YOM KIPPUR YIZKOR 5770
Friends, today is known as Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment. So let me begin my comments this afternoon with the story of a Jewish man appearing before a judge. He was suing for personal damages due to severe injuries sustained in a car accident. It seems he was driving down the highway at a legal rate of speed, when a horse bound onto the road in front of him. It was a horrific accident!
The police officer who arrived immediately on the scene testified that he approached the crash site and quickly evaluated the situation. When the officer asked the Jew if he was injured, at the time the man responded that he was a bit shaken, but otherwise feeling just fine. He indicated no medical problems.
The Judge questioned the man, asking why he initially said he was fine, but now claims that he was profoundly injured, to which the Jew replied: “Your honor, what the officer reports is absolutely true, but he left out some details. He came upon the scene and saw that my car had pummeled the poor horse. He evaluated the horse’s condition, removed his pistol and put the shattered animal out of its misery. Then he came and asked me how I was feeling. Nu? What would you say?”
On this day and in all days, our tradition teaches that we stand before the Judge. It is not so much our words that will be evaluated, but our deeds. During these Days of Awe we metaphorically speak of the Sefer Hachaim- The Book of Life, which bears the imprint of our signature. Our actions do the writing. It is not so much that God decides who will live or die, rendering a verdict, as it is how we conduct our lives that will leave the lasting impression.
So too, at the time of death, we recite a prayer: Baruch Dayan Haemet- Blessed is the Judge of Truth, or the True Judge. Some suggest that this simply refers to God, who launched the hard and fast laws of physical creation: No one lives forever. Bodies break down. Accidents happen. Accept that verdict.
Still others take the approach that when we die, our full body of work, how we filled our days is open to scrutiny and evaluation. Is it by God? Perhaps! Is it by those we leave behind? Most certainly!
Recalling those who have died during Yizkor has an impact upon all of us, beyond the sense of loss that we feel. From the negative perspective it is taught that it will subdue our yester harah- our evil inclination. When we contemplate the deaths of others, reflecting upon their lives, a lingering fear comes into our hearts. If there is eternal reward for the righteous, will we merit it or will our negative, sinful behaviors preclude that possibility? If so, there is no better time than the present to change our ways.
From the more positive position, we look at lives marked by distinction and excellence. They inspire us to walk in those paths.
Have you noticed? There seem to have been a rash of deaths involving prominent individuals in the past few months, even days: Patrick Swayze who thrilled us with his dancing and Mary Travers who delighted us in song, Les Paul, who invented the electric guitar, Football Star, Steve McNair, apparently murdered by a girlfriend, and of course Walter Cronkite, Michael Jackson and Edward “Ted” Kennedy. Some were people who lived long full lives, while others’ days were shortened. Some died of natural causes, others’ at the hands of perpetrators.
I could have gone on, since death is a constant part of life and I will read our list of names shortly. The last three received a barrage of press coverage, their lives scrutinized, analyzed, evaluated and reviewed.
The gift of memory is wonderful. We can select those aspects of lives that are worthy of praise and adulation, rejecting that which is not. All three had strengths and weaknesses. There is a play on words based upon two portions of Torah read together on certain years; one called Acharai Mot, starting with Leviticus 16, describing what happens after the deaths of Aaron’s sons and the other Kedoshim, laws of holiness, beginning with Leviticus 19. Place the two portions together, and you have Acharai Mot- Kedoshim: “after death all are holy.” Indeed that is the compassionate way to look at people’s lives. We emphasize that which is exemplary and admirable. But when rendering a verdict, the full life must be considered.
Television journalist Walter Cronkite was tagged as “the most trusted man in America,” the result of his long career at CBS News. Those who are old enough can vividly remember his solemn, anguished expression reporting the death of President Kennedy, accompanied by one discreet tear, the excitement he communicated while narrating the early days of space exploration, and the power of his editorials on Vietnam. In retirement he became America’s educator. His was a life of accomplishment.
Few, if any of us, really knew him, personally. One friend of 30 years remarked when asked what Cronkite was really like, that “he’s just the way you hope he is.” Co-workers described him as driven, but fair, someone who worked hard, but loved to laugh and be one of the guys. Looking at his life, hearing the eulogies, there is little that one would not want to emulate. As reported, he was a great newsman, sailor, friend and father. Undoubtedly there were some aspects of his person that were not as laudable, but standing before Divine and human Judges, he seems to be worthy.
Michael Jackson presents a more challenging case. The accolades and outpouring of love for him were quite astounding. Without question, he was one of the outstanding, innovative, creative entertainers of our time. I remember his early years, harmonizing with his brothers, followed by his explosion as a singer, dancer and performer. The energy, skill, voice and verve that he brought to his performances, whether live or video will resonate for years to come. Viewing the various broadcast and print tributes, he was depicted as a good friend to those with whom he was close. It should also be pointed out that his impact upon the African American community was particularly poignant.
But there is of course the other Michael, his constantly changing appearances, quirky personal habits, allegations of child abuse, questionable parenting skills and so much more. His death appears to be linked to his lifestyle. We will learn more. Time will determine his worldly legacy and Ultimate Judgment will come as well.
The life of Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy played out on the world stage for all to view. The scion of a wealthy, politically connected family, he was, as we all know, the youngest brother, the light-weight, carefree bon vivant. The brothers were destined for greatness with gifts of intellect and oratorical skill. History would intervene. Ted’s life was marked with highs and lows, triumphs and defeats, great virtues and tragic flaws. On the one hand he was a cheat in college, a lady’s man, an alcoholic and the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquidick will be an indelible black mark on his record.
He faced great personal crises: the death of his brothers, a plane crash that nearly took his life, leaving permanent damage, the failure to win the Presidential nomination and severe illness for his children.
Then as we all heard repeated in the hours of homage following his death, he conquered his personal demons, rose to confront and overcome crises, and made a substantive difference in this world. Within his family he was father and uncle, the bedrock of the clan. A fierce liberal ideologue, a champion of the poor, he was involved in numerous pieces of legislation that continue to shape the landscape of America today, mastering the art of political diplomacy, the arduous intricacies of the legislative process. His constituents loved him as expressed by their votes. In the process he garnered respect and friendship among his colleagues from both sides of the political aisle. He was a man of his word, whose personal charm, warmth, and huge laugh endeared him to many. I was particularly touched by his anonymous, less public deeds: tutoring a young girl in a DC Public School, sponsoring a teenage intern for college, and bringing a bit of earth from his brothers’ graves to Jerusalem for Yitzchak Rabin’s funeral.
Ted Kennedy’s life was marked by contrasts. Some aspects were reprehensible, while others praiseworthy. It can be argued from a Jewish perspective that he repented, eschewing early flaws and tragic errors to move forward. Looking at the full body of his life the natural tendency is to venerate and forgive. Each individual will reach his/her own conclusion, as will God.
As we review the lives of all three men, we find great talent, dedication, loving relationships and achievement. We also discover grievous mistakes: errors of judgment, immoral and illegal behavior. Before we rush to judgment, let us also think of our loved ones, whose memories we summon at this time, including the full spectrum of their years. Let us also bring to mind the course of our own lives, the days past and those yet to come. Hopefully we can appreciate quality moments and embrace them into our character. Simultaneously we extend compassion and understanding to others, seeking the same for ourselves. May we be humble enough to realize that ours is not the Ultimate Judgment.
Baruch Dayan Ha-emet- Blessed is the True Judge.