Congregation B'nai Israel

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A Healing Memory

by Rabbi James Prosnit 

Yom Kippur Memorial Service 2016/5777           

Paul Simon sang a number of years ago that Kodachrome gives you those nice bright colors, they give us the greens of summers, make us think all the world’s a sunny day. And while I realize that some here this evening have never heard of Kodachrome, and have never had to wait more than a second to see the image they just took digitally; those of us of a certain age remember the anticipation of waiting a week or two for the slides to come back and the uncertainty of knowing if we actually caught a clear image.  Then there was the moment when we loaded them into the carousel, darkened the living room and relived the moment.   

Now I wouldn’t trade any of the images of my grandchildren I have in my iphone, for all of the slide boxes in my attic, but I do have a touch of nostalgia for the familial gatherings and the ability to view from some distance the images I had taken some time before.

This is the hour of this sacred day when we get to set up the three-legged screen, turn on the slide carousel projector that is memory – and glimpse from some distance the images of people that we love.  The greens of summer may have faded and more somber hues may have replaced the nice bright colors – but the images remain, even those in black and white.  Whether Kodachrome or faded albums – or the pixelated ones taken just the other day; what we care most about at this service is allowing our minds eye to view the people near and dear, to recall the events distant and recent and hold on to something of each of their lasting value.

But before we get to our own, from time to time during this Yizkor service I’ve paused for a few moments to remember and pay honor to some in the Jewish world who died in the past year. There were quite a number in 5776.  Some are well known and served the Jewish people throughout their lives and others became known to us only in their deaths.  So darken the lights – a brief slide show from the past year.

There were fewer victims of terror this year in Israel – but the deaths of Hallel Yaffa Ariel age 13, and just the other day of Levanah Malichi and Yosef Kirme reminded us that the peace that Shimon Peres worked long and hard to achieve is still out of our grasp. In his graveside eulogy for Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose elder brother was the only Israeli commando killed in the Entebbe raid, that Peres helped master mind called him one of Israel’s greatest leaders and called the large turnout of world dignitaries for his funeral “a testament to his optimism, his quest for peace.”  Writing in Quartz magazine, Gideon Lichfield noted the irony of Peres being eulogized as a “warrior for peace.” For many years he may have been appreciated more abroad than he ever was in Israel, but in later years became Israel’s grandfatherly Nelson Mandela, the embodiment of the country’s best, most noble self.[1]

There were comic actors Gary Shandling and Gene Wilder, a Yiddish theater star Fivush Finkel and Bob Adelman,  the freelance photographer whose work like few others captured the brutality of the civil right battles and racial strife of the 60s.  The liberal stalwart, Judge Abner Mikvah who served in the three branches of government and was a strong supporter of our Religious Action Center in Washington died in July as did some significant Jewish thinkers and visionaries.  On the right Rebbitzen Esther Jungreis, a Jewish evangelist if there ever was one and Rabbi Maurice Lamm who wrote the book, literally, on Death and Mourning.  On the left we mourned Eugene Borowitz perhaps the seminal Reform Jewish theologian of our time.  A teacher and inspiration whose influence spanned the generations of rabbis including Sher, Prosnit and Schultz.  How blessed we were to have him as our teacher at B’nai Israel on several occasions over the years.

And then of course, Elie Wiesel —  the man who all parts of the Jewish and non-Jewish world came to hold up as the voice of moral clarity and conscience.  Michael Berenbaum wrote in his obituary in the Forward, “more than any human being, he was responsible for changing the status of Holocaust survivors from victim to witnesses with a moral mission not only to remember the past, but also to transform the future.”[2]

 Just a few of the slides from the headlines and obituaries of the past year.

On our congregational list there were some community leaders – voices in our choir, former Board members and champions of social justice in Greater Bridgeport.

One who we remember wrote the book on rabbis.  Jack Bloom encourage rabbis across the Jewish spectrum to be symbolic exemplars.  He himself was a complex guy.  His Jewish bio reflected that.  He went to an Orthodox day school, became a conservative rabbi, believed as a Reconstructionist Jew and studied every Shabbat morning in a Reform synagogue.     We who studied with him know well that he had certain wisdom, that he repeated often – but are worthy of repeating one more time.  The translator is traitor – so learn some Hebrew; the meaning of the communication is determined by the listener not the speaker – and, in the end it’s all about the relationship.

Those final words lead us in to our reflections this evening.  Because yes in the end it is all about the relationships, the people that we love, absent from our sides – but still very much part of the slide  show.

I’d like to conclude with a reading called a parable for Mothers, by Temple Bailey. I actually read it at this service thirteen years ago, some months after my mother died.  As most of you know Wendy’s mom died in August – many of you heard me share some words about her and her remarkable life on Rosh Hashanah, but as we enter this time of private connection – I’d like to dedicate this to her.

  The young mother set her foot on the path of life.  “Is the way long?” she asked.  And her guide said, “Yes, and the way is hard.  And you will be old before you reach the end of it.  But the end will be better than the beginning.”  But the young mother was happy and she would not believe that anything could be better than those years.  So she played with her children and gathered flowers for them along the way and bathed them in the clear streams; and the sun shone on them and life was good, and the young mother cried, “Nothing will ever be lovelier than this.”

Then night came, and storm, and the path was dark and the children shook with fear and cold, and the mother drew them close and covered them with her mantle and the children said, “We’re not afraid, for you are near, and no harm can come,” and the mother said, “This is better than the brightness of day, for I have taught my children courage.”

And the morning came, and there was a hill ahead and the children climbed and grew weary, and the mother was weary, but at all times she said to the children, “A little patience and we are there.”  So the children climbed and when they reached the top, they said, “We could not have done it without you.”  And the woman, when she lay down that night, looked up at the stars and said, “This is a better day than the last, for my children have learned fortitude in the face of hardness.  Yesterday I gave them courage, today I have given then strength.”

And with the next day came strange clouds which darkened the earth, clouds of war and hate and evil–and the children groped and stumbled, and the mother said, “Look up.  Lift your eyes to the light.”  And the children looked and saw above the clouds an Everlasting Glory, and it guided them and brought them beyond the darkness.  And that night the mother said,  “This is the best day of all for I have shown my children faith.”

And the days went on, and the weeks and the months and the years, and the mother grew old, and she was little and bent.  And her children were tall and strong and walked with courage. 

And when the way was rough they lifted her, for she was as light as a feather; and at last they came to a hill, and beyond the hill they could see a shining road and golden gates flung wide. 

And the mother said, “I have reached the end of my journey.  And now I know that the end is better than the beginning, for my children can walk alone and their children after them.”  And the children said, “You will always walk with us, even when you have gone through the gates.”

And they stood and watched her as she went on alone, and the gates closed after her.  And they said, “We cannot see her, but she is with us still.  A mother like ours is more than a memory.  She is a Living Presence.”[3]