I am filled with overflowing love and appreciation for the kindness that this community has showered upon my wife Michelle and me and our family as we endured three painful family transitions: the death of Teri, mother to my wife Michelle and wife to our congregant Murray, which occurred on the same day that my mother Linda had a life-altering second stroke, and the sudden death just two months ago of my dad Ken, our kids’ Papa.
Nothing in my 28 years as a rabbi prepared me for the ongoing sadness we have faced. In under five months, our family lost two grandparents, and nearly a third. My mom is recovering, slowly. As those who have lost loved ones know, we are similarly recovering slowly.
Part of my mourning process has been to write, doing what our congregant Phil Gurin described as “taking dictation from my heart.” The poetry I am writing captures for me the searing of my soul and the realignment of the axes of our lives. Some of these poems are available on my personal website (paulkipnes.com), where I aim to share what someone called The Secret Life of a Mourner. I considered using these poems in my sermon tonight since one of the primary projects of Yom Kippur is to propel us to prefigure our deaths in order to shock our souls into realigning our lives with our values. But instead, let’s leave death behind for a bit and focus instead on life.
I recently learned with Rabbi Donniel Hartman, of Israel’s Shalom Hartman Institute, who offered a lesson about the sequence of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Did you ever wonder why Rosh Hashanah comes before Yom Kippur? You would think that first we would be called to do Yom Kippur’s hard work, the intense, sometimes painful self-reflection of sizing up, repairing, and redirecting our lives, and only afterward would we be able to approach Rosh Hashana, celebrating the promise of a new year. But no. Jewish tradition purposely reversed the expected order. Why?
According to Rabbi Hartman, only when we perceive the blessings in our lives, only when we have celebrated and embraced what is good, will we have the inner strength and necessary courage to face what isn’t. Rabbi Hartman believes that we embrace change not from the bottom – not from facing our failures, our inadequacies, or the mess we have made of our lives or our world. We will embrace change when we foresee that our lives could be something different. When we remember our blessings and imagine the possibility of a more beautiful future.
It was like that for our Israelite ancestors, who endured slavery for 430 years. When did the escape from Egypt finally begin? Not when God spoke to Moses from the burning bush to send him to Egypt. Not when Moses went down to Egypt to tell old Pharaoh to let my people go. No, the 430 years of Egyptian slavery moved toward its stunning conclusion earlier, in Exodus 2:24, when “the people cried out to God and God remembered the covenant.”
This could not have been the first time the Israelites really cried out. There ain’t no way that the Israelites, suffering bone crunching oppression, would not have cried out – once, a hundred times, daily – from that brutality. No, what happened in Exodus chapter 2 is that the character of the Israelites’ cries changed fundamentally because somehow, for some reason, the Israelites began to imagine a different kind of future. A future devoid of slavery. A future filled with hope and dreams, with freedom and fellowship, lives characterized by kindness, compassion and justice.
And because they started seeing possibility, they finally discerned the still, small voice of the Holy One, a voice that had been calling out to them all along. Finally, they began to divine a vision of what could be. Finally, they sang and danced about tikvah (hope). By the time Moses, Miriam and Aaron appeared on the scene, the Israelites were already prepared to listen, to push through the fear, to embrace a possibility of freedom. The Exodus had to wait until the people were ready to embark on a better path.
Never underestimate the difficulty of that paradigm shift.
We know people in the throes of a painful existence, who – much to our frustration – cannot push through to a better future: The addict entering rehab for the third time, unable as yet to beat back the pull of the booze or the gambling, the porn or pills. As painful as it is, the slickness of that sickness masks the promise of something more promising.
Most of us know women and men living in abusive relationships who try to break away six or seven times before finally they fly away toward freedom. Even with all that pain and with the very real fear of physical retribution, it seems it is their fear of the unknown future that obscures what seems obvious to others.
And how about the rest of us? Too many of us endure the darkness in our lives: the job that sucks the joy / simcha from our souls, the fear of embarrassment that envelops our existence, the secret that sustains our depravity. Like the ancient Israelites, we endure the status quo, because we can’t envision something different. Freedom, therefore, has to wait for us until we can imagine a life without the draining debilitating pain.
So tonight I don’t want to talk about death. Instead I want to share with you a vision that just might motivate you to cry out like the Israelites, “enough”. To imagine that you can live more, laugh more, love more. And the simple secret is: You don’t need to wait.
I want to introduce you to someone many of you have met, but whose essential blessedness you have yet to glimpse. Meet Murray, who became my father-in-law some twenty-nine years ago, when God softly whispered to me, “don’t wait.” Murray, like Michelle, like me, is a mourner, as he lost Teri November, his beloved wife of 60 years, just 6 months ago.
Murray, you should know, is an astounding man. Quiet, sometimes reserved. I surely didn’t appreciate his full character until Cantor Doug opened my eyes on a spring trip to Italy with Congregation Or Ami.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Murray grew up in Brooklyn as the only child of a father who died so young that Murray has nary a memory of him, and a mother, Ethel, who had the incredible strength to clean floors to make a living and keep a roof over their heads. Murray grew up with so little that he told us that on an upcoming trip to revisit the Brooklyn of his childhood, he needs only to visit a few places, as his family never had the means to go anywhere that far from their home.
Yet Murray wasn’t destined to remain in this circumscribed life too long. He joined the army, serving on bases in New Jersey, Texas, and Washington State. The army was his ticket out into the greater world that he couldn’t wait to see. There, as a medic, he first learned to drive – would you believe, practicing in ambulances.
Then he joined a friend on a weekend trip to the Los Angeles, he was introduced to Teri. Teri quickly became his girlfriend and when he returned to his base, they wrote letters everyday. To read their letters is to witness a love story that wouldn’t wait. They made plans, until their next letter, until their next visit. How’d it turn out? Together they raised three children, who made them grandparents five times over.
As Teri’s world shrunk – first from agoraphobia, a pervasive anxiety disorder, and later from MS (Multiple Sclerosis), Murray simultaneously took care of her and found ways to explore the world close to home. On days when Teri’s discomfort kept her to home, Murray was both by her side and out in the world. He did the grocery shopping and the driving, yet followed her lead. Or rather she took the lead, and just followed. Over the years they teamed up to share responsibility for their retail craft store, Arts N Crafts N Things in Orange County.
As Teri’s MS progressed, from needing a walker, to being confined in a wheelchair, Murray was by her side at every point. Together they transitioned through various stages of her illness, always sharing an abiding love. Teri insisted that Murray not wait behind. She told him to keep going: keep deep sea fishing, keep up as a Century City realtor, keep shooting photos at the zoo and at Descanso gardens, keep exploring his love for nature’s beauty.
For some, life might shrink and expand… for them, life expanded and sometimes shrunk. But this once poor Brooklyn boy kept going. He didn’t wait for everything to fall perfectly into place. He adapted to new circumstances, living and loving as best he could, taking it one day at a time.
And then this past March, Teri died.
Sometimes widows and widowers shut down, closing themselves off. But that didn’t happen. Heartbroken though he was, Murray fell back into the healthy habits he developed over the years. He continued to take walks. He continued to hang out with the group of guys for breakfast. He continued sharing life with his children. He doubled down on his photography, a hobby he picked up later in life, which energized him.
Soon after his beloved died, Murray accepted an invitation to join Michelle and me, and 28 others on a temple trip to Italy. We wanted to stay by his side and we hoped that on the trip he would find some comfort. But what happened was amazing beyond our wildest dreams.
We were a group of empty nesters – all experienced travelers, and as we made our way through Italy, Murray emerged as our rock and our inspiration. When the early mornings and long bus trips began to fray our nerves, he remained patient and resolute. When walking over city cobblestones tired us out, he kept going, motivated by the desire to capture every new sight on his camera. When the staircases ascended too steeply, he put one foot in front of the other, until high above the city, he marveled at the views. And then called down to us to join him at the top. When we wanted to kvetch, he continued to kvell. Why?
Somewhere over the course of his 86 years, Murray made a choice. Instead of succumbing to the sadness of limitations and loss, he chose hope and the promise of a new day. He refused to stop and wait for things to get better. As my dad would say, Murray just took it as it came, and found ways of finding blessing in life.
Unetaneh tokef, the stirring prayer we sing on the High Holy Days – about who shall live and who shall die, propels us to follow Murray’s lead. It says that in the face of all the challenges in life – broken relationships, illness, financial stress, death, loss – don’t stop to wait for it all to get better. Instead, do teshuva, tefilah, tzedakah. Repair your relationships. Build up your spiritual core strength. Give to others to lift them up.
Or as Murray taught us in Italy, and taught our family throughout his life: it means don’t wait.
Don’t wait – To say I love you
Don’t wait – To say I’m sorry
Don’t wait – To climb out of the cesspool into which you might have descended. Don’t wait!
You’ve been given a gift, he shows us. It’s called your life. You only get one. Don’t waste it by waiting. Instead, redirect your life so that you can celebrate it.
After a particularly long day in Rome, as we shared a glass of wine over dinner, our teacher, Reb Murray, waxed philosophical. Reviewing the pictures he had taken, this Brooklyn boy – who hadn’t been on a plane in over 6 years – exclaimed in wonder, “It’s a miracle! Maybe I’m already in heaven,” he said. “I’ve got three wonderful kids and five beautiful grandkids. I had 60 years waking up next to my beloved wife Teri. I’ve got my health. I get to travel. God did a good job. God shared goodness with me. Maybe this is a sample of heaven.”
This, from a man who buried his wife just six weeks before.
Amar Reb Murray. Reb Murray teaches: Count your blessings. Repair your relationships. Live a life of kindness.
It’s Yom Kippur. There’s work to be done. Don’t wait.
NOTE: My sermons blossom thanks to a team of people who read, edit, and with kindness, guide me forward. While traveling with Congregation Or Ami on a congregational tour of Italy, Cantor Doug Cotler pointed out to me that my father-in-law Murray November had such deep wisdom. I thank Cantor Cotler for highlighting some of Murray’s words that became the core of this sermon. My wife Michelle November is my first and last editor; with deep wisdom she removes the trivial, shaping what remains so that the essential can emerge. Rabbinic student Sara Rosenbaum Jones also offered wise edits (I thank her newborn Adira for growing so strong that mom has time for my words). Finally, thanks to Murray for showing us how to find joy in general, and especially in the face of challenges.