the living!”

May our beloved dead, whose sacred memory we embrace with such love this day, help resurrect us to life, inspiring us by their acts, their dreams, their faith, their very lives. May they be at our side when God comes to kiss us. Then we will never be alone or afraid as they will be with us, and within us, forever. Forever.

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784