Yom Kippur Yizkor 5776 – Building a Moral Legacy

October 1, 2015

Building a Moral Legacy
Rabbi Greg Harris
Congregation Beth El, Bethesda, Maryland
Yom Kippur Yizkor 5776

Yizkor is not complicated.  It is a simple service.  Unlike other parts of the day, Yizkor is only about 15 minutes long.  There are not a lot of prayers or obscure liturgy.  The readings are poignant to this moment of remembrance.  There are no grand melodies like Kol Nidre or Unetaneh TokefYizkor is beautiful in its simplicity.  Interestingly, unlike the Torah service or other times of more formal davening, Yizkor’s epicenter is not on the bimah.  The energy, sincerity and intensity of Yizkor is focused on you.

We bring the Torah scrolls forward. We stand together as a congregation.  But within this centuries old choreography, we offer our own personal prayers of remembrance.  The tradition has given us the scaffolding but we draw on our own memories and emotions to build this moment.  That is what makes Yizkor sacred.

I believe Yizkor is simple because our relationships are not. 

Relationships are layered and often complicated.  Liturgically, Yizkor must be minimalist because no single prayer or poem or reading could authentically capture our feelings about the person we hold in our hearts today – a mother or sister; a father or brother; a son or daughter; a husband or wife; a grandparent or friend.

We are here to honor their legacy.

We are the recipients of their moral legacy.

It is a gift and a burden.

Take a moment and think of the person you are saying Yizkor for.  Bring this person’s gifts to mind.  Did the moral legacy you inherited include gifts of character and kindness?  Gifts of strength and vulnerability?  Gifts of authenticity and rootedness. These are your treasures.

Maybe there are parts of ourselves which are the result of knowing and loving this person?  Maybe we even hear their words come out of our mouth now and again.  This is all part of the gift of their legacy.

But the people we are honoring were not perfect either.  Some of their flaws were obvious and others more subtle.  To stand here with honesty, we have to acknowledge those burdens as well.

As I have been thinking about this moment, I have kept asking myself “How do I build a moral legacy worthy of, one day, someone standing at Yizkor to remember me?”  What do I have to do in my life to create a worthy moral legacy?

People spend a lot of time thinking about their material legacies.  Entire industries operate around creating financial inheritances.  But we must also think of the moral bequests we leave for others.

Creating a moral legacy has always been important to Judaism.  Time and again we are reminded that we are the moral descendants of our patriarchs and matriarchs – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah.  Our rituals points us to the 613 Commandments of the Torah which consist of actions to do and others to refrain from in order to live a good life – Ta’ase v’Lo Ta’ase.

Judaism allows us to build a moral life on the foundation of our ancient wisdom.  But, looking at the bookshelves at Barnes and Noble or reading Jewish blogs, sometimes it feels like we have forgotten to look at the insights of Judaism which are closest to us for guidance.  We look far afield and forget the beauty within Judaism.

We are certainly not the first generation to veer from these treasures.

Reflecting on this experience in his own time, the eleventh century commentator Bachiya ibn Paquda shared a parable in his book Chovot HaLevavot – Duties of the Heart.  He says the search for moral and spiritual guidance is sometimes hidden right in front of you.  It is like the wise man

who entered the yard of one of his friends and sensed that a treasure was buried there.  He searched for it and found a hoard of blackened silver that had lost its luster because of the years of tarnish that had formed on it.  He took a piece and carefully cleaned it with salt and vinegar, washed and polished it until the silver was restored to its original beauty, splendor and brilliance.  The owner then gave the order to treat the rest of the tarnished pieces until they all became recognized as treasures.  (Bachiya continues,) my intent (he said) is to do the same with the hidden treasures of the heart; to uncover them and show the radiance of their virtue….[1]

So how do we look at Judaism to build a moral legacy and uncover the radiance which Bachiya praises?

I want to borrow three brief ways for us to build a moral legacy from Dr. Carol Ingall’s book, Transmission and Transformation: A Jewish Perspective on Moral Education.

She says: Experience, Explanation and Exemplars.

First, experience.  We start with the premise that we should live our lives in a way worthy of a legacy.  This means we should be mindful and purposeful about our lives.  A legacy is not created in a single moment so we must be aware of the cumulative effects of decisions we make and how we model ourselves for others.

It might mean that expediencies are set aside for a more virtuous effort.  And, sometimes that effort will be recognized by others but most often it will be known only to you.  There is a humility which comes with building a moral legacy.  I think it is because with being mindful of how you are living, you gain a perspective on yourself and others.


Gaining experience in building a moral legacy brings us to the next attribute – Explanation.

However this happened, today, many people are reluctant to explain their actions in terms of morals, virtues or character.  It might be because we are immersed in a sense of relativism.  People are reluctant to couch their actions, right or wrong, in this light.  Thus, the conversations about right and wrong, moral and immoral, are left for either political conservatives or relegated to houses of worship.  The explanations though belong where decisions are actually being made.  The office, your home, the school yard, over a cup of coffee.  These are the places where people make decisions that actually affect their lives so being aware of creating a moral legacy is important in those moments.  So, we should explain to others why we are doing this.  Offer a gentle and appropriate corrective or explanation when something wrong is done.  Offer praise when something right is accomplished.

Note that I am not suggesting you pass “judgement” but an “explanation” may be appropriate.  I am confident that you will do this appropriately and it will not come off as “preachy.”  Otherwise, I am sure your friends will let you know.  I have heard that “it takes a village” and that includes to build a moral life.


Experience, Explanation and the third is having a moral exemplar in our own lives.  We all need someone who will push us to be better people.  Who do you look to as a moral exemplar?  Who models for you the struggle for living a moral life?  What do they do when they fail?  What do they do when they seem to get it right?

Maybe your exemplar is the person you are remembering today?

Experience, Explanation and Exemplars.

Three parts of building a legacy worthy of others to stand at Yizkor for us one day.

I want to close with a story which I think speaks to building a moral legacy over a lifetime.  It is a true story Kent Nerburn wrote and posted on a blog.  Nerburn wrote:

Twenty years ago, I drove a cab for a living. One time I arrived in the middle of the night for a pick up at a building that was dark except for a single light in a ground floor window.

Under these circumstances, many drivers would just honk once or twice, wait a minute, then drive away. But… I always went to the door. This passenger might be someone who needs my assistance, I reasoned to myself. So I walked to the door and knocked.

“Just a minute,” answered a frail, elderly voice.

I could hear something being dragged across the floor. After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman in her 80’s stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940s movie. By her side was a small nylon suitcase.

The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets. There were no clocks on the walls, no knickknacks or utensils on the counters. In the corner was a cardboard box filled with photos and glassware.

“Would you carry my bag out to the car?” she said.

I took the suitcase to the cab, then returned to assist the woman. She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the curb. She kept thanking me for my kindness….

When we got in the cab, she gave me an address, then asked, “Could you drive through downtown?”

“It’s not the shortest way,” (Nerburn) answered quickly.

“Oh, I don’t mind,” she said. “I’m in no hurry. I’m on my way to a hospice.”

I looked in the rear view mirror. Her eyes were glistening.

“I don’t have any family left,” she continued. “The doctor says I don’t have very long.”

I quietly reached over and shut off the meter. “What route would you like me to take?” I asked.

For the next two hours, we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator. We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds. She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl.

Sometimes she’d ask me to slow in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing.

As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, “I’m tired. Let’s go now.”

We drove in silence to the address she had given me.

It was a low building… with a driveway that passed under a portico. Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move. They must have been expecting her. I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair.

“How much do I owe you?” she asked, reaching into her purse.

“Nothing,” I said.

“You have to make a living,” she answered.

“There are other passengers.”

Almost without thinking, I bent and gave her a hug. She held onto me tightly.

“You gave an old woman a little moment of joy,” she said. “Thank you.”

(Nerburn continued,) I squeezed her hand, then walked into the dim morning light. Behind me, a door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life.

I didn’t pick up any more passengers that shift. I drove aimlessly, lost in thought. For the rest of that day, I could hardly talk. What if that woman had gotten an angry driver, or one who was impatient to end his shift? … (Nerburn concludes,) On a quick review, I don’t think I have done anything more important in my life. We’re conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments. But great moments often catch us unaware—beautifully wrapped in what others may consider a small one.[2]

Our legacy is made up of the culmination of all these moments – the big public ones and the quiet ones which will go unnoticed by most.  Combined though, this makes up our moral legacy.

One day, others will stand here to honor us. Others will inherit our legacy.  I pray we have made enough good decisions that they recognize the treasures we are bequeathing to them.  Let us fill our life with the experiences, explanations and exemplars needed.

As we begin Yizkor, let’s honor those who have gifted us with their legacy.




[1] Duties of the Heart, Feldheim Publishers p52-55

[2] http://academictips.org/blogs/the-last-cab-ride/