This summer I lost something of great value. It is true that I misplace things all the time: keys are my specialty. Ask Annie or Heather or Lisa how many times I ask one of them to help me locate my keys. They eventually turn up but the search is accompanied by some not so subtle cursing. Ask those who have been in my office when I cannot find a book that has been on the shelves for years how easily I accepted the fact that I have forgotten where the book resides. Up until this summer I had never actually lost something of value. This summer I faced the facts that I had lost nearly 39 % of my hearing. I was forced to admit that this was not a temporary misplacement of hearing, my hearing was lost forever.
It is the latest not so subtle indication that I’m not getting any younger. This recognition of forgetfulness or loss has been preceded by a stage that many of you recognize; it’s the phase when words-common ordinary words-just up and disappear. I know the word; it’s common and part of my vocabulary. I just can’t find it. Like “It’s chilly in here. Please shut the ahah the thing behind the curtain.” Oh yes the window. And that stage of memory decay was preceded by the great moment, now repeated a few times every day when I walk into Temple, right into Heathers’ office, pause and say “Why did I come in Here?.” Heather is always polite at these senior moments because she has done the same in my office.
How is it possible, I have heard myself say out loud; how could I forget things, lose things, things upon which I rely on such as my memory, my use of words, my hearing? When I am most bereft and betwixed by this feeling of loss someone usually answers, not God, usually one of my exasperated children saying, “because you are getting OLD, that’s how.”
As in most difficult times I turn to our tradition for help. The Talmud suggests five items to help strengthen memory:
“Wheat bread, eating a roasted egg without salt, frequent consumption of olive oil, frequent indulgence in wine and spices; and drinking water that remains from kneading. Others say: dipping one’s finger in salt and eating it is also included.” (Horayot 13b)
So the Talmud is clear; an egg sandwich on whole wheat bread with copious amounts of wine consumed daily will improve your memory. I am prepared to commit to a Talmudic lunch from this day forward.
Egg salad not withstanding there is really only one sure way to find something that you have misplaced. You must retrace your steps slowly, deliberately and carefully. Ironically the only way to succeed is to use the very faculties that are unreliable and suspect. Or to put it another way, to find what has been left behind, you must remember to remember. Without that ritual retracing, without memory, you remain locked in the agitation of not knowing where the missing thing is.
Elie Weisel tells this story. “Once there was a small shtetl in southern Poland with only a few hundred Jews. Of course, a few hundred Jews needed a few dozen little synagogues called, shteiblach, and a bunch of minyanim. As it would turn out, one particular minyan with maybe a dozen men was having a hard time. Avigdor was a really good davener. The small minyan depended on him to be one of the regular ten, but he was always late. When they asked him why, Avigdor apologized, “I wake up and don’t remember where I put my shoes. Then I look for my belt and can’t find it. My Tallis bag is never where I put it. You understand? By the time I’m running out the door, I’ve wasted 15 minutes finding things.”
The minyan discussed the problem and then came up with a reasonable solution. “Before you go to bed, walk around your house and make a list. ‘My belt is on the chair; my shoes are by the front door; my tallis bag is on the end table by the front door, and so forth. That will save you plenty of time and then you can begin the minyan on time.”
Everyone shook hands and decided that this was a great idea. The very next morning Avigdor arrived in time to begin the minyan and everyone was delighted. But at the minyan right before Shabbat, Avigdor was a no show. The rest of the guys davened uneasily together and then went to check on Avigdor. There he was sitting on his porch with his head in his hands. “What is it they ask?” Avigdor replied, “So I know where my belt is. I know where my shoes are. I know where my tallis bag is. But tell me, where am I?”
What happens when our past becomes unrecognizable? What happens if we can’t retrace our steps back to where we begin? What are we without our history, our culture? Where are we without a sense of destiny, or connectedness to a deep and meaningful past? We may, like Avigdor, have the accoutrements to go about our day to day existence. But what if we don’t even remember where we’re from?
Neurologist Oliver Sacks says in his book “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”; what sort of life, what sort of world, what sort of self, can be preserved in a person who has lost the greater part of his memory and, with this, his past and his moorings in time?
Rosh Hashanah is given four names in the Torah; the head of the year. The day of Judgment, and the day the Shofar blasts. It is also called the day of remembrance, Yom HaZikaron.
So what is it that we are to be remembering today that is different from other days, Ma Nishtana, halaila hazeh, mikol ha’leilot? In the Torah God calls upon us to regularly remember a variety of peoples and events, chief among them Shabbat, the Exodus, the creation story, Amelek the quintessential villain, and that we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We remember loved ones at Yizkor, not just once on Yom Kippur but for many of you 4 times a year; the Yizkor services on the last day of the pilgrimage festivals and on Yahrzeit, the annual observance on the anniversary of a loved one’s death.
On this the first day of the New Year we are called upon to remember our connection to God and the Jewish people, our people and to our own Jewish souls. On this day we are asked to retrace our steps in order to find our individual and collective Jewish souls. In doing so we remember the meaning of our Jewish lives and we remember why we have chosen to express our Jewish lives in a collective.
The Jewish historian, Yosef Yerushalmi wrote in his important book “Zachor; Jewish History and Jewish Memory” “When we say that a people ‘remembers’ we are really saying that a past has been actively transmitted to a present generation and that this past has been accepted as meaningful. Conversely, a people forgets when the generation which now possesses the past does not convey it to the next, or when the latter rejects what it receives and does not pass it onward. A people can never forget what it has never received in the first place.”
Living in this overwhelmingly secular world, we have to retrace our steps to the very heart of what it means to us to be Jewish. But we cannot do this until we remember and affirm how crucial it is to us personally. How do we do this? How do we remember to remember? Yerushalmi says,“all the admonitions to ’remember’ and not to ’forget’ by which the Jewish people felt itself addressed, would have been for naught if the rites and historical narratives had not been canonized in Torah and had not been constantly renewed by Tradition.” This insight by Yerushalmi is the best description of why this congregation has moved to introduce more and more tradition to our Jewish journey. Traditional rituals are not statements of affiliation to a movement. Tradition is the means by which we remember where we have come from, where we are, and where we hope to be in the future. We do not teach our children rituals to teach them to be Reform Jews, we each them rituals so that they can remember what has united the Jewish people for ages. Long before 1948 and the establishment of State of Israel, long before the horror of the Shoah, it was Tradition and ritual which kept us as one. Of course we debated how to perform the rituals, or which tune to use or when the Shabbat really ended, but the rituals themselves were never up for debate.
Yerushalmi, Oliver Saks and Tevye all understood that one can’t remember without clear and present touchstones. Tradition is the carriage that carries us along the path of Jewish life. We dip apples and honey tonight. I think I have done it every year of my life. My grandparents did it, my parents did and I have done it with my kids. We did not do it because it is fun or tasty, though it may be both. We did not do it as an activity to keep the kids attention, though it might serve that purpose. Remembering to dip apples and honey enables us to retrace our steps to the deepest places of our history which has taught us to embrace the sweetness of life and celebrate the joy we share in being together again as a family, as a people, and as a Temple. I could make the same case for coming to services, wearing the Talit and Kipah, studying Torah, performing acts of Tzedakah sanctified by our past as Mitzvot. Each of these behaviours is a conduit to our past, our present and both our collective and individual future.
Tevye said it well, “In our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It is not easy. You may ask, why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? I can tell you in one word—Tradition!” Let me interrupt Tevye’s monologue to remind us all that our Jewish lives in the 21st century are no different than Tevye’s. We are not threatened by Cossacks, but we are threatened by assimilation, indifference, secularism, too many questions that go unanswered by dint of laziness and a commitment to the material and not the spiritual. Let us return to Tevye’s sermon; “Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many many years. Here in Anatevka we have traditions for everything—how to eat, how to sleep- how to wear our clothes. Because of our traditions everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” In other words, no one forgets what it means to be a Jew. No one needs a weekly e-mail notice about Shabbat or the Holy Days. No one needs to be reminded that Kashrut is the way we Jews sanctify and acknowledge the gift of food which comes from God not Loblaws. Traditions give our lives form, content and structure. Tradition gives us categories of meaning and time that enables us to understand the meaning and function of our lives. In fact, tradition enables us to simultaneously live in the immediate present and ancient past. I cannot think of a better definition of Reform Judaism, meaningful and authentic Jewish practices that transform our lives into glorious expressions of Jewish Joy and Continuity.
This evening when I dip apples in honey I stand with 20 generations of my family that has come before me, relatives whose names and faces I never knew and may never know. I know they are with me because I am here. I have not forgotten! When I dip apples in honey every one of you stand with me too. It does not matter if you were using Delicious Apples instead of Galas instead of Granny Smiths. It does not matter where your honey was made, who made it. Those would be Orthodox concerns, not ours. What is transformational is that by this simple act our lives are joined together with a depth and profundity that cannot be measured, only savored in our hearts. It is that warm feeling that reminds us that not only are we not alone, but we know with whom we stand.
When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.
Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say:
“Master of the Universe, listen!
I do not know how to light the fire but I am still able to say the prayer.” and again, the miracle would be accomplished.
Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say:
“I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.
It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.
Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God:
“I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer. I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.”
And it was sufficient.
Today on this day of remembering we renew our sacred bond with those who came before us by cherishing, practicing, and learning more about our tradition. As long as we remember to remember, it will be sufficient.