The Lasting Legacy
Rabbi Hal Rudin-Luria
The story is told that Napoleon once went to visit wounded enemy soldiers in a hospital- apparently Napoleon performed the mitzvah of bikur cholim, visiting the sick. He first approached the bed of a Polish soldier and asked him if he had any requests. The soldier asked the emperor to pull his troops out of Poland and grant the Poles freedom. Napoleon listened intently and told one of his officers to record the request and see what he could do. Napoleon next approached a Russian soldier and asked if he had any requests. The Russian asked Napoleon to please liberate Mother Russia. Again, the emperor asked his officer to write the request down and he would see what he could do.
Finally, he stopped at a Jewish soldier’s bed and asked if he had any requests. The Jewish soldier replied that he would love to have a hot piece of kugel. Napoleon turned to his officer and told him to go to the local store and bring back kugel for this man. The other soldiers were astonished. They all wondered, “Why did this Jew ask for something so insignificant when he had the opportunity to ask for whatever he wanted from the emperor?” The Jewish man responded, “At least, I got what I asked for.”
What will we ask for this year? If asked, would we seek world peace or a piece of kugel- satisfy momentary hunger or do our part to redeem the world?
Today on our most sacred day, Yom Kippur, when we lay out our accounts, our actions, words and deeds of the past year for the great Auditor to see, we are asked, what did you make this year and what difference did you make?
Just one year past his Bar Mitzvah, Maxwell Temes recounts a discussion he overheard between his uncle and cousin. In a TED talk prepared and filmed at Camp Ramah in Canada this summer, fourteen-year-old Maxwell asks viewers, “What do you really make in this world?” His uncle, a high profile attorney, asked Maxwell’s college age cousin, what will you make this summer? Knowing that he was working as a low salaried camp counselor, his uncle was deriding the decision to pass up a paid internship or higher paying summer job.
The cousin responded to his uncle’s question, “What am I going to make this summer? I make miserable rainy days the most fun you’ll ever have. I make sure every camper is treated equally with respect. I make kids that are down feel like they are on top of the world. And most importantly, I make a difference.”
On Yom Kippur, hungry and thirsting, we pause from our busy and hectic lives to review the past year and look forward to tomorrow; to reconnect with family, friends, our congregation and community; to atone for those mistakes of the past and begin anew; to connect with God and our traditions; to ground ourselves and gain motivation to reach for the stars.
On Yom Kippur, we recall with deep affection those whose seats are now empty and whose presence we deeply miss but whose memories still bring us strength and comfort; and we gather to be inspired to make a difference and create a legacy. Today on Yom Kippur, what did you make this year? How did you make a difference?
It is told that a student of the Chasidic master Rabbi Shneur Zalman presented his rebbe with a kvittel, a petition listing all his needs for which he sought the Rebbe’s blessing- a wife, good health, more work, a family. The rabbi studied his list closely and then addressed his student, “It seems that you have given much thought to your needs. Have you also given thought to why you are needed?” The student was shaken by the Rabbi’s words but also elated by the idea that he was needed. His rebbe said that he was needed in the world, that he had a mission, a purpose for being alive. On this sacred day of Yom Kippur, we are each asked, why are you needed? What difference did you make? How will you be remembered?
While researching a story, Brad Meltzer visited the dilapidated, run down Glenville home belonging to Jerry Siegel, who along with Joel Schuster created comic book hero Superman. Brad began the successful campaign to save Superman’s home, renovating and marking the spot as an historical treasure. After spearheading these efforts, someone mentioned to Brad that this would be included in his obituary years from now. It got him thinking, when I die how will I be remembered? Brad says, “We will all have legacies. We talk about what we want to be when we grow up. But what we don’t talk about is what we want to be forever… how we want to be remembered.”
In a TED talk, Brad Meltzer advises what you do for yourself and your resume fades over time but the things you do for others endures and that is how you will be remembered. A person’s lasting imprint on the world is what one does for others—friends, family, community, strangers—
rather than for one’s self. So, how did Brad make a difference? He reached out to thank his high school English teacher who took an interest in him that led to a successful career as an author. Just that year, the teacher was contemplating retirement because she thought she was not making a difference.
Another example is a group of Arizona police officers, who in 1980 fulfilled a dying boy’s wish to ride a police motorcycle, get a badge and join the force. Just days later, that seven year old boy died. So moved by that experience, the police officers committed to create the organization now known today as Make-A-Wish which has benefited more than 200,000 children. On this sacred day, we are each asked, how will you be remembered? What is your legacy?
In Judaism, we consider the Torah our most precious legacy. When the Torah is held aloft we sing, “Torah Tziva Lanu Moshe Morasha Kehillat Yakov. (Deuteronomy 33:4) The Torah given to Moses is a legacy for the congregation of Jacob, the Jewish people.” Our children learn this song and sing it often, parading around the synagogue with great joy clinging to their red and blue stuffed Torah toys. “Torah Tziva Lanu Moshe Morasha Kehillat Yakov. (Deuteronomy 33:4) The Torah given to Moses is a legacy for the congregation of Jacob, the Jewish people.”
The rabbis ask why the Torah is referred to as Morasha- a legacy- as opposed to the more common word, “Yerusha” inheritance? The two Hebrew words are related but have clear distinctions. Yerushah- An inheritance belongs entirely to the recipient to do with it as one chooses without direction, one can spend all their inheritance money until it is gone. However, Morasha- a legacy is eternal, it lives on forever and is passed down from generation to generation.
Inheritance is a passive gift but a legacy requires active participation in order for it to be received. One has to accept it and incorporate it in their essence. Whether it is an ethical will from a loved one that you read regularly, a family business that you work to push forward, a family photo which is now the centerpiece of your family room, the tree which your parents planted to be your chuppah pole, your grandparent’s Kiddush cup which you now use to bring in Shabbat with your children, or creating an endowment to perpetuate your most treasured values. Rashi explains that for a Morasha- legacy- one must take hold of it and never let it go. Now is the time to take hold of your legacy and make a difference.
In sports just these last few weeks, we have seen examples of legacies established and destroyed. After a successful career, Derek Jeter has hung up his cleats and retired with a sterling legacy of always giving top effort, clean living, and an honest commitment to team and fans. Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson have smeared their sports legacies by horrendous, violent and vile actions. Presidents are said to make decisions with their legacy in mind. How do we want to be remembered? What we do, what we work for, how we act and where we devote our most precious time and money- that is our legacy. Acts of kindness/chesed, justice, and love can indeed make a difference. As we chanted today, Teshuva, Tefilah, Tzedaka- repentance, prayer and charity have the power to change our world and make a lasting legacy.
In a moment, we will recite the Yizkor prayers remembering those who are no longer with us but whose memories continue to inspire and guide us. They gave us a Morasha, a lasting heritage, to always be righteous and worthy- to follow their example and live up to their commitments. Today, we pledge to rededicate our lives to honor that which they held dear.
Hannah Senesh left us all an undying legacy- the courage to fight evil and injustice and to sacrifice all to save a person in danger. Paratrooper, Holocaust victim, poet and hero, she wrote these words: “There are stars whose radiance is visible on Earth though they have long been extinct. There are people whose brilliance continues to light the world even though they are no longer among the living. These lights are particularly bright when the night is dark. They light the way for humankind.”
On this sacred day, may we be inspired to brighten our world just as they still shine in our hearts. We too can be a shining star whose light remains long after our lifetime but only by committing today to build a legacy of righteousness, by dedicating our lives to others, to our community and congregation, to living the values through which we want to always be remembered.
Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Chatima Tova- May we be sealed in the Book of Life for a year of legacy making, good health, happiness and peace.