Birthdays and Yahrzeits – Yom Kippur 5781

In 1888, Ludvig Nobel died in France from a heart attack. The story is told that a French newspaper mistakenly reported that it was, in fact, Ludvig’s brother, Alfred, who had passed away. The obituary called Alfred a “merchant of death” who had made his fortune developing new ways to “mutilate and kill.”

Alfred Nobel was indeed an arms developer and manufacturer. He invented dynamite, and over the course of his career filed 355 patents for various explosives components. Alfred owned nearly 100 munitions factories.

When he read the mistaken obituary, Alfred Nobel came face to face with his legacy. He could not bear to be remembered for causing death and destruction.

In 1895, Alfred Nobel signed his last will and testament. In it, he devoted his fortune, worth around $265 million today, to a series of annual prizes that would be awarded to individuals from around the world “who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” The categories included physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace. Economics was added in 1968.

Alfred Nobel died the following year. The first Nobel prizes were awarded in 1901, and have since been granted to more than 500 people, including Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Winston Churchill, and Martin Luther King, Jr. When we think of Alfred Nobel today, we think of the prize that bears his name.

Did Nobel’s late-in-life awakening serve as atonement for his earlier actions?  That is for God to say, but the good that he did at the end of his life is surely meaningful in its own right. It leaves Alfred Nobel with a complicated legacy.

The Nobel prizes are announced every year on December 10, the anniversary of Alfred’s death. Interesting that his birthday was not the date selected.

In America, we tend to celebrate great people on their birthdays. Presidents Day is sandwiched between George Washington’s birthday on February 22 and Abraham Lincoln’s on February 12. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day occurs on the third Monday of January to mark his birthday on January 15. Cesar Chavez Day occurs on March 31, also his birthday.

What is the difference between the date of birth and the date of death? What is a birthday? What does it represent?

It is fundamentally arbitrary. A birthday has significance because we say so.

It marks some multiple of 365 days since the day on which a person was born. Put another way, it is when the earth is in the exact same position in its orbit relative to the sun as it was when that person entered the world. 

One week from today, on October 5, the earth and sun will be aligned exactly as when my wife was born, for the 46th time. So happy birthday Dana.

The birth of a baby is just about the happiest thing in life. But why? The kid has not done anything yet.

All of the joy that we feel is for the potential that this child embodies. At a bris, and sometimes at a Simchat Bat, the baby is placed in Elijah’s Chair as if to say, this child could potentially be the mashiach, could be the one to make the world worthy of redemption.

Birthdays are about hope. By celebrating them, we suggest that having been born was a good thing. According to “celebration industry analysts” in 2018, the Children’s Birthday Party industry in the United states was worth $38 billion. That’s a lot of hope.

On the other hand, each successive birthday celebration reminds us that the time since our birth is increasing and the corresponding time to our inevitable end is shrinking.

Perhaps that is why some people become sensitive about their birthday and their age as they get older, as in when someone, only partially in jest, announces that they are celebrating their 29th birthday for the fortieth time.

Judaism does not traditionally celebrate birthdays. Instead, we observe the yahrzeits of those who have passed.

Yahrzeit is a Yiddish word that literally means “time of year.” It is the anniversary of a person’s date of death, according to the Hebrew calendar. While there are terms that reflect similar practices for Sephardic Jews, the word yahrzeit has migrated into Ladino as well.

We mark a yahrzeit in a few significant ways. Mourners light a memorial candle to burn for the entire day. The flame is seen as a symbol for the soul, and is inspired by the verse in Proverbs (20:27): Ner Adonai nishmat adam.  “The light of Adonai is the soul of a human.”

Mourners go our of their way to find or even assemble a minyan so that they can recite the Kaddish.

In synagogue, on the preceding Shabbat, we read all the names of those whose yahrzeit will occur in the upcoming week. While this technically serves simply as a reminder to mourners to light the candle and recite the Kaddish, the recitation and hearing of the name has become a ritual in and of itself. Relatives attend services on the preceding Shabbat to hear the name of their loved one being read.

Other customs to mark a yahrzeit include giving tzedakah, studying Jewish texts, and visiting a grave. Of course, telling stories about our loved one is central.

Where the birthday marks the potential, still unrealized future actions of a person, the yahrzeit marks the impact and legacy that a person has already made. It honors a life in its entirety. Birthdays look to the future. Yahrzeits look to the past.

Judaism evaluates a life based on the sum total of a person’s accomplishments – the good and the bad. As long as I have breath, my legacy is still incomplete. It is not yet time to celebrate.

Later this afternoon, we will observe Yizkor, a service in which we remember our loved ones who are no longer with us. Yizkor is about remembering what they meant to us and how they impacted us. We recognize that, even in death, the souls of the dead are bound with the souls of the living. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away a week ago Friday, on September 18. It was the 29th of Elul, 5780, Erev Rosh Hashanah. Over the past week, the tributes have poured in as people around the nation have honored her life and legacy.

Joan Ruth Bader was born on March 15, 1933 in Brooklyn, New York. She was a pioneer and a fighter throughout her career. She was one of only a few woman in law school at Harvard. She transferred to Columbia and graduated first in her class. RBG was the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court and its sixth—and longest serving—Jewis Justice. In death, she was the first woman and the first Jew to ever lie in state at the US Capitol.

From the beginning of her career, Ginsburg fought for gender equality and women’s rights. She argued, and won, many cases before the Supreme Court. She joined the Court in 1993 as a moderate consensus builder and later became the leader of its liberal wing. Notably in the last decade, she became a defender of voting rights.

Her chambers were decorated with the passage form Deuteronomy, Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” 

RBG was always outspoken. She made a point of writing and reading her dissenting opinions from the bench when she had a point to make. She gave great interviews and could sometimes be a bit hasty in her comments – a testament to her freshness.

Her best friend on the court was her ideological opposite, the late Antonin Scalia, with whom she would dine and go to the opera. They were an example to the rest of us that it should be possible to have close relationships with those with whom we disagree.

Over the past decade and a half, the Notorious RBG became a pop icon and an inspiration to younger generations – which came as a total surprise to the petite Jewish grandmother from Brooklyn.

I do not know if we will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s birthday, but I am pretty sure that we will remember her yahrzeit. The date of her passing on Erev Rosh Hashanah has special significance to Jews. She got to live every day of 5780, which feels so appropriate for a woman who pursued justice every day of her life, even when she was lying in her hospital bed.

RBG was a pioneer in life. Now that she is no longer with us, she continues to inspire us as someone who made every day of her life count. Usually we say, “May her memory be a blessing.”  For her, we can say “Her memory is a blessing.”

Of course, there are few people who achieve her level of greatness. Most of us will not have such far-reaching impact. But we do not have to compare her accomplishments to our own.

That is the force of the story about Alfred Nobel. It was when confronted with his own life’s legacy that he decided to change course. 

Yom Kippur is the day on which we face our mortality. It is the day when we consider our life as if it is at the end. If The Mercury News screwed up and printed our obituary, what would it say? Would we be pleased with the report?

There are two unique parts of the Yom Kippur service that occur in every Amidah over the course of the fast: Selichot and Vidui.

Selichot are the penitential prayers. We chant the thirteeen attributes of God, emphasizing God’s forgiving, patient nature. We know we have made mistakes. We want to be better, and so we are asking for another chance.

The Vidui is the confession. This is when we collectively list all of the ways in which humans miss the mark. We pound on our chests for each of them. While none of us has violated every sin on the alphabetical lists, we know in our hearts which ones apply to us.

Selichot always precede the Vidui. We want to make sure that God hears our confessions from the side of compassion. S’lakh lanu, m’khal lanu, kaper lanu, we sing. “Forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.” Atonement is essentially the opportunity for a new start.

Yom Kippur includes elements of both the Yahrzeit and the birthday. When we get through the day, we experience a kind of rebirth. While nothing from our past is erased, we now have another chance to add to our story.

What a wonderful blessing and charged opportunity.

Earlier in the Covid crisis, I heard a piece of advice for high school students that stuck with me. Imagine, when all this is over, when a college admissions officer asks you the following question: “What did you do during Covid?” how will you answer?

I don’t think that is a question for just high schoolers. It is for all of us.

How have I spent this time? 

RBG, who fought cancer for the past four years, continued her life’s work of pursuing justice, issuing Supreme Court decisions from her hospital bed.

Our lives have been inhibited in so many ways. I do not need to list them. But that should not be an excuse to give up. It should be an opportunity to do something in a different way.

When we come out of Yom Kippur, the world around us will be the same. The question that we must ask ourselves is, will I?

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