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What we Learn from Others (YK 5776)

The moments before Yizkor on Yom Kippur is an especially sacred time; when we stop to remember our loved ones who are no longer with us. There is a custom of visiting their graves before Yom Kippur; part of the custom is placing a stone on the grave to mark our visit. If you were not able to do so, or if you would find it meaningful, you are welcome to visit the tables at the back of the room where there are baskets of stones that can be placed on one of the Memorial Tables in memory of your loved ones. [I was able to place one in memory of my mother since her grave is in MN and I also had in mind an old friend who had no children of his own to remember him.]

This is a moment for remembering, for reflection, but it is not just about nostalgia; it is about remembering lessons learned. There was an interesting piece in the Sunday Review section of the NY Times last August that my mother-in-law pointed out to me by Oliver Sacks, entitled “Sabbath”. [8/14/2015] Oliver Sacks was a physician, a professor of neurology at the NYU School of Medicine and an author. He was fascinated by the brain and wrote case studies of his patients in narrative form that became best sellers and even movies, most famously, Awakenings (1973) with Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. He helped us to understand not only the diseases, but the people who live with them, hopefully bringing greater compassion out of people.

Here in his final piece, he wrote not about medicine, but about the Sabbath. An interesting choice since he was not a religious man. He shares that he grew up in an Orthodox community in London. He writes about how his parents were both physicians, but they would stop what they were doing come Friday to prepare for Shabbat. He recalled Shabbat dinner with his father making Kiddish with his “silver wine cup” and then going to shul on Saturday mornings. While he didn’t understand the prayers, he loved the music and it was where he would find his family and friends. After his Bar Mitzvah he drifted away from Jewish practice, but didn’t sever his ties until at 18 he came out of the closet and admitted his homosexuality and was rejected by his mother who called him an abomination following the Biblical text, but it led him to hate religion and its capacity for intolerance.

He writes about his friendship with noted mathematician and Nobel Lauriat Robert John and observant Jew who said, “The observance of the Sabbath is extremely beautiful,... It is not even a question of improving society – it is about improving one’s own quality of life.” Sacks wrote, “His commitment to the Sabbath, its utter peacefulness and remoteness from worldly concerns, would have trumped even a Nobel. If there had been a conflict, he would have refused the prize.

Stone had a made point of avoiding Israel, but an Israeli family friend invited him to her 100th birthday and so he went together with his lover, Billy, and visited his Orthodox relatives all of whom welcomed them warmly. He wonders what his life might have been like if things had been different.

He finished the piece writing, “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 and worthwhile life – achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, 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.”

It is worth noting the musings of Oliver Stone – what makes a life worthwhile? And what role might Shabbat play in finding it? These are questions for us to ponder at this Yizkor time. We all want to be able to look back at the end of our lives to say that our life has been meaningful and it is interesting to note that our religion may have a key to finding that meaning right here before us, we only need to reach out and grasp it.

It was my brother-in-law, Rabbi Prouser, who mentioned to me that there is much we can learn from the lives of others, which led me to another person who died this year at the age of 106(!) no less; who has a lesson for us to learn - Sir Nichols Winton, known as the British Schindler. Christmas time 1938 he was to go on a ski holiday to Switzerland, but instead went to Prague to help a friend, Martin Blake, with a growing Jewish refugee problem. He worked with the Czech, the Dutch and the British and in the end brought 669 children from Czechoslovakia to England. He was only there for about three weeks before the war officially began and he could no longer get trains across borders. His achievements remained secret for the next 40 years and it was only when his wife found his lists in the attic in 1988 that all of this came to light.

In 2009 a special Winton Train set off from Prague bound for London recreating the route that the Kindertransport had used. On board were surviving “Winton children” and their descendents. None of whom would be alive today if not for him. Winton was a man who saw a problem and applied himself to finding a solution. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t inexpensive, it wasn’t risk free, but it was important and so he did it. He did not do it seeking fame or fortune; he did it because it was the right thing to do. How often can we say that we did something where there was nothing in it for us, a totally selfless act. The rabbis call participating in the burial at a cemetery as an act of chesed shel emet, an act of loving kindness done with no expectation of reward, for the dead cannot reward us for our service.

The third person I want us to learn from is Jean Nidetech, a founder of Weight Watchers. She was an overweight housewife who had experimented with numerous fad diets until she came across a healthy eating regiment and lost 20 lbs. but she found her resolve weakening and so she called several overweight friends and started a support group and Weight Watchers was born. From Jean we learn that if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. And KISS – keep it simple stupid, it wasn’t the fads that did anything for her, but by following a basic healthy diet. And most importantly, you are often able to accomplish something together with others that you can do on your own. It is important to remember that we are not alone in this endeavor we call life, we are all in this together and it is by supporting one another that we can accomplish most anything.

And finally, I want to share with you what I have learned from my own mother, Phyllis Keller Mark. I guess up until now, it was too soon for me to process the bigger picture; but I can tell you that my mother was an amazing woman. She had a zest for life that was unparalleled. She lived the last decade of her life bedridden and in constant pain and yet she would wake up every day and put a smile on her face and cheerfully see what the world had in store for her. From time to time when circumstance became overwhelming, she would call me up and say, “I need an attitude adjustment!” We would talk for awhile and she’d get past her funk and would latch onto her positive attitude ready to take on the world.

Before my mother’s ailments sidelined her, she worked with seniors. As she aged she saw the needs of her cohort, so she started Lifestyle Seminars for Seniors, seeking to spread her message of living life to the fullest to the seniors she met, worked with and sought to inspire. My mother was a fighter, each and every day could be a struggle, but in spite of all life’s pitfalls, she saw love, beauty and opportunity at every turn.

Many years earlier when she was still active and vibrant, she founded an organization know as HERS. It was an acronym, but for the life of me I couldn’t tell you what it stood for anymore, but it was a program to help homemakers recognize the skills they had developed as they returned to the workforce. She would take these women who felt they had no skills, no self-worth and she would show them how much they had accomplished raising their children and running their households and she helped to prepare them to reenter the workforce.

The job was down in Burnsville and she loved to get in her car and go speeding down the highway. She would crank up the radio. She loved watching the trees go by – in the winter when they were barren, in the spring when they were lush and green and full of life; and in the fall when the leaves changed, flaming with a cacophony of color. She had come to learn and to accept that change was a part of life and something to be embraced even while acknowledging that it could be difficult and sometimes even painful. Her favorite toast was, “To sad endings and beautiful beginnings.”

So at this moment of Yizkor, as you remember those that you have loved; what they taught you and bequeathed to you, I hope that you are enriched by what they have given you. May you take this feeling, this glow, with you into your prayers, into your Yom Kippur experience and may they continue to enrich and inspire you after death as they did in life – ALUASA!

Mon, August 10 2020 20 Av 5780