[Sermon] Forever Letter

Rabbi Monique Mayer – Rosh Hashanah 2018/5779

Shanah tovah.

The other day they found my father. Well, not my father per se, but his ashes. My dad’s final request was to be cremated, and after seeing this fulfilled, I brought home a box, storing it in the house where it wouldn’t be disturbed. Occasionally I’d talk to it, especially when I couldn’t find something because my dad seemed to have a knack for locating lost objects. But I digress. The box remained untouched until a year ago when we packed up for the move to Cardiff, and in the rush I discarded a lot of clothes and papers and bits without paying close attention. When we unpacked in Cardiff the box wasn’t there. And I thought, “Where’s dad?” I was absolutely convinced my father had gone out with the rubbish, which was — in a way — appropriate because my dad threw out everything. In fact, when I visited him in his home before he died, I realised there was little if anything that reflected him living there, save a framed photo of his baseball hero, Willie Mays. But last week, I was chatting to one of the workmen from our old place and he mentioned finding a wooden box containing ashes. “Oh my God”, I blurted out. “You found my father!” And he told me he’d put it aside for safekeeping because it seemed important.

Perhaps it’s a bit strange I still have the box 6 ½ years later. It needs a proper burial. But it’s one of only three mementos, if you will, that I have of my dad and I’m a bit reluctant to let go. The second is a photo of him giving a toast at our wedding, and the third is a Union Prayerbook, engraved R Mayer, which he received at his Confirmation in 1945.

I have no letters from my father. Among the collections of letters I’ve amassed over the years, there are Chanukkah or birthday cards signed “Love Dad and Monica” (his 2nd wife), but nothing expressing his hopes or wishes for me, or providing guidance. My mother, on the other hand, has written incredible letters over the years. She is a good writer and quite prolific. When I was at university she hand-wrote 15 pages carefully explaining to me all the different vitamins and their function in the body because I’d been unwell and wondering what supplements I should be taking. In another letter, she included a piece she’d written that presented concepts of philosophy through the eyes of Alice in Philosophyland. My mom sent cartoon clippings from the New Yorker, articles of interest, and brochures from Jewish lectures she’s attended. And there are many letters in which she shares her wisdom and life experience, urging me to follow my heart and my passion and cheering me on even at my lowest points. She still does that, although now most of her written communications are by email. I will treasure my mother’s letters always. But, sadly, my dad wasn’t a writer.

I’ve been thinking about the letters I didn’t receive from my father because this time of year it is customary to write an ethical will. An ethical will comes from a medieval Jewish tradition in which parents write a letter to their children, instructing them in how to live a meaningful Jewish life by following certain commandments and ethical teachings. During the Middle Ages there was an emergence of ethical literature, most of which was written by scholars, including Mussar works such as Duties of the Heart by Bahya ibn Paquda and The Eight Chapters by Maimonides. But ethical wills were more practical, autobiographical, and personal in nature than the works written by scholars, and anyone could write them. The letters varied in formality, ranged from admonishing to gentle, and the emphasis differed depending on what mattered most to the author. One of the earliest ethical wills appears to be traced to the mid-eleventh century, written by Eleazer of Worms to his son:

    My son! When you are aroused from your sleep at midnight,
    engage with your wife in holiness. Do not desecrate your mouth,
    even in playful jesting. It is certain that you will be held fully
    accountable for every exchange between you and your wife.

    Be most careful to cleanse your body and to build a place for your soul that she may remain beloved and dear.
    Be careful to visit the sick, because the visitor diminishes the illness and lightens the burden.
    Be trustworthy with every person. Do not reveal a person’s secret when you have a dispute with him.1
    Do not eat meat that is still steaming whether broiled or boiled. And do not eat food cooked in a pan that has not been cooked in for thirty days.

We can find the template for the ethical will in the book of Genesis (49:1-33) when Jacob gathers his sons to his bedside, sensing his life was coming to a close. He addresses each son individually about that son’s character and special gifts, and he asks to be buried in the cave of Machpelah with his ancestors. There is a sense of urgency in Jacob’s pronouncements and, indeed, as soon as he finishes speaking, he dies.

Rabbi Elaina Zaiman, in her book “The Forever Letter”, explains four key elements of an ethical will:

    1) a desire to communicate what we believe to those we love;
    2) a sense of urgency to deliver our message because we don’t know how long we have left;
    3) an opportunity to share our experiences, stories and values; perhaps forgive and ask forgiveness, to state hard truths and offer blessings; and, finally,
    4) to offer hope that our words will be read and revisited in the future.2

In running workshops, Rabbi Zaiman realised that the traditional model of an ethical will was too limiting. So she expanded the concept to what she calls a Forever Letter: “a heartfelt letter that we write to the people who are most important to us in the hope that even if the letter itself isn’t kept forever, the wisdom and love that we share will be” (p. 2).

Many years ago when I was teaching 13- and 14-year olds, I planned a special lesson right before the winter holidays. We started the day by watching It’s a Wonderful Life, and talked about how a single human being can affect the life of each person with whom they come into contact. Afterwards, I read them a story3 about a teacher in New York who honoured each of her students by telling them the difference they made and presented them with a blue ribbon imprinted in gold with the words “Who I Am Makes a Difference”. She then gave the students additional ribbons and asked them to pass on the acknowledgement ceremony. I won’t give away the ending, but you could have heard a pin drop in the room when I finished.

Before lunch, I gave the following instructions: Each of you will create three badges with the message “Who I Am Makes a Difference”. That’s the easy part. The second part is to think of someone who has made a difference in your life. Maybe they were there for you when you were down. Perhaps they helped you achieve something you never thought you could. They could be a coach, a parent, a teacher, a friend, a sibling…whoever it is, they have affected you for the better. You will write a letter to that person, sharing how much you appreciate them and how they have made a difference to you. And then you are going to give or send them the letter. No one else will see it. Understand that you might not get the response you hoped for. They might be embarrassed and shrug it off (particularly if it’s a sibling). You may not get any response. But know, that in delivering such a letter you are giving that person a gift, expressing your gratitude for what they have given you. Enclose the three badges, explaining that one is for them, and the other two are for them to pass the gift of gratitude onto the next person, and so on.

After lunch, my students went to work. Some of them struggled to narrow it down to one person, others wanted to talk through the reasons for sending the letter. They were all engaged and writing; most of them finished, and the bell rang.

I went to the office to check my in-box and saw the head teacher standing there, mouth agape. She’d just received a letter from one of the students was overcome. And you know from what I’ve been telling you that the students were actually writing forever letters; the head teacher’s face instantly told me how important they are.

I myself have written a Forever Letter to a few people in my life — mostly teachers — who have touched my life in deep, soul-changing ways. I’ve also been on the receiving end. But, sadly, I never got one from my father.

So, I’ve written this letter to him, which I want to share. It’s a bit rough, and I’m conscious that I’ve not acknowledged his negative qualities, but right now I’m focussing on the positive.

    Dear Dad,

    I miss you. You didn’t write me a Forever Letter, so I am writing this letter to you to help me understand what you tried to teach me in life.

    You were a man who enjoyed a good joke, definitely the master-punster in the house—and although your jokes were corny, they helped me appreciate humour, puns and all.

    You helped me develop my problem-solving ability. Remember how I came to you with calculus problems and you’d ask, “so, what did you learn before this?” You made me explain the material to you until I eventually figured it out for myself. But then, you knew I could.

    You helped me get organised: when I was overwhelmed by exam and essay deadlines, you sat with me and we wrote out a schedule together, restoring my sanity and enabling me to succeed. I sometimes wish you were still here to help me with that.

    You taught me to care for others when you negotiated with a stranger’s creditors to enable him to get out of jail and work out a settlement.

    You were there for me when you flew to Austin when I had surgery, barely complaining about the Texas heat and no air conditioning in the car.

    You connected with Nigel and were the first to figure out that my future husband was a good guy, particularly after you bonded over your conversation comparing American football with rugby.

    You didn’t hold onto many material goods. And, although I wouldn’t throw away everything, I could probably take a page from your book on simplifying my life.

    And, lastly, although you never completely understood my desire to become a rabbi, you were proud of me. My greatest sadness is that you never got to see me in action—well, at least not directly.

    See you on the other side, Dad.

I wish I could see his reaction.

Maybe I’ll read it to the box.

So, in the coming days between now and Yom Kippur, I invite you to write a letter to someone who matters to you. It could be a teacher, a parent, and grandparent, aunt, uncle, mentor, or your child. I’m leaving the book up here in case you’d like to take a look.

As Rabbi Bahya ibn Paquda wrote, “Days are scrolls. Write on them what you want to be remembered”.

Kein y’hi ratson. May it be God’s will.

1 Israel Abrahams, Hebrew Ethical Wills, trans. Rabbi Dr. Moshe Shualy (unpub, 2014), 36, 37, 40, 44, 49; as quoted in Elaina Zaiman, The Forever Letter (Llewellyn Publications, 2017), 180
2 Zaiman, pgs. 3-4
3 Helice “Sparky” Bridges, Chicken Soup for the Soul (1988), accessed 10 Sept 2018 on skdesigns.com/internet/articles/prose/bridges/difference/

Share this Thought for the High Holy Days