Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Erev Yom Kippur: The Dash Between the Numbers

Here's my Kol Nidre sermon.
 Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
--Walt Whitman
 Just outside of Camp Harlam there’s a tiny cemetery, the Dotter’s Corner Cemetery Association. It sits on a hill with a gorgeous view overlooking the Pocono Mountains, the stones facing east toward the dawn as it rises over the trees. If you’ve ever been to the Chapel On The Hill at Harlam, the view from this cemetery is a very close second. The field—barely the size of a back yard—is filled with an amazing collection of stones. Some date back to the early 19th century, and clearly belong to the original Dotter family, whose farm they must have stood upon. Others reflect the evolution of the community: civil war veterans, children who died of the Spanish flu. Names like Serfass and Bruch and Martini and Schwartz reflect the diversity of the community.  Some stones are ornate, with images of the deceased, or of their careers (lots of trucks and farm equipment). Others are marked with only simple stones, marked only with initials, or sometimes a piece of slate with no name, a cross made out of iron pipe. In a few cases it’s only the plastic signs left by the funeral home from the service itself, going back to the 1970s. 
It’s a humbling place, this cemetery on Dotter’s Corner, on this hill facing the dawn. When I’m at camp I walk through it most mornings, looking at the names and the dates, or the iron cross or the piece of slate, and wondering the story of the person beneath that stone.
Every stone has a story, be it in Kresgeville or Wilmington, or Arlington, or anywhere. When we look at a marker or a headstone, we focus on the name and the dates: the year of birth and the year of death. But the most important mark in the stone is none of those things, nor any slogan or blessing that may be found; it’s the dash between the years; because it is in that dash that the story of that life is found.  In that dash are all the games the person played as a child, his relationship with his parents and friends and siblings. In that dash are his illnesses and injuries and defeats. In that dash are his first loves and broken hearts, his days of boredom and moments of learning. In that dash are the careers he made, the family he loved, the opportunities he missed. In that dash are the cars he drove and the violence he experienced, the mundane moments and the profound moments and the silly moments.

I have these same thoughts every time I go to our cemetery, or the one on Foulk Rd. I look at the stones and recognize the names of people I’ve buried, and I remember their stories. I remember our conversations and conversations with their families. I remember how they lived their values, how they cared for their loved ones, how they thought of themselves and how others thought of them. I think of those stories that reside in the dash between the numbers on their stones. That is why we are so heartbroken at Holocaust memorials and tombs of the Unknown Soldier, at mass graves of the innocent dead, at monuments by the sea. For they are dedicated to those whose names we will never know, whose dates are left blank, and whose stories are too often swept into the eddies of time, unspoken and unremembered.  And without those stories, without the dash between the dates, we are nothing. 
And you know something? Each of us, every one of us, will be marked by a stone, with our name at the top, and our dates of birth and death underneath. The question is, what will fall in the dash for each of us? Who will remember our story, and what story will they remember? Will we be remembered for blessing or curse, for helping someone in a time of need, or an unkind word that cut to the quick? Will we be remembered for our vanities or for our sacrifices? I raise this not to be morbid, but to tell a truth. It is others who will tell our stories for us, whether we like it or not—our friends, our family, our children and grandchildren, and we’ll never know if they get it right. But we do get to decide what happens inside that dash, how we live our lives, how we live up to our values so that perhaps, when others see that dash on our stones, we will be remembered for blessing.
Tomorrow we will stand and confess our sins, our mistakes, the times we went astray. We will recite Unetaneh Tokeph, which reminds us that we do not control the dates of our lives: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and Yom Kippur it is sealed: who shall live and who shall die…” We wish we had some control over those numbers, but we do not, and we chafe and groan and rail at how unfair life seems. And tomorrow we will also hear the words of Moses, who tells us that we should choose life that we may live. Not life in general, but what sort of life is worth living! We cannot choose the numbers on the stone, but we can choose what happens inside the dash. We can choose a life worth living. What is the life we will choose? What is the life we are choosing? No one has control over that but us, each one of us. And we owe it to those stones that await us to live our lives most fully. 
The powerful play goes on, and we may contribute a verse. Tonight we recommit ourselves to writing that verse. May we write them with care. Amen. 

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