Who Lives? Who Dies? Who Tells Your Story? – Rosh Hashanah 5777 – Day 1

Who lives?
Who dies?
Who tells your story?

These familiar words do not come from our High Holiday liturgy though they would certainly fit in quite well.  These words come from the finale of the Broadway musical “Hamilton.”  Perhaps, because Lin-Manuel Miranda grew up in the shadow of Yeshiva University with many Jewish friends and his mother was on the faculty of Yeshiva’s Einstein Medical School, the vibe of the High Holidays may have rubbed off on him a little bit.  Regardless of how those words popped in to his head, when he set them to music and gave them to us, he challenged us to think about something that most of us try to avoid thinking about.
Who lives?
Who dies?
Who tells your story?

At the end of December, the New York Times Magazine puts out an issue called “The Lives They Lived.”  It chronicles the lives of well-known individuals who passed away during the calendar year coming to an end.  They started putting full-page teaser ads in the print edition of the paper in September.  What do the ads say?
“Who died this year? 
Whom were we left wanting to know more about?”

Which sounds a lot like:
Who lives?
Who dies?
Who tells your story?

And of course, our High Holiday liturgy – in a prayer called Unetaneh Tokef – asks:
Who will live and who will die?
Who in their time and who not in their time?

Without sounding too depressing, the short answer to “Who lives? Who dies?” is “all of us.”  If you’re looking for more details, I don’t have them.  If God has more details, God does not seem to be sharing them.  For the most part, who lives and who dies is out of our hands and out of our control.  However, who tells the story?  THAT is something that we control

Now, I have not seen “Hamilton.”  (If anyone has an extra ticket, I am generally available any day except Saturdays!) However, I know enough about him and enough about the musical to say that he was a complicated person who could be remembered different ways.

Do we remember him as the wunderkind who overcame incredible odds as a child?  Do we remember him as the defender of our constitution and the architect of our financial system?  Do we remember him as the philanderer?  Do we remember him as the headstrong egotist who was involved in several duels before the one that ended his life at the age of 47 or 49?

The truth is that he was all of those things and more.  Because people are not characters in a musical or figures in a book.  We are complicated beings with complicated stories.

The telling of complicated stories is an important part of the Jewish tradition.  Our foundational text – the Torah – begins with what is called “Ma’aseh Breisheet” – the story of Genesis, the story of our origins.  It’s really God’s complicated story.  Think about it: on the same day that God created the first human being, God realized that it was not good for Adam to be alone. God changed the plan and created a second human being for companionship.  Then, those two human beings defied God and changed the story on their own.  God had to scramble to re-write the whole Garden of Eden story.

The Biblical story that we read today – one of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar – tells the complicated story of Avraham, Sarah and their family.  Infertility, blended family, questionable parenting decisions and estrangement all figure prominently.

I was thinking about this because one of the most important tasks I am called upon to perform is the telling of people’s stories.  When a member of our community passes away, people turn to a rabbi for comfort, for guidance and for tradition.  But, people also turn to a rabbi to eulogize a loved one.  From my perspective, it is a weighty and sacred obligation.

Many of you have heard me explain this at a shivah minyan, but I feel compelled to say it here and now.  The first eulogies in the Jewish tradition were not really eulogies.  When a rabbi passed away, a disciple would stand at his master’s grave and recite a favorite lesson.  At the end of that lesson, the Kaddish would be recited because Kaddish was recited after studying Torah.  Eventually, we came to realize that every human being leaves behind lessons and teachings – a legacy.  And after sharing that Torah – that instruction – left behind by our loved one, we also recite Kaddish.  So, the telling of someone’s story has become the equivalent of teaching Torah.

When I first became a rabbi nineteen years ago, ONLY rabbis spoke at funerals.  Family members did not even consider giving eulogies.  It just wasn’t done.  Slowly, that changed.  Maybe one person would represent the family and speak briefly.  Today, I am surprised when I am the only speaker at a funeral.  It is common to see three or four family members stand up at a funeral and tell the story of their loved one.  We get a fuller version of each person’s complicated story.

The full traditional Hebrew greeting on Rosh Hashanah is: “L’shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’Techateimu.”  That means:  “To a good year in which you are inscribed in and sealed.”  This concept is based on a teaching from the Talmud attributed to a sage by the name of Rabbi Yohanan who lived in the Galilee in the 3rd century. This teaching is preserved in BT Rosh Hashanah 16b:

Three books are opened [in heaven] on New Year, one for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for the intermediate. The thoroughly righteous are forthwith inscribed definitively in the Book of Life; the thoroughly wicked are forthwith inscribed definitively in the Book of Death; the doom of the intermediate is suspended from New Year till the Day of Atonement; if they deserve well, they are inscribed in the Book of Life.

Our tradition took this concept and ran.  I already mentioned the “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer.  But other prayers – like Avinu Malkeinu – are rooted in this understanding.   Earlier this morning, we said: “Avinu Malkeinu katveinu b’sefer chayim tovim – Inscribe us in the book of good life.”

But, if we look carefully at Rabbi Yohanan’s teaching, he never said WHO does the writing.  Clearly, our ancestors believed that God somehow writes down who is inscribed in the Book of Life.  However, I would like to suggest that it’s up to US to write the stories that are inscribed in the Book of Life.

Let me explain….  I’ve been to or officiated at more funerals than I can count and they’ve all been meaningful in their own way.  What makes a funeral stand out?  Well, certainly having Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Bibi Netanyahu give eulogies – as they did for Shimon Peres this past week – would make a funeral stand out.  But for the rest of us regular folks, what makes someone stand out are the simple statements that loved ones make.

When one spouse says of the other, “More than anything else, she was my best friend,” it stands out.  When a child says of a parent, “I felt like he always had time for me,” it stands out.  When a parent says of a child, “She did things in a short life that I haven’t done in a longer life,” it stands out.  When a friend or co-worker stands up and says, “He always put others first,” it stands out.  Because what I’ve noticed is that, even in grief, people don’t say those things unless they’re true.

So, the truth is that when we talk about being inscribed in the Book of Life, we’re not talking about God somehow sitting in heaven with some long scroll and a quill.  We’re not talking about writing eulogies after someone passes away.  We’re talking about our day-to-day acts of kindness that become imprinted in the memories of our loved ones.  WE write our own story with the decisions we make.  We cannot control when it begins and when it ends, but we CAN control what happens in between.

The Hasidim always understood this.  When we think of Hasidim, we think of their black garb.  We think of long beards.  We think of the diamond district.  In short, we think about a stereotype.  But, the movement we call Hasidism was born in the 1700’s in response to – among other things – the academic elitism of rabbinic Judaism in Central and Eastern Europe.  Instead of focusing on rigorous Torah study that only the wealthy could afford to do, Hasidism encouraged inclusiveness and acts of kindness.  The leader of a Hasidic sect was often called a ‘tzadik’ – a righteous one – rather than ‘rabbi.’

This tension between Judaism of the head and Judaism of the heart is preserved in a story by Yitzhak Leib Peretz, one of the great Yiddish writers of the 19th century.  He tells the story of a stranger coming to the town of Nemirov – which is in Ukraine, the epicenter of Hasidism – the week before Rosh Hashanah.  He went to the special early-morning penitential prayers (called Selichot) and the rabbi wasn’t there.  Now, here at our synagogue no one would raise an eyebrow if the rabbi were missing, but it was a big deal back then.

The second morning that the stranger was in Nemirov, the rabbi was missing again and he overheard some of the townspeople saying the rabbi was in heaven arguing on behalf of the community in advance of Yom Kippur.  So, the next morning the stranger decided to find out what was going on.  He followed the rabbi as he woke up before dawn.

On the outskirts of town, the rabbi changed out of his rabbinic garb and into the simple clothes of a Ukrainian villager.  He went into the woods and chopped down about a week’s worth of firewood.  Then, he went to the smallest, dingiest shack that the stranger had ever seen.  The rabbi knocked on the door and when the feeble voice asked who it was, the rabbi answered in Russian, “It’s me, Vasili.  I brought you some wood.”  The rabbi went in the shack where a frail old woman lived alone, built up the fire and stacked the rest of the wood.  Then, he headed back to town, changing back into his regular clothing and acted as if nothing had happened.

Later that day, the stranger once again heard some townspeople saying that the rabbi had once again gone to heaven that morning.  The stranger simply responded:  “If not higher.”  That stranger stayed in Nemirov and remained a disciple of the rabbi for the rest of his life.

But you don’t have travel back to 18th century Ukraine to find examples of this sort of kindness.  Let me give you an example from today’s world.  Natalie Hampton is a high school student in Los Angeles.  When she was in the 7th and 8th grades, she ate lunch alone almost every day in her school’s cafeteria.  She was a new girl at an all-girls private school and the popular, alpha, mean-girl clique decided that she was not good enough to go to their school.

It is every kid’s nightmare.  It is every parent’s nightmare.  That’s the story that other people wrote about her.  She managed to keep it a secret from her parents until the anxiety and stress affected her health and she had to be hospitalized.  But it’s not the end of the story.  It’s not the story that Natalie would write about herself.

First of all, she moved to a new school for high school where she quickly and easily made friends and had a completely different experience.  More importantly, though, she never forgot what it was like to be treated as an outsider.  Now sixteen years old and a junior in high school, she developed an app called “Sit With Us.”  It allows students to sign up as ambassadors.  Ambassadors sign a pledge to be kind to anyone who wants to sit at their table and through the app they can post how many open seats there are.

Kids who don’t have a place to sit can look at the app and find out where there’s a table with an open seat and at least one friendly person who will welcome them.  It is both simple and brilliant, but most importantly, it’s kind.  If she does nothing else with the days left to her on this earth – which seems unlikely! – she will have written herself into the Book of Life with this act of kindness.

I need not tell anyone in this room that we are in the midst of a national election.  To me, the saddest part of this election cycle has been the way it is sucking the kindness out of all of us.  From the way we talk TO one another to the way we talk ABOUT one another, we all focus on our differences rather than celebrating our commonalities.  This inevitably leads to acts of cruelty and even violence – instead of kindness.  Perhaps, we all just need to listen to a little less political rhetoric and a little more country music.  Tim McGraw says it best:  “Always stay humble and kind.”

In all seriousness, I – for one – am not capable of developing an app.   And, I don’t see myself chopping firewood before dawn.  However, we are ALL capable of being kind.

We can speak kindly to someone who looks different than we do, someone who worships differently than we do, someone whose family looks different than ours, someone who supports a different candidate or maybe just someone who looks like they’ve got no place to sit for lunch.  Being kind doesn’t cost any more than being cruel.  And, often, it doesn’t even take any more time.  It just takes a little thought and a little effort.

Many of us are familiar with a book called Pirkei Avot – the 2,000+ year old collection of the kind of advice that parents give to children.  One famous teaching says that acts of kindness make up one of the three pillars of the earth along with study and worship.  However, a little further on in the text we get an additional snippet of wisdom from a rabbi named Shimon ben Gamliel – “V’lo hamidrash hu ha-ikar, ela ha-ma’aseh – Study is not the main thing, but action is.”  In the middle of a book that, presumably, the rabbis wanted us to study, we are told that study is NOT the most important thing; it is not the essence of life.  Instead, how we act, how we treat others, what we do is what really matters.  And the word for action is “ma’aseh” – which just so happens to also mean “story.”

So, who lives?  Who dies?  All of us.  Who tells your story?  You do.  Every single day.

As we welcome in this new Jewish year of 5777, let us all go start writing our stories – with each act of kindness to a family member, a friend, an acquaintance or a stranger – serving as another sentence, paragraph or even a chapter.  And may we all continue to add more sentences, more paragraphs and more chapters to our small entry the Book of Life for however much longer we have on this earth.

L’shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’Techateimu!!



About Rabbi Avi Friedman

I am the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Shalom - SJCC, a progressive Conservative and traditional congregation. I am also husband to Jodi as well as father to Gabi, Jonah, Jessica and Ilana. I have been a part of the Summit community since 2005.
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2 Responses to Who Lives? Who Dies? Who Tells Your Story? – Rosh Hashanah 5777 – Day 1

  1. Elaine Hoffman says:

    Kindness as the center of our universe can move us together in ways we can support and fulfill ourselves and one another …much gratitude for the blessings of bringing this important message to us…Elaine Hoffman and family

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