Shemini Atzeret Yizkor Sermon Saturday, October 14, 2006 Rabbi Moshe P. Weisblum
It’s been a whirlwind of activity over the past few weeks. Beginning with the somberness and solemnity of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur holidays, to the pleasures of Sukkot, we now enter the joyful festivities of Shemini Atzeret and Simchas Torah.
It is sort of the season finale, as we will complete the reading of the last chapter from the Torah tomorrow and will begin the cycle all over again, moving straight into the first chapter. No end, no beginning, the continuity reminds us that we are eternal.
What a fantastic few weeks our community has enjoyed! There were record numbers of people in attendance for high holiday services and exceptional participation by all age groups. May we continue the momentum into our new year.
Additionally, there was good news from around the globe. In particular, in his New Year Message to the British Jewish community, England’s Prime Minister Tony Blair offered the following:
"I am struck by the courage and resolution of the Jewish people. To me, the Jewish community stands for what a community is all about. People respect each other as individuals, but they have a deep and profound sense of themselves as a community. We shall continue to value our Jewish community and ensure that its members feel safe and secure… And know that they are an integral part of British society." This was a bold and unmistakably definitive statement by the Prime Minister, expressing his gratitude to the Jewish people as both a statesman and a British citizen.
To what do we owe such homage to our civility? There is no other answer than our Torah. The sages said over and over again that all the answers are contained within our Torah. It is the blueprint for life. The Simchat Torah celebration is truly a thanksgiving for receiving the one and only truth which has enabled the Jewish nation to survive over countless numbers of other nations that have long disappeared.
Samuel Clemens popularly known as Mark Twain once commented and I quote:
"The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, and then . . . passed away. The Greek and the Roman followed. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts. … All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?"
The answer my dear friends is, very simply, our Torah. The teachings of the Torah keep up on the road of civil behavior and shield us from falling into the trappings of a society gone mad. Torah keeps us sane amidst the insanity.
And it’s not just the Jews who are realizing this tremendous gift. I was delighted to read an article in the October 1st issue of the New York Times Magazine entitled, "So the Torah is a Parenting Guide?" by Emily Bazelon. The article describes a weeklong workshop by a group of mostly non-Jewish parents at a non-sectarian private school in Asheville, North Carolina. The course was based on a book by Los Angeles psychologist, Wendy Mogel called, "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children." More and more parents are using her book and quoting passages from the Talmud and Jewish sages in an effort to raise moral and righteous children. Workshops, like this one, are being held all over the country. Pastors and ministers are using her book as a tool to counsel parents. Educators are using the teachings of Torah to bring insight to their students. People of all faiths are recognizing the value of Torah. This is revolutionary.
Why? What is the world seeking? Have the rest of the nations recognized the insanity that surrounds us? Our world is chaotic, spiraling out of control. It’s time to put the brakes on.
In another New York Times article entitled, "Elephant Crackup?" by Charles Seibert, it has been noted since the early 1990’s a change in the behavior of elephants. In all parts of Africa, India and Southeast Asia, there have been more and more violent incidents involving elephants attacking humans. "Elephants have been striking out, destroying villages and crops, attacking and killing human beings." The events have been so remarkable that elephant researchers have created a new category called Human Elephant Conflict. Scientists explain that there has been so much disruption in elephant communities by poachers and developers destroying the natural habitats, that the new breed of elephant, instead of being nurtured by mature and maternal parents, are being raised in the wild without the proper parental support. They claim that the once established civilized elephant communities are being destroyed by the collapse of elephant culture. Some of these absurd behaviors include attacking humans, raping rhinoceroses and other forms of bizarre actions all around the globe. Two recovering elephants, Tange and Zula, are living out their days in an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee, specifically created as an asylum for abused elephants. It’s wild!
Researches are claiming that this behavior parrots many of the symptoms associated with PTSD which is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in humans. Our society is racked with so many different distractions, drugs, divorce, immorality; lack of barriers and boundaries, disrespect, arrogance, entitlement, the list goes on. It’s hard to focus, people can’t concentrate.
In his fascinating book, Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Adults, Dr. Paul Wender contends that ADHD is not a psychiatric phenomenon, but a social one. He describes behaviors that are similar to the ones found in the elephant studies like, attention difficulties, unstable moods, depression, excitability, hot tempers, difficulty in relationships, anxiousness, impulsiveness and reduced tolerance. This is a serious problem in society and continues to be a growing problem.
In our Jewish history we experience the response to those difficulties faced by societies. Our Torah has kept us alive and civil for thousands of years. It is what makes us strong as people and unites as a community. It is our moral code, an ethical prescription for human behavior. We keep it safely behind the doors of the Aron Hakodesh the holy ark, a precious gift from the Almighty. It is our duty, our obligation and our promise to G-d to study it daily, live its commandment and teach it to our children. Our Torah, now being recognized by other nations as an integral code for proper behavior, has truly kept us on the path to a good and virtuous life. May the teachings of Torah continue to bring peace to our world. And in the words of Isaiah, may our lives serve as "a light unto the nations" remembering that living through Torah, we are the role models of a moral and ethical society.
We are about to recite the Yizkor prayer, when we remember those who have come before us. During this time, we should remember that as we are honoring our departed loved ones, we should take comfort that they are connected to us spiritually through the teachings of Torah.
My Dear Friends about ten years ago, I had a congregant who came to say aKaddish daily memorial prayer for his late wife. I befriended with him and he told me as follows, "Rabbi, I am a secular Jew, my parents and grandparents were all secular and I don’t have much with the synagogue but it was only one special memories that I carry to this day and that memory is keeping me in contact with synagogue life since I came from Europe. It was my grandfather in Poland that used to take me hand in hand to dance at Simchat Torah. One time my second wife, the one that just died asked me what is the secret of your survival, and I said to her "The only secret was the memories of Simchat Torah, dancing with the Torah" Rabbi I went through death camp in Europe but those pictures and memories of Simchat Torah kept me in good spirits through those horrible years."
My dear friends, we have the obligation to our children and grandchildren to continue to perpetuate our tradition. It is our obligation to bring our children, grandchildren and friends for our Simchat Torah services tonight and tomorrow morning to remember the heritage that they will carry on in the future. We should think all the times if our loved one was here, not only in spirit but physically what are they expecting us to do. If we want others to follow in our footsteps we need to set a good example.
By reciting Yizkor prayers - we remember them. As we pray for our loved ones and they reach out to us, we remember that the thread of Torah teachings connect us, and all previous generations. Just as the teachings are relevant to us today, so were they during the lives of our ancestors. We read today the book of Kohelet also known as Ecclesiastes by King Solomon. Following his father King David footsteps, he demonstrates the idea of L’dor V’dor from generation to generation. In our time, just recently we received wonderful news - like father like son - a Jewish Stanford professor, Roger Korenberg received this year’s Noble Prize in chemistry. Thirty-seven years ago, his father, Arthur Korenberg won a Noble Prize in medicine. Throughout history there have been many other parents-child success stories that evoke tremendous feeling of pride – influences from families are real and strong not only when the members were alive but we believe in the Jewish tradition that the influence continues to affects us from the heavenly world. As our parents and grandparents ignited the spark within us, it is incumbent upon us to continue the eternal flame within our own children and grandchildren.Chag Sameach!