Approaching My Father’s 50th Yahrtzeit

Rabbi Donald P. Cashman
B’nai Sholom Reform Congregation
January 24, 2020 – Parshat Vaera

           Our lives are colored by special moments. A Jewish way of marking certain milestones of life is with the recitation of the blessing Sheheheyanu, in which we praise God for “keeping us alive, sustaining us, and bringing us to this time.” We might recite it at a big birthday, a wedding anniversary, graduation, a bar or bat mitzvah, retirement, or a baby naming, even moving into a new home.  It’s not traditionally part of the wedding ceremony, but I can tell you that we include it. I think I said it when I paid off my student loan from rabbinical school.  While the wording of the prayer is “Thank God, I made it,” my father’s 50th yahrzeit doesn’t seem like a Sheheheyanu moment.

            Sure, I’m glad to be alive, I’m pleased I can commemorate this, but to be honest, I would have preferred to observe this milestone at a very old age, if even then. Had he lived to be my age, and not died at the age of 42, the 50th yahrzeit would have been when I am 86. My father never saw me get Confirmed, finish High School or go to college, or rabbinical school, get married, or have children. He never saw me conduct services aside from my Bar Mitzvah, and probably never saw me play guitar in public.

            He did, however, see me on stage in choruses, bands, orchestras, choirs, and in theater. His Master’s degree was in Speech and Drama from Teachers College at Columbia, and Dad coached me in recitation and encouraged me in the theater. He saw me fly in Peter Pan, and appear as a Von Trapp child in The Sound of Music at a dinner theater.

            As a great a gift as his coaching and support was, I think his great legacy to me was as a role model in public involvement. He was deeply involved with the Optimist Club, serving as their Executive Secretary. He was an active scouter, training scoutmasters and den mothers. Locally, he devoted time each week to teaching 10-year olds how to tie knots. He’d been in the Navy, and before that the Sea Scouts and Boy Scouts, so boy, did he know his knots.  At one point, so did I.

            He was a Past Master of the Masonic Lodge.  For nearly 20 years he’d been in kinds of roles with the Newburgh Civic Theater – actor, director, chair of the play reading committee, and President Dad was always going to meetings and rehearsals, so it seems so natural to me to run my own life that way.

            My father and mother were deeply involved in our Temple. Dad was a Vice President when he died, and this was back in the days when eagerly worked up the ranks over the years and eventually ascended to the coveted and honored role of Temple President. I guess in another 3 years he would have been President. He was also Chair of the Youth Committee. My father also took on the role as 7th grade Religious Teacher, a year or 2 after I was in that grade.

            I remember one day see in him with Tefillin. I had never seen tefillin, though I knew from pictures what they were. I certainly had never seen him wear them; I didn’t know he had them. Apparently, the students in his 7th grade class had never seen tefillin either, so he was going to bring them in, and I suppose, put them on. He had worn tefillin daily from the time he was 13 until he went into the Navy just before he turned 18.

            I mention the tefillin because on his first yahrzeit, the morning of January 9, 1971,  – I observed the Gregorian date until college – I went to the morning minyan at Newburgh’s conserva-dox synagogue, which was a block away from our own Reform temple. I had never been to a morning minyan, and probably had never been in their new building. I knew I would be expected to wear tefillin at the minyan, so somehow I must have gotten a couple of books -there was no Youtube- and figured it out, and practiced with my father’s 30 year old tefillin. When I arrived, I was the only teenager at the minyan. One old man came up to me and asked “Are you a Sfard?” I told him no, and thought nothing of it till about 15 or 20 years later when it was pointed out to me that he was probably telling me I was putting them on, as far as he was concerned, backwards.

            Near the end of the minyan they pulled out a bottle of whisky, and asked me if I wanted a shot. I figured that this was part of it, and they would all take a shot. But no, just the other guy, and me. So off I went to 10th grade after having a shot of whisky for breakfast. It was the only time all year I enjoyed geometry class.

                        One more old personal story: Two months after my father died, I went to my second CNYFTY [Central NY Federation of Temple Youth ] event, a regional Youth Group weekend, the CNYFTY Kallah, which was an intensive study weekend. It attracted a small group each year, 20 or 30 people, as opposed to the big conclaves of 150 or 200 at one of the big regional temples or at Kutz Camp.  Kallah was held at Eisner, and this was my first time there. We spent the weekend studying Martin Buber under the direction of a student rabbi, who later grew up and was President of the CCAR and then also of HUC. He was a 9th generation rabbi. We spent our time eating, sleeping, praying, and studying Martin Buber. Sometime on Shabbat afternoon, while sitting in the Manor House Great Hall, I felt the Presence of God.

            We learn in the Mishnah, (Avot 3:2)

                        שְׁנַיִם שֶׁיּוֹשְׁבִין וְיֵשׁ בֵּינֵיהֶם דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה, שְׁכִינָה שְׁרוּיָה בֵינֵיהֶם,

            When two sit together and there are words of Torah [spoken] between them, the Shekhinah – the Divine Presence – abides among them.

For me, that was a seminal moment, a formational moment. Coming on the heels of my bereavement, it was supremely comforting. It was the key that opened the door for me to the rest of my life. The study of sacred text brings holiness into …not just my life, but into all lives. Sharing the struggles that people have had for centuries to understand God, to understand the purpose of life, to comprehend the meaning of our existence: is this not the most important quest?

            The Torah gives us this week the second story of the call of Moses. Last week we had the spectacular Burning Bush episode. This week, the story is much more low-keyed. God just appears to Moses and explains that earlier appearances were made to his ancestors, but not by the Name Y-H-V-H.  Again, the Burning Bush episode is similar in that it attempts to explain the derivation of that Divine Name as a form of the verb “to be.”

            For me, experiencing God’s Presence helps me come to the conclusion that simply by God’s Being, God’s Existence, human life and the entire Universe are not simply an astronomical bio-chemical accident of the hugest proportions.  God is, and God – using the consonants of the Name – Will Be. Our task is to imitate God, and to become all we can be.

            World Jewry has just begun the fourteenth cycle of Daf Yomi, the practice of studying one page of the Talmud daily. The 100 year old practice of the 7 ½ year cycle has gotten lots of coverage in the Internet and social media, and many of us who never did it before are doing it with the support of friends, colleagues, websites, apps and podcasts. Earlier this week we learned in Berakhot 16b

 רַבִּי זֵירָא בָּתַר דִּמְסַיֵּים צְלוֹתֵיהּ אָמַר הָכִי:

 ״יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ ה׳ אֱלֹהֵינוּ, שֶׁלֹּא נֶחֱטָא וְלֹא נֵבוֹשׁ וְלֹא נִכָּלֵם מֵאֲבוֹתֵינוּ״.

that after Rabbi Zeira concluded his prayers he said the following: “May it be Your will, Adonai our God, that we not sin or shame ourselves, and that we not disgrace ourselves before our ancestors.”

 With Rabbi Zeira, who lived around the year 300, I pray that I have never brought shame or disgrace upon my ancestors.

            Remembering is a crucial element in Judaism. Constantly in our liturgy and our holidays we remember the Exodus from Egypt, and the work of creation. We remember Jerusalem. We remember Amalek. We remember the Sabbath day. We remember the Giving of the Torah. We remember our martyrs. And we remember our loved ones on their Yahrtzeits, as we are taught in the Book of Ecclesiastes:  “the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth.” How so? We come into life naked not just in body, but also in deed. We exit life clothed in the life we have made for ourselves. For the biblical writer, it was a life aimed at attaining wisdom.    May we all find wisdom, and be blessed with leaving behind good memories. And may we also be blessed with strong memory, that in our later years we retain the good memories that we have treasured all throughout our lives.