by Reb Jamie Hyams, Rabbinic Intern, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, September 19, 2018
Yom Kippur – Morning Sermon
I am sitting at the Las Vegas airport, and I am waiting for my flight home. I have just left you. What a wonderful Rosh Hashanah we had together. You have made me feel so welcome, so appreciated, and so a part of this community. I am deeply moved, honored, and grateful to belong to such a warm, intellectual, questioning community. Thank you.
And yet, I am exhausted. I received one of the biggest blessings of my life when my father and my step-mother joined us last week for Rosh Hashanah. For many, many of the years of my life, I stood with my dad and Brenda in synagogue at the holidays. When I was a child, when I was a teen, when I was newly married, when my kids were little, and when they were growing into adulthood themselves. It is only recently, when they retired to Idaho, that I haven’t been with them physically during the holidays. I don’t feel whole when I do not stand with them in shul, when they are not here.
Aging is part of the natural process. I am a daughter when I am standing next to my parents, but I am no longer a child. Clearly, I am an adult and I too have aged. Why do I tell you this? Because I feel time is fleeting. It is more obvious in some ways than in others, but it is clear that the road ahead is not as cheery as the road in the rearview mirror.
As many of you know, when I am not with you in Las Vegas, I work in downtown San Francisco. San Francisco is experiencing a 2nd goldrush. There is massive construction going on in every corner of the city… South of Market Street “SOMA” is unrecognizable to ( _) with the new University of California campus, the new Warriors stadium, restaurants and high-density housing. Across the street from me, the new Salesforce Tower dominates the skyline, and at least 10 new skyscrapers are under construction nearby. And all around me are millennials in their 30’s… all young, bright, beautiful… scurrying around. It is a youth culture from top to bottom. The bars are hip, the restaurants expensive and the real estate prices out of this world… Maybe I am projecting my own fears of aging, but in their eyes, I must be “an elder.”
Judaism has a variety of things to say about growing old, about aging, about sage-ing.
- From Leviticus which we read today. “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old.” Next time you are on a crowded community bus or train, that might come in handy~! Actually, I don’t know why it surprises me but deference for elders is a universal value in public transportation.
- The Hebrew word for elderly is “zaken” which is an acronym for “zeh shekaneh chachma” — a person who has acquired wisdom. (Kidushin 32b).
- In Pirkei Avot, chapter 4:20… Rabbi Yosay bar Yehuda of Kraf HaBavli said: He who learns Torah from the young, to what can he be compared? To one who eats unripe grapes and drinks wine from his vat; while he who learns Torah from the old, to what can he be compared? To one who eats ripe grapes or drinks aged wine.
- And from –Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. “I embrace aging… as you grow, you learn more. If you stayed at 22, you’d always be as ignorant as you were at 22. Aging is not just decay, you know. It’s growth. People who are always saying, ‘I wish I were young again’ reflect unsatisfied lives, unfulfilled lives, lives that haven’t found any meaning. Because if you’ve found meaning in your life, you don’t want to go back. You want to go forward. You want to see more, do more.”
I don’t want to go back and be 17… or be 35…. I’d lose the experiences, even the hard ones, that have made me who I am today. Yom Kippur forces us to confront our mortality. The gates of heaven are closing. Our actions from the last year will matter in our present… Time is fleeting, and every moment counts… As I read this sermon to my mom, I was saying I didn’t want to be “Debbie Downer” and depressing… She looked at me and said, “This isn’t depressing Darling, it is a gift.” Yes, time is fleeting but it is a gift to be able to think about how you want to be remembered, and to be able to do something about while there is still time.
Twenty years ago, I received a Wexner Heritage Fellowship which provides Jewish community leaders with 2 years of study with some of the brightest minds on the Jewish landscape. The Wexner Fellowship was started by Les Wexner who owned The Gap and the Limited. Les tells the story that one day he was hiking in the mountains of Colorado and he got lost. He was forced to spend the night out in open… as he sat there shivering and wondering if he would survive, he thought about how he would be remembered? He realized that he did not want his grave to say “I made a lot of shmatas/ie, I sold a lot of clothing”… Les found his way home the next day and founded the Wexner Foundation which to date has helped finance the education of countless rabbis, cantors and Jewish professionals, and raised the knowledge bar on Jewish communal leaders across the country.
Not all encounters with mortality lead to such dramatic results, and not all of us have the capacity for widespread impact in the way that Les did… but thinking about how you want to be remembered is a start.
How do you want to be remembered? What are the values and the lessons that you want to pass on? Whatever they are, I encourage you to say them out loud, to articulate them now. Years ago, when my kids were young, my husband Michael and I went on a hike. We came across a river, wide and shallow, perfectly safe… I said “Kids, let go!” and started to take off my shoes to jump in… My husband replied “No! You can’t go in the water! You can’t get wet!”… We are different in that way. I dive into life, he often sits on the shore until I pull him in. The kids and I went in… and I told them afterwards, “You only go around once…, you should never be afraid to jump in, to grab life’s opportunities and to make the most of them…” Over the summer my younger son spent time in Idaho with my folks and every phone call from them was “Will is off swimming in the river… Will and the dog jumped in creek… Will is fishing in the river.” I am proud we raised a son who is grabbing life and diving in head first.
Reflection is the point of the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And so I ask you, “How do you want to be remembered?” What steps will you take to make it known? The first step is to articulate this to yourself… On your chair you will find a card that says, “Six months from now I will….” Take the card home, fill it out, put it in your jewelry box or stash it on top of your fridge…or maybe put it in the back of your High Holiday machzor. Sometime in the next 6 to 12 months you will rediscover it and when you do, ask yourself, am I on track to fulfil this intention?
Time is a limited, but time is a gift. Use it well.