Shavuot Day Two 5775

May 26, 2015

I am going to remind you today of a children’s song that you have probably not heard or sung in man years unless you hang around our preschool.  And I am going to give a Yizkor sermon today, which is a little bit different from the kind that we usually hear on this day.

Usually, on Yizkor, we ask God to remember those whom we loved who are no longer alive, and we try to remember them too.  This morning, I want to ask God to remember, and I want to ask you to remember, the moments in our lives that are gone, for they are precious too, and they will not come back to us.

There is a long retired rabbi, Rabbi Howard Singer, who is evidently a pretty tough and cynical guy.  In his younger days, he flew his own airplane, and he served in the South Pacific during the Korean War. And he grew up on the streets of New York. So he is no shrinking violet.  And, as you will see, he is a pretty cynical guy as well.

Rabbi Singer writes to a colleague of mine regularly. He writes with great cynicism about what is going on in the world. He writes about how the politicians are in the hands of the lobbyists. He writes about how the military controls this country and about how the industrialists control the military. { I don’t know if that is true anymore but it doesn’t matter for these purposes.}  The rabbi loves to expose the myths and the lies and the fakery and the propaganda that permeate our culture.  He  seems to be, as my colleague describes his friend, one cynical guy. The ony Jewish article attributed to him on a Google search was in Commentary Magazine, in the 80’s, called “Rabbis and Their Discontents.”

But every so often, he writes a letter that enables us to peek behind the cynical mask that he wears, and to catch a glimpse of the caring human being behind the cynical exterior.  He wrote one such letter few years ago, and, we have his permission to share it with you today, in the moments before Yizkor. I do so because, as I said, Yizkor is not only a time inwhich we ask God to remember our parents and our loved ones who are gone, and in which we remember them.  Yizkor is also a time in which we remember the moments in our lives that are gone. It is a moment when we remember the days of our youth that are now gone forever. And so, this letter of Rabbi Singer’s speaks to my heart, and I hope that it will speak to yours as well.  He writes:

It’s 1:30ish (AM), and this is going to be unbearably sentimental, terribly out of character. I am going to put my normal cynical self in mothballs for the moment.  I have had a big box full of old photographs lying around for years. Yesterday I bought two of those do it yourself frames that have metal springs making it easy for amateurs to frame a picture. I thought that I’d try one of those collages like affairs; a lot of pictures cut down and jumbled together. No art, just slices of life.  The effect is surprisingly evocative and tender.

I did two of them, the rabbi continues. I went through the box, cut the pictures down to size, getting rid of the background, and put together two large frames. There must have been a hundred pictures, cut down and wedged together. A few of them were posed, but most of them were candid. I was an enthusiastic picture taker. I caught my wife and kids in endearing moments; putting them all together proved that the whole can really be greater than the sum of the parts.. Separated, they were a pile of cute snapshots. Together, framed, hung up so that I could step back and see them and receive the total impact, they were something else. My life was on the wall.

Everything was there, my courtship, a shot I took of Miriam on our first date. My family life: the kids, baby years, growth, young man and womanhood, weddings, grandchildren, Jonathan holding his first born in the hospital, still in a hospital gown.   I realized, not for the first time, that my wife had been beautiful. Not just nice neighborhood pretty girl but stunning. There was one shot of her that I took when we were returning from Israel, by ship. She was pregnant, and she had a radiance that they say only pregnant women have in the early months. I caught her in a sidelong glance on the deck, with the Mediterranean behind her. Fifty-eight year later it still shocks me. She was magnificent.   And the kids were delightful. I loved taking pictures of them, never tired of it. And it’s all here, permanently now, so I can stare at it. Have been for hours.

What strikes me is the happiness shining out of those frames. The candid shots caught the smiles unaware. The fun behind the smiles. A little boy sitting on the floor of a kitchen smeared with white flour from a bag that fell from a counter and tore open. He proceeded to play in it, of course. Resulting in a glorious white mess all over him and all over the floor, but funny.

There is a picture of a fish tank. Quite ordinary. But a story goes with it.  Raising guppies was Jonathan’s hobby. When we went on vacation to Old Forge, we couldn’t take the fifty-gallon fish tank with us. We couldn’t impose on our neighbors to feed the fish. And so I rigged up a way of feeding the fish by long distance.   We had two phones, one unlisted, on which I never received calls. It was for outgoing calls only. I took the cover of the unlisted telephone off and tied a string to the hammer on the bell. Old fashioned telephones had a real little hammer hitting a real bell, not like the modern electronic phones. The string was attached to a spring on the other end. When the telephone rang, it jiggled a paper cup over the tank. The cup had holes in the bottom, and fish food in the cup would fall out. After testing, I discovered that three rings delivered the right amount of food, not too much, not too little, just right.

During the summer, from three hundred miles away, in Old Forge, New York, I would drive to a grocery store at the other end of the lake, drop five quarters into a pay phone, hear three rings, hang up, and retrieve my quarters. At length, the proprietor made some comment about my not having any luck. I told him a little shamefacedly that I didn’t expect the phone to be answered. Then why are you calling? Sir, I said, I’m feeding my son’s fish.  You better explain, said the nice man, and I did, and he collapsed with laughter.  This went on for a month. And of course I worried. I was callously playing with the lives of Jonathan’s hand raised guppies, some of whom had been born under his care. What if the string broke? What if it didn’t deliver enough food? Or too much? And what if it soured the water and they all died. Tragedy was in the air. Potential tragedy, anyway.    When we came back, while I packed and unloaded, Jonathan ran up the stairs to his room and shouted out the window: “They’re alive!!”  I felt more pride in their survival than I did in anything else I can think of.  Now the picture of the fish tank is there to remind.

I have dozens of pictures of daughter Tamar, Rabbi Singer continues. Little Tamar in the bathtub playing with a yellow rubber duckie. Adolescent Tamar. Grown up Tamar, in an evening dress, standing beside her husband, looking stunning. And the grandkids, all of them. All our lives caught in the flock of a camera shutter. Lives with happiness overflowing.

But [and here is the critical part of what he wrote I think] I don’t think we knew it at the time. Certainly I didn’t. Oh sure, in spurts I did, but there was plenty of confusion, and misunderstanding, and cross purposes. I needed an angel on my shoulder to whisper into my ear: you big idiot. You are happy, you are ecstatic, and you don’t even know it.  But my angel never showed. I was happy without knowing it. I was never as conscious of it as I should have been.

I suspect that I am not alone. I think we are all like that. Time slips by us, we can’t slow up and seize the moment. We can’t taste and chew on it long enough. It’s only after it’s gone that you look back and know.  Anyway, now I’m 86. A thought came to me that may strike you as morbid. It isn’t. I may have been a zombie all my life, (and perhaps we all are) and I am not looking forward to it, but I don’t think I’ll mind dying when it comes, because, looking at these pictures, I will know that I have lived.”    And the letter is signed:   “Love,   Howard”

I am moved by many things in this letter. One is the pleasure that this man feels when he looks back over his life and realizes how much joy there has been in it. The other is the bit of sadness that he feels, and that I feel for him, that he did not realize how much joy he had in his life while he was having it. As he says: If I had only had an angel sitting on my shoulder, reminding me to pay attention, reminding me how good my life was, an angel that would whisper in my ear: “You big idiot! You are happy, you are ecstatic, and you don’t even know it!’”

To be happy and to be too busy, too preoccupied, to realize it – what a dreadful waste that is!  And when I thought about that, a song came back to my mind. It is a song that I have not sung in many, many years. But I suddenly realized that this song contains a great truth, as do most of the nursery rhymes and the lullabies and the children’s’ songs that we heard when we were kids.  Who knows what song I am thinking of? Anyone?

 “If you’re happy and you know it,

Clap your hands..

If you’re happy and you know it,

Clap your hands.

If you’re happy and you know it,

And you really want to show it,

If you’re happy and you know it,

Clap your hands.

If you’re happy and you know it,”

Stomp your feet etc.  [Last two stanzas:  Shout Hurray   Do All Three]

I don’t want you to think that I remembered all the verses to this song. Such a good memory I don’t have. I found them with the help of the smartest person whom I know: Reb Google.  Reb Google not only gave me the lyrics of this song in English, but he also told me where I could find them in French and Spanish as well, and he also gave me a bit of the history of this song, which he says goes all the way back to the Middle Ages.     And what does that tell you?  If a song lasts for so many centuries, it must be because it contains a profound truth. And the profound truth in this song is the same truth that Rabbi Singer discovered in looking back over the photographs that he took years ago, which is that it is possible to be happy and not know it. It is possible to have wonderful experiences. It is possible to have the joys of raising children. It is possible to have the delights of teaching them and sharing fun with them, and not be smart enough to realize it until afterwards.

And for that, we should have a new Yizkor focus. For we are all old too soon and smart too late. Yizkor ought to remind us to enjoy what we have while we have it, and not put off appreciating our blessings until later. Yizkor comes to teach us that today is the only day we have—that yesterday is gone forever, and that tomorrow may or may not be ours, and therefore we should appreciate the present while we have it. Maybe that is why they call it “the present”. Unfortunately, there is no angel who sits on our shoulders and whispers to us: “Hey! Do you realize what you have here? Are you aware that your kids are only going to be young once in your life and only once in theirs? Are you really so stupid as to be preoccupied with other things – less important things – and to let these moments go by unappreciated? If you do, you are going to be sorry afterwards, believe me.”

We don’t have a wise angel like that on our shoulders, but we do have Yizkor four times a year to remind us that time is flying by, and that we should appreciate what we have while we have it. We have Yizkor four times a year to tell us: “If you’re happy – AND YOU KNOW IT – then show it. Show it now, now, and not afterwards when it will be too late.

Let me finish with a story that you have probably heard before, but that is worth hearing again.  There is a funeral. The rabbi finished the burial service at the cemetery, and he gently tries to lead the mourners away from the grave.   One mourner shakes him off, and says: “But you don’t understand, rabbi. I loved my wife.”  The rabbi said: “I am sure you did, but the service is over now, and the car is waiting.”  But the mourner shakes him off, and says again: “You don’t understand, rabbi. I loved my wife.”  The rabbi tried again. He says to the mourner: “I am sure you did, but the friends are waiting in the line to give you comfort. You have to come with me now.”  The mourner shakes the rabbi off again, and this time he says: “Rabbi, you don’t understand. I loved my wife – AND ONCE I NEARLY TOLD HER!”

Can you imagine the pain and the shame that a mourner must feel if he has to stand at a gravesite and realize that he loved his wife, and that once he nearly told her?

Let that not happen to any of us. Instead, let us love while we still live, and let us say so while we still can. Let us love each and every precious moment that we have—of our youth, of our adolescence, of our courtships, of our married lives, of our parenting – and let us know how fortunate we are, how blessed we are, while we have these moments, so that we do not have to grieve and lament and bewail our lot afterwards for having been happy – but not being wise enough to know it.

Let this be the lesson of Yizkor to us all. If you are happy and you know it, then stamp your foot, or clap your hands or say hurray or do whatever it takes, but show it. Show it to those whom you love—now, now, and not too late.  Amen.