October 8, 2011-10 Tishri, 5772
“Seven retired Jewish Floridians were playing poker in their condo clubhouse when Meyer loses $500 on a single hand. He clutches his chest and immediately drops dead on the table. Showing respect for their fallen comrade, the other six continue playing standing up. At the end of the game, Finklestein looks around and asks, “So who’s gonna tell his wife?” They cut the cards. Goldberg picks the low card and has to carry the bad news. They tell him to be discreet, be gentle, and do not make a bad situation any worse. “Discreet? I’m the most discreet person you’ll ever meet. Discretion is my middle name. Leave it to me!” Goldberg goes over to the Meyer’s condo and knocks on the door. The wife answers, opens the door, and asks what he wants. Goldberg declares, “Your husband just lost $500 in a poker game and is afraid to come home.” “Tell him to drop dead!” yells the wife. “I’ll go tell him,” says Goldberg.
We all know that hurtful words can damage us so badly we wish we were dead. Words, however, can also give us hope and comfort. Such are the words in this morning’s Torah reading from the Book of Deuteronomy (29:13-14). This section represents one of Moses’ last opportunities to explain the covenantal relationship that the people of Israelhave with God. Moses declares, “V’lo it’chem levad’chem- not just with you alone do I make this covenant- ki et asher yeshno poh imanu hayom lifnei Adonai Eloheinu, v’et asher einenu poh imanu hayom- Rather, I make the covenant with those who are with us today before Adonai our God AND with those who are not here today with us.”
“The Midrash Tanhuma cites this pronouncement as the source for the tradition that all Jews, from every generation, stood at Sinai. At that moment of Revelation, we were all there to embrace the special relationship with God celebrated by Jews in all times, all around the world. Time collapsed, so that the Jewish people existed not just at that moment but all at all moments;”[i] not just one generation stood at Sinai but every generation was present. We stood there with two hundred generations of our ancestors and two hundred generations of our descendants. We are present in the continuum of time, standing between past and future.
I felt a moment like this at my eldest son’s bar mitzvah, when I called up my son’s great uncles for aliyot and recited their Hebrew names. My uncles’ Hebrew names include those of my four grandparents. For a precious and very special moment, I felt that four generations were standing around that Torah, handing down a legacy to my son. For a few minutes, I felt that I was standing in eternity, just part of an ancient and timeless chain of tradition that goes back to Sinai and may someday extend to other planets and even other galaxies. “Isn’t this what we commemorate on this Yom Kippur? Generations come together. We light yahrzeit candles and say Kaddish for the previous generations and so we call them to mind. “We pray for the future, l’shana tova- may we have a sweet New Year- and l’shana ha-ba-ah b’Yerushalayim- may next year be in Jerusalem. Again, time coalesces into one momentous occasion. We stand together as a holy congregation to acknowledge the moment. Our solemn assembly last night during Kol Nidre is the modern day moment that encapsulates these words “Atem nitzavim hayom kul’chem- You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God.” All of us, together, from every generation, stand as one before God.”[ii]
These thoughts bring me great comfort. As long as there are Jews who say Kaddish for one another we will never be forgotten. Our past loved ones live on through us as part of a continuum of tradition and memory. Even those whom we never knew, who lived hundreds if not thousands of years ago, stand with us today as we say Kaddish for them. As long as there are Jews, as long as there is a Jewish future, our loved ones will never be forgotten. We all live on as part of the Jewish people. We are eternal as our covenant with God is eternal. Kaddish is part of a timeless and sacred conversation that the present generation has with our forebears. They will live as long as we live. As we say Kaddish for them today, we engage in a timeless act of remembrance. Let us keep this nechemta, these words of comfort in mind as we, in just a few minutes from now, say Kaddish.