Rabbi Smason’s Remarks at Yizkor, Shmini Atzeres 5781 / 2020

Rabbi Smason’s Remarks at Yizkor, Shmini Atzeres 5781 / 2020

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tells the story of how he built his first sukkah.  It was almost a catastrophe.

The rabbi and his wife were newly married, and had just settled into their new home.

One morning, leaving the synagogue, a friend (‘Moshe’) said, ‘I’m just off to the local lumber yard to buy wood to build a sukkah. Would you like to come with me?’ Delighted, Rabbi Sacks said yes.

The contrast between Rabbi Sacks and Moshe though, could not have been greater.  Moshe knew what he was doing. He had drawn up architectural plans for his sukkah. It was going to be a stand-alone structure with windows and a door, and it was going to require considerable skill in carpentry.  Moshe had made a long and precise list of the materials he needed, and was ready to begin.

By contrast, Rabbi Sacks — by his own description —  had no idea how to make anything let alone a sukkah. In school he had always come at the bottom of the class in woodworking, and when it came to practicalities, changing a light-bulb was the limit of his ability.

In the lumber yard, Moshe rattled off his list of requirements and ended up with an impressive pile of beams, planks, hinges and screws. Rabbi Sacks settled for an impromptu list of a few sheets of hardboard, some wooden supports and a bag of nails. They both went off to their respective homes and began hammering away.

Before Yom Tov began they visited each other to see the results of their efforts.  Moshe’s sukkah was a thing of beauty, a summer house in which anyone could have faced wandering in the wilderness with pleasure and comfort. Rabbi Sacks’ sukkah?  It was a sukkah that looked like a sukkah built by someone who had never built a sukkah before!  Boards were joined to beams nailed to one another, and the result was three square walls resting against the back wall of the house.

Rabbi Sacks said, “It looked like a large packing case. There was a hole for a door.”

Well, Sukkos arrived, and as mazel would have it, there was a storm on the second night. The wind howled and blew itself into a gale. In shul the next morning Moshe sat dejected. His sukkah had blown down. ‘What’, Moshe asked Rabbi Sacks, ‘happened to yours?’

‘It’s still standing’, Rabbi Sacks said.

Moshe could hardly believe it. His elaborate tabernacle had been blown to smithereens, while Rabbi Sacks’ makeshift hut survived.

‘I have to see it’, Moshe said. ‘I don’t understand how any sukkah could have stayed standing after that storm.’ So the rabbi and his friend went to the Sacks home to investigate the mystery.  What could have been the difference between Moshe’s engineered sukkah, and Rabbi Sacks’ lean-to hut?

Just over twenty years ago, in 2009, an EF-4 tornado ripped through Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and nearly killed David Young.

David, who started that fateful day with a jog, had no idea a tornado warning was issued.

It started raining, and the rain turned to hail as David was almost back to his car. Lightning started hitting the ground around him. He took cover in a grove of trees just off the paved pathway.

“All of a sudden, everything stopped and went stone quiet,” David recalled. “I stood up and I could hear rumbling in the distance, but I still didn’t know what it was.”

The noise grew louder and louder.

“Then I saw cars flying through the air and I saw transformers exploding through the trees.” he said

David finally realized it was a tornado coming.  So he tightly wrapped his body around the nearest tree and began praying.  That air was traveling approximately 177 mph, according to a report by the National Weather Service. “If I wasn’t holding onto the tree, I would have been thrown into the air.”

All around him, trees were being sucked up into the air “like missiles.”  Yet the oak tree David held onto remained rooted, although it began swaying. He said he was determined to hold on “no matter what.”

After the eye passed, the back side of the tornado was even more violent. Two trees landed on top of him.  But David survived by holding on to the tree for dear life.

Twenty years later, David Young said, “I have a lot more confidence that G-d really is taking care of things. I still have problems. But I don’t carry a lot of fear. It is as though G-d proved to me, whether I live or whether I die, he’s still G-d.”

In the middle of an EF-4 tornado — and since — David Young attributes his survival to one simple strategy:  Find one thing in your life that is rock-solid, and hang on.

And what about the ‘Tale of Two Sukkahs’? What did Moshe find when he went to see Rabbi Sacks’ sukkah?

Unlike Moshe’s sukkah, the rabbi’s sukkah did not stand alone.  True, it had three flimsy walls, and for the fourth it rested against the house. But to stop it collapsing, Rabbi Sacks had joined one corner to the wall of the house with a single nail, and it was that nail which had held firm during the storm

When Moshe realized the ‘secret’ of the survival of Rabbi Sacks’ sukkah, he laughed and said: ‘Now I understand the meaning of Sukkot. You can plan and construct the most sophisticated building, but if it is not joined to something stable, one day the winds will come and blow it down. On the other hand, you can make an improvised shelter, a little hut, that looks frail and probably is. But if it is joined even at only one point to something immovable, it will hold fast in the worst storm.’

‘That nail in the corner’, Moshe said, looking at it with a smile Rabbi Sacks said he has never forgotten, ‘is faith.’

Attaching ourselves to something immovable is the secret to survival in turbulent times.

In advance of Yizkor today, I was thinking about my father, z’l, who was niftar (passed away) eighteen years ago.   Just yesterday I came across a beautiful tribute that was written in an obituary in the Chicago Tribune.  I don’t know who wrote the obituary and don’t remember previously seeing it.  I’d like to share with you part of the remarks:

Steve was an avid reader, lover of poetry, history buff and sports fan, especially of his beloved Bears, Cubs, Bulls and Blackhawks, and later, the Lakers (and eventually the Dodgers when they got Shawn Green). ….. Upon his death, friend after friend recounted to Steve’s family how they lost their best friend. Steve exhibited his same gentle humor, compassion, and warmth in his work with developmentally disabled adults at TASC, who recall him as a best friend, “Grandpa” and the man who made them laugh. Steve loved to debate politics and current events. He had an undying devotion to the State of Israel and to the importance that it remain forever a Jewish state. He was also devoted to the cause of religious freedom for Jews everywhere, and was a leader in the struggle to free Soviet Jews.

To say that we’re living in difficult times would be a massive understatement. There are turbulent winds swirling around us — Covid, isolation, loneliness, politics, anti-Semitism, uncertainty —  strong winds that literally resemble an EF-4 tornado.  What’s the best survival strategy in times like these?

Find one immovable object, something that even the strongest winds in the world can’t uproot — and hold on for dear life.

The Torah — and by extension, the Almighty —  is called a ‘Tree of Life’.  And in the well-known verse said upon returning a Sefer Torah to the Ark, we say Aitz Chaim hee l’machazikim bah, “It is a Tree of Life to those who cling to it.”  Notice that it doesn’t say, “To those who touch it.”, or even, “To those who hold onto to it.”  Machazikim bah.  Cling to it with all your strength, and under no conditions don’t let go.  Hold onto HaShem and His Torah in the way that David Young held onto a tree during a tornado with 180 mph winds. Be like Rabbi Sacks’ sukkah, fastened to his home with a nail.  Grab onto your faith and trust in HaShem and His Torah and don’t let go.

And we can hold on to those memories of those who we’re now about to remember during Yizkor.   Memories of their love for us and our families. Memories of their warmth and compassion.  Remembrances of their love, devotion and dedication and sacrifice for Israel, and for the Jewish people.  Those Jewish values and pride in being Jewish that have brought each of us here today to remember our loved ones, and onward, to celebrate the upcoming Yomim Tovim (holidays) and strengthen our resolve to live Jewishly-committed lives, despite the swirling winds of difficulty and uncertainty around us.

Together, HaShem willing we’ll not only survive, but we’ll thrive. Let’s hold on with all our might to those immovable objects of strength; our faith and trust in HaShem, and memories of our loved ones who we’re about to remember at Yizkor.

To make a tribute click below: