Thank you for joining me on the journey of 40 days to a Better You. May G-d grant you and your families a new year filled with health, success, joy and growth.
Below you will find the sermon I shared on Yom Kippur. Every day is an opportunity to build for eternity!
We never know what life will bring. Sometimes a conversation takes on more meaning in hindsight. Little did I realize the resonance of an insight my father shared with me on the last day of the year, the day before Rosh Hashanah. His idea laid the spiritual foundations for one of my most grueling and uplifting weeks as a Rabbi.
We experienced a number of deaths in our shul this past week and I was engaged in many heartfelt conversations with people about forgiveness, resilience and the challenge of finding joy and peace. I invoked the kaddish for hundreds of souls this past week at our graveside services, attended burials and unveilings. I was also with the dying and giving strength to the living. No matter our lot in life, everyone needs some chizuk, a boost of hope and love.
As the week progressed, I realized so much more the timeliness of my father’s words.
My father spoke to me about the sources of happiness in life. Where do we find strength, comfort and inspiration? He shared with me the wisdom of Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg. Rabbi Weinberg explained that happiness emerges from gratitude, giving and building eternity every day.
The first two ideas are well known. The more we cherish every day miracles, the happier we will be. Judaism awakens us to be cognizant of how fortunate we are through the recitation of daily prayers and blessings. When we open our eyes and say “thank you, G-d, I am alive” it changes our day.
Rabbi Weinberg explained – we must appreciate and take pleasure in all the gifts we have. Our eyes, ears, and intelligence are great gifts, enjoy them and take pleasure.
The second idea is also understood yet not always appreciated. Rabbi Weinberg shared that the second aspect to happiness is to learn to be a giver, to really care for other people and love them. Rabbi Weinberg was speaking to a young man at the time and said “Men have a hard time with this until they are married. Do your best, be a giving person. You will flourish when you really do this.”
Then, as my father shared – Rabbi Weinberg looked in the eye of the young man and asked –
“Do you believe in Olam Haba, the World to Come and the eternity of the soul?”
The young man replied “Yes”
“You have to make it real,” Rav Yaakov thundered, “Every day of your life you are building your eternity! You are living for something Ultimate. Each day.
Building our eternity every day. For me, this was such an important message to hear this past week and I would venture to say for all of us.
We are all faced at times with challenges. A death, a rejection, an opportunity missed…and we may even feel were born with these obstacles. How can I be happy given that I grew up in a dysfunctional home? How I can I find joy given my lot in life?
Yet, on Yom Kippur, the happiest day of the year according to Jewish tradition, we are reminded that beyond being children of our parents, our environment, our circumstances, we are all children of G-d.
He believes in us and He will forgive us. He wants us to experience the deepest happiness and pleasure in this world.
How can we achieve happiness? By staying focused on building eternity every day.
True happiness comes from a life of devotion to G-dliness. It does not come from the pursuit of temporal pleasures. No man has ever become happy through tasty food or more wealth. Rather, joy emerges from a deeper connection to eternal values, Torah, relationships and purpose.
It is true Judaism does believes in the values of this world and it pleasures but only if we elevate them.
We experience sadness and lose faith when our value system is defined by temporal values. The more we invest in eternal life in this world the more uplifting our lives will be –in spite of the external pressures we may face.
As Henry David Thoreau remarked, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”
Jewish tradition distinguishes between Chaye Sha’ah – temporal life and Chaye Olam – eternal life. what is urgent and what is important. Urgent matters pass within the hour and important matters last for eternity. It is urgent that a businessperson be clever, it is important that he be wise. It is urgent that our children get good grades but important that they are good people.
More than any other day Yom Kippur reminds us to build that eternal life of every day.
Yom Kippur seeks to restore balance in our lives. We can do without the pleasure of eating and drinking for a day but our lives will be empty without food for the soul. We abstain from intimacy as a reminder that relationships must transcend the physical to be meaningful and endure.
How do find the lasting pleasure in life? Building eternity every day.
This past week in the midst of the struggle and the sadness, I was awakened to the capacity of each of us of us to seize Chaye Olam – eternal life.
The two instances were at a Starbucks in Ridgway and in Stamford Hospital.
On the morning of September 11th this past week, I picked up a coffee at Starbucks. As I got into my car, I overheard a brief comment on the radio from a NYC police officer. He was touched when a woman gave him 20 dollars and thanked him for his service to the city. The impetus came from the anniversary of 9/11 – a moment in time when our nation united and expressed deep appreciation to all who serve and protect us in uniform.
In that instant, I debated in my mind between eternal life and temporal life. I was thinking about building eternity at 8:30 AM this past Tuesday morning. Little did I know that G-d was clearly serving as my co-pilot that morning.
I suddenly felt the urge to park my car and go back to Starbucks. I have always heard about the random acts of kindness and tried a few times but it seemed today would be a good day – in commemoration of 9/11. I went back into the store and handed the cashier a few dollars and asked her to pay for the next person in line as reminder of the spirit of kindness and unity that emerged after 9/11.
The recipient of my gift was grateful and surprised. He told me he was down at Ground Zero on 9/11. He shared with me that he was a retired NYC police officer. He had gotten home at 8 AM from an overnight shift and when the planes hit the towers he was called back down.
We reminisced about the moment but both expressed the hope that we could not only commemorate the day but harness the memory to foster a greater sense of appreciation for all who serve our communities and nation.
I got back in my car, listened to the moment of silence at 8:46 and knew that no act of kindness enters a void. One gift to a police officer in NYC broadcast on CBS 880 was heard in Stamford and spurred an act of kindness to a retired NYPD officer in Stamford, CT. In fifteen minutes, G-d guided me in living for eternity.
“Every soul,” teaches Adin Steinsaltz, “is a fragment of the divine light. As a spark, a part containing something of the whole, the soul’s essential wholeness cannot be achieved except through effort, through work with the greater whole.”
The second awakening occurred in Stamford hospital.
This past week, Stu’s father Elliot Waldstreicher passed away. He was a man who built for eternity. Thank G-d, he raised wonderful children, grandchildren and great grandchildren and we wish Stu, his mother and family much strength and comfort. I would like to share one vignette. I had the merit of being with him on Tuesday night moments before he died. After the Psalms and payers we recited with him I reminded him of a conversation from a few days before we had together with his family. Even after the soul departs the body, the soul lives on and derives pleasure in knowing that the time in this world forged an eternal impact.
When reminiscing about Elliot’s bakery, the Harbor Bake Shop, I learned that Elliot was always insistent that his bakery would never run out of challahs on Friday afternoon. If they ran out, he would tell his staff that even if it meant baking an entire batch of challahs for two people, he never wanted someone to go home without a challah.
In my mind, he was building for eternity. Can we imagine the thousands of challahs that enhanced a Friday night dinner. Despite the hectic place of successful bake shop on a Friday, he wanted to make sure that every Jew who wanted a challah did not leave empty handed. For that Jew, that challah made all the difference.
Moments before his soul departed from his body, I sensed he was at peace in knowing that he did his best in his time in this world in not living for the hour but in living for eternity.
As he did, so must we. We must live every day as if we believe in the world to come.
Every moment and every encounter can affect eternity. When I was speaking with my Dad, he told me that he was awakened to his reality from one of his close friends, Geoff Frisch, who passed away a few years ago at the age of 65. Geoff was a businessman who later in life became engaged with Jewish life and learning and served as the president of Yeshiva HS of Atlanta where my father had served as principal.
My dad shared that when Geoff was in sales would he always say – “I am not concerned whether someone buys from me or not but whether we connected as two human beings. If I can make someone smile or make a difference in someone’s life, then regardless of the material benefit, I know that I am living for eternity.”
In a few moments, we will be reciting Yizkor. We request that G-d remembers the neshama, the soul of our loved ones. We remember their spirit, character, lover and goodness. Those are the enduring memories and the source of greatest comfort. They live on with G-d and with us.
We are also called upon to remember what we must do. Life sometimes will be tough and we will face challenges…many of which are out of our control. Yet, challenges of the hour will pass. Life eternal remains forever. On Yom Kippur, we are reminded that we are all G-d children, he forgives, he loves us and believes in us and today we shine.
This year, may we all rededicate our lives to a life of eternity. To forgo at times what seems urgent for what is important. For only through a life one infused with the values of Torah and mitzvoth, w will build the world to come and eternity on earth every day of our lives.
Wishing you and your families a year sealed in the book of life.