09.18.2018 Kol Nidre
Please sing this song aloud and with feeling, before reading further!
When I get older losing my hair
Many years from now
Will you still be sending me a valentine
Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?
If I’d been out till quarter to three
Would you lock the door?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me
When I’m sixty four?
Na, na, na—na, na, na, na, na…
You’ll be older too
And if you say the word
I could stay with you
I could be handy, mending a fuse
When your lights have gone
You can knit a sweater by the fireside
Sunday mornings go for a ride
Doing the garden, digging the weeds
Who could ask for more?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me
When I’m sixty four?
Every summer we can rent a cottage in the Isle–of Wight,
If it’s not too dear
We shall scrimp and save
…..Grandchildren on your knee
Vera, Chuck and Dave
Send me a postcard, drop me a line
Stating point of view
Indicate precisely what you mean to say
Yours sincerely, wasting away
Give me your answer, fill in a form
Will you still need me, will you still feed me
When I’m sixty four?
It’s a great song. I’ve been thinking about this song a lot lately. I am 67 (which btw, is the new 64). I’ll be 68 in November. When I first heard this Beatles song, I was 26 years old. Needless to say, it means something much different to me now than it did then.
People have asked me whether I’m thinking about what it’s going to feel like to be retired. Not only am I thinking about it. I’m having dreams about it. I’d be skating along, feeling carefree. People would ask me, ‘what will you do next?’ and I would smile and say “I don’t really know yet,” and not feel the slightest bit of concern or anxiety.
And, then, just when I felt I was at the height of my well adjustedness, I would have a dream. And, this dream would tell me that there was more on my mind than I realized. I had two dreams in particular that I would like to share with you today. But, first a story.
The story is written by R. Nachman of Bratzlav, a Hassidic Rebbe who lived at the time of American Revolution. It was the height of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment revolutionized the way society evaluated the worth of a human being. Enlightenment thinkers said that we should be judged for what we do, not for our birth, not for our social class, and not for our religion. (later race and gender were added to the mix)
This was especially great news for the Jews. It broke down barriers to opportunity that until that time were insurmountable. And, we took full advantage of it. And, we’re still blessed to be part of this culture.
And, yet, the idea of being judged by our performance also has its down side. And, Rebbe Nachman told a story about why.
He said: Once there lived two rich men in a city, and each of them had a son. One son was clever, and nothing was so complex that he couldn’t grasp it. The other son was simple, and he could grasp what was simple and direct, no more.
It happened that both fathers became poor at the same time, and so they had to send their sons into the world. The simple son began to acquire a craft with a poor cobbler. But, the clever son was determined to conquer the world.
First, he apprenticed himself to a merchant. He quickly learned the business and grew restless for something more challenging. He traveled to England, France, and finally Italy, where he became a goldsmith. He quickly became the finest goldsmith in Italy.
But, he wanted a greater challenge. So, he became a healer. And, he was so brilliant, that he penetrated everything in the nature and the soul of man, so that nothing was withheld from him.
But, the more successful he was, the more unhappy he was. He was commissioned to design a jewel, and everyone praised its beauty. But, he was aware of a tiny defect, and it gnawed at his soul. He ordered a hand made coat, and it was magnificent. But, he only noticed a slight defect in the sleeves. And, this is how it went for him for many years. Until, finally, a violent disgust at the imperfection of life drove him from place to place, and he nowhere found rest.
Meanwhile, the simple man barely eked out a living, but he was always in good spirits. When his wife handed him a piece of dry bread, he said, “thank you, dear for this delicious roast.” And, when he put on his shabby sheepskin, he was convinced that in the whole world there wasn’t a more glorious garment. He didn’t have much, but because of how he looked at the world, he was happy.
There is more to this story, and we could spend an hour talking about it. But, I want to focus on Rav Nachman’s core critique of the Enlightenment. The good news about a world in which we’re judged by our own performance is that our destiny is in our own hands. And, we can always do better. We can always improve. We can always progress. If we are born a coal miner, we’re not stuck doing that, if we’re capable of more.
On the other hand, if we can do better, so can the next guy. So, an intense competition sets in for who can perform the best. And, that means that no matter how well we do, we can never be secure. There’s always someone who can come along and knock us off the block.
Worse than that, we can never really be happy. Because if life can always be improved, then nothing we accomplish is ever good enough. Whatever, we create, it can always be better.
But, worst of all, we can never be secure in our own value. Because, if we are deemed valuable because we perform well, if our performance dips, we are no longer loved. And, what happens to us if we should stop performing altogether?
Rav Nachman of Bratslav never met Mr. Rogers. But, I feel like they would have gotten along. Over the summer, I went to see the documentary on Fred Rogers life, called “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” It was a beautiful movie. I cried several times during the movie.
I remember two of the moments I cried. There was a scene in which the Mr. Rogers show was opened to people in the city who wanted to be part of the studio audience. And, the response of the community was overwhelming. Hundreds of adults and their children lined up around the block to get in.
And, my read on this is that inside every single adult in that line was a child who yearned to be looked at the way Mr. Rogers looked at children. As we know, Mr. Rogers most famous line was “I love you just the way you are.” Btw, it’s a well kept secret that there is a Jewish version of Mr. Rogers. It’s called shabbat. On shabbat, performance is irrelevant. One day a week we are blind to the world’s imperfection. One day a week, there is nothing about us or anybody else that needs any improvement.
But, we’re Jews, after all, So, on the other six days, it’s a mitzvah to be creatively unhappy. And, that’s consistent with Mr. Rogers. Because, Mr. Rogers didn’t say we shouldn’t have expectations of each other. What he said was we don’t have to meet some arbitrary standard of perfection to be worthy of love.
Nothing in the film said that more eloquently than the scene in the film that really got me weeping. It was a conversation that Mr. Rogers had on his show with a young boy in a wheelchair. This little boy must have been about nine years old. He had very severe physical disabilities and he was facing surgery to prevent his condition from getting worse. Everything about this child screamed “I am different.”
Yet, when Mr. Rogers spoke to this child, it was if the disability weren’t even there. He saw right through the disability to the child. We all want to be looked at that way. We all worry that we don’t measure up on some scale, and because we don’t, we won’t be loved.
I’m a baseball fan. And, I’ve been thinking about Felix Hernandez lately. Felix is now in his 14th season with the Mariners. For the first 12 of those years, he was one of the best pitchers in the major leagues.
But, last year, Felix’s skills began to slip. And, this year, at age 34, Felix has really struggled. So, as a fan, I cringed every time Felix started a game. I wanted the Mariners to win. But, as a human being, I felt bad for Felix. I kept thinking of that poignant line in our Yom Kippur liturgy: al tashlicheinu l’eit zikna/God, don’t throw us away in our old age. Kichlot kocheinu, al taazveinu/when we can no longer perform, don’t abandon us.
It’s interesting that this consideration is even built into sports. On the one hand, professional sports is the ultimate meritocracy. Either you can play or you can’t. Yet, why do we continue to remain loyal to teams who disappoint us year after year? How did we explain Red Sox fans, Cubs fans, and yes, Mariners fans? I think it’s because we want to be loved that way, too—even if we fail, even if we lose our hair, even if we don’t perform as we used to perform.
Some of you may remember that when I first came to the community almost 17 years ago, in my very first sermon, I told a story about an elderly Jewish lady who I knew in Worcester, Massachusetts. We’ll call her Mrs. Schwartz. Mrs. Schwartz was a very feisty 88 years old when I first met her.
On my first week in the job, Mrs. Schwartz, marched into my office, looked me straight in the eye, and said to me: “Do you know who I am?” Well, of course, I had no idea who Mrs. Schwartz was, but she spoke with such authority that I felt embarrassed that I didn’t know. And then, she proceeded to tell me about her 50 year history in the congregation—who her late husband was, and what she and her family had done for the congregation over the course of five decades.
I told that story 17 years ago as a way of asking forgiveness in advance for not yet being able to appreciate what each member of the congregation meant to Herzl-Ner Tamid. But, now the shoe is on the other foot for me. And, some people have shared with me their anxiety about having to “start all over again with a new rabbi”. And, I understand that concern. Because we all want to be known. We all want our community to appreciate us for who we really are. And, no one is so entirely secure that we never worry about losing that appreciation.
No one. Not even the most accomplished among us. The rabbis tell us a remarkable story about Moses. You would think that with everything that Moses achieved in his life, he’d be secure forever in his legacy. But, the rabbis say otherwise.
The Torah tells us that when God told Moses he wasn’t going into the Promised Land, Moses tried to change God’s mind. And, out of this brief description, the rabbis created a beautiful story in which Moses pulls out all the stops in the hope of reversing God’s decision.
At first, Moses tries to convince God that God should let him live forever. He marshalls every argument in the book, and he even calls upon the heavens and the earth and the sun and the moon to advocate on his behalf. To no avail.
Finally, God says to Moses: “Moses, it isn’t right what you’re doing. You have to allow a new generation to take over.” So, Moses says to God, “OK, God. Is that what’s hanging you up? That’s not a problem. I’ll retire. I’ll become the rabbi emeritus.”
And, God says to Moses, “Are you sure? Do you think you can handle that?” And, Moses says, “Of course! What’s the big deal?”
So, the next day, Moses is sitting in the tent at Joshua’s side, and the people of Israel are coming to Joshua to learn Torah. And, they don’t even notice that Moses is sitting there.
And, then Joshua enters into the Cloud of Glory to talk to God, the way Moses used to. And, Moses is on the outside, and he is not part of the conversation. And, Moses feels terrible. He feels invisible. And, at this point, Moses turns to God, and says, “OK, God. Have it your way. I accept your decree.”
I don’t think the rabbis were telling us that we should never retire. On the contrary, I think the rabbis were giving us permission to be human. I think they were saying to us: Be gentler with yourselves. Even Moses struggled with insecurity and jealousy. Life’s transitions are complicated. No one does them perfectly. Give yourselves a break.
Over the past years, I spoke to many colleagues who have retired within the past 5 years. They all seem very happy. On the other hand, I couldn’t get any of them off the phone.
Long after I had gotten the information I thought I needed, my colleagues wanted to keep advising me. At first, I thought I was the therapist hearing my friends talk out their own concerns. But, then I realized, I was the congregant. Rabbis like to help people. And, my retired friends didn’t get to do that as much anymore. They jumped at the chance at being needed for their wisdom.
So, I’m not going to tell you I’m not thinking about this. But, I think I’m coming to terms with it. And, here’s how I know. I had a dream.
In this dream, I am in shul and it is Yom Kippur. But, I am wearing jeans. And, it’s time for the Mincha service to begin on Yom Kippur. And, clearly I’m not ready to lead the service. I’m still in my jeans. So, I say to the Cantor, “start without me.”
Now, you know, the Cantor and I have been working with each other for almost 17 years. We say this kind of thing to each other all the time. But, somehow, this time was different.
I take this dream as a sign that I am preparing myself emotionally for a new reality. What makes me think I can do any better than Moses? Well, I can’t be sure. But, here is the thing about Moses. We never hear about his grandchildren. Maybe he had them. We certainly don’t hear about him spending time with them.
So, if you’ll forgive me one more grandchild story, I promise this will be it for a while. Our home right now looks like F.A.O. Schwartz. Janine is not only a great Bubbie, but she taught children for 40 years, and she knows what children like. So, Daniella, has two hobby horses. Why two? Because what fun is it to ride alone?
So, the other day, we take the two hobby horses out of the closet. Daniella takes one for herself. It’s always the same one. And, she motions to me, to ride with her.
Now, it’s hard for me to put into words why this melts my heart. But, at this moment, I feel profoundly needed. I haven’t done a thing to earn this feeling. Daniella has not seen my resume. I have no particular qualifications to perform this task. I have been chosen by a two year old and I am on top of the world. Because I am her Zaydie, or as Daniella would say, her ‘Ziti.’
I recently saw a very sweet and funny Israel film called Maktub. It’s about two Israeli gangsters, Chuma and Steve, whose job is to shake down people for protection money. But, when they unexpectedly survive a terrorist blast, they are born again. And, they decide to use their skills to help people. They take out the little notes in the Western Wall to find out what people’s dreams are, and then they make them come true.
Chuma and Steve are business partners. They need each other in a practical way. But, the sweetest thing about the film is their friendship. It’s clear that their need for each other is more than pragmatic. At times, they bicker like an old couple. But, in the end, they do what good friends do. They stand by each other because for some inexplicable reason, they love each other.
Will we still be needed when we’re 64? Maybe not, if being needed is the same as being productive. But, they are not the same. In his book Fear No Evil, Natan Sharansky reflects on the decision that Galileo had to make between continuing his work as a groundbreaking astronomer or defying the Catholic Church by standing up for principle. Galileo made the decision to retract his statement that the sun did not revolve around the earth. And, he reasoned that the contribution he could make to humanity by continuing his life’s work justified publicly affirming what he knew to be a lie.
But, Sharansky said, who is to say that an act of courage by Galileo would not have been a far greater contribution to humanity than any scientific advance Galileo would subsequently make? Of what use was Sharansky to the world sitting in a Soviet Gulag for 9 years? Of what use was Nelson Mandela in a South African prison for 37 years? Yet, they were needed. Not for their work, for their courage.
We often take justifiable pride in Israel’s achievements in medicine and technology. Yet, Israel’s greatest gift to the world is its very existence— its flourishing in the face of adversity. And, resilience and perseverance are not limited to any particular time of life. We admire them equally in a two year old and a ninety two year old.
Who is to say why we are needed at age 64 or 104? When we mean something to someone we love, we offer something just by walking into the room. I’ve seen people who’ve led conventionally accomplished lives take on a whole new dimension of their lives in retirement, just by virtue of a new level of relationship between them and their families.
I’ve seen friends in their 90’s provide so much meaning for each other’s lives just by spending time with each other, looking out for each other, sharing each other’s aches and joys. Today, at Yizcor, we remember people just like that, family who loved us unconditionally, ‘just for who we are”, people who we needed not because of what they did for us, but because of what they meant to us.
And, for what they modeled for us. Grace under pressure. Think John McCain. Joie de vivre in the face of cruelty. Think Fred Kahn. Stubborn persistence in the service of an ideal. Think Paul Malakoff.
Those loved ones are with us still, as we enter a new year. Moses told us that when he gathered us as a people just before we entered the Promised Land. He said: “all of you are here to renew God’s covenant. That covenant is with you who stand here. And, it’s with those who no longer stand here, too. You are all here together. Don’t be afraid.”
Moses knew that change is difficult. Whenever we’re used to relating to the world in a certain way, it’s not easy to move in new directions. I should know. I’ve been dreaming about it. Which brings me finally to dream number two.
I was on a ledge and below me was a pool of clear water. The only way for me to get down safely was to jump. There was some distance between me and the water. But, there were also rocks that were visible through the water. It wasn’t clear just how deep the water was covering the rocks.
There were also people to the right of me on another ledge. And, I asked them if they thought it was safe to jump, and they said ‘yes,’ they intended to jump, too. And, they did. And, they were ok. Still, they had not been exactly in the same spot as I had been, so I couldn’t be certain.
Finally, I let go and I jumped. I remember feeling afraid at first, but then as I relaxed a little, I enjoyed the feeling of falling freely. And, I hit the water so smoothly that I didn’t feel any impact. And, then I swam from there to a beautiful vista.
It was my dream, but it could have been all of ours. Each of us will be journeying into the new year in a way that will involve some letting go of what was before. And, that can be a little scary.
But, we don’t have to ride alone. We have our friends. We have our family. We have our community. We have our memories. And, we have our heritage to ride with us. I wish us all a safe journey, as we cross the Jordan River together.
As for me, my retirement is still 10 months away. That’s a long time from now. I intend to be fully present for that entire time. But, when that time is complete, I am looking forward to wearing my jeans a little more often. And, feeling the joy of riding my hobby horse with the wind at my back.