Rabbi's Message - Sermon for Yizkor, Yom Kippur 5764
I lost something dear to me this year. But, at least, I can still remember.
I was watching the news one day in May and caught the very end of a story and thought I heard something but wasn't sure. It seemed so unbelievable that I was sure I had heard wrong and put it out of my mind.
But, the next day, I remembered and went to my source to settle all the uncertainties of life, Google.com, and typed the words in. I quickly found that my worst fears of the day before had been confirmed.
I called my brother immediately because I knew that he would feel as I did. And, I was not surprised. He took the news very hard.
And so we talked. And, as we talked, we remembered.
We talked about the pilgrimage we took each year. Sometimes, we went at the beginning or end of a trip to someplace else. Sometimes, we went all the way, four hours or so north of Boston, back and forth in one day.
And each time, it was the same. My father would park the car and we would get out and stand by a beautifully blue lake called Echo Lake and look up into the mountains.
And there it was. Or, more properly, there he was: the Great Stone Face, the Profile, the Old Man of the Mountain presiding over Franconia Notch in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
There, for all to see was an outcropping of rocks, a few strangely shaped stones that nature had carved and arranged into the unmistakable face of an old man, jaw jutted out, resolutely looking off into the distance. I've never seen Mt. Rushmore, carved by immensely talented and dedicated human beings. But, I can't believe it could be more moving than this natural sculpture.
It inspired Daniel Webster to write the following words: "Men hang out their signs indicative of their respective trades; shoe makers hang out a gigantic shoe; jewelers a monster watch, and the dentist hangs out a gold tooth; but up in the Mountains of New Hampshire, God Almighty has hung out a sign to show that there He makes men."
Writing in 1939, Robert F Doane wrote these words: "On the crest of a mighty mountain, looking over the lake below A face with a human expression watches many a century go. It was made from a mountain of granite With the skill of a sculptor's hand and guards the green valley below it As time passes over the land."
And in May, people camping in the area heard a strange sound during the night and, in the morning, they saw that the Old Man was gone. The stones had rumbled into the valley below and the Old Man was gone.
Speaking about the life of a human being, the Psalmist wrote in Psalm 103: ki ruach avra bo v'aynenu v'lo yakeerenu od mikomo. The wind passes over it and it is gone and no one can recognize where it grew.
And now time passes over the mountains and all we can do is recognize where the Old Man stood. It is not enough but it is precious.
The story has moved me so because it reminds me of my youth, my beloved New England, the mountains which I love so much and miss so dearly and, of course, my father, alav hashalom
But, it moves me for another reason. We know our lives are finite. We may need the High Holy Days to come around to remind us of it but we know it. We know humanly made objects crumble. But, we don't expect to see the natural world change before our eyes.
And yet, God told us that the natural world would crumble before us at times.
My mind was drifting during the haftarah a few weeks ago but then I heard then I heard Isaiah's words and I was stunned, for this was the old man's story. Isaiah writes: ki heharim yamushu v'hag'vaot timutenta For the mountains may move and the hills be shaken v'hasdi mayetaych lo yamush u'brit shlomi lo tamut amar mirachamaych adoshem: but my loyalty shall never move from you, nor my covenant of friendship be shaken-says the Lord who takes you back in love.
Everything, this verse says, everything will change one day. The change of seasons, an earthquake, a windstorm, erosion, evolution, growth aging and death, no matter what the cause. Everything is on its way to change and, it is the way of the world that everything is on its way to disappearing.
Sometimes we see change coming and try to stop it. In fact, the Old Man was held together for years with cables to keep it from falling. But, in the end, the force of time was stronger than the cables trying to hold time back and the Old Man tumbled to the ground below.
And yet, he still moves me. I still want to go back to that spot. I still want to go back to Echo Lake and I want to lift up my eyes to the mountains and remember what was there.
For that is the gift of memory.
Most of us have and all of us will one day stand with a figurative pile of rubble around us, looking desperately for the face which comforted, for the eyes that cheered us, for the smile that welcomed us, for the hands that held us, for the feet that walked alongside, wishing beyond all hope that they were there. And we won't find them there. And we think we won't find life anywhere because what could be found in the fallen rubble around us?
But, at that moment, we might say a Psalm: Esa aynay el heharim, I will lift up my eyes to the mountains, from where will my help come?
Some saw this verse as spoken by the one who was under siege and lifted her eyes above the stone walls that had been built, to watch to see if help was coming over the mountains. Others saw the verse in the way most of us do, as a theological statement, referring to one who took comfort in the stability of nature and saw in that stability God's presence.
But, the problem with that latter interpretation, as beautiful as it is, is that we profess a belief in a God who not only keeps nature stable but is the God of instability as well. Knowing what we know about geology and science in general, nothing is permanent if we wait long enough. Everything is changing. Perhaps the point of the verse then is exactly the opposite of what we might first think: look to the mountains and see that they too change and understand that even as the situation around you changes, God keeps watch. And, God's hesed, God's covenant-love and loyalty still stands firm. In fact, it is the only reality that is unchanging.
The falling of the Old Man only confirmed dramatically what we know about everything around us: nothing lasts forever.
So, the message of Yom Kippur is: cherish those you have, allow them to change as you yourself change but let the bonds between you be as strong as the cables that can hold back rocks.
And when the time comes, and it will one day, when even the strongest of holds isn't enough and death takes the person we love away, let us never be afraid, in time, to go back to the spot we knew, near a life-giving pool of water, look up to the mountains and remember.
And let us remember always that the Psalmist was so deeply and so profoundly wrong when he said: "the wind passes over it and it is gone and no one knows where it grew." Everyone recognizes where a human life grew and the memory of that life is a reminder that here on earth, God almighty makes human beings and their mark is made to continue long after they die.
And let us remember in time that, with memories, the face may be gone but it still shines through the rubble that we think our lives have become and urges us in time to stand up, shake off the dust of mourning and resolutely look forward again.
Last year, I referred to one particular ancient teaching about death, that a place called Sheol, a dark place which defied the senses was the destination of us all. I gave a disclaimer saying that I didn't necessarily believe it but it was helpful at that moment to bring out the point I needed to make.
Yet, several of you told me you were unsatisfied with that image and so let me give equal time, so to speak, to another image. It is, as so many other things we believe, a myth. Some believe it as true. Others do not. But, it is a myth which so many of us hold onto so dearly as we face the changes that are an intrinsic part of our world and our lives.
The myth was most beautifully voiced by Rabbi Milton Steinberg, alav Hashalom:
For these things are not and never have been mine. They belong to the universe and the God who stands behind it. True, I have been privileged to enjoy them for an hour, but they were always a loan due to be recalled. And I let go of them more easily because I know that as part of the divine economy, they will not be lost. The sunset, the bird's song, the baby's smile, the thunder of music, the surge of great poetry, the dreams of my heart, and my own being, dear to me as every man's is to him, all these I can well trust to God who made them. There is poignancy and regret about giving them up, but no anxiety. When they pass from my hands, they will pass to hands better, stronger and wiser than mine.
This, then, Steinberg concludes, "is the insight which came to me as I stood some months ago in a blaze of sunlight. Life is dear. Let us then hold it tight while we yet may but we must hold it lightly too. Only because of God is it made possible for us to clasp the world but with relaxed hands, to hold it but with open arms" .
May the memory of the Old Man of the Mountains and, more importantly, the memory of all of those dear in our hearts today, be for a blessing. May we never forget the lessons they have taught us. And may we continue to look to the mountains and to the heavens beyond.
Robert Dobrusin, Rabbi
Copyright © 2003, Robert Dobrusin.
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