Yizkor: “The Spiritual Gift”


A young man once recalled the following: When I was a teenager I was forced to go on walks around the neighbourhood with my Grandma. The doctor said she needed daily exercise but we lived in a rough neighbourhood. Mom made me go with her to make sure no one gives her problems. At the time I hated going on those walks. Grandma moved slowly so it took an hour of my time every day.  I wanted to hang out with my friends and be with people my own age. I didn’t want to be a kid that was labelled “a Grandma’s boy.” During those walks Grandma used to ask me the same questions everyday: “How was your day dear? Did anything good happen in school?” My response was always “good,” and “same old same old Grandma!” After that she’d always tell me stories from the old days. She made it a goal to include a life lesson in every story. It was all so repetitive to me. I usually just nodded my head and waited till we could go back home. This daily routine went on till I left home for college. Half way into my first semester I got a call from my Mom that Grandma had passed away in her sleep. The news hit me like a ton of bricks. It was just so sudden and unexpected. I immediately got on a bus and headed home for my final farewell. During the ride I got all these flashbacks about our walks and our conversations. I started crying uncontrollably. I realised that all my Grandma ever did was love and care for me. While the walks were supposed to be all about her, she actually made them all about me. Grandma wanted to know how my day was because she loved me. She told me stories with life lessons because she truly cared about me. I was just too blind to see it at the time. I was more interested in being with friends and other people who didn’t care or loved me like that at all. I wish I was a better Grandson to her. I wish I could tell her how much I love and appreciate her.

In this cold and individualistic world of ours, there are very few people in your life that will love you 100% unconditionally. There are many of us sitting here now, going into Yizkor that will have lost one such person. But there may well be others still very much an active part of your existence. If you have someone in your life who loves you unconditionally, let them know how you feel. Because before you know it, time passes by and your chance to say “thank you” or “I love you” could close.

As I recalled to you before: I don’t know if it’s a man thing that fathers and sons don’t typically say “I love you” in the same way that mothers might do. Or maybe it is just me. I can honestly say, I probably told my father “I love you” in the last week I was with him more times than in all the previous years. It’s true – it doesn’t always have to be said – it can be expressed in numerous other ways – but if there is one thing that Yizkor focuses our minds on it is the value of our relationships and the need to say or show that love to our nearest and dearest at every given opportunity. Because alas there comes a point, sometimes when we least expect it – when the opportunity is no longer there – when we are no longer able to whisper sweet nothings, share an embrace, say “I love you.”

His name was Nathan or Natan as he was known in his native Holland. She was called Rechelle – or Jet in Dutch. Together the built a home in the city of Borculo, where their family had already been living for years prior. Jewish life was thriving in Holland, and the 140,000 Jewish residents had all the trappings of religious life: shuls, schools, kosher, mikvah. Then, after so many years of tranquillity, the storm clouds began gathering and before long the ineffable days of the Holocaust was upon them. Only 27% of Dutch Jewry survived and today, outside of the few thousand Jews in Amsterdam and The Hague, there are but mere remnants of Jews scattered about.

The synagogue in Borculo was vandalised and burnt and it lay in ruins for the duration of the war years. After the war, like so many other sacred places, it was stripped of its holiness and became a butcher shop. Thereafter it changed hands several times over and laterally was transformed into apartments. For many of the liberal Netherlanders, Jews were little more than an afterthought, a throwback to a time that was no longer relevant in their contemporary world. These smaller city communities were but a mere relic that recalled a tragic past and it was best to purge the conscience by removing whatever remnants. It took many years before a monument went up in Borculo attesting to the once thriving community there. Then, only a few short years ago, along came a vicar with a conscience, a Mr. Theeuwen who decided that more needed to be done and so secured the site of the original shul and transformed it in part into a Jewish museum. Today you can visit and rediscover what was once almost forgotten.

Natan and Rechelle had built a family in Borculo and continued in a thriving family business. They were stalwarts of their community, just like their parents before them. Natan was an exceptional man. He would take time out from his business to travel the length and breadth of the country as a Mohel – to circumcise all new born Jewish males – and all at his own expense. Natan and Rechelle lost immediate family in the war, but were fortunate themselves to secure hiding through the underground, given refuge by some of the righteous of the nations.

There is one curious anecdote about Natan and Rechelle that I would like to share. You know, it’s always fascinating to see how spouses express love for one another. Today it’s usually through social media: “I want to wish Happy Birthday to the most beautiful woman in the world whom I love with all my heart…” I mean what’s up with that? Why does all the world need to know how much you love your wife? I’m always somewhat cynical about such so-called declarations of love. What is one trying to prove by a public announcement? You really feel that way? Look into her eyes and tell it to her personally, intimately. It’s no one else’s business!

On March 03 1937, Natan, a man of considerable means, decided to express his affection for his wife with an unusual gesture. He donated, on behalf of his wife, a new, specially released prayer book to the Shul in Borculo; a large Chazan’s edition. Inside it was inscribed as such, and services in that Shul were led from that Siddur for the next three years until Holland was invaded in 1940.

It makes you think, does it not? There is something extraordinary about a spiritual gift – about the fact that prayers – becoming ever fervent as darkness began enveloping Europe – were being recited from that very prayer-book given in the merit of a loved one. It prompts us to consider – what spiritual gifts do we impart to our loved ones? We are quite possibly the most spoilt generation to date. We buy lavish gifts – jewellery, cars, X-boxes, iPhones, you name it. But none of this is of lasting value. One war and it all gets wiped out. But the sacred gifts, they endure the tests of time and whatever the threats and however dire the persecution, we always have that to hold onto.

You see my friends that Siddur like so much else in that Shul in Borculo – it disappeared amidst all the vandalism never to be seen again. That is, not until just several months ago, when, as a result of some significant renovation undertaken by the vicar to bring back memories of the past, there, in some corner, buried beneath the floorboards, was the Siddur, somewhat tattered but otherwise fully intact. For more than 76 years it was simply lying there, underground, waiting to see the light of day once more. Indeed, they can strike at our bodies but they can never touch our souls. They can destroy the material but try as they may the spirit remains impervious, immortal, indestructible.

Was it because of the Siddur from which so many prayers were led, so many supplications recited and over which no doubt so many tears were shed, that this special couple merited enduring even as so many others perished? I don’t know, but I am sure it helped. And all I can say is “thank G-d.” Because Natan was my mother’s Grandfather and Rechelle was her Grandmother after whom she was named, and well, I am here today. And that Siddur – buried for more than seven decades under the floor, has resurfaced, come full circle and after much effort, only last week, made its way back into the rightful hands of the family…and here it is.

Many of us may have gifts of sorts left to us by loved ones. Maybe it’s a tie, some cufflinks, a necklace, a watch etc. And all this is special and deeply sentimental. But as we go shortly to Yizkor – to remember – take a moment and ask yourself, what is the greatest gift you recall your loved one leaving you? Is it some physical entity which may dissipate, erode through the ravages of time into oblivion? Or is it something a little more valuable even if not tangible; perhaps a life lesson, a moral conduct, a spiritual yearning, a holy ambition which notwithstanding whatever havoc and mayhem, regardless of however many years lying dormant and underground, can always resurface to give you direction once more.

And then, at this holiest moment on this holiest of days, we need to ask ourselves: What gifts are we imparting to our children? Is it all the transient stuff of which we can never get enough though here today, gone tomorrow? Or is it something more meaningful, more substantial that no matter what will always leave an indelible impression.

I remember when I turned nine years old. I had seen pictures of a walkie-talkie set which I was desperately hoping for my birthday gift. When I unwrapped the packaging – it was a bathrobe. I was so distraught – in fact if I am honest I don’t think till today I’ve ever recovered. I still remember the price for the walkie-talkies, $7.99. The bathrobe would have been at least $10. I was devastated. Why did they do that? Because what kids think is in their best interest is not always the same as what parents know to be in their best interest. So yes, I would have had fun with the walkie-talkies until the batteries ran out. But the robe would keep me warm night after night for a much longer period of time. That’s a question for consideration: Are we gifting what our kids want or what we know they need?

There are certain holidays during the year that are more focussed on gift giving. On Purim we have a mitzvah to gift at least two food items to another. On Chanukah we like to give gifts. Yom Kippur is not one of those times when we expect to give or receive gifts, but today I want to propose that we think about doing just that. Reflect on the real meaningful gifts your loved ones gave you and consider what gifts are you imparting to your loved ones – to your spouses, your children, your parents, yourself.

The Torah relates how Abraham was a man of tremendous wealth and stature. He had two sons: one was Isaac whom he had from Sarah, his heir apparent, and the other was Ishmael born from Hagar. At the end of his life, says the Torah Vayiten Avraham es kol asher loi l’Yitzchak. He “willed all that he owned to Isaac,” but to Ishmael “he left gifts.” Rabbi Yehudah said in the Midrash: to Yitzchak he left the spiritual – and to Yishmael he left the material gifts.

What does this say to me? It serves as the model to us that the greatest gift we can leave our children is the spiritual. Teaching your son how to put on Tefilin, encouraging your daughter to light her Shabbat candle – praying with them – these are gifts that are both priceless and timeless which they in turn can bequeath to their children after them and so through the generations.

Don’t educate your children to be rich. Educate them to be happy. So when they grow up they will know the value of things not the price. Your children are the greatest gift G-d will give you and their souls the heaviest responsibility He will place in your hands. Take time with them – teach them to have faith in G-d. Be a person in whom they can have faith. When you are older nothing else you will have done will have mattered as much.

When it comes to our spouses the greatest gift we can give them is the gift of unconditional love. Laugh when you can, apologise when you should and let go of what you can’t change. Relationships don’t happen by luck. They are the result of consistent investment of time, thoughtfulness, forgiveness, prayer, affection and mutual respect.

The Torah tells us categorically that our patriarch Jacob loved Rachel and then immediately thereafter how he was willing to work for seven years in order to have her hand in marriage. And even after he was duped, he worked another seven years in order to have her. Fourteen years! My Grandfather a”h used to say: “Before marriage he will walk to the other end of the world for you. After marriage he won’t even walk to the local grocery store!” Yakov maintained his consistency. He worked seven years for her before marriage and he worked seven years for her after marriage. Marriage is not a box of chocolates filled with all your expectations. It’s an empty box that you have to fill, with giving, loving, serving, praising which you then gift to your significant other.

And then there is the gift you must give yourself. You are the master of your soul; you are the captain of your fate. Your life is G-d’s gift to you. What you do with it is your gift back to Him. G-d gifts us 86,400 seconds every single day and all too often we put ourselves last on our to-do-list. But of what good can you be to another- your spouse, your children if you don’t look to nurture yourself? You need to take out time to be alone with your soul – to understand your life’s calling and embrace it with vigour and determination.

Look at Jonah, whom we read about today. He ran from his life’s calling because he worried about the impact of his mission. The fact is you can’t control the future, only the present hence worrying about tomorrow only takes away the peace of today. The best thing you can do is to focus on the here and now and count your blessings.

Give yourself the gift of following your dreams. Do what you love; do what is important for you. In order for you to live a fulfilled and meaningful life, you have to live it yourself. So don’t wait until it’s too late. Find the courage and willpower to live a life true to you.

Yes, along the way there is sometimes pain and struggle. Even so, have faith that everything will work out for the best. You’ve got the proof that you are capable of more than you know, after all you made it this far. Have you ever played “pass the parcel?” You’re tearing frustratingly through layers upon layers of paper but you don’t give up because you know beyond all the vexation and exasperation, the struggle is really a wrapping for the gift inside. So don’t give up.

But beyond our spouses, our children, ourselves, there is in fact one more gift that we give here today, especially at this moment of Yizkor – to our dearly departed loved ones.

When I was with my father OBM during his final days, he would spend much time with his eyes closed and it was impossible to know what he was and was not aware of. I wanted to put his Tefilin on him but I did hesitate. One doesn’t put on Tefilin with someone who is asleep or not fully conscious. But he hadn’t missed a day in his life and I didn’t want to be the one to deprive him now. On the last day I was with him I once again removed his Tefilin from the bag when an uncle of mine – my father’s brother – walked into the room. He’s a prominent Rabbi in California and observed to me that it was futile and that in fact I shouldn’t be doing it. So I yielded to greater authority and as I proceeded to put the Tefilin back in the bag – I will never forget the moment – with who knows what kind of energy mustered in that moment, my father, eyes still closed, literally lifted his left hand in the air like this – signalling his alertness and his desire to fulfil the mitzvah once more.

You see, life comes full circle. When I was thirteen my father will have given me the gift of learning how to put on my Tefilin. And as he neared the end of his life, I was able to reciprocate that gift by helping him put on his.

Our dearly departed loved ones – they are in another, ethereal realm. But they remain eminently connected to us. Today they pray on high as they intercede on our behalf. And we in turn can reciprocate, because, like an old prayer book in Holland, maybe your prayer book, indeed your prayers might lie buried away from one year to the next; maybe some other spiritual gifts bestowed to you will have been lying dormant, hidden beneath the floorboards of your life – – – but today you are here, life comes full circle as we find our way home once more. And when we reorient our attitudes and gift ourselves, our spouses, our children the way that we should, then frankly that’s the greatest gift we can give our dearly departed loved ones – the ultimate nachas we can give them.

Friends, think about the gifts your loved ones gave you, and resolve in this moment how you can give back to them. I want to ask you at this point to please close your eyes. Take a moment and think of your loved one. Think of the gift they gave you – what you hold most cherished. Close your eyes now and think of the gift that you are prepared to give back to them – and to those whom you have the gift of still having as part of your lives.

As we go now to Yizkor our loved ones hold us in their spiritual embrace and are smiling upon us. Let us in this moment learn to appreciate the gift of each day; to open it, to celebrate it, to add meaning to it and to enjoy it. Let us learn to gift our children, our spouses, our departed loved one and ourselves – wrapped in holiness and tied with love. At the same time G-d will surely be holding us and smiling upon us as well, looking to gift us a wonderful year ahead. May we indeed merit the gift of a year filled with goodness, happiness, blissfulness, for a gemar chasima tova – to be sealed for a life of love, laughter and lasting redemption – for us and for all of Israel and let us say Amen.