Chairs ~ Shemini Atzeret ~ 22 Tishrei 5780 / 21 October 2019
Oct 21st 2019

My husband proposed to me on April Fools’ Day, on April 1st. Emet. True story. 

I said yes.

And then immediately, I called my Bubby Ethel. 

As she was the only living grandparent between the two of us, and she lived here in Toronto, we decided to get married in Toronto. 

And then she died, two months before the wedding. 

This was 12 years ago. 

Soon after shiva and shloshim ended, her belongings were divided among her children and grandchildren. I got her dining room set. 

Mirror, buffet, china cabinet, a dining room table with three leaves and six chairs. 

Every single time I sit in one of the dining room chairs, I think about her and my Zayda. Zichronam livracha. Every. Single. Time. 

Chairs can evoke memory. 

Not every Jewish person is able to build a sukkah, but many do. When I hear of people who have a sukkah in their yard, I always ask, how many chairs can you fit uncomfortably in your sukkah? 

Asked in other words, how many chairs can you fit around the table so every person can sit in a chair, yet nobody can move their elbows in your sukkah?

To eat a meal in your sukkah, and leishev, to dwell, you need a chair. 

If you build a family sukkah, often times the chairs you use in your sukkah take you back in time. Even just the act of bringing the chairs outside can remind you of years gone by. 

Chairs can evoke memory.

Not just during Sukkot. At Pesah, too. We sit around our seder tables where we read the haggadah, tell the story, drink wine and eat matzah. We sit with family and friends. 

 We sit and we read the haggadah, tell the stories – both the one in print and our own stories.

Sitting in the same chair at the Seder table, year after year, is powerful. 

Chairs can evoke memory. 

At some point in the last three weeks, whether it was at a Rosh Hashanah dinner or lunch, or maybe the meal before Kol Nidre or maybe at a break fast after Yom Kippur, a lot of us in the room noticed an empty chair. 

The chair evoked memory. The chairs might be empty but their places are still filled. 

To quote the haunting words sung by the character Marius Pontmercy in Les Misérables, “There’s a grief that can’t be spoken / There’s a pain goes on and on.  / Empty chairs at empty tables, / Now my friends are dead and gone.”

At many of our yom tov meals, there were empty chairs at the table. 

Today we remember the chairs and, even more importantly, we remember the people who sat in them.

Perhaps if we close our eyes, we can remember a time when we were with our loved ones when they were sitting on 

A dining room chair at a family meal.

A kitchen chair at a weekday dinner, when you laughed uncontrollably.

A beach chair on an amazing vacation.

A Muskoka chair at the cottage.

A desk chair in their office.

A bar stool on a fun night out.

A seat at a sporting event, cultural event or even here in shul.

Someone new might sit in those same chairs now, but it is not the same.

As Rabbi Shalom Kantor reminds us, in Judaism there is an importance given to chairs and what they represent. A chair in Judaism is much more than just the physical structure that holds a person off of the floor while they are sitting.

Depending on the use of the chair and who has sat in it, there is a tremendous level of holiness that can be attached to the chair.

Here is one example of a holy chair. I was only recently alerted to it. 

Shortly before Rosh Hashanah 1808, one of the followers of Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, who happened to be the shohet (ritual slaughterer) of Teplik, brought the Rebbe an exquisitely handcrafted chair. 

The Rebbe asked the shohet how long it had taken him to make the chair, and he replied that he had worked an hour a day for the previous six months. 

The Rebbe said, “Then for half a year, you spent an hour each day thinking of me.”

There is more. 

During the Cossack raids against the Jews in the Ukraine in the early 1920s, the chair was dismantled and cut into small pieces by Reb Tzvi Aryeh Lippel. He carried it from Tcherin to Kremenchug, some 32 kilometers away, running nearly the entire time. The chair was deposited with the Rosenfeld family of Kremenchug.

In 1936, Reb Moshe Ber Rosenfeld brought the chair to Jerusalem. 

In 1959, it was restored by craftsmen from the Israel Museum. 

In 1984, the chair was again refinished, by Katriel’s of Jerusalem, and placed on display in the Breslov synagogue in the Meah Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem, where it can be seen today.

A chair can evoke memory.

Perhaps the most famous chair is Elijah’s 

At the Pesach seder, there is a point where we go to the door and open it for Elijah. We have a cup of wine waiting for him so that he can participate in our seder. But where does he sit as he drinks?

While we don’t have a chair for Elijah at the Seder, there is a place that we do have a chair set aside for him. At every brit milah, we set a special chair for Elijah and, just before the circumcision, the baby is placed momentarily on that chair. 

Our tradition teaches that Elijah visits every bris to protect the child as he is brought into the covenant.

Since we are in this room together for Yizkor, it is likely you have all sat in a shiva chairs. We remember these odd, little, low chairs that held us in our moments of sadness as we mourned those who have passed on. 

These chairs hold us in our moments of despair, sadness and grief. 

By sitting in those chairs, we signal to our community our state of existence in that moment. 

The shiva chair held us as we felt the pain of our loss and the rip in our souls.

Chairs are important as they hold us and those we love as we tell our stories, enjoy our meals and pass traditions on from one generation to another. 

Yet, it was the people in the chairs that give the chairs their importance and meaning. 

Today, as many of us come together to remember those who filled those chairs, we cannot help but feel what is expressed in that song from Les Mis, “Oh my friends, my friends forgive me, / that I live and you are gone…”

Today on Shemini Atzeret, as we gather here to recite Yizkor and remember those who have passed on to the next world, we have the opportunity to remember the person

Who sat in the chairs at Friday night dinners, holiday meals and smahot.

Who ate in a highchair.

Who spent too many years in a wheelchair.

Who never actually sat in a chair, but nevertheless had an important seat at the table because they were busy making sure that every plate and bowl was never empty.

All of the people that we have come to remember had lives that encompassed much more than chairs they occupied. 

There’s a grief that can’t be spoken,

There’s a pain goes on and on, 

Empty chairs here at Beth Tzedec,

now that family and friends are gone

*This sermon was inspired by Rabbi Shalom Kantor.