Sermon: Yom Kippur Yizkor – Embracing

Yom Kippur Yizkor
September 14, 2013
Temple B’nai Chaim
Rabbi David A. Lipper


In the TV series called “The Twilight Zone”, there was a script called “One for the Angels.”  The plot was simple: Mr. Bookman, played by Ed Wynn, was a door to door salesman, with a suitcase filled with various inexpensive items which he hawked on the sidewalk. The day had come for Mr. Death to take him home. Bookman persuaded Death that he shouldn’t go, until he had fulfilled his dream of doing his big pitch, one for the angels. And so Bookman was granted a reprieve, but the day’s quota had to be fulfilled.  So, a neighborhood girl was hit by a truck and was fated to die at midnight, but only if Mr. Death could enter her room at that point.  Knowing this to be so, Mr. Bookman set up his traveling valise of merchandise and began his shpiel, pitching the wonders of a silk tie and various other items and so entranced Mr. Death that he missed his appointment: Maggie, the little girl lived.

At this point the episode should’ve stopped: it is our fantasy; being able to hold off The Malach HaMavet, the angel of death. But it didn’t. For once he had accomplished his mission of staving off Mr. Death, Bookman declared he had given his best pitch ever; yes, he acknowledged, one for the angels. And recognizing that he had indeed accomplished his life’s dream, he journeyed off with Mr. Death, with his satchel in hand, for one never knows what they may need in heaven.

This very touching episode moves us on several levels. It moves us because we, too, wish to have our great moment before The Malach HaMavet comes calling. We further wish that we could postpone our appointment with him, by a simple declaration that we had yet to have our enduring moment, our one for the angels.

We identify with Bookman trying to keep Death from his appointment, as we contemplate what we and others have done in attempting to hold off death’s grasp on a loved one: our prayers, our vigils, our diligence in watching them and taking them from doctor to doctor, to one treatment to another, all to buy us a little more time with them.

Soon we will recite yizkor and a cardinal component of that service is the memorial prayer known as El Malay Rachamim. Within it is the thought that the souls of our departed are Tachat Kanfay HaShechinah – beneath the wings of the Shechinah. The phrase should comfort us: that the afterlife is in God’s sheltering and loving protection, Yes, it tantalizes us, but for most of us it is insufficient balm, for we cling to this life dearly. Similarly, the idea that we gain immortality through our heirs and our accomplishments serves as salve for some, but many of us would agree with what Woody Allen says, “I don’t want to be immortal through my work. I want to be immortal through not dying.”  So rabbi, what does Judaism teach about immortality and afterlife?

In his powerful book, The Death of Death, Professor Neil Gillman argues vigorously for re-embracing the rabbinic concept of Techiyat HaMaytim, of the resurrection of the dead. He makes a strong case for it: but frankly, that is so distant in time. What happens now? Rabbi Rifat Sonsino has authored a short book called What Happens When We Die and reminds us that there is a diversity of opinion within Jewish thought, including gilgul, that is to say reincarnation—and you thought only the Buddhists had it–.

I can’t tell you what to believe. I love this story that I have told often of the afterlife being built buy the deeds of righteousness we do in this life.

Sadie Goldberg died one day.  She awoke, standing outside the gates to the world to come.  She rang the buzzer and Gabriel, the guardian of the gate approached.  She told her name and he opened the gate for her.   He welcomed her as her guide to her new residence in the World to come.   She regaled him with her lavish lifestyle and over the top entertainment as they began their walk.  

They passed huge mansions with manicured yards and  she wondered who lived there.   When he told her, she exclaimed that he was her gardener in life.  She must live in a palace in this new world.  And they kept walking.   And they came to other communities with smaller homes and she wanted to return but they walked on.    They came to an unfinished neighborhood and stopped next to a concrete slab with a few boards piled on it.   This was her new home.

She was horrified.  No walls, no roof, how could she live there.  Gabriel turned to her and said, “Each deed sends building materials to the world to come so that a good life leads to a mansion in the sky.  This was all you sent us …”

Where will you be in the world to come?

Yizkor is a moment when we contemplate our own mortality. We can’t ransom ourselves from the inevitable visit of the Malach HaMavet. We can, however, perhaps find hope and strength in images of the afterlife and our responsibility to begin to do good here.

You can shed tears that he is gone,
Or you can smile because he lived,
You can close your eyes and pray that she will come back,
Or you can open your eyes and see all that she has left.
Your heart can be empty because you can’t see him
Or you can be full of the love that you shared,
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday,
Or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.
You can remember her and only that she is gone
Or you can cherish her memory and let it live on,
You can cry and close your mind be empty and turn your back,
Or you can do what he or she would want:
smile, open your eyes, love and go on.

May the memories of our righteous be forever a blessing and may we honor them by our lives.