Shalom. I recently had the honor of presenting a series of Jewish Sacred Aging sessions at the annual meeting of the National Association of Retired Reform Rabbis (NAORRR) in Florida. At the Shabbat morning service, NAORRR honored the HUC-JIR class ordained 50 years ago. A member of that class, Rabbi Howard Shapiro, was asked to give the sermon. He captivated the congregation and he gave Jewish Sacred Aging permission to repost it here.
Thank you, Howard!
Rabbi Richard Address
I was laying in Shavasana – my favorite yoga position usually translated as corpse pose: on my back, my feet as wide as the edges of the mat, my arms comfortably outstretched, not quite to a “T”, palms up ready to receive. It is the final pose at the end of the session and it is a time for me to melt into the mat and be with myself. It was a good session with a few practices I could not quite reach and a few in which I found my groove and the ligaments and muscles of my body aligned. But now I was letting my breath do the work pulling me and allowing me to rest and gratefully acknowledge the gift of presence. It is a quiet moment, the music low, the room darkened, and you are alone. Well not entirely alone, there is more often than not all those images, thoughts and memories floating in and out of consciousness. Lots of us who meditate and lots of us who pray silently without words know that the mind has a will of its own and people, places, things enter this quiet space as you gently try to get ready you for the rest of the day.
And there we all were floating across that place between my eyes that is my holy of holies. Not just all of us in this room but all of those who came before us. This moment of meeting, me standing before you, trying to share, inspire, teach landed front and center. I had little choice; I could try and push you away giving you even more power or I could gently let you stay knowing you could leave with my next inhale or the exhale after. It is not that I resented you being there but this was feeling like a Lowell McCoy moment in 5th year sermon seminar on Clifton Avenue 50 years ago. Was I in a place of judgment or transition, a place of blessing or challenge? Was this a moment of criticism or compassion?
Maybe the author of the Book of Exodus had a similar feeling when deciding how to introduce the transition to our foundational freedom myth. In the empty white spaces between the death of Joseph and the anonymous new king who knew him not, the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt, each coming with their household hovered over the story that begins on the shores of the Nile and summits at a Mountain called Sinai. Vi-eleh Shmot B’nei Yisrael – These are the names of the children of Israel … Reuven, Shimon, Levi. It’s as if the Exodus author wants us to know we don’t leave the past behind. It joins our journey forward whether through deserts or life. It’s as if the Exodus author wants us to remember it’s all about the people. It’s all about each and every one of us; it’s all about each and every person whom we touched through our Rabbinate. It’s all about how you impacted me whether consciously, deliberately, knowingly or not.
I learned that in the Army wearing green fatigues with silver tablets on my lapels in jungles lush and deadly, in mountains terraced with rice paddies and hidden mines. I learned from innocent Jewish soldiers who felt trapped in the insanity we called Vietnam and turned to the Chaplain, the one safe link to sanity they felt they could trust. They taught me it is all about how we are present to each other. It was not my choice to become a Chaplain but a lieutenant from Mississippi, a captain from Minneapolis, a private from Brooklyn, and countless others taught me what it means to be a Rabbi. Their pain, confusion, disillusionment touched me, changed me. Their struggle to find purpose and meaning are still imprinted within.
In the 16th Century mystical world of Tzefat, the RAMAK (Rabbi Moshe Cordevora) wrote in Tomer Devorah (The Palm Tree of Deborah), “For in every one there is actually one part of his fellow, and when one person sins he injures not only himself but also that part of his fellow which is in him…and therefore a person should want his fellow’s happiness and honor as much as his own, because he really is himself, and that is why we were commanded “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Vi-eleh Shemot – These are the names of the children of Israel …. Yocheved, Miraim. The story of our struggles both personal and collective teaches me that the connections between us are not metaphorical but the divine spark ignited at our birth is a shared reflection of that which we call Eternal. In the deepest strata, you are me and I am you. It was not an easy lesson to learn. I had to empty out my own anger and disappointments about how life sometimes unfurled. And it wasn’t like it just happened – over, finished, done. Every experience and the people we birthed and the people we buried live within us and are layered into the soul’s climb toward holiness.
Vi-eleh Shmot: One of the names that has been a constant teacher over the years of my life since he first taught me Hebrew at the Machon Hayim Greenberg in Jerusalem way back before the year in Israel was a required HUC experience, is Yehudah Amichai. In a poem called, “A Man in His Life”, Amichai reflects on this process we call living, growing, learning, loving. His words and metaphors feel like my own flawed and imperfect struggle towards wholeness. His insights and revelations feel appropriate to this 50th anniversary.
A Man In His Life by Yehuda Amichai
A man doesn’t have time in his life
to have time for everything.
He doesn’t have seasons enough to have
a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes
Was wrong about that.
A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes,
with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love.
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest
takes years and years to do.
A man doesn’t have time.
When he loses he seeks, when he finds
he forgets, when he forgets he loves, when he loves
he begins to forget.
And his soul is seasoned, his soul
is very professional.
Only his body remains forever an amateur.
It tries and it misses,
gets muddled, doesn’t learn a thing,
drunk and blind in its pleasures
and its pains.
He will die as figs die in autumn,
Shriveled and full of himself and sweet,
the leaves growing dry on the ground,
the bare branches pointing to the place
where there’s time for everything.
Amichai teaches me that whatever we do, there is rarely enough time; it teaches me that there is the potential that we could have done it differently/better/more professionally; it teaches me that there is room for growth, even when we live within definitive beginnings and finite endings. V’eleh Shmot: I imagine even Shifra and Puah lived knowing how much more could have been done as they secreted those little Hebrew baby boys away from the eyes of Pharaoh.
I sometimes look in the mirror and wonder who is that person looking back. Amichai is right: only the body remains forever an amateur. I sometimes lay out my prescriptions in a nightly ritual before surrendering to sleep and remember how I used to laugh at my father-in-law’s Sunday Monday, Tuesday box of pills. And now that is me. Amichai is right: It is a gift to know that we don’t have time for everything and it is a gift to be able to say it is the autumn of my life. Fifty years a Rabbi and I push myself to affirm that the reds and the golds, the oranges and yellows of the fall leaves are some of the brightest of the year.
Vi-eleh Shmot. There is one more name. It has flowed beneath all the words we have shared. “Vayomer Moshe el Ha-Elohim: When I come to the Israelites and they ask me what is Your name. What shall I say to them? Vayomer Elohim el Moshe: Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh. Thus shall you say to the Israelites, “Ehyeh” sent me to you.” I know we could spend forever deciphering the nuances of these Hebrew words. But for now, for me, for today and tomorrow, they point me to that which is yet possible. They speak to my heart about all that is and all that is yet to be. God’s name is a verb and we all are in the process of becoming.
And so it is not with despair that I come to this moment. And so it is not with sadness at missed opportunities. It is with both love and forgiveness. I return to where I began this morning, to my Yoga mat to make sure I have not misled you. I am not a Yogi. I have what is called a Yoga practice with an emphasis on the word practice. I use the blocks and the straps and the props with abandon. I couldn’t touch my toes when I was seven what do I expect now that I am seventy-seven. I believe my yoga teacher when he sees me fall out of a pose and gently reminds me that falling is also a lesson. I want to return to the teaching of Rabbi Moshe Cordova – the RAMAK. In the Mussar world, his insight that we live in each other compels us to the Midah of compassion – “therefore we have been taught to love your neighbor as your self.” Love your neighbor as you love yourself and for God’s sake – love your self with all your heart and all your soul. For God’s sake love yourself with all your wrinkles and all your failings. For God’s sake love yourself with all your achievements and successes. For we are part of each other in ways we often forget and neglect, in ways we gloss over as we walk the path of our days.
When Eileen was 30, she bought a painting that still hangs in our home. In hues of brown and sepia, the image of a flower with deeps roots and broad leaves in full possession of its maturity lives next to these words only the young can laugh at: “I like the old woman I am growing into.” We thought it was funny and cute. Little did we understand that to like the person we would become, the person we are, the person we see in the mirror, the person with aches and pains and muscles with minds of their own, the person who sees that tomorrow will not go on forever, we needed compassion, patience, forgiveness. We needed to see that to like the old woman we are growing into is an act of faith and a blessing. And so I come to this moment in my life with faith. I come to it with blessing. I come to this moment in my life with forgiveness. I come to it with compassion.
And say these words we have repeated many times this weekend but they come from the deepest recesses of my heart.
Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheynu Melech Ha-Olam Shehecheeyanu, Vikiyimanu, Vihigiyanu lazman hazeh.
About the Author
Rabbi Howard Shapiro is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Israel and community-builder in the greater Palm Beaches, bridging different institutions and forging links between people, traditions and congregations. He cares deeply for Jewish education, and loves to teach and learn. Shapiro is active in local and national and Jewish organizations — on the National Board of the Reform Pension Board of the Union for Reform Judaism and Central Conference of American Rabbis, a member of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County, where he works closely with its Synagogue Institute.
He was educated at Brandeis University and ordained from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He served as a chaplain in the U.S. Army in Vietnam. Rabbi Shapiro and his wife have two children and five grandchildren.