This essay is a transcript of the first major d’var Torah I gave after the death of my father, Rabbi Dr. Moshe Weiss. It was, for me, an emotional “moment.” I dedicate these words to my Abba.
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Songs reflect emotion. Melody speaks volumes about the culture and thinking of a community.
In that spirit, America sings about yesterday. “Yesterday, when I was young, the taste of life was sweet, as rain upon my tongue.” And America sings about tomorrow. “The sun will come out tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there’ll be sun.”
We sing about yesterday and tomorrow but not today. And yet, today—hayom—is a central theme of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Without exception, the portion of Nitzavim is read before Rosh Hashana. It begins with the words “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem – “You stand today (hayom) before the Lord your God).” And the Mussaf additional service on both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur concludes with the recitation of a prayer whose lines begin—over and over—with the word “hayom.”
Why, in Jewish tradition, is so much emphasis placed on today? Why is it so important?
We are so absorbed in memories of the past and concerns about the future that the moment, itself inherently fleeting, is rarely experienced. It’s for this reason that I always tell celebrants at a life cycle event—who seem to always be awaiting the next moment, anxious or excited about the way it will unfold—to remember to stay in the moment; to be in the moment; to appreciate it completely.
Thornton Wilder says it very well at the end of his play Our Town. Emily, who tragically died at the young age of 26, is permitted to revisit her twelfth birthday. Standing metaphysically off to the side of the stage, she expresses deep pain that her family is celebrating her birthday in a perfunctory manner. She cries out:
“I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back—up the hill—to my grave. But first: wait! One more look. Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by Grover’s Corners… Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking… and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths… and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?”
Thousands of years earlier, the Talmud records a similar idea when it records the story of Alexander the Great when he requests the secret to life from the Sages of Israel. Their response? Imagine that every moment you live is your last. (Tamid 42a) Their intention, I believe, was not to advocate living a burdened life, ever fearful of death. Rather, it was to teach that every moment should be made a quality moment, as if it were one’s last.
We in our community felt this lesson deeply this past week. Yehuda Bayme, son of our dear friends Edith and Dr. Steven Bayme, was in a tragic automobile accident that took his life. Yehuda was scheduled to be married in but a few months—then, in an instant, he was gone. His future in-laws, also in the car, perished with him. This so bitterly reminds us of the precariousness of life. One moment we’re here, the next moment we’re not.
As the popular adage goes: “The past is history, the future is a mystery. Today is a gift, that’s why it’s called the present.” It reminds us to hold on. Hold on tight to every moment. Hayom, hayom, hayom.
But if we were to stop here, our thought would be incomplete. This is because we can never hold on for eternity. Time moves on. Nothing lasts forever.
For one thing, it’s futile to hold on to being young as we all grow older. And though there is beauty in youthfulness, there is also beauty in aging. We must learn to age gracefully. When we’re seventy we should not dress and act like we’re twenty.
It’s also futile to hold on to our children. And though we teach them values, they must be free to choose their own path, flying their own route with the wings we gave them. Our challenge is to love them unconditionally.
It’s also futile to hold on to our professions without acknowledging that one day we must step back. The greatest test of success can be seen in how we transition to the next generation.
But how can one be in the moment while simultaneously recognizing that nothing lasts forever? How can one hold on while also letting go? Feeling the presence of God may be the pathway to realizing this challenge. When taking into account that God created the world, it follows that everything in it is infinitely precious. And so we ought to hold it, embrace it, warmly and tightly. And yet, when we also acknowledge how everything ultimately belongs to God, it is easier to let go—these beautiful things do not belong to us. While we are blessed to enjoy them for a limited time, we know they are on loan.
The late Rabbi Milton Steinberg makes this point in one of his brilliant essays where he coins the phrase “to hold with open arms.”
“And when God takes from us we know it will not be lost. The beauty of the world, its sunrise and sunset; the shades of a leaf; the ripple of the soft lake water; the music of a symphony orchestra; the smile of a child; the dreams of a loving couple; the wisdom of the older adult will be placed in God’s trust who stands behind us all. There is pain in termination, but no anxiety. When these experiences leave us, they will be given to someone more wise, more beautiful and more blessed.”
This, for me, is the definition of spirituality. Spirituality is not escaping from this world. Quite the contrary: it is being conscious, fully conscious of the moment while feeling the presence of God, who allows the experience to unfold.
The High Holidays are days of celebration, of hayom. We would all be wise to think back on this past year, to recall an experience of special meaning. To embrace it with open arms.
That moment for me was the passing of my father just a few months ago. My father was raised in the town of Oświęcim, which later became the notorious Auschwitz death camp. His father, who struggled to make a living, traveled to America, from where he would send money to the family and do all he could to facilitate their coming to the United States. In a certain sense my father grew up penniless—and, on some level, fatherless as well. His father did not even attend his Bar Mitzvah.
Since he came from the alta heim (old country), my father did not express his love through words. Rather, he expressed through action. For example: I often tell the story of my responsibility to pick my parents up at the airport when they flew to America from Israel after they made aliya. One time my father called at the last moment to say their arrival had been moved up by twenty-four hours. I insisted I couldn’t change my schedule on such short notice. “You became a hotshot rabbi,” my father responded, “and don’t have time for your parents?” “I love you deeply,” I protested, “but it’s difficult to alter plans at the last moment.” I’ll never forget my father’s response: “Don’t love me so much. Just pick me up at the airport!”
Though he’d always been a man of action, in the last seven years of his life my father experienced a transformation. He became more emotional, more expressive of his feelings. During those years I called him every day, never missing a day. Sometimes I would close the conversation by saying, “Abba, I know you love me, but tell me ‘I love you.’” And though such was not his natural manner—at times he did just that.
My hayom moment for this year found me sitting with my wonderful siblings around my father’s bed as he passed from this world. Breathing heavily in those final days, saying our names individually, he mouthed with deep emotion what I believe were his final words: “I love you.”
Even as we held him tight, he was slipping away. And when I saw my father just a moment after he died, I broke out in uncontrollable tears – I did not want to let him go. Even when he was buried, I found myself as an expression of love, almost entering into the grave with him.
It has taken me days and weeks to live the message of embracing with open arms—of holding on to the moment while also recognizing that, as Abba died, he was “placed in God’s trust.”
I keep recalling words I often heard from my father. They resonate loud and louder, especially during these days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It’s a paraphrase of a comment made by the Ibn Ezra: “Adam do’eg al ibud damav v’eino doeg al ibud yamav. Damav hozrim—yamav einam hozrim – “A person is concerned about the loss of money and not the loss of days. Money can be replenished; days cannot.”