MEE YICHYEH WHO SHALL LIVE..
The leitmotif of these Holy days, repeated at each service, is “Mee yich’yeh umee yamoot”, “Who shall live and who shall die, On Rosh HaShana it is written, and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed,” which it will be, thumbs up or thumbs down to life. Having just seen The Gladiator, the thumbs up or down image is a strong one in my mind’s eye. Who shall live....
Just one week ago I was in Pittsburgh witnessing my first cousin’s son, Noah becoming a Bar Mitzvah. Pearl and I were named after the same lady, my grandmother and her great grandmother. Noah, her handsome older child (Rachel is 10, Joshua 7) was super, flawless. He led part of the service Friday night and most of Saturday morning in a nice-sized Conservative synagogue. The Bar Mitzvah is expected to do a lot. He did very well as the young rabbi who had just come to the congregation 3 weeks before duly noted. We had a modest milchik lunch, gave and received lots of mazal tovs and hugs, and shed tears a few times.
An altogether normal Bar Mitzvah your might think. Except that exactly one week before almost our entire family had hastily flown out to Pittsburgh to bury my cousin Pearl, Noah’s mom, who died at the age of 42. She got sick on Sunday with what turned out to be a Strep blood infection, went to the Doctor on Monday, who said, “Come back in two days if the fever continues”, and in two days she was dead from Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. Merck’s Manual says that if you don’t get antibiotics in 48 hours, 90% of those who have it die.
Mee yichyeh umee yamoot, “Who shall live and who shall die?” Pearl wrote a “Parenting Today” column for a Pittsburgh daily newspaper, and last year she had written rather matter of factly in retrospect, “Explain (to children) that death is normal and final, and acknowledge that it’s hard to lose someone you love.” Surely, when she wrote that, she did not have her own death in mind.
So why do bad things happen to good people, as our friend Rabbi Harold Kushner asks in his famous book? Where was our God of the Machzor, the Holy Day prayerbook, in this tragedy?
The answer takes no mental gymnastics to comprehend. Most of the time God is not there because human beings aren’t there. Many human beings, made in God’s image, don’t understand what they’re supposed to be doing here on earth. God is left out of the equation when it comes to death, starvation and suffering when our fellow human beings murder, suicide bomb, support a hardscrabble economy by selling killer cocaine with “Big Power” approval, lie about how their company is doing and letting tens of thousands of workers hang out to dry, by budgeting zero for Head Start pre-school programs so that lots of kids are, indeed, “left behind,” that’s how.
But in our case? Cousin Pearl and her family were almost the perfect family in their interactions with each other and the world around them. As someone asked me at her graveside, “Why her? Why them?”
Did you know that there is a new 10-minute test for Strep? You get the results in 10 minutes. Pearl’s doctor didn’t give it to her. I don’t know if it would have revealed the seriousness of her illness. What I’m saying is it might have helped if the knowledge some humans have worked to discover had been applied. Research doctors were smart enough to invent antibiotics. She didn’t get that either.
Where was God? God was there, only no one invited the Holy One in for a consultation, a first opinion, much less a second. Did you know that many of the Hachamim, the wise, old rabbis, identified the “soul” with brains, intelligence? God, for many of them, is our ability to think and solve problems, not just “feeling spiritual” or going mushy in the knees at a beautiful sunset. God is in our brains, and yes, also in our emotionally driven efforts to find the causes and cures of illnesses.
Your coming to these services is just the start. The rabbis were clear about that. Prayer without your doing the mitzvot that the prayers encourage you to do, is of little worth. Yet consider this: there are those of us, and I include myself, who are here today and who might be taken away by next year. I don’t say this casually and I’m not into giving a depressing sermon, though it may sound like it. I say it because that is THE message of these holidays. Shape up because you never know when you might be shipping out.
You want to be happier at Jewish services? Show up at a Sukkot or Simchat Torah service instead of Rosh HaShana or Yom Kippur. It’s free, no charge for tickets, and the message is lots more fun. We sing and dance and eat, drink schnapps, and rejoice, as religious Jews. (“Children today is Simchat Torah, ...over all the land. Torah, Torah is the finest treasure, thus by our teachers we have been taught. Joyous, joyous, joyous than be, Sing and dance and have some fun, Joyous ever be!”)
As Jews we celebrate the holiness of life, the joyousness of life, V’samachta b’chagecha..”You SHALL rejoice on your holiday, and be really happy”. To paraphrase the auto mile, Edgartown, Ma. motor mouth car salesman with the llamas on his lawn, and now his son, Jr., “C’mon down!” Unlike him, our congregation HAS mortgages. Almost every aspect of our Jewish lives is mortgaged, from Temples to Federation, to Holocaust Museums, to American Jewish Congress and Committee. Tzedaka helps grease the wheels of the creaky wagon of Jewish involvement, commitment and remembrance.
For those of you who are a little scared that you may not be around next year to hear the Shofar blowing, (Sunday this year) what are you going to do about your scare? Are you going to follow the pagan formula for confronting your own mortality, “Eat, drink and be merry, conspicuously consume, for tomorrow you may die?” Or, as Woody Allen reposted to someone who paid him the compliment that his movies would make him immortal, “I don’t want be immortal from my movies, I want to be immortal by living forever!”
Or, we can attain our immortality by following the sober and clear-thinking slogan of our rabbis of old, “Repent one day before your death” coupled with, “Don’t separate yourself from your community.”
You see, that’s what my cousin Pearl did every day of her life. She married a beautiful human being who loved her and she him, and they both loved their beautiful children. They were extremely active in their synagogue; to ensure a good Jewish education they sent their kids to get a good Jewish education and also Camp Ramah. They went to Israel fairly often to visit friends and relatives. They, themselves, knew how to conduct Jewish services, they worked for the general community as well, contributed to charities of all kinds, in short, did all the right things. Her parents and grandparents were all active in synagogues, as were her husband’s. The immigrating ancestors didn’t shed their Jewish ways as soon as they hit America’s shores, neither did the first, nor the second, nor the third generations. They were stimulated by the thought processes and innate drama of our Jewish life, our literature, our songs and stories, and captivated by the Jewish perspective on life. The families that created Pearl and her husband understood the lessons of the life-affirming stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Moses, too, who had to fight for the life of his people in the barren desert of Sinai, inspired them. She/We received it, she/we have guarded it, and she/we will live forever as long as there is a God and as long as there is a Jewish people.
The special psalm we said at their house of mourning is almost brutal in its depiction of death as unrelenting and totally democratic. There is no promise of a glorious life after death, with the angels, or sitting at God’s right hand. The New Testament and the Koran make those promises to their faithful. These verses in Psalm 49 are REQUIRED to be said in a house of mourning.
“Hear this you peoples, give ear all you dwellers of decaying earth, my mouth shall speak wisdom. ..The sins that my feet took me to still surround me! There are those who rely on their possessions and who boast of their great wealth, yet they cannot buy off a pardon (a kapara) from God for a relative (presidential pardons are another thing), nor give to God a ransom (to keep themselves or others from death). It is unattainable forever. Can anyone live eternally (in this life)? Everyone goes down to the grave. Wise ones die, as do the foolish and the boorish who perish just the same way, leaving their possessions for others...Humans are silenced, just as animals are. Like sheep they are destined for the “Lower World.” Death will consume them...their essence is doomed to rot in the grave, ..But GOD WILL REDEEM MY SOUL, Upon death, the rich person will take nothing away, his/her splendor will not descend afterward,...
Therefore let each one of us
give thanks, acknowledging that all goodness is connected with God, that each
one (of us) is a continuation of his/her ancestor’s generation(s).
So what did Pearl’s husband do, and his children, and his brother and sister, and the Levenson clan as well? Because we know and love our Judaism, we closed ranks, said the morning, afternoon, and evening prayers. Her son Noah became a Bar Mitzvah, her husband sobbed as he did it, but HE SAID SH’HECHEEYANU! (“Thank you God for keeping US alive...”) And Noah, the 13 year old, who breezed through his readings, who collected the presents as enthusiastically as any Bar Mitzvah kid, went home after the luncheon and cried.
Everyone dies, the stupid and the smart, the rich and the poor, humans and beasts. The psalmist tells us that we have “Holy Tasks”, mitzvot, to do to make our lives meaningful. We create families, we feed them and each other. We provide shelter for ourselves, and the poor as well. We contribute to society through gifts of time and money. A 12-year-old cousin in our family grew her hair long and then had it cut to make wigs for kids with cancer who lost their hair taking chemotherapy. That family too does Shabbos and is very active in their Temple. Their young rabbi, like Rabbi Harold Kushner, also had a young child who had died from a genetic disease. And he, too, soldiers on.
“Who shall live and who shall die?” If this Holy Day of Rosh HaShana comes to you and surrounds you with its holiness, its holy time, that tells you to “pay attention to the little things in life”, and do good in each moment, than your presence here and your prayers here will have been answered in truth.