What are your seven? (Yizkor 5778 Sermon, 9/30/17)
This sermon may not be reproduced or used without permission of the author.
Goldie Michelson became the oldest person in the United States, on May 12, 2016. She also was the oldest Jew, having replaced Goldie Steinberg who had died the year before. (Want to live long? Be named Goldie!) In an interview with the Jewish Week, in June of 2016, Goldie looked back on her 113 years and summarized her life in seven sentences:
1. She lived in Worcester, Massachusetts for over 100 years. Goldie came from Russia at age 2, and except for the time she went away to college, she spent the rest of her life living in the adopted hometown she loved.
2. There is a theatre named for her at Clark University in Worcester. Goldie had a lifelong passion for the theatre, teaching theatre in Worcester’s Temple Emanuel and to Jewish seniors for decades. She loved theatre so much that she even had a small theatre, complete with a stage, footlights, and a dressing room, in her basement. She gave Clark’s theatre funding for future generations, so they named it for her.
3. She wrote her master’s thesis in sociology about Worcestor’s Jews. Goldie graduated from Pembroke College with a degree in sociology in 1924. As you may know, Pembroke was the women’s college that eventually became a part of Brown University. Her master’s thesis focused on her discovery that fear of learning English discouraged many Jews of Worcestor to seek citizenship.
4. She volunteered for Jewish groups and causes, like Hadassah and the NCJW (National Council of Jewish Women), and she resettled Soviet Jewish refugees when they came to America.
5. She said the key to her longevity was walking. For much of her life, Goldie walked 4 to 5 miles every day. She sold her car, by the way, in 2012, at the age of 109.
6. Her favorite foods were chocolate and lobster. Even at 113, and very healthy for her age, she still ate hot dogs and corn on the cob.
7. She once wrote President Obama a thank you note. After she received the status of supercentenerian at age 110, President Obama sent her a photograph and letter. She felt she had to send a thank you note, even if he never saw or read it.
As she remembered her life, Goldie was able to capture over 113 years in seven sentences. Could any of us capture our entire lives in seven sentences? What can we learn from this supercentenerian?
We can sum up Goldie’s seven sentences as follows:
- Be in community
- Give back to your community with time and money
- Be educated
- Volunteer, especially for Jewish causes.
- Enjoy what you eat and remember that you don’t necessarily have to keep kosher or eat healthy to live longer.
- Write thank you notes.
One month shy of her 114th birthday, on July 8, 2016, Goldie died of natural causes. May her memory forever be a blessing. Zichronah livracha.
When I sit down to write a eulogy, I pour over my notes from my meeting with the family and from the TBS file I have kept forever. I cry a lot, most of the time. I try to capture an entire life, never just the end, or the illness. As eulogizers, we try to capture what was important to us, and we also try to discern what is important to remember for everyone gathered at a funeral.
Only a few people, in my four decades as a rabbi, have actually sat with me before they died and told me what they wanted me to say. Those people gave me a gift.
We might sum up our lives differently than those who are related to us, work with us, or have befriended us. Each eulogy is very personal, and each reflection on a life contains its own truths.
How do you want to be remembered?
What seven sentences would you choose?
Yizkor comes at the end of the Ten Days of Repentance to help us honor our loved ones who have died. In a world that has gone on, we stop to say that we have not forgotten. Yizkor comes at the end of a long day of fasting and introspection to help us remember and deal with the pain and emptiness of all of our life’s losses. For this one day a year, we stop to think about life, death, and how we navigate both as we continue to live.
I believe that Yizkor has another purpose that we don’t often talk about. It comes to remind us that we need to decide who we want to be and become in life. It calls us to be our best selves, even as we hold the memories of our dear ones close. Yom Kippur reminds us, in a profound way, that the work we do on this holiest day is designed to improve the character and humanity we put forth in the world every day to follow. Yizkor gives us time to remember our loved ones, and ultimately to decide the way we want to be remembered when our time to leave this earth comes.
Too often, all that remains for an adult child, when a parent dies, is the yelling or criticism remembered and relived. Too often, all that remains for a loved one who survives is the memory of missed opportunities, things left unsaid, and recollections of a complicated relationship that may have diminished over time. Sometimes we struggle to remember the good.
And sometimes, the love and the good is so great, that the memories and profound loss just hurt so much. Bereft in grief, the touch and embraces shared, the celebrations and cherished moments flood over us, like the waves of a tsunami. Memories can be overwhelming, even as they are loving and precious.
It is beautiful to see that a life can inspire and nurture, sustain and support, even in death. We leave our legacy of love as a sacred tie that binds heaven and earth for eternity. All of those we have touched, and their recollections of us, keep our memory alive and honor the life we have led. When a child eulogizes a parent with love and respect, I can feel a lifetime of caring recorded in both the parent and the child’s Book of Life.
I began at Rosh Hashanah talking about it being Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance. And I asked, what are we remembering? Yizkor, too, is our time to be tasked with remembering. Yom Kippur, just as Rosh Hashanah, is a day of remembrance. How could we not remember on this holiest day of the year? In the quiet of God’s house, we reflect on all those whose lives shaped ours and all the moments we shared with them. For each one of us, our memories are personal and private.
At first reflection, it would be impossible to sum up the lives of the people we loved in seven sentences. It would be hard to sum up any life in seven sentences. And then, on second thought, it isn’t that hard at all.
He loved. He gave. He worked hard. He was charitable. He helped his community. He made a difference. He lived his values. ~That’s a full life.
She gave life. She gave generously. She did everything with a full heart. She transformed her profession. She healed. She studied. She created.
or we can use verbs:
She kvetched. She gossiped. She criticized. She neglected. She spent. She took. She needed.
She laughed. She cried. She touched. She smiled. She listened. She believed. She remembered.
or we can use adjectives:
He was selfish. He was distant. He was driven. He was arrogant. He was cynical. He was remote.
He was kind. He was generous. He was thoughtful. He was calm. He was athletic. He was faithful. He was grateful.
or use nouns:
He was a husband. He was a father. He was a business man. He was a philanthropist. He was a volunteer. He was a sports fan. He was a Jew.
What seven sentences, or nouns, or adjectives do you want to be remembered by? What are your seven?
Can we really capture a life in just a few words or seven sentences? Maybe. Maybe not. But, we know how we feel as we honor each life today:
We are grateful. We are lonely. We are sad. We feel blessed for every day we had together. We feel cheated for every day we didn’t get to have. We are grieving.
And on this Yizkor Yom Kippur afternoon of 5778, we are remembering. And as we do, we are reminded to be the kind of people worth remembering with gratitude, love, and respect.