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“May Their Memory Accompany Us into Eternity” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

October 6, 2023 | 21 Tishrei 5784

Welcome to Shabbat Awakenings as we move toward Shabbat and this week, Simchat Torah.  This time is also another moment when we offer Yizkor prayers. I include here the Yizkor sermon from Yom Kippur. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

I have been thinking about the story of The Giving Tree, that Shel Silverstein classic of a boy and an all too generous tree.[i] The boy wants the tree’s apples because they will make him happy. The tree happily obliges and he sells them for a profit.

Now older, he needs her branches which she willingly offers.
It makes her happy.
He builds a house.
And then even older, he comes back and takes the trunk to make a boat.

The rhythm of the story is clear.

He takes.
She gives.
He is happy.
But the tree, not so much.

But after a long time the boy, pictured now as an old man, returns.

“I am sorry, Boy,” said the tree.
“but I have nothing left to give you…I am just an old stump. I am sorry…”
“I don’t need very much now,” said the boy,
“just a quiet place to sit and rest.
I am very tired.”
“Well,” said the tree,
Straightening herself up as much as she could,
“well, an old stump is good
For sitting and resting.
Come, Boy, sit down.
Sit down and rest.”

And the boy did.
And the tree was happy.

It’s a controversial story with many critics. Some regard it as generosity gone awry. The tree gives herself under the guise of love, and perhaps suffers great loss because of it. Has the tree taught the boy to be selfish? Entitled? Spoiled? Was he that way all along?

And of course, it is hard not to see the story as a narrative of parenting: Giving everything with the only reward of finding pleasure and happiness.  And sometimes, not so much.

When Shel Silverstein was asked what the book was truly about, he is quoted to have said: It’s about a relationship between two people.

One gives and the other takes.

This is true and yet it may not be as unilateral as it appears.

The tree has given to the boy his whole life. The narrator doesn’t speak of the tree’s regret or sense of loss or even resentment. It speaks of her happiness when she offers of herself even as she shrinks in size and volume.

It is the last scene, however,  that strikes me in this moment as we gather here to engage in the sacred act of remembering our own losses.

In the end, all the tree can provide is the stump.
And all the boy can take is actually nothing.
As he sits, it is his moment to offer what he has to give.
As they meld in each other’s presence, they hold each other.

Their action informs us today.
For all that remains is no longer some. thing
….a branch, an apple, a trunk.
All that remains is being there together.

It is difficult to be in the most vulnerable of situations with a dear one, an illness, a death bed, deep depression. Suffering and uncertainty are before us. We want to help. What is it that we can do? What can we offer?

Over two decades ago when my dad had reached the final days of his life, we gathered around him with a hospice nurse. Something began to happen to him, like a seizure? I looked to the nurse to see what he would do and he just sat there, breathing with my dad, encouraging us all to take deep breaths. There was nothing anyone could do but breathe and be there with my father in the raw moment of his suffering. Eventually, the seizure ended and my dad returned to semi-consciousness.

All we could do was be there with him.

It was extraordinarily and excruciatingly difficult.
In that moment, I began to understand
what it means to just be present
and to accompany a loved one.

That presence in and of itself can be a stabilizing force.

When Moses went up to the mountain to receive the Torah, God told him to ascend and  just be there  וֶהְיֵה־שָׁ֑ם.[ii] The commentators tried to figure out why God would tell him to go up and to be there. It seems like a repetition. It is not. We can arrive to many places but our minds and our intentions are elsewhere. Showing up for another person or even God takes a willingness to enmesh oneself with the other. 90% of life is not simply showing up as Woody Allen would have us believe. It is actually being present in the moment for another. The meaning of mitzvah is not simply commandment. It is sacred obligation.[iii] Not a choice, but a commitment.

Judaism recognizes there are some actions that cannot be measured in that whatever reward would come of it is reserved for the world to come.[iv] This is the ancient rabbis way of saying that some behaviors may be so valuable it would be impossible to quantify their impact.

Some obligations can never be repaid nor should they.

The reward is in the act itself.
Nowhere is this more clear than at the end of someone’s life.
Presence turns into accompanying them.
People who walk all the way to the edge of life with us
offer themselves in unquantifiable ways.

To sit by the bed is an act of grace.
Yet not everyone can do that.
Sometimes the end is abrupt, unexpected, when someone is torn from us without notice or warning.

And sometimes distance also makes it difficult.
There can be many ways that we accompany our loved ones at the end of life, even if we are not physically present.

I left my childhood home before my dad had breathed his last breath. I had left three little kids far away and I sought comfort in my ability to comfort them. I sat on the plane between Pittsburgh and Boston feeling torn between my two homes, the place of my birth and the place of my adult life. I recalled how sitting with my dad in his vulnerable moments felt sacred.


And then in what might sound–Fan-tastical–I sensed a whoosh move by me.
I looked at my watch.

I knew that the vessel that held his soul, his physical being had ceased and my dad as I had once known him was no longer. There, miles up in the sky, he was now accompanying me on my journey home in my grief.

I had already internalized his love.
He was part of my heart and my soul.

When I walked into the house, David was waiting for me but I already knew what he was going to tell me. My dad had died at that moment when I felt his presence with me on the plane.

Whether we are present by the bedside or in a distant land.
Death allows all of us to transcend time and space.

The physical turns spiritual. We, the mourners, are accompanied by memory. Those we mourn are with us as we walk through the deep darkness of loss. We do not mourn alone either. Jewish tradition offers us those who surround us to bring comfort and console our broken hearts.

God accompanies us, too.

In Kaddish, with all the words of praise we offer,
there is one that stands out as different:
nechamata. The One who brings comfort.
The One we cannot see
but sense spiritually from within.
The Holy One of Blessing brings comfort as well.

Our lives are made up of moments of giving and taking,
just like the tree and the boy.
We offer without expectation of reward.
And take because love and comfort is offered to us.

We accompany and escort each other in profound ways- at the most vulnerable moments, from near and from afar.

In the end, all we have is each other.
In life and in death.
Remembering and finding comfort in
both the physical and spiritual presence
of the impact of the lives we have lived.

May remembering our loved ones
accompany us into eternity.
זכרונם לברכה לול

[i] New York Times article by Adam Grant and Allison Sweet Grant, April 15, 2020
[ii] Exodus. 24:12
[iii]Rabbi Richard Levy, of blessed memory, translated mitzvah in this way
[iv] From the prayer that begins “These are actions whose reward is without measure…”, based up Peah 1:1

I continue to value the many comments you exchange with me through these Shabbat Awakenings. Share with me what you think here. Your email goes directly to me!

  • Qabbalat Shabbat & Erev Simchat Torah: An Immersive Torah Experience. Celebrate the Annual Reading of the Torah with the unique Torah-Cam!
    5:00 p.m. Consecration ceremony celebrating all new Temple Israel students kindergarten and older (onsite)
    5:00 p.m. Food and celebration for all ages (onsite)
    6:00 p.m. Qabbalat Shabbat & Erev Simchat Torah service (in mixed presence, onsite and online) and Time for Yizkor
    7:15 p.m. Dancing and Dessert (onsite)Sukkot Festival Service and Torah Study gathers onsite or online at 9:00 a.m.
  • Simchat Torah Festival Service & Time for Yizkor, Saturday, October 7, 9:00 a.m. Join us for our Simchat Torah festival service and time for Yizkor, and celebratory study session to honor the Torah (in mixed presence, onsite and online), followed by a festive qiddush celebrating the joyousness of the season with delicious food and lively conversation.
  • Simchat Torah Celebration for Families with Young Children
    Saturday, October 7, 9:30 a.m.  

    Children ages 5 and under are invited to dance and sing and play as we celebrate Simchat Torah together. Our service will feature the TI clergy and Wayne Potash. playground time, snacks, and holiday crafts follow the service. Register here.

Rabbi Elaine Zecher