Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What Song are YOU? -- A Yizkor Sermon

On Yom Kippur, Yizkor is a time to reflect not only on our lives but on the lives of those that came before us and on our role as the link between a past that is the stuff of history and the future that we want to help shape. We remember those that came before us. While no parent or grandparent or sibling or spouse or partner that we remember were perfect, each left us with some positive legacy: some value, some teaching, some action that they taught us that helped us to be better human beings.

A neighbor of mine, D., told me a story of a rabbi he happened to meet years ago. This particular rabbi was in a bind, looking for sermon materials at the last moment. D. related to this rabbi the story of going to a Russian Jewish cemetery in which pictures of the deceased were actually etched onto the matzevot, the headstones. The rabbi immediately perked up and said, “You’ve just given my Yizkor sermon. My theme will be ‘what picture of you would YOU want on your matzevah?’”

I loved that idea and was prepared to run with it. But a few days after hearing the idea, I was listening to the radio, and the host of a program was reporting on a news story that brought this idea home even more for me. Here’s an excerpt of the story as reported by Wired magazine:

Music lovers can now be immortalised when they die by having their ashes
baked into vinyl records to leave behind for loved ones.

A UK company called And Vinyly is offering people the chance to press their ashes in
a vinyl recording of their own voice, their favourite tunes or their last will
and testament. The company was founded by Jason Leach…

Leach explained to Wired…that there were a number of factors that made him launch the service, including thinking that he was “getting a bit old” and “might not
be invincible”. His mother also started working at a funeral directors,
which brought the whole funeral process closer to home. A third prompt was
when he saw a TV programme that showed someone in America putting their
ashes into fireworks, which made him think about how he might want to be
remembered. And, he says, “It’s a bit more interesting than being in a pot on a

And Vinyly also offers personalised RIV (Rest In Vinyl) artwork — the
simple version just carries your name and your life span, or you can have your
portrait painted by artist James Hague, using your ashes mixed into the paint.

The basic package costs £2,000 [approximately $3000] and comprises of the standard artwork along with up to 30 ash-flecked discs with whatever sounds
you choose, lasting a maximum of 24 minutes…

The main challenge is choosing the music. Leach says: “It’s difficult to think of what to put on your record because you want it to be the best album you can imagine...”

Now, before you wonder where this is all going, let’s hear what the Hasidic
Rebbe, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav wrote about the songs of God’s creations:

“Master of the Universe, grant me the ability to be alone; May it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and the grasses, among all growing things and there may I be alone and enter into prayer to talk with the one that I belong to. Know that every shepherd and shepherdess has a unique nigun (melody) for each of the grasses and for each place where they herd. For each and every grass has its own song and from these songs of the grasses the shepherds compose their songs.”

So, it may not be such a far cry to suggest that each of us has a song or set of songs that represents our true essence. And while I’m not suggesting or planning to have remains put onto an album or CD or mp3, this companies concept, merged with the thinking of the rabbi who wanted to know what picture would people want on their matzevot, merged with Rabbi Nachman’s recognition of the unique song that all living things carry at their core, leads to some interesting questions:

  • What are the songs that those who have departed left for you?

  • What does the album of songs of your life consist of?

  • What are the songs you wish were there but aren’t there yet?

  • And what songs would you still like to add?

    Consider some of the following:

  • I Did It My Way

  • I'm a Man

  • Am Yisrael Chai

  • We are Family

  • Eishet Chayil

  • Highway to Hell

  • Hatikva

At Yizkor time we will stand together. Each of us has a song we’ve inherited from those before us. And a song we want to teach those who come after us. During the minutes of Yizkor, let’s get back in touch with the music of the ages before, and commit ourselves to helping teach those who will outlive us the music that will make them, their families and ours, their community and ours, and their world and ours so much better in the years and centuries to come.

My Big, Fat, Middle Aged, Facebook Elul: Teshuva Meets Social Media

Warning: Teshuva can be serious business if you are a middle-aged social media user. [For the uninitiated, teshuva means return or repentance].

Before explaining further, some background is in order. According to Pew Research Center, the use of social media among those of us 50 years of age and older has doubled in the past year alone (http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Older-Adults-and-Social-Media/Report.aspx). So, although I occasionally do embarrass a kid or two or even three, I am apparently part of a growing movement of aging baby boomers that now spends way too much time on Facebook.

But back to the teshuva part of the story...

When I got onto Facebook (or Eons, which bills itself as a social site for Boomers), I friended people that are currently in my life: colleagues, friends, and, when invited, students. Along the way, however, people from my past joined and we found each other: high school and college buddies, former students from "back in the day", former girlfriends, and other classmates from my youth.

Here's the thing: Darwin's idea of survival of the fittest often applies to friendships. We lose touch with some friends along the way. Our interests have diverged, our lives have gone in different directions, people moved away (usually me). But on Facebook, these friends reappear. Not only that, but old classmates, neighbors or others with whom barely a word was exchanged in those pasts become online "friends" quite easily. And therein lies an interesting challenge, and one that makes teshuva oddly different. Because, as my friend C. said to me: your high school classmates remember you as raw material. Before you had all sorts of fancy college degrees and nice clothes. They know who you are beneath the mask. And nobody of the "digital natives", as Marc Prensky describes younger generations (http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf), bothers to warn us older folks that there is a certain danger in social media. That it moves us to our past, present and future simultaneously.

How true. As I reminisced, became reacquainted or acquainted for the first time with characters from my past, the "raw material" emerged. And I realized how the externals had changed but so much that was a deep part of my psyche had not. My old friends and acquaintances had memories of me: I could be moody, I had anger, I often had trouble articulating my thoughts clearly and would become frustrated when I wasn't understood. Oh, there were good things about me that they remembered, too. My idealism (which has been tempered by age and the bumps that life gives us), my passion for standing up for people's rights, my love of music.

But it was the honest evaluation of some flaws that persist (albeit in somewhat different forms) that became my wake up call this Elul, as I prepared for Rosh Hashana. What I thought I had changed or outgrown was pointed out to me, delicately, but clearly, as flaws that had merely been morphed into different expressions. And that meant that this year, as no other, I had real work to do, and couldn't just sneak by with superficial change at this season of teshuva.

So, without boring anyone with the details, simply know that social media can actually impact and magnify the cheshbon ha-nefesh, the personal soul searching, that the High Holidays ask of us. For me, it did so in very powerful ways.

I am grateful to my friends in the "real" world and in the "virtual world", past and present, who gave me the gift of real reflection this year. Without question, this was the most challenging Elul and pre-High Holiday teshuva in which I've engaged. And social media made it possible.

Best wishes for a shana tova u'metukah, a happy and sweet new year.