Haazinu: How do we wish survivors to remember us

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Deuteronomy 32:1-52

II Samuel 22:1-51

Moses confronts his mortality and prepares his farewell speech in this week's Torah portion, Haazinu. This reading, occurring between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, could not come at a better time, because this season is a time of memorium.

In the solemn worship of Yom Kippur or at yizkor, the service of remembrance, we are filled with memories of loved ones for whom we long but can no longer see.

Rabbis often find it difficult to sum up a life on a few index cards in preparation for a funeral. At times, the reminiscences and stories of friends and family provide rich material for the eulogy. Other times the family has embarrassingly little to say about their dead family member. If we were more cognizant of how we would be thought of by the rabbi or our loved ones after we were dead, or better still, what people think about us while we are yet alive, perhaps we might live our lives differently.

At Shabbat worship, the Kaddish list is read. Rabbis generally know who will and who will not attend to recite Kaddish. Some people never miss the opportunity to hear the name of a loved one read unless they are out of town or sick. They never forget to light a yahrzeit candle or to visit the cemetery. In contrast, other names are recited without the presence of a loved one in synagogue. Feelings and memories evoked by thinking about long-gone family members are filled with longing but often also with sadness, guilt and regret, which can be enough to keep people away.

In the Yiddish culture of Eastern Europe, it was not uncommon for a child to be referred to as a kaddishil — someone to recite kaddish for a parent after his or her death. The role of being a kaddishil is difficult because it carries with it the grief of remembering. For some, the flood of memories associated with a yahrzeit is too much to bear. This attitude is summed up by the closing line in the film "I Never Sang for My Father." Recognizing that the main protagonist's tumultuous relationship with his father did not end with the parent's death, the narrator concludes: "Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor's mind toward some resolution which it never finds."

Some people struggle with painful memories and push hard to keep them imprisoned. That is why they do not come to recite Kaddish and why they do not wish to be a kaddishil, the rememberer. Some wish to forget what cannot be forgotten. They hope to find peace from the struggles that are not resolved by death. This keeps them away from a memorial service.

More people should pause to think about how they will be remembered. Do they want to be remembered as the one who caused a child to struggle on with a relationship from which he can never be free? Or do they want to be remembered as having embodied Judaism's highest values: Shalom bayit — a nurturing and peaceful home; Kehilah — connectedness to a faith and caring community; Hach'nasat orchim — hospitality to strangers; Tzedakah — acts of righteous giving; Talmud Torah — Jewish learning; Bikur Holim — visiting the sick; G'milut Chasidim — acts of kindness; Chesed — benevolent goodness; Tikkun olam — perfecting a broken world. These are the most lasting legacies we can leave behind.

During this sacred season when we recall our own loved ones and as we think of Moses' farewell speech, let us be mindful of the words that define our humanity, words by which we remember our loved ones and by which we will be remembered. Many of these words have crept into our vocabulary by way of Yiddish, as this poem (author unknown) reminds us:

"When I was young and fancy free,

My folks had no fine clothes for me

All I got was words:

Got zu danken (Thank God)

Got vet geben (God will give)

Zol mir leben un zein gezunt (You should live and be healthy)

When I was wont to travel far,

They didn't provide me with a car

All I got was words:

Geh gezunt (Go in health)

Geh pamelech (Take it easy)

Hub a glickliche reise (Have a successful journey)

I wanted to increase my knowledge

But they couldn't send me to college

All I got was words:

Hub saychel (Have good sense)

Zei nicht kein narr (Don't be a fool)

Torah iz di beste schorah (Torah is the best commodity)

The years have flown — the world has turned,

Things I've gotten; things I've learned.

Yet I remember:

Zog dem emes (Speak the truth)

Gib tzedakah (Give charity)

Hub rachmonas (Have pity)

Zei a mench! (Be a mensch)

All I got was words."