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Rabbi Jessica K. Barolsky - Rosh Hashanah - 2nd Day - 2013/5774

Creating a Legacy
Rosh Hashanah – 2nd Day – 2013/5774

Almost seven months ago, Michael and I had a baby girl.  A week later, in this very room, we shared her name, Yael Adina, with our families, with the congregation, and with friends.  It was a name we picked out when we first learned she would be a girl, although we didn’t share that name with anyone until the day we shared it with everyone.  We knew we wanted to name Yael after Michael’s father; we chose to also name her after two of our grandfathers.  In Jewish tradition, we often name after people who are no longer living, but we don’t choose just anyone.  In fact, in the sleep-deprived days leading up to the naming ceremony, Michael and I talked in detail about why we were choosing to name our little girl after three pretty amazing men.  It wasn’t just that they were close relatives.  Rather, we wanted our little girl to take on the best characteristics of those three men.  We wanted her, in some small way, to be a legacy of the way they lived their lives.

Whether or not we are intentional about the legacy we create, from the time our parents started dreaming about us, we were building a legacy.  It begins when we inherit someone else’s legacy: the names they chose, the values and traditions they impart.  The legacy continues to build through the choices we make, the things we do throughout our lives: organizations we support, causes for which we work.  Finally, we leave a legacy behind when we go, and the way we are remembered depends on what, purposefully or not, we have taught to others.  If we live intentionally, our legacy to our loved ones and to the world can be our values, our hopes and dreams, our vision for the future.  This Rosh Hashanah, we consider the world, the vision, the legacy we want to leave for those who come after us.

The Talmud tells us that we have to teach our children three things: Torah, a trade, and how to swim.  Torah, implying not just the Five Books of Moses, but all of written Jewish law, is probably the most obvious of the three.  So one of the first legacies we inherit is how to be Jewish.  What each of us received as that legacy—or how we created it, if we chose Judaism ourselves—varies from family to family.  Some children learn to love Judaism, others to feel guilty about it, others to feel it as a burden, question it, or see it as infallible, but almost every Jewish child began learning something about being Jewish.

As Jewish children, we are also supposed to learn a trade, ensuring that we are able to take care of ourselves, and inheriting another Jewish value: taking care of others.  Most Jewish communities have a Jewish Vocational Services, Jewish Family Services, and Jewish Free Loan Association, among others, ensuring that as a Jewish people, everyone has a trade, can find a trade, and can get help if they need it anyway.  The requirement to teach a trade is a way of creating a worldwide Jewish safety net, part of the legacy we inherit.  The final, and perhaps most surprising of the things that Jews are required to learn is how to swim.  We learn Torah as our inherited legacy of a spiritual and ritual life.  We learn a trade as our inherited legacy of a material life.  And we learn to swim as our inherited legacy of life itself.  The Talmud was compiled when the Jews were living in Babylon, situated in part of what is now Iraq, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  Swimming would have been key to survival.  It is the inherited legacy of the Jewish value of life above everything else. 

Almost all Jewish children begin with these legacies, though, of torah, trade, and life itself.  We also inherit the legacies our parents and other teachers choose to impart, from the names they chose to the choices they made. I learned growing up that Shabbat was important; every Friday night my family had dinner in the dining room, rather than the kitchen, making the meal itself a little more special, starting with lighting the candles, having grape juice and challah, and sitting down to eat in a room where we only spent special time.  My sisters and I were allowed to go to services on Friday evenings if we took a nap beforehand—apparently a brilliant ploy to get us to see services as a treat AND to allow my mother some peace and quiet for a little while on Friday afternoons.  As we think about the legacy we inherited from our parents and teachers, are we living our lives with the values they tried to instill in us? 

The legacy we inherit only lasts so long.  At some point in our lives, there is a shift from values we learned from others to choices we began to make ourselves, and our choices can have a profound influence on the legacies we leave behind.  When Yael was born, we received a gift of President Obama’s children’s book, Of Thee I Sing, in which he tells his daughters about thirteen Americans who did remarkable things in their lives.  They are not all the people you might expect in a book about America’s legacy, though, but rather some more ordinary people who made their own legacies through the lives they led.  Helen Keller, Neil Armstrong, Sitting Bull, and Cesar Chavez join George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, among others, in a book that spotlights people whose specific accomplishments are celebrated, in large part people who made choices to actively begin creating their own legacies.

The choices we make do not always have to be about others; sometimes, we need to do things for ourselves.  As adults, ongoing Jewish education, for example, is not required.  But if we see ourselves as people to whom education is important, to whom curiosity is a point of pride, as people who like to question and debate, shouldn’t we keep learning as much as we can?  I envision a community that values education for all, from young children up through their grandparents, learning sometimes separately and sometimes together, with options available for adults who are at all different places along their journey—informal classes as well as more serious study for those who are so inclined; basic classes for those new to Judaism or in need of a refresher, and higher level classes where some level of background knowledge is assumed.  We claim to be the People of the Book.  Shouldn’t we keep reading, keep studying, keep learning from our books?

The actions we take are also a major part of what will become our legacy.  The causes we support or choose to ignore; the study we undertake or choose to skip; the soccer games and dance recitals and field trips we schedule around or choose to miss contribute as much to our legacies as the values we claim to hold.  When we tell our kids that family comes first, but we spend a family vacation buried in work, what are we building as our legacy?  When we tell our kids that they have to learn about Jewish traditions, but we think it’s too much work to too inconvenient to try those traditions at home, what are we building as our legacy?  While what we inherit begins our legacy, the actions we take—or choose not to take—change its course.  Are our actions leading us toward the legacy we hope to build?

What we do with our own lives and the choices we make is only part of the legacy we build.  Ultimately, it is what we teach others that becomes what lives on.  Personally, I was always a little jealous of those of my peers who learned to say the Shema before bed every night; I never did, but I hope that I can teach Yael to do so. I hope to instill a love of Shabbat in my home.  I think about what our Friday afternoons look like now: rushing to grab a bite to eat, often leftovers because that’s all there’s time for, and rushing off to services, sometimes with Michael and I meeting here at synagogue.  I admit: we don’t always light Shabbat candles at home, and we don’t always have a challah.  That’s not the Shabbat I want Yael to learn about, it’s not what I want her to remember about family and Shabbat, so it is something that we have to work to change.  I want to teach her to love Shabbat.  I want her to live up to the name we gave her, the legacy of those three great men.  I want to teach her that like her grandfather and two great-grandfathers she was named for, family comes first, and we all have to work hard and ethically for what we want in life.  That’s what I want to teach my daughter.  I hope that one day, that’s part of my legacy.

When I teach here at the synagogue, whether adult education or religious school, or even in conversation at oneg, I hope that part of what I teach is love and awe of Judaism, and a constant thirst for knowledge.  Admittedly, sometimes I choose adult education topics because I want to learn more about them.  I need to make more time to keep learning, to teach my daughter and anyone else who is paying attention that Jewish education doesn’t end after rabbinical school any more than it ends after Bar or Bat Mitzvah or Kabbalat Torah.  I hope to be known, and one day remembered, as someone who loves to learn just for the sake of learning.

 In the Torah portion we read this morning, we learn of the creation of the entire world.  Adam had the opportunity to name every living thing, perhaps choosing names that he thought most appropriate, most suited for each animal as he saw it, perhaps leaving his legacy by teaching each animal a little about itself with the name he chose. Midrash tells us that when man was created, God told the angels that man would be wiser than they were.  To demonstrate, God paraded the animals, beasts, and birds before the angels, and asked the angels what each one should be called, but the angels did not know.  Then God paraded the animals one by one before Adam, and Adam named them: an ox; a camel; a donkey; a horse.  And God asked Adam, what is your name?  And he said ‘it is fitting that I be called Adam, because I was created from the ground (adamah).’ ‘And what is My name?,’ God asked. ‘It is fitting for you to be called Adonai, Eternal One, because you are Eternal over all Your creatures.’ [1].  And so Adam’s legacy was established by what he taught the animals, and by what he taught the angels.

Like Adam, our legacy does not have to remain in our own families.  Perhaps as a congregation, our legacy could be improving relationships in our greater community, teaching our neighbors about who we are. Many people we encounter every day know almost nothing about the Jewish community.  Our neighbors to the north, in Mequon, scheduled their annual “taste of Mequon” event this year—in an area whose school district closes for Rosh Hashanah—on Yom Kippur. Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin also scheduled their annual fundraising fun run on Yom Kippur, although they have already printed a letter of apology in the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle. Whitefish Bay scheduled their annual school board meeting for this past week, on Rosh Hashanah eve.  The list goes on.  Perhaps we could work together to open our doors and teach our neighbors who we are, to get our hands dirty helping our community, to work with those of other faiths, and interact more with the larger community in which we live, making our communal legacy one of outreach and community building.  Pirke Avot tells us all to repent one day before we die, subtly reminding us that we don’t know when that day will be, and that therefore we should repent daily.  We don’t know how long we have to build our legacies, and therefore every day counts.  One goal of Rosh Hashanah, of thinking about our legacies, is to ensure that our legacy matches the way we live and the priorities we value.  When we go, having our loved ones discover that we wanted to support an organization in death that we never supported in life is just as jarring as having them discover that we chose not to support an organization after death that we seemed to so highly value in life.  If this were our last Rosh Hashanah, would we be proud of how we would be remembered by next Rosh Hashanah?

This Rosh Hashanah, we consider how each of us as individuals is known, and how we want to be known.  For most of us, if not all of us, how we are known and how we wish to be known are not exactly the same.  This season reminds us to keep working on that, to start to consider how to bring those images closer together.  We each get one chance at life, we each get the same 6 days each week and the same Shabbat, the same 24 hours in each day.  How we fill that time is up to us, but how we fill that time determines who we are, how we are known, how we will, one day, be remembered.  Think about your own name, and why your parents chose it, and the values they tried to impart first through the very names they chose for you, and through the choices they made as you grew.  Consider the values you tried to pass along to your children, or the ones you one day hope to pass along to another.  It’s time.  It’s time to think about whether the way that we are living is in line with those values. 

These Days of Awe are supposed to jar us, remind us how we live, that none of us will live forever.  We can’t control when that happens, as our liturgy likes to remind us.  What we can control is what we leave behind, how we take the traditions and teachings of our past, put them together into how we live our lives, and pass our experiences, our values—if we’re lucky, our wisdom—onto those who come after us.  This Rosh Hashanah, this year of 5774, it is up to us to decide how we want to be remembered, and to start making ourselves known that way now.  May we each find our legacies and find our way to start living our legacies this year.

[1] Midrash Rabbah, 17:4

Tue, June 18 2024 12 Sivan 5784