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May we all Live and Die with our Own "N'Vo" - Shemini Atzeret Yizkor Sermon

09/28/2021 04:10:19 PM


Rabbi Weinberg

One of my oldest memories of Israel, beyond the city of Jerusalem is Kibbutz Degania. A beautiful agricultural development community, it is located on the southern shore of the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee. There, in a lovely setting is the final resting place of some of Israel’s finest artists, including, Naomi Shemer, Rachel Bluwstein, and Berl Katznelson. Situated in this tranquil setting where the Sea of Galilee empties into the River Jordan, many of Israel’s earliest pioneers requested to be buried next to the artists in this peaceful environment.

A few weeks ago, Farzin pointed out to me the exceptional poem that characterized the seminary’s weekly commentary that we provide every week- on the table as we enter the sanctuary. I try to read them each week as I find them very meaningful and thoughtful. But I had missed this one. Thank you so much, Farzin for sharing your enthusiasm for this particular Dvar Torah.

Inspired by the great Zionist pioneer, A. D. Gordon, Rachel Bluwstein left Europe and became one of Israel’s most beloved poets, writing not in her native language Russian but in Hebrew- modern Hebrew. Thoughtful and rather melancholic- she died at the young age of 40 from tuberculosis- she captured the sentiments of the early Halutzim with her short, pithy poems like few others.

Commenting on the sedra Ha’azinu, Dr. Barbara Mann, occupying the chair in Hebrew Literature at JTS shared a poem written by Rachel Bluwstein. Entitled “Mineged,” Rachel wrote a moving poem based on a word at the very end of the sedra of Ha’azinu. The final pasuk or sentence in the sedra begins, “Ki mineged tireh et Ha’aretz v’shama lo tahvo el Ha’aretz.” God says to Moshe, “You may view the land from afar, but you shall not enter it.” The Hebrew word “Mineged” means ‘from afar’ or ‘from a distance.’

Listen, please - to the English translation of Rachel’s poem entitled, “Mineged- From Afar.”

Attentive the heart. The ear listening:

Is anyone coming?

Every expectation contains

The sadness of Nevo.

One facing the other- two shores

Of a single river.

The rock of fate:

Ever far apart.

Spread your wings. See from afar

There- no one is coming.

To each his own Nevo

In a land of plenty.

Known simply as Rachel, The Poetess, Rachel writes most of her poetry in the last ten years of her life, ending in 1930. In this poem she references the profound sense of sadness experienced by Moses when he was told by God that he would not enter the land of Israel. Everything he had worked for would be left unfinished. Moshe Rabbeinu stood on Mt. Nevo, overlooking the land of Israel, and tried to appeal to God one last time to be given the privilege of entering into the Promised Land. But, God said, once again, “No!” Moses dies with his mission incomplete- his Nevo leaving him incomplete, unsatisfied, and yearning for a sense of wholeness.

Rachel suggests in this poem that each of us has his or her own Nevo. Like Moses, we dream. We anticipate a future. We prepare for our journey through life. And, then life happens. Roadblocks appear. Hurdles challenge our identity. At times, we are shaken to our core. Other times, we need only the time and discipline to reset our compass.

Rachel recognizes the pain with which Moshe Rabbeinu must contend. She has her own set of misfortunes. She is cast out of her home, her community, and spends the final years of her life living a less than desirable life. She had contracted tuberculosis while in Russia and the highly contagious disease frightened her community members and they responded abruptly. ‘Mineged,’ from afar she waited for someone to remember her. From afar, she yearned for companionship. Someone would surely knock on her door. “Is anyone coming?” she wonders.

She is lonely, bereft, and questions the world around her.

At the same time, I believe Rachel leaves the reader with a gift. To die with our own Nevo is to die with a dream. To pass away before our work is accomplished means we had an agenda, we had a set of goals, we had a purpose for which we believed we were placed on this earth. “Ish u’nevo lo- to each his own Nevo” is a statement that acknowledges we should have unrealized ambitions at the end of life. To stop dreaming is to stop living. To lose sight of our goals is to lose grasp of aspirations. To die with our own Nevo implies that we never lose our will to live, to dream, to imagine. To die with our own Nevo suggests that an unfulfilled dream means we are unsatisfied, that we still see the need for our presence, that there is still a place for our impact on this world.

There is a special midrash that suggests a unique role for Shemini Atzeret. It is known as our eighth day of assembly, completing the seven-day holiday of Sukkot with an eighth day. No one knows what to make of this day. There are unique mitzvot associated with this day. We are not commanded to dwell in the sukkah as we do the first seven days of Sukkot. We don’t take the lulav and Etrog and recite a bracha. We omit the daily procession around the shul, the hoshanot, reminiscent of Temple days. Yet, we are expected to make Kiddush in the sukkah both, evening and morning. What is the message of this Hag?

In a creative midrash quoted by Rashi, the word “atzeret” means not ‘to assemble,’ but ‘to tarry or hold back.’ Throughout the festival of Sukkot, 70 animals were sacrificed representing, symbolically the 70 nations of the world. Sukkot becomes a universal holiday. But, after the unique relationship we have established on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and for seven days of Sukkot, God says to us, “Don’t leave so quickly. I want one last day with you, my special chosen people, exclusively. Only one bullock is sacrificed on Shemini Atzeret, symbolizing the intimate bond between Bnai Yisrael and their God.

As we turn to the Yizkor service, we, too, yearn for one more gesture of love. It is so hard to say goodbye. We remember the last breath of our loved one. We recall the last time we danced, the last words we spoke, the last discussion we shared. We try to hold back time, to prevent the clock from moving as we recollect the wonder we had and, of which we were compelled to let go.

The poet, Rachel has a message for us during this Yizkor. May we continue to dream, especially fulfilling the incomplete dreams of our loved ones. May we prove to be the legacy our parents and grandparents dreamed about when we pursue paths through life that reflect their values. May we live our lives in such a way that we refuse to relinquish our dreams.

Yesterday, Hoshana Rabba was the last time we recited Psalm 27 this year. An unparalleled psalm that we recite every year beginning with the first of Elul, the psalm includes the touching phrase, “Ki avi v’imi azavuni v’Adonai ya’asfayni- my father and mother may leave me, but God is with me to strengthen me.” At this Yizkor hour we recall the wonderful embrace of our parents. Their love, their encouragement, their presence in our lives all combined to shape the person we profess to be. With God’s help may we be worthy of the dreams they had for us. May we continue to dream, to aspire, to imagine a better world that reflects our imprint- an imprint that bears our loved ones’ DNA.

As Psalm 27 ends, King David proclaims, “Kaveh el Adonai hazak v’ya’ametz libekha- Hope in the Lord- be strong and take courage.” Especially later in life, let us not succumb to the loss of vision and imagination. May we be bold, overcoming our fear of the unknown and adopt our own Nevo. May that dream resonate with our family for generations to follow. Each of us walks in the footsteps, in the unfulfilled Nevo of Moshe Rabbeinu. How will future generations characterize our Nevo?

Rabbi Stefan J Weinberg

Thu, August 18 2022 21 Av 5782