Sermon by Cantor Eyal Bitton
September 26, 2015 at Beth Jacob Synagogue
On The Simpsons, Homer Simpson applies for a job at the nuclear power plant. He gets called in for a job interview along with a couple other candidates. Smithers, who is conducting the interview, asks each of these candidates, “What would each of you say is your worst quality?”
The first man says, “Well, I’m a workaholic.”
The second man says, “I push myself too hard.”
Homer Simpson replies, “Well, it takes me a long time to learn anything. I’m kind of a goof-off…”
And when Smithers interrupts him to get him to stop, Homer continues and says, “A little stuff starts disappearing from the workplace…”
Yes, honesty is a wonderful character trait. However, sometimes it doesn’t help you.
I know that it hasn’t always served me well. I know this may shock you but I was an honest kid. In Grade 8, in a course about the Prophets, the teacher would go through the attendance sheet and he wouldn’t just ask who was present, he’d ask each person on the sheet if they had done their homework. I was the only one who said, “No.”
Another time in high school, towards the end of a semester when report cards were right around the corner, our Talmud teacher asked us what grade we thought we deserved. He went around the class, student by student. I recall one rather nice but mediocre student replying, “90%”. I couldn’t believe his audacity! What chutzpah! This student – let’s call him Stan – was nowhere deserving of a 90% on his report card.
When the teacher got to me and asked me what mark I thought I deserved, I answered “65%”.
A week or so later, the report cards came out. “Stan” got 90% and, yep, I got 65%. I should have said 90%!!
High Holy Days
Three days ago, we gathered in the Main Sanctuary on the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, and we sang the refrain to Unetane Tokef: B’rosh Hashana yikatevun; uv’yom tzom Kippur yechatemun. This powerful refrain resonates within us year after year, generation after generation: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on the Fast of the Day of Atonement it is sealed”. We are being judged.
Our actions from the past year are being judged by God. We are accountable for what we’ve done – for the choices we’ve made; for our things we’ve said. We view Rosh Hashanah as the beginning of this period of judgment and Yom Kippur as the final day in court before God.
So how did you do? How do you think you did? In your own hearts, did you face your actions honestly and admit them or were you more like my high school friend, Stan? Did you look back on the year that was, 5775, and contemplate your achievements, your behaviour, and the events that helped shape you?
Looking Back and Remembering
This idea of looking back at the completion of a journey, like the end of the year, is something many of us do. In the secular world, on New Year’s Eve, a lyric by the 18th century Scottish poet, Robert Burns, has become a classic. He didn’t write it for New Year’s and he didn’t set it to the tune we sing it now but his words resonate within a great number of people at that particular moment, when looking back on the year that was. This song, Auld Lang Syne, is about looking back on the people we’ve encountered in the past and making sure that they are not forgotten.
Sing it with me, if you can remember the words.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days o’ lang syne!
For auld lang syne, my dear
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet
For auld lang syne!
It’s a beautiful lyric and the melody, though not what Robert Burns had in mind when he wrote it, is just perfect.
Looking back and remember people is something we Jews also do as the year ends. On Yom Kippur day, Ashkenazi Jews hold a memorial prayer for those who have departed us. I would argue that Yizkor has become more significant a moment to many people in our community during this period of judgment than even Kol Nidrei.
We like to remember. We like to look back. We like to evaluate and measure what we’ve done and how far we’ve come.
Moses, in today’s parasha, sings his swan song, so to speak. As he approaches the end of his life, he sings to the people of Israel. Just like in Auld Lang Syne, just like many of us do at the end of a journey or the end of a year, he says, “Zechor yemot olam” (“Remember the days of old”). But he isn’t remembering his own accomplishments or those of his people, he is remembering the role of God in his journey – in our journey. As he nears the end of his life, Moses calls upon his people, upon us, to remember that we are bound to a moral centre, that we have a call to justice.
What Moses is doing isn’t just remembering, he is drawing lessons from the past as he looks forward. And this message is imparted not just in words but in what happens after he concludes reciting his song. After the song, Moses is instructed to ascend Mt. Nebo and look into the Promised Land – but not to enter it. What happens next? Will Israel be safe in this new land? Will Israel understand God’s role in their lives? Moses looks into the land and, by doing so, looks forward and enjoins his people to look forward.
At the next Yizkor service, when we look back at the people we have lost in our families and in our communities, may we not only remember their lives, but also be inspired by their memories to act justly, kindly, and in the tradition of our ancestors. May we remember, then, to look forward.
As we begin the New Year of 5776, may we remember the year that was so that we may look forward to the year ahead. May we draw upon the lessons of the past year so that we may face what lies ahead with the confidence and with the knowledge that we are doing so justly, kindly, and in the tradition of our ancestors – in a godly manner.