Shavuot Yizkor

Shavuot Yizkor

(delivered by Rabbi Sacks on June 5, 2022)

We are all reeling from the tragedy at Uvalde. It’s a lot to process and a lot of issues have rightly captured public attention. Yet now I hone in on one overlooked piece.. When the detailed official timeline of the shooting emerged, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw told journalists that the gunman entered Robb Elementary through a backdoor that an unnamed teacher had left propped open. Moments earlier, he asserted, the teacher had been using the door to get her cellphone. This teacher, it seemed, was both selfish and irresponsible. Later, however, a video publicly emerged clearly showing the teacher kicking the rock out of the way and slamming the door. As for the cell phone, the teacher was the one who called 911. After these facts emerged, the teacher’s lawyer called the Texas Department of Public Safety, Travis Considine, chief communications officer for Texas DPS timidly corrected, “We did verify she closed the door,” It’s unclear why Steven McCraw was not the one to rectify the defaming error he gave to the public. Indeed, it’s unclear if he even apologized to the teacher, whose grandson attends Robb Elementary.

This is one of many times public officials have had to backtrack after videos have emerged. The one that still haunts me is the video that 17-year old Darnella Frazier took under very challenging circumstances. Two years ago, she stood by and videoed the nearly 10 minutes that Officer Derek Chauvin had his knee on the neck of George Floyd. After the video emerged, the Minneapolis Police Department needed to do an about face of their official report that nothing unusual occurred.

You have to wonder if Steven McGraw or Derek Chauvin would have acted differently if they had known that their actions would go public. According to our sages, each of them most certainly would have done things differently! Our sages expressed this thought in commenting on an incident in the book of Ruth, a selection of which we read earlier today.

The story of Ruth is moving and touching. It portrays the goodness and devotion of plain and ordinary people, like Darnella Frazier and the Robb Elementary School teacher. Ruth, a Moabite woman, was a devoted daughter-in-law to Naomi and a righteous Israelite-by-choice. Both widowed, Ruth searched for food for Naomi and herself in a time of famine when she met Boaz who gave her of his own food. The text states:

 

וַיִּצְבׇּט־לָ֣הּ קָלִ֔י וַתֹּ֥אכַל וַתִּשְׂבַּ֖ע וַתֹּתַֽר

“Boaz gave her parched corn,

and she ate and she was satisfied and had some left over.”

 

On these words our sages in the Midrash comment, “Had Boaz known that the Tanakh would eternally record that he gave Ruth some parched grain to eat, he would have given her a royal banquet.” Yes, Boaz, you didn’t realize it, but your actions were being recorded. Sure it was nice that you gave Ruth something to eat, but you, a wealthy man, could have given more than mere “parched corn,” and you would have if you knew people would be reading about it until the end of time. If only you had realized it, you would have acted differently.

Just as the story of Abraham and Moses and Boaz are recorded in Tanakh, so, too, all of our lives are being recorded. As we are told in Pirkei Avot, traditionally studied leading up to and beyond Shavuot: “V’chol ma’asecha b’sefer nich-tavim–all of your deeds are being recorded.” It’s not just Steven McGraw or Derek Chauvin…it’s all of us in our day-to-day existence whose words and actions are being recorded.

This thought is poignantly made clear in a completely different context in the poem called “When You Thought I Wasn’t Looking:”

 

When you thought I wasn’t looking,

you hung my first painting on the refrigerator, and so I wanted to paint another.

When you thought I wasn’t looking,

you fed a stray cat, and I learned it was good to be kind to animals.

 

When you thought I wasn’t looking,

you baked a birthday cake just for me,

and I knew that little things could be special things.

 

When you thought I wasn’t looking,

you said a prayer,

and so I believed there was a G!d that I could always talk to.

 

When you thought I wasn’t looking,

you kissed me good-night, and I felt loved.

 

When you thought I wasn’t looking,

I saw tears come from your eyes,

and I learned that sometimes things hurt–but that it’s alright to cry.

 

When you thought I wasn’t looking,

you smiled and it made me want to look that pretty too.

When you thought I wasn’t looking,

you cared, and then I wanted to be everything I could be.

 

When you thought I wasn’t looking,

I looked…and wanted to say thanks for all those things you did…

when you thought I wasn’t looking.

 

The poem makes an important observation. Whether we know it or not, we’re not different from Steven McGraw or Derek Chauvin in at least one very important regard:  Everything we say and do is being recorded by others, especially our children: the amount of tz’dakah we give, the excuses we offer for not giving enough or not giving at all, the comments we make behind the back of friends or fellow congregants, our business ethics, our moral behavior, what we eat, drink and watch on TV or our computer or phone…all of these, and so much more, are being recorded. Not necessarily recorded by a videocam or a phone, and not necessarily in a best-selling book, but we are being recorded in G!d’s proverbial Book of Life and in the hearts of those around us. Yes, everything we do is being recorded by countless people, and we don’t need a Darnella Frazier or a grieving teacher to make them known–they are known by people all around us. And most of the time we do not live with any awareness of this!

And when you think about the Yizkor service we’ll soon begin, what is it if not a recognition on our part that so many of the significant passages in our autobiographies can be traced back to our parents and those who preceded us, all of whom we recorded. “Each person,” said Oliver Wendell Holmes, “is an omnibus in which all their ancestors ride.” We are the product of all those lives which have touched and entered our own–parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, teachers and friends; those who have bruised us and betrayed us, those who have sustained and strengthened us, those who added to our burdens and those who were to us a blessing. It was all recorded and remembered by us.

And like the poem, it’s not just about the “big” things. So, for example, what is it that I will remember about my mother as I recite Yizkor today?  I was blessed with 57 years of beautiful memories–simchas, travels, family get-togethers; and there are also the “small” things. For one, my mother remembered every occasion of everyone. Indeed, she would send out some 30-50 cards a month to remember people’s birthdays, graduations, anniversaries, and more. And then she would call each one on their special day. Gestures like these can get lost in the total sweep of the recipient’s celebration. But adding to one’s simcha, and letting them know in a way that was not about her but about the celebrant is really a huge act. This act continues to inform the way my siblings and I act.

Another seemingly small act of my Mother’s came every Friday night: she would make our Shabbat chicken dinner different every week, lich-vod Shabbat, to honor Shabbat and to get us excited about Shabbes. Chicken Cherry Jubilee, Sesame Chicken, Chicken Cacciatore…every Shabbat was a veritable feast for the palate. And my siblings and I love Shabbes to this day.

So I exaggerate not: A portion of our parents is implanted within us. Unbeknownst to them, they made indelible impressions on us that have been permanently recorded in our very beings. Their obituaries do not lie buried in some old newspaper, but are recorded and alive in our hearts and souls!

In these moments before Yizkor we remember the entries of those who preceded us. Take a moment now and throughout the afternoon to peek again into the recordings within us of those whom we now remember. The big moments will often be recalled first, but take time to linger over the more frequent, recurring small acts of love and devotion as well.

And let us also ask: “What entries are we making, what actions are being recorded in the lives of those who follow us?” What will our children and grandchildren remember and record?  What are they seeing when I think they aren’t looking?

Yizkor beckons. We pause to remember: “T’hei nishmoteihem ts’ru-rim bits-ror ha-chayim–May the souls of our dearly departed be bound up in the bond of eternal life.” And let us add an additional prayer: “God, help me to remember that you are constantly recording me, that this session even now is being recorded, and let this awareness enable me to bring out the sweetness of my n’shamah, my soul, the warmth of my heart, and the generosity of my spirit. T’hi nishmati–G!d, allow my life to be bound up in the lives of others–my circle of family and friends, and with those here at Am HaYam, and with those whom I do not know but whom you placed in my orbit, so that after the fullness of my days, others will gather to bless my name for having lived and shared and given and cared…and all recorded.”  Amen.

 

 

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