Wednesday, September 26, 2012

“Our Hope: Judaism and Eternity” - Yom Kippur Morning September 26, 2012

ASHER NATAN LANU TORAH EMET, V’CHA-YEI OLAM NATA B’TOCHEINU.  BARUCH ATAH ADONAI, NOTEIN HATORAH.   We have heard these words countless times.   Most of us probably know them by heart.  They are mentioned in the Talmud, and they may be 2000 years old.   We recite those phrases in the blessing after the Torah reading as we take part in an aliyah.    This Yom Kippur morning offers us an opportunity to look at that blessing more closely, to further understand its meaning. 
     This short liturgical paragraph begins with what we could call the “standard blessing formula” -  BLESSED ARE YOU, ETERNAL ONE, OUR GOD, RULER OF THE UNIVERSE – BARUCH ATAH ADONAI ELOHEINU MELECH HAOLAM.   Next comes the “operative language,” the heart of the prayer  - ASHER NATAN LANU TORAT EMET – WHO HAS GIVEN US A TRUE TORAH – OR A TORAH OF TRUTH…..V’CHAYEI OLAM NATA B’TOCHEINU – AND HAS PLANTED IN OUR MIDST (OR INSIDE OF US) ETERNAL LIFE.   BARUCH ATAH ADONAI, NOTEIN HATORAH – BLESSED ARE YOU, ETERNAL ONE, GIVER OF THE TORAH.  This blessing focuses on learning and tradition, like the prayer before the reading, but it seems to add a phrase almost at random.  We probably wouldn’t have expected a reference to eternal life to be part of a ritual that signifies our dedication to the study of this sacred text.  
   The beginning of this morning’s Torah reading from Deuteronomy Chapter 29 may begin to explain how eternity and Torah fit together.  The Torah portion  portrays Moses standing before the Israelites as they reaffirmed the covenant, their special relationship with God.    Moses told the people that God was making a covenant “with those who were standing with them on that day,” and with “those who were not there on that day.”   The statement about those who were not present referred to members of generations yet to come.   By the time the Jewish Bible, the TANAKH, was complete in the year 90 CE, the teachings of the Torah had already transcended time.  At that point in history, our tradition had been passed down many times over from parents to children.   It is not surprising that the great Sage Hillel characterized the words and teachings of the Torah as eternal as early as the first century CE.   We can find his declaration in the Sayings of the Rabbis, Pirkei Avot: “KANA SHEIM TOV, KANA L’ATZMO – When you acquire a good name, you acquire it for yourself, on your own.  KANA LO DIVREI TORAH, KANA LO CHAYEI HAOLAM HABA – when you make the words of Torah and its heritage your own, you acquire life in the world to come –that is, eternal life, or a piece of eternity.   We may think of study and listening to Torah and Haftarah readings during a service as tied only to that very moment of recitation and reflection.   Those very rituals place us in an ever-growing chain of tradition.  We as members of Temple Beth-El derive benefit from eternal Jewish sources for wisdom when we participate in our ongoing Talmud Study and Torah study groups, the Jewish women’s spirituality group and our Religious School.  We can acquire words of Torah by attending Temple Beth-El’s introduction to Judaism class, our upcoming course on the Sayings of the Rabbis, Pirkei Avot, and other classes, series, discussions and one-time lectures that we offer.    It isn’t only wisdom and knowledge that we seek when we study.   We explore the sacred texts of our heritage so that we will act in the best way possible.    We have discussed our values and our words during these High Holy Days.   It is what we do that demonstrates our response to the call in this morning’s Torah reading to “Choose life!”
        Study and action based on Jewish wisdom and values allow us to touch upon something eternal.  We don’t talk much about eternity in our society, so the words of the blessing after the Torah reading that speak of eternal life might regularly pass us by without acknowledgement.   So what is the Jewish view of eternity? The Torah was virtually silent on the topic.  The remaining books in the Bible spoke of eternity in terms of afterlife: an ultimate resting place for the souls of the dead called SHEOL, a dark, non-descript place within the earth where the souls of those who had died knew neither reward nor punishment.  They were just “there.”  To be in SHEOL, which translates as “the pit,” was to be in the lowest possible place, separated from happiness, from loved ones, and from God’s goodness.  It wasn’t until the time of the Maccabees that our tradition developed the idea that those who died valiantly in battle to preserve the Jewish faith and people should be able to share in the glory and reward that they deserved. From that time, the backstory of the holiday of Chanukah, likely came the belief that the souls of those who died in battle would be united with a resurrected body  - perhaps physical, perhaps spiritual – and bask in the light of the divine.  According to the tradition of the rabbis, whenever the world would come to an end, whether then or in the distant future, every righteous person in any generation and among all peoples would be rewarded with life in the world to come – the OLAM HABA.  When people who performed everyday mitzvot, such as study, honoring parents, visiting the sick, supporting their community, and making peace between people, appeared to get little or no reward in this life, the rabbis said that the greater reward would be waiting for them LAOLAM HABA – in the world to come.   That is the central theme of one of our early morning prayers, EILU D’VARIM.  
     During my Reform Jewish upbringing, I often heard the term “Messianic age” to describe a rational view of the world to come, a time of peace and harmony brought about by humanity. Yet, the references to eternity remained in Reform prayerbooks.   The Union Prayer Book, created over 110 years ago, ended ATAH GIBOR, the second prayer of the Tefillah, with a phrase that is reminiscent of the second Torah blessing:  BARUCH ATAH ADONAI, NOTEI-A B’TOCHEINU CHAYEI OLAM– BLESSED ARE YOU, ADONAI, WHO IMPLANTS ETERNAL LIFE WITHIN US.” The new prayerbook MISHKAN T’FILAH, ends that prayer with the phrase M’CHAYEH HAKOL, “Blessed are You, Adonai, who gives life to all.”   
     We know the word OLAM in relation to many of the blessings we recite, where it means WORLD or UNIVERSE as in MELECH HA-OLAM, Ruler of the Universe.  OLAM also means eternal or immortal.     We recite the word OLAM in the second line of the Shema and in other prayers in the phrase L’OLAM VAED, “forever and ever.” L’OLAM expresses the concept of moving “on and on to infinity, to the end of the universe.”  One of the names for a cemetery in Hebrew is BAYT OLAMIM – literally, “House of Worlds or universes” or the “abode of eternity.”  
      One of the prayers that we recite at funerals and at memorial or yizkor services that refers to OLAM – eternity -  is EIL MALEI RACHAMIM – God, full of compassion.   Through this poignant text, we pray that our loved ones who have died will find perfect rest under the wings of God’s sheltering and shining presence, the SHEKHINAH.  We pray for the soul of our loved one who has entered his or her OLAM or eternal existence.  This prayer asks of God, “Source of mercy, enfold our loved one L’OLAMIM – forever – in the shadow of Your wings.” We pray that the souls of those who have died will be bound up in the bond of life, BITZROR HACHAYIM, and that they will be at peace in their eternal resting place. EIL MALEI RACHAMIM offers a sense of everlasting protection, connection with all of existence, and rest and peace before God for the souls of those who have died.  
      We likely would explain what we mean by eternity in many different ways today.  Perhaps we believe that our soul goes back to the universe to be a part of the reservoir of creation.  Maybe our soul remains intact and returns to God and is reunited with loved ones who died before us.  In his book, DOES THE SOUL SURVIVE?  Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz explained that we don’t really know for a fact what happens after we die.  He believes that stories that some people tell from having been unconscious and near death suggest that our soul might very well remain distinct after we die, that we may have an opportunity to look back on every moment of our lives, that we could come into contact with relatives who have died – hopefully unburdened of any pain or despair they knew in life – and that we will rest in peace under the protection of God’s light.  
     We may see eternity in terms of how our memories and the legacies we create through our words and deeds assure some measure of personal immortality.  People can and often do live on in what we remember and in the stories and lessons they have left to us.   Our recollections of our loved ones who have died can enable their love, friendship and incomparable wisdom to endure because they are now a part of us. 
      What can we learn from the many Jewish views of eternity?  Remembering the lives of our loved ones who are no longer with us teaches us about how we should, within every moment, follow the command of this morning’s Torah reading to choose life and good.   As we wish for the souls of those who have died protection, peace, rest and a feeling of being connected to the entire universe, we can strive to feel bound in every moment to all human beings throughout the world. We can resolve to provide shelter and comfort for people in need.  We can take time out of our routines to rest in order to find the inner strength to bring peace to ourselves and to our community. We should take the opportunities now, in what singer Michael Rutherford once called, “the living years,” to reach out in mercy or forgiveness in order to repair broken relationships or to heal the wounds of past hurts, if such reconciliation is at all possible.  Finally, we shouldn’t hesitate to learn from the past.  Yom Kippur is an annual day of life review, when we look into our souls to see who we have been and who we are.  We have the opportunity on this day to decide who we have the potential to be and what we can do to reach for that goal of giving humanity and the world the best of ourselves.   We can emerge from Yom Kippur renewed and refreshed, looking forward to the promise of joy, light and blessing here and now.   
       We read in the 90th chapter of the book of Psalms, “Teach us, Eternal One, to number our days – to count our days in the proper way – that we may obtain a heart of wisdom.”     This verse came to mind as I read Mitch Albom’s new book, The Time Keeper.   The main characters in this book all face death in some way, and are all concerned about the passing of time.  The central character spent his life designing ways to measure time. He became so focused on that task that he almost missed the love that surrounded him.   Another character in the book found that life’s challenges and failures can cause us to feel that fairness, affirmation and a heart of wisdom are beyond our earthly reach.  We may come to believe that there is never enough time to find the comfort and hope that can enable us move forward with courage and confidence. A third character tried to outwit death itself, only to find that time was not to be measured in quantity but in quality.   The Time Keeper reminds us to preserve life’s special moments not only with the most advanced photographic technology but with the camera of the heart and mind.  It teaches that we should not let another person’s cruelty and humiliation, intended to destroy our sense of self, prevent us from living the life of goodness that we deserve to live.  Mitch Albom infused this fable of his own creation with a heart of wisdom of its own.  This tale reminds us that time is not lived only in years, days, hours, minutes and seconds. As one musical so aptly put it, we have the chance to live the time we are given in love, in treasured memories, in nurturing relationships and in bringing light, hope and peace to the world here and now.
     And that is the essential and eternal message of Torah.   The prayer that we recite just before the Shema in morning and evening services says that we were given the gift of Torah out of love so that we would have a path that would lead us to goodness and integrity.  When we walk along that road, we are part of the enduring journey of those who preceded us and those who will follow us in the centuries to come.    The prayer after the Torah reading ends with the familiar refrain, BARUCH ATAH ADONAI, NOTEIN HATORAH – BLESSED ARE YOU ETERNAL ONE – GIVER OF THE TORAH.    Every time we hear this blessing recited, we join with our ancestors, with Jews all over the world today, with the entire human family, and with those who are not yet here with us this day in an eternal search for new knowledge and greater insight into what it means to choose life and to infuse life with meaning and purpose.  
     In February, I traveled home to Kansas City to attend a cousin’s Bat Mitzvah.  Our son Adam, our niece Samantha, and Samantha’s husband Rob were also there to represent our family.   On Shabbat afternoon that weekend, we drove to Rose Hill Cemetery to visit the graves of my parents, Joseph and Ruth Karol.   Rob never had the chance to know my parents, but Samantha and Adam have many memories of times that we shared together as a family through the years.   As I looked at the three members of our family’s next generation standing together at the cemetery, I thought about the passage of time, wondering how it was possible that Adam and Samantha had grown up so quickly.   And I thought about how proud my parents would be of their grandchildren, who practice so many of the values they espoused and lived every day.   Here was a scene that demonstrated how Torah can be eternal, how a legacy can continue across three generations, and, hopefully, many more. 
    May the souls of our loved ones that are now bound up in the bond of eternity inspire us to wholeheartedly choose to live a life of righteousness and compassion, goodness and blessing.  And may their lives teach us to number our days so we will gain, as one community, a heart of wisdom.   So may it be – and let us say Amen.  

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