High Holiday Sermons: Our Living Legacy

rabbi alexander davisWhen some people travel, they collect states or capitals. Others collect national parks. And still others, baseball stadiums. This past year on my travels, I collected something else entirely- memorials. On the Beth El family mission to Israel, I visited the Children’s Memorial at Yad V’Shem. Listening to name after name of children killed in the Holocaust while viewing what appears to be a star-lit sky, is nothing if not moving. Travelling with Beth El congregants to Mississippi, I visited the civil war battle field of Vicksburg. There, we chanted a memorial prayer while standing before the massive granite column dedicated to Minnesota’s fallen. On a family trip to Gettysburg, I again paused before the Minnesota monument- this time a bronze soldier rushing head first into battle. In Washington DC, my family toured the Mall to visit memorials to America’s great leaders such as Lincoln and significant events such as World War II.

Given this year’s centennial anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, you might have expected a pilgrimage to that memorial as well. But you’d be hard pressed to find the World War I monument on DC’s Mall. World War I is the only major 20th century conflict without a national marker in Washington. And the reason for its absence holds an important lesson for us on this Yom Kippur. On this day when we gather for Yizkor, the missing monument invites us to consider how we memorialize.

In the months and years following the end of the First World War, there was a trend to build living memorials. Schools, libraries and bridges were designed to be symbolic and useful. This was the case with the University of Minnesota’s original football stadium, aptly called, Memorial Stadium. Dedicated in 1924 to the students, graduates, and workers who served in World War I, its brick entrance and identifying plaque remain a prominent feature in today’s McNamara Alumni Center. This kind of public infrastructure, it was argued, honored the dead better than a column, an arch, an obelisk for they benefited society. They furthered the cause of freedom for which the soldiers fought. They strengthened America for whom the soldiers had given their lives.

What about us? How do we memorialize the special people, places and moments in our lives? Do we commission a piece of art or perform a ritual? Yaakov Avinu, the Torah’s Jacob offered one, well-known model.

After dreaming his dream of angels on a ladder and after waking up and proclaiming, “God is here in this place,” Jacob erected a stone monument, “vayasem ota matzeiva.” And he called that place, Bet El, Beth El.

Skip ahead. Many years pass. After Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel died in childbirth we read, “And Jacob erected a stone monument, the Torah’s first gravestone vayatzeiv Yaakov matzeiva al k’vurta.” And it remains to this day just outside of Bethlehem and is known as Kever Rachel.

For Jacob, these two monuments created a meaningful, tangible link to a past. They literally set in stone the place and the person most important in his life. And monuments do the same for us. At their best, monuments teach us like the Korean War Memorial in DC where I learned about the war. They inspire us like the new Martin Luther King Junior Memorial where engraved quotes filled me with pride and hope. They comfort us like the Vietnam Memorial where I saw families gently caressing names of their loved ones.

But sometimes monuments don’t work. They crumble or tarnish in neglect like some of the brass plaques in Vicksburg that are no longer legible. Some monuments fail to capture the significance of the place or the person like the generic obelisks lining the winding roads of Gettysburg. Most importantly, for all their beauty and originality of their design, a stone monument’s ability to truly shape the future is limited.

An additional way to honor sacred memories, therefore, is needed- one that not only ties us to the past but creates a new tomorrow. And we find such a vehicle in living memorials. Jewish tradition teaches us about living memorials in an often overlooked element of our Yizkor service- the pledge to give tzedaka.

It is not clear in the English translations of our Yizkor prayers but we read in Hebrew: “Hineini nodev tzedaka b’ad nishmato. Ut’hei nishamato tzrur b’tzrur hahayim I pledge to give tzedaka in memory of my loved one that their soul may be bound in the bond of the living.” What is the origin and meaning of this custom?

Yizkor developed as a Yom Kippur ritual in Germany in the 11th Century during the time of the Crusades. Later, in the 18th Century, the custom spread to Eastern Europe and the last days of Pesah, Shavu’ot and Sukkot were added as Yizkor days. And so while Yizkor is not mentioned in the Torah, some find a hint of it in a verse from Deuteronomy that is indeed read on the last days of the festival holidays: “ish k’matanat yado k’birkat hashem asher natan lakh each person should bring a gift according to the blessing he has received from God.” This is one of my favorite verses in the entire Torah.

“Ish k’matant yado” means, because we are blessed, we are called upon to be a blessing. It hearkens back to the message to Abraham, to whom God says, “I will bless you, and you shall be a blessing.” And this is exactly what we do. We give tzedaka at those special times when we profoundly feel the blessings in our lives- at a birth or birthday, a graduation or anniversary. A yahrzeit? Now, that seems out of place. But it isn’t.

At Yizkor we sense our loved ones missing. For many this is a time of sorrow. But we also feel blessed. We feel blessed for the time we shared and for the life they added to our lives. And so we give tzedakah sensing “ish k’matnat yado,” just as we have been blessed, we are called upon to be a blessing. This is why, by the way, the traditional name for Yizkor is “seder matnat yad, the ritual of donating.”

Now, I am not making a pitch for the Chai Appeal. We did that on Rosh Hashana and we thank you for your generosity. Instead, am asking you to consider how we memorialize.

The story is told of a Jewish woman whose husband died. At his death, he had $30,000 to his name. And after everything was done at the funeral home and cemetery, the widow told her closest friend that all the money was gone. “How can that be?” asked the friend.

The widow explained, “Well, the funeral cost me $6,000. And of course I made a donation to the food shelf. That was $500. I spent another $500 for food and drinks for shiva. The rest went for the memorial stone.”

“$22,000 for the memorial stone!” said her friend in shock. “How big is it?”

The widow answered, “Three carat.”

There are gem stones and there are there are grave stones. But then there are living memorials. We learn it from the Yizkor prayer. And strikingly, we also learn from the very Jacob who was the first to erect a monument. Here is what I mean.

After Jacob erected the first stone pillar, we read in the Torah, “vayidor yaakov neder leimor Jacob made a vow (a “neder” like the word Kol “Nidre”) saying, “If God blesses me, I will one day return to this place and rededicate this monument as Bet El, a House of God.” Listen to the verse again: “Jacob took a vow saying, vayidor Yaakov neder leimor.” That word, “leimor saying,” appears frequently in the Torah, for example: “vayidaber Adonai el moshe leimor.” According to tradition, it means that the words that follow are to be repeated to others. But in this case, Jacob was all alone. There was no one to whom he could tell his vow. The midrash explains, Jacob was speaking to future generations charging them to rededicate God’s home” (Gen 28:20).

Jacob’s pillar eventually disappeared. But in the course of time, his stone monument became a living memorial for generation after generation took up his “leimor.” They told his story and upheld his vow. Such was the case of the men and women who established this Beth El congregation over 90 years ago. And such is the task of our own day. To paraphrase Lincoln as he dedicated one of those granite obelisks in Gettysburg: “It is for us, the living to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who built this place have thus far so nobly advanced.”

As Rabbi Abelson alluded to on Rosh Hashana, we are excited this year to launch an endowment campaign to secure the future of our congregation. And we begin by asking a hard, sobering question: How do you want to be memorialized after you are gone? Some of us fought in wars. Others fought for justice. Some of us built infrastructure. Others built relationships. What kind of monument will capture your contribution? What kind of memorial will stand the test of time and ensure that your values live on?

Each of us who is proud to be a Jew is called upon to pass Judaism on. Each of us who has been enriched by Jewish traditions and teachings must hand them over to a new generation. Each of us who has known Beth El as a place of celebrating and mourning, of learning and growing, a place of helping and holiness, a place of spirit and spirituality, of friendship and fun, each of us who have known it as a place we call home, is called upon to ensure its future. For, each of us who has been blessed is called upon to be a blessing, “Ish k’matanat yado.”

Just a few weeks ago, I met with a family that embodied this lesson. “We’ve been fortunate and we want to give back,” they told me. And not only did they proactively come forward to help us strengthen and build our community with a donation. Beautifully and significantly, this couple spoke to their grandchildren of their plan and invited their input. In this way, they showed a new generation their love of Judaism and of Beth El and they taught them the importance of giving.

Back in 2007, we launched The Lador Vador Capital Campaign to renovate this building. And we did more than build a facility. In the process, we renewed our community with the USY International Chapter of the Year. We grew the finest and I believe largest Jewish preschool in town. We filled our synagogue with National Speakers and Inspiring Minds, with programs and services, with the warm embrace of community. Now is the time to ensure its continuation and growth.

Under the leadership of Gary Krupp, we have established the Beth El Synagogue Foundation whose sole purpose is to build the Beth El of tomorrow. We hired foundation director, Susan Lieberman to lead our efforts. We installed a board of directors. And we developed a thoughtful, thorough plan to move ahead. Our hope is that over time, everyone will contribute generously an amount individually appropriate thus affirming the sentiment, k’virkat hashem asher natan lakh that we are to give in proportion to blessing that God has bestowed on our lives.

Now and for years to come, we have the opportunity, indeed the duty, to establish a living legacy so that our values and memories live on. In the words of our Yizkor prayer, we give tzedaka to bind our souls to the living,” to our children and our children’s children, “thi nishmato tzrur b’tzrur hahayim.” According to tradition, this very phrase that expresses the notion of a living legacy is to be engraved on our headstone. That is not ironic but profound for it reminds our descendants to transform past into future, stone memorial into living legacy.

In 5775, we are called upon to be “Monument Men” and women, to be the living monument of our ancestors and the foundation of generations yet to be.

As the New Year dawns, we pray, “God, help us to guard and treasure the memories of those we knew whose lives touched us and who continue to shape who we have become.

“May their memories inspire us to acts of kindness and thus find favor in Your sight.

And when we have fulfilled the measure of our days, when we have become but a memory, we pray, God, to have lived the kind of lives that make us worthy of being remembered.

As we have been blessed, so may we be a blessing. Amen. (inspired by Deborah Lipstadt)