Sermon for Yom Kippur Yizkor Service 5777, October 12, 2016


We gather here today as a congregation of mourners, every one of us having experienced the death of a loved one.  No matter how long and well they might have lived, their deaths leave us with an emotional void.  We often struggle as we try to fill the emptiness left behind.  We say Kaddish for them, we name children and grandchildren after them, and we cry.  Sometimes, if we are fortunate enough, we are able to endow something of significance in their name, so that their legacy may live on through the good deeds done for others.  This past summer (June 23, 2016), I saw a small article on the business page of the Baltimore Sun listing four cancer centers that have gone into partnership with a biopharmaceutical company to accelerate research into new, life saving cancer therapies.  Listen to the names of these cancer centers:  The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital, the Abramson Center at the University of Pennsylvania, The Herbert Irving Center at Columbia University Medical Center and the Tisch Cancer Center at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt Sinai in New York.  Do you notice anything the donors have in common?  If not, let me tell you- they are all Jews!  In addition, add the names of local donors not on this list, such as the Greenebaums, Blausteins, Weinbergs, Stolers…I can go on and on.  What is it with Jews and medicine?  Why do we invest so many of our charitable dollars seeking life-saving and life prolonging treatments?  Allow me to share my thoughts with you.

Pikuach Nefesh, the saving of a life, has always been the greatest of mitzvot.  After all, said the rabbis (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5), “One who saves a single life saves an entire world.”  This is one of the reasons why so many Jews have gravitated towards the healing arts.  If we cannot save a life, we can enhance the quality and quantity of that life.  Of course, medicine was one of the few professions open to us in the Middle Ages.  We often had our property and possessions seized and were forced to wander from place to place.  No one, however, could take away the knowledge we had obtained.  Even though they despised us, Christian rulers valued our ability to heal.  When Jewish students were denied places in American medical schools because of quotas and Jewish patients found kosher food unavailable, the Jewish community built our own hospitals, hence Baltimore has Sinai Hospital, Philadelphia Einstein Hospital, New York Mt.Sinai, and Los Angeles Cedars-Sinai.  I think, though, that there is more to it than this.

I will now make what you may consider to be an outrageous statement but one I consider to be valid- we Jews want to defeat death!  At least, we pray three times daily that someday God will conquer death.  In the second paragraph of the T’filah we say, Baruch Ata Adonai, M’chayei HaMeitim, Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who brings life to the dead. In 1951, in his seminal work, Judaism and the Modern Man, Will Herberg wrote, “the whole point of the doctrine of resurrection is that the life we live now, the life of the body, the life of empirical existence in society, has some permanent worth in the eyes of God and will not vanish in the transmutation of things at the last day.”[i]  Even Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, z’l, the great Reform theologian, expressed his faith in resurrection of the dead when he wrote, “I am inclined to think that my hope is better spoken of as resurrection than immortality for I do not know myself as a soul without a body but only as a psychosomatic self.”[ii]  More and more Jewish thinkers “reaffirm the doctrine of resurrection because it alone testifies to God’s ultimate power; because it alone ascribes value to our embodied existence and because it alone makes it possible to preserve our individuality after death.”[iii]

We believe that we are partners with God, as were our beloved dead before us, in the sacred task of bringing order to the chaos of the Universe.  Creation is not yet complete. We serve as coworkers with God in the ongoing task of healing the sick, clothing the naked and bringing comfort to the widow and orphan.  Someday, through the work of these cancer centers, researchers and healers throughout the world will defeat cancer and save millions of lives.  Someday, and only God knows when, death itself will be defeated and we will be rejoined with those whom we have loved and lost.  Until that day, when God is sovereign over all humanity, we pray in the words of the Aleinu:  We hope in You, Adonai our God, may we soon behold the glory of Your might; sweeping away the false gods of the earth that idolatry be utterly destroyed, perfecting the world under the rule of God that all humanity invoke Your name.”


Kein y’hi ratson– may it be Your will


And let us say: Amen



[i] Gillman, The Death of Death, page 224.

[ii] Page 233.

[iii] Page 244

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