The following sermon “Bound Up and Becoming” was delivered on Yom Kippur Morning 5779 prior to the Yizkor service at Congregation Beth El:
When I first met my future father-in-law after Andrea and I had been dating for a few months, he was already sick, although we were unaware at that time of his diagnosis. He was ill for much of Andrea’s teen years. Each time we would go to visit him though, in preparation for those visits, she would share stories and memories she had as a child, of his pick-up soccer games in town or taking her to TCBY for Frozen Yogurt after school. Once he was diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease, a neurological degenerative disorder, when we were in college, he declined quickly. He was too ill to attend our wedding, and we had an additional separate ceremony in his nursing home weeks later, so he could see his daughter get married.
He passed away a few of months after that. I think back to Andrea sharing those memories with me. She would keep those memories in the front of her mind when he was sick, and all those more so after he had passed away, because that was the part of him that she wanted to hold unto. The positive. The joyful. The memories that put smiles on her face. That was the part of him that she chooses to remember. That is the part of him, that in turn, becomes a part of her.
As his first yahrtzeit approached, I remember the conversation Andrea and I had. She decided that she wanted to make a Shabbat dinner in his honor. Since he was from Colombia, she decided to make Spanish themed dinner, with paella as the main dish. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with paella, but it’s a Spanish rice dish filled with chorizo sausage, shellfish, and prosciutto, not the ideal dish when you keep kosher. Living in Jerusalem at the time, we went from open-air market to market, searching for kosher alternatives to these very non-kosher meats. If I remember correctly, we settled on a variety of salami and chicken. And the taste didn’t even matter. What mattered was that it was meant to be a vehicle to keep my father-in-law present, to actively remember him. To bring him to that moment. To keep him in our lives.
It was a single Shabbat meal, but it was more than that. I remember my wife’s desire, thanks to social media, to begin interacting with many of her father’s extended relatives whom she had never met before. We returned from Israel and she became determined to volunteer with the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, HDSA, the national organizational that does research to find a cure for HD. Like many who choose to raise awareness for an illness or a disease after that illness took our loved one from this world, I believe we become involved in these organizations for two reasons. First, it is to make sure that fewer suffer through the same physical pain that our loved one’s did, to search for a cure, to save lives as a result. But second, it is to ensure that our loved ones live on. Because if their lives inspired us, then they didn’t die in vain.
When we recite the words of the El Maleh Rachamin, the Memorial Prayer, we pray that our loved one’s memory endures as inspiration for commitment to their ideals and integrity in our lives. We don’t just shape our lives based on the causes which they once held dear. We become them. They become a part of us – Tehe Nishmatam tzerura bitzur hachayim – we pray that their souls are bound up in the bond of life, and we become them.
At the very end of Parashat Noach, the Torah portion that focuses on the infamous forty-days-and-forty-nights flood and the building of the Tower of Babel, we read of the lineage that links the generation of Noah to the generation of Abraham, the next protagonist in Genesis. Abraham is preparing to go on his own prophetic journey, to hear God and on faith alone, travel to wherever it is that God instructs him. But first, Parashat Noach ends with the declaration that Terach, Abraham’s father, took his son Abram, his grandson Lot, and his daughter-in-law Sarai and they set out for the land of Canaan, but when they arrived at Charan, they settled there instead. With that, the Torah portion ends.
Yet, we spend a great deal of time focused on Abram’s Lech-Lecha journey, his journey to the land of Canaan, or as the Divine Promise reads: to a land that I will show you. But Abram wasn’t going on a new journey. He had simply recommitted to continuing the journey his father was already on. Terach set out on his journey, but stopped short of his destination and never continued. Abram’s journey was not a fulfilling a Divine command, even if he heard God’s angelic voice calling out to him from the Heavens. Rather, he was walking in his deceased father’s footsteps, carrying on his legacy. He was striving to fulfill what his father could not, and in doing so, keep him alive and his legacy alive in this world. He was doing more than that. In a way, he was becoming his father. He was using his father as inspiration to do what he set out to do, to achieve what his father was unable to. He was making sure his father was bound up in the bond of his life, by doing as he did, by learning from him, by walking in his ways, and by leading by his example.
When I lived in Jacksonville, Florida, I would often stop at the Gate Gas Station. Not just to fill up my tank, but the small gas station convenience store there was always open. It was always filled with middle schoolers on Friday afternoons, much like the 7-Eleven is here in downtown South Orange. It was at that gas station that Jordan Davis was shot and killed by Michael Dunn on the evening of November 23, 2012. What did 17-year-old Jordan Davis do wrong? He was riding with friends in an SUV late on a Friday evening. He was blasting music on the stereo system. And he was black. Because of Dunn’s racism, and because of Florida’s dangerous Stand Your Ground law, Dunn started shooting at the car parked next to him, murdering Jordan as a result. Michael Dunn was found guilty, given a life sentence without parole. But young Jordan Davis, who had his full life ahead of him, would never get to live that life.
His mother, Lucy McBath, spent most of her life as a flight attendant for Delta Airlines. When they would live together in Atlanta, she would make sure that she would only fly on Delta’s short commuter flights, to fly out in the morning and fly back soon after, in order to be home for dinner and bedtime. She was a working mother. She never wanted to be a politician. In a powerful ad, Lucy McBath says, “Jordan didn’t deserve to be shot at, or to die that way. I lost my son Jordan, but I am still his mother, I continue to mother him by making sure I preserve the lives of other children like him.” She wanted to ensure that he lived on by working to keep other children safe, so that they too wouldn’t become the victims of gun violence. But she also made sure he lived on by keeping a part of him with her, by becoming him.
When she announced her campaign for Congress, she declared: “Jordan wanted to be a community activist. What I thought I saw in him is what I’ve become.” What she thought she saw in him, she became. We may be familiar with children taking after their parents, seemingly holding unto them after they leave this world, becoming them. But she took after her son. He was the role model for her. She became him.
At the conclusion of her ad, she asks, “How do you turn grief into purpose?” Lucy McBath saw her son violently murdered, another victim of gun violence, and decided to run for Congress, not just to change policy, but because she imagined that her son would be an elected official one day. She carried on his legacy, by fulfilling his dreams that he never got to see come true. She realized his potential in herself.
Our biblical patriarch Isaac had a challenging relationship with his father Abraham. Just last week, on Rosh Hashanah, we read of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac. As an adult, despite his tumultuous and troubling relationship with his father, Isaac buries Abraham when he dies.
Following the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, there is not again a single word of dialogue between father and son in the rest of the Torah. Yet, Isaac not only returned to burying his father, in mourning, he walked in his father’s footsteps. Not only did he sow the land, but we read:
Vayelech Misham Yitzhak va’yichan b’nachal Gerar vayeshev Sham. Isaac departed from there and encamped in the wadi of Gerar and settled there. Vayashav Yitzhak vayachpor et b’erot hamayim asher chafru biy’mei Avraham aviv vay’satmum p’lishtim acharei mot Avraham Vayikra lahen shemot Kashemot asher kara lahen aviv. Isaac then du ganew the wells which his father Abraham had dug, which had been stopped up by the Philistines after Abraham’s death. And Isaac gave them the same names that his father had given them. (Genesis 26:17-18)
Isaac physically retraced his father’s footsteps, went on his father’s journey, dug the wells his father dug, and named them the same names that his father had given them. Intentionally or unintentionally, in grief, he sought to become just like his father.
Psychologist Diane Barth tells a story that sounds all too familiar. A young mother was trying to get her struggling three year old daughter into her stroller when she heard herself saying words she had vowed never to utter – phrases her mother had used throughout her childhood. Despite all of her efforts to parent her own children very differently, she found that those familiar sentences were the first to come into her brain and out of her mouth.
There are times when we strive to be just like our loved ones who have passed away. We want to hold on to the best parts of them. But even when we strive to be different than them, we still become a part of them; they still become a part of us. We take on characteristics (the good, the bad, the annoying, and the beautiful) of parents, of siblings, of spouses, and even of children.
A finding of Psychology Today suggests that we become just like our loved ones because of neuroscience. We are programmed to develop through interactions with others. This is why early paternal behavior has such an impact on our psyches, the article notes, but also suggests that this is why and how we change and evolve throughout our lives. Interactions with those closest to us, siblings and parents, spouses and children, colleagues and friends, can teach our brain new patterns, can alter our sense of self.
Or to put it in a more spiritual sense, each time someone has an impact on our lives, a little bit of their soul becomes intertwined with our souls. The Hebrew words for soul is Neshama. Torah teaches that God breathed life, breathed their souls into the first human beings.
Thus, the Hebrew for breath is the same root, Neshima. For not only does God breathe our souls into our bodies, as tradition teaches, but with each breath we take, we share ourselves and the souls of our loved ones with this world. We are told that their souls are bound up in the bond of our lives. But it is more than that. Their souls become intertwined with our souls. They remain in our lives because they guide us in our lives. We hold unto them by doing more than just taking them with us. They become a part of us.
How do we carry on the legacy of our loved ones who have left this world? How do we ensure that our loved ones are bound in in the bond of our lives? How do we, as Lucy McBath asked, turn our grief into purpose? We become them. For better or worse, we become them.
We sit in this holy space, at this most serious of times, as we prepare to recite the words of Yizkor, as we prepare to remember our loved ones. But memory is active. Memory is about more than just recalling those who’ve we lost and bringing us back to a specific moment in time. Memory is about keeping our loved ones alive. With every joke that we tell, with every phrase that we say, with every gesture that we make, with every cause that we fight for, with every lesson that we teach, with every aspect of our being, we remember our loved ones because we do as they did, we become them.
We are often named after loved ones that we did not know as a way to carry on their legacies, as a way to carry on their lives. We keep them alive, in hopes that the best parts of them are instilled within us. The Ohr HaChayim’s commentary on Deuteronomy suggests that parents receive a glimmer of divine inspiration when choosing a name for their child. God guides us in making sure that we name after loved ones, God ensures that our loves ones’ souls are bond up in the bond of life, in the lives of those who come after them.
It says in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot 7b, that God’s works are drawn into this world through a person’s name. A person’s name is a guide to whom they will become in this world.
And so, when we named our own children, little Hannah Faye, after my grandmother and great grandmother, Noah Abraham, after my grandfather, and Cayla Penina, after Andrea’s grandmother and father, my father-in-law, our hopes and prayer was that they would live on through them.
One of the first dishes that Andrea and Cayla made in the kitchen together, chef with sous-chef by her side, was Colombian. And Cayla’s favorite afterschool activity: a trip for frozen yogurt. We mourn on this day and at this moment, all of our loved ones who have left this world. But maybe, we should also celebrate for they are all around us. Their presence is felt all around us. For they are a part of us.
May the memories of all those we mourn at this moment be for a blessing. And may we always remember that they are not gone. They are here. Their souls are bound up in the bond of our lives. And they are a part of us. We have become them. Amen.