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Sermon - Erev Yom Kippur 5775 - Remember to Remember

10/05/2014 03:09:46 PM


          This past summer, my family had the pleasure of visiting the 9/11 Memorial. It took us awhile to find the official opening to the park area. So with every turn, we gasped, hoping to find what we were looking for. As the Freedom Tower stared down at us, we finally reached our destination. The roar of the two waterfalls filled the air. As we took steps towards the black plaques, we explained to the kids, not only about what happened here and the tragic loss of life, but also about the bravery of the fire and police departments during this horrific tragedy. Joshua was taken in by all of the names etched into the granite. The rest of us were taken in by the enormity of the space that each tower took up. The space was breathtaking. Standing there, feeling the ghostlike presence of the towers, made it hard for us not to contemplate the sadness of this sacred place and the tragic loss of life.

            But there definitely was irony in the air. The farther we moved away from the pools, the more the market economy collapsed on us. As we left our meditative moments in front of the waterfalls, we turned around to find vendors selling t-shirts, hot dogs, and pretzels. Kids were running around, dads were throwing baseballs, and there was a general sense in the air that life must move forward. In the same blocked off area where Americans were supposed to reflect on bravery and loss, more seemed interested in finding a beautiful place to roll around in the grass.

            We all have a strong propensity to move on. When it comes to 9/11, many of us do not want to dwell on the sadness. Rather, we choose to move forward. I have to say, this reality made me quite sad, and yet, I was not surprised. We live in an extremely fast world. We have short attention spans. One obvious example is that 50 years ago, a Rabbi’s sermon on the high holy days could easily be 30 minutes long. I know that if I breach the 10 minute mark, people start to nod off. Who knows what the room would look like if I spoke for 30 minutes?

            But we do live in a fast-paced world. Our attention spans are not the only symptom of this problem. Take the news cycle. A few months ago, a regular passenger flight was shot down by Russian weapons over the Ukraine. How many of us talk about that? Even before that plane, there was that Malaysian passenger flight that disappeared. The news cycle seems to have dropped that, too. Perhaps even more serious is just a month ago, missiles were being fired on a regular basis in our homeland. Now, actions in Israel seem to be scarcely noticed. Despite the recent anti-Semitism in Europe and even this country, hatred of the Jews has been moved from the front page to the back. Whether it is caused by the media, or the media is just reacting to our current state, we have a propensity for moving forward.

            And while moving forward is a wonderful coping mechanism, there is a huge drawback. As we move forward, it becomes harder and harder to look back. Yom Kippur, and especially this night of Kol Nidre, resonates with many Jewish principles. But one of the most important lessons that must be brought forward during this current trend of moving forward is the commandment "to remember." As we move farther away from the metaphoric waterfalls, we have a harder time remembering the lessons from 9/11. As we move farther away, riding on the waves that push us on to the next thing, we have a harder time remembering what was important about our past. As we move farther away from any moment in time, we forget to remember.

              In the Torah, there is a story about a tribe of people who wish to attack the Israelites right after they cross over the Red Sea. The Torah tells us that this tribe, known as Amalek, will attack the women and children at the back. Jewish tradition understands this as meaning that the tribe of Amalek wanted to completely annihilate the Israelites by attacking the future generation as well as those that could bear the future generations. Because of the intentions of this tribe, the Torah commands the Jewish people to: remember Amalek, and not forget. The Torah says, "remember," as well as, "do not forget." The Torah recognizes that it is not easy to remember one's past. It is not simple to reflect on the difficult and tragic moments of one's life. It may not be something that even we desire. However, if we are to learn from our past and grow, we must remember.

          My mother was a nursery school teacher at a conservative synagogue for over 35 years. She molded and shaped young lives. She believed that she was doing meaningful work by not teaching in the elementary school, though she was certified and trained to do so. She believed that reaching children at an extremely young age, helping them to appreciate learning in their first steps, was the way to have the greatest effect on their journeys. She loved being a mother, but she truly enjoyed guiding her little three and four-year-olds as they first learned the ABCs and the Aleph Bet.

Thinking about my mother is not always easy. Remembering my mother has gotten harder and harder because the time that we had together is farther away. I still feel the pain of loss when I remember her. I still get choked up, longing to be near her. I am a father, husband, and a Rabbi of a wonderful community. I have great excuses for not slowing down and for just moving forward, never looking back. And yet, if I am to learn from my past and honor my mother, I must spend time thinking about her, reflecting on how she affected me. If only at yahrzeit, yizkor, and other holidays, I must not be afraid to slow down and remember the woman that she was and will continue to be to me.  Though it may be hard, we must take time to remember our dear ones.

It should not end there, though. For personal growth, we must remember the journeys that we have taken. It is extremely important for us to take time in our fast-paced world and reflect on where we should have gone left when we went right. Sure, it is easy to say, "Why should I look at those moments? I'm here now, so what does that matter?” We must remember the moments where we have fallen short to remind ourselves not to do it again. If we keep on moving forward, never reflecting on our past, then we are doomed to repeat our failures over and over again. This is the reason why Yom Kippur gives us a ritualistic opportunity to look back. We need Yom Kippur because our day-to-day life is filled with moving forward, never looking back. We are here because it is important for us to reflect on where we have gone wrong, where we have gone astray. We do this because we want to make this world a better place. In order to do that, we must realize that we are not perfect. We need a moment to stop the ride, get off, and look back to see where we didn't do so well. When we do that, we better ourselves and, in the end, our world - all because we chose to remember.

We also must take time to remember because it reminds us of who we are. This past summer saw not only violence in our homeland, but violence in the entire Jewish world. When we take a moment to look back, we stop being ignorant, thinking that we are safe from the cancer known as anti-Semitism. If we constantly move forward, forgetting about what has taken place, it is easy to think that all is safe and good in the Jewish world. We would be wrong. We look back to remind ourselves that anti-Semitism has not been wiped from the face of this earth. We look back to remind ourselves that there have been those and will continue to be those who wish to deny us our freedoms as a Jewish people. In case you think that what happened this summer was just an anachronism, this past month, a liberal Rabbi was denied service in a restaurant in the South because he was wearing a Jewish star around his neck. Remembering, for us as a Jewish people, needs to be woven into the fabric of our souls because it helps connect us to each other and our tragic past. In the end, this action of remembering will empower us and make us stronger.

            When I visited the 9/11 memorial, it reminded me just how fast our lives are moving. We all seem to want to move on. I'm not just talking about September 11th, but I'm talking about all aspects of our lives. We want to move forward, faster beyond our current state. A serious ramification of this is that we push up against one of the pillars of Judaism - the commandment to remember. Memory is an extremely powerful thing. Judaism recognizes that through the twofold commandment of "remembering our past" and "not forgetting our past". Though they are two sides of the same coin, their message is not blunted. We must remember to remember. We must remember our loved ones to honor them and learn from them. We must remember our faults and where we have gone astray, in order to improve ourselves and our world. And we must remember our identities to help blot out hatred and anti-Semitism from this world.

May it be God's will, Amein.

Mon, July 13 2020 21 Tammuz 5780