“The Living Bring Out the Living”
By Rabbi Joel Mishkin
My friend and teacher, Rabbi Mark Loeb had several sayings that he was fond expressing during the years I worked by his side. One would point to the primacy of a punchy and concise sermon. He would often tell me, “Joel, always remember, less is more,” when a sermon that I had just given should have been ten minutes and ended up as twenty. Another one of his sayings he offered to me on Rosh Hashanah, when he believed that you could set the tone for the start of a new year. He would say, “Ok, go ahead, Joel, give them heaven!” right before I would speak.
However, my favorite and his most ironic saying would often come whenever he would comment on a Yizkor service and the size of the congregation before him. He would notice the vast numbers in attendance, would glance over to me and wryly observe, “well look at that, the dead bring out the living.”
Of course, he was making the observation that generally speaking, regardless of the size of a congregation – be it large – be it small – you could expect a marked measure of increase in numbers when the prayers for Yizkor were about to be recited. And like many things that Mark said, he was on target. But let’s think about what he said and examine if this is really the way it should be. Should only the dead bring out the living? I think it’s a fair question for us to consider as we approach our Yizkor prayers.
For those of you who were not in attendance these past several days, you might have missed the fact that we have had our synagogue open more days in the last ten than we have had anytime other than the High Holy Days. We had services Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and yesterday, on the seventh day of Passover. And if you happened to be here on any of those days you would have noticed that we barely squeaked by with the minimum requirement for a quorum of ten Jewish people on most days. Thankfully we managed a minyan each day except, this past Sunday morning when not having a quorum prevented us from repeating the Amidah, saying Kaddish, and reading the Torah.
Now I have to tell you that I find this discouraging, but not unpredictable. It is widely known that since the pandemic, most synagogues have been challenged with getting folks back into the buildings in person. . I get that. However, for those who have not been with us at all this Passover I want you to do something that is not so compatible with human nature. I want you to try to look outside of yourselves and think about another person, someone you may not even know. What does it feel like for them when we don’t have a minyan?
Now, before we go down that road I want to begin with an important caveat. I recognize there are folks out there who are compromised to such an extent that they really are remaining in their homes. They only leave their homes to visit physicians. I also know of folks whose children do all the shopping and are adamant that their older parents not put themselves in any danger. Know that I am not speaking to you. But let’s not kid ourselves. There are many of us who are going about our business as we always have, and perhaps have just grown accustomed spending our Saturday and Sunday mornings elsewhere. Now that’s not such a terrible thing, let’s face it, there are plenty of people who never ever step into a synagogue.
And yet, synagogues by definition thrive on the idea of community. That is why the number 10 is so important. We need ten to say Kaddish. We need ten to repeat the Amidah. And we need ten to read the Torah. So, think about the person who spends hours preparing the Torah reading, and then is unable to read it because we don’t have ten. Think of the person who wishes to say the Kaddish for a loved one but misses out on that one opportunity because we don’t have ten. We are a community and communities need to be together and need to support each other. And I’m not telling you this to make you feel uncomfortable. I’m telling you this because this is how Judaism works.
One additional thought: This past year, the leadership of this congregation spent thousands of dollars to secure and enhance this building through security grants and other resources. Look around you, there are new barriers outside of the building and a new ramp to help you easily access the synagogue. There is a chair-glide that makes it possible to access the sanctuary. But it’s not just about the building. The leadership of this congregation has just engaged a spectacular young Cantor to be with us for the High Holy Days and two additional Shabbatot so that we can express ourselves musically in a way that we haven’t been privileged to do so in quite some time, and yes, I do spend some sleepless nights worrying whether we will good attendance in the fall.
It takes a community to sustain a synagogue and it takes a community to sustain itself, and I am grateful that, to some degree the “dead still bring out the living.” I’m grateful that for some of you reciting Yizkor remains sacred. But isn’t it high time that the living also bring out the living? That we come to Shul, not just for sorrow, but for joy, for fellowship, for friends? That we come to Shul to take pride in this beautiful place that we call home and to see the Yahrzeit plaques of our loved ones. So, now, let the living bring out the living as we remember those who are no longer by our sides.