Yom Kippur 5775/2014: Belonging to the Generations

By Rabbi Shohama Wiener

My parents, may their memories be blessed, were kind, generous, and supportive. They sent me to the finest of colleges and graduate schools, and helped finance my children’s education as well. But they belonged to the generation whom the God they believed in had failed. I mean really failed. Their parents had escaped the pogroms of Russia to come to the United States, and by doing that, my parents escaped the deathly destruction of six million caused by Adolph Hitler, not of blessed memory. For my parents, God was neither a protector nor one with whom they could be intimate. But they felt gifted with Israel, and I was raised with Jewish pride.

Although my biological parents were not able to transmit a love of God, I was blessed to find several spiritual parents who could do so. The greatest of them was my rebbe, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who left this world this past July, a day on which his students – including me, and his students’ students, including Reb David and Reb Eva – were gathered in Oregon for a week of spiritual learning. We were able to cry together and hold each other, as we took in the vast realization that the future of the Jewish people was now in our hands without our rebbe to call on the phone for advice.

Reb Zalman, as he liked to be called, was also of the generation of the Holocaust; in fact he and his family narrowly escaped being sent to a Concentration Camp. But after much spiritual struggle, and time spent with the Lubavitch Hasidim, he concluded that God was neither a failure nor an absent Spirit. Like the Baal Shem Tov, Reb Zalman’s spiritual father dating frmo the 1700s who founded Hasidism, Reb Zalman found God’s love in every person and in every place and every thing. He gave up the image of a God who could make everything perfect, and tried to give people experiences that would make real the concept of a caring God.

Sometimes it was through story. This classic tale is about heaven and hell. There was a traveler who wanted to know what heaven and hell were like. So he visited hell. There he saw a banquet table heaped with delicious smelling food. But the people in hell had long spoons tied to their hands up past their elbows. Unable to bend their elbows, they were unable to use the spoons to bring food to their mouths; they were starving. Then he went to heaven. In heaven he saw a similar sight. There was a huge banquet table filled with delicious food, and the people had long spoons tied to their hands up past their elbows. But there was one difference. They were having a grand feast because each one was feeding another one.

Reb Zalman taught us to do just that—to feed each other spiritually. When we would pray or study together, he would often have us in dyads. in pairs of two, so that each one could tell the other what he or she thought she heard. So one might say, “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want,” and the other might say “I hear you saying that the Eternal One will nourish my soul so that I feel whole.” He taught us to engage with God in the same way. When we said the Shema, we said it twice, once as part of the Jewish people, “Shema Yisrael,” and the second time with our own name, to make it feel as if we were really in dialogue with God. I would then say “Shema Shohama, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.”

Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from Reb Zalman is what he called the lesson of the severe teacher. He taught us to remember those who gave us what we needed, and those who didn’t give us what we thought we needed. He taught us to find the blessings either way. He taught us to forgive those who hurt us, and to forgive ourselves for the ways in which we acted out our anger. These teachings have been passed on through his book “From Age-ing to Sage-ing,” through courses his ordination students take , and through trainings that are open to the public.

All of us here have parents who passed on to us what love they could. We have relatives with whom we may be close, or distant, or not in contact at all. Yom Kippur calls us to remember – to praise, and also to forgive. Tradition says that God will forgive those who forgive others, but this is not an all or nothing situation. There are some acts that should not be allowed to be repeated, and some people it is not safe to be with.

What then can we do? On this day of Yizkor, of remembering the generations, we can search for blessings in all that passed between us. Please take these questions with you as you go into your afternoon, and into the weeks to come. How have our experiences of love, of pain and of disappointment made us stronger? How have they made us more compassionate? More generous? How have we responded to the gifts and the challenges? With new understanding, how can we transform our memories into stories that will serve not only us but our communities as well?

If we don’t have answers to these complex questions, then know that we are human works in progress, and that we have our spiritual work cut out for us. This is why Yom Kippur returns every year, because none of us yet are perfect. As we heard earlier in Torah, atem nitzavim hayom kulchem, You stand today—all of you. All of you then, and all of you now.

May the Source of blessing and forgiveness, who blessed the ones before us, bless us all here today, May we then be blessings to the generations to follow. And let us say, Amen.

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