Mountains of History and Hope ~ Pesah Day 8 and Yizkor ~ 22 Nisan 5779 / 27 April 2019
May 6th 2019

How many of you saw Schindler’s List? You may recall one of the last scenes, when survivors places pebbles onto his gravesite. The cemetery is located on Mt. Zion, just outside the Old City of Jerusalem.

Last month, as part of our "Path of Abraham/Sharing Perspective" study mission, I brought Muslims, Christians and Jews to a site on Mt. Zion identified, since the 12th century, as King David's Tomb. It is in the same complex as the Cenacle, the dining room venerated by Christians as the site of the Last Supper and the first Christian church.

When Ottoman authorities took possession of the Old City in 1524, it was converted into a mosque, sacred to Muslims because of its association with both David and Jesus. Christians were evicted and not allowed to return until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Because Jews were banned from the Old City after 1948, the Tomb of David, with a view of the Temple Mount, became a site of prayer and yearning. Until the Six-Day War, it was considered the holiest Jewish site accessible in Israel.

To further complicate the complex reality of sacred sites, David was probably not buried there. The Biblical Book of Kings (I, 2.10) records that he was buried in the City of David, which some of you know is located along the ridge south and down from the Dung Gate to the Old City. The biblical Mt. Zion,  mentioned in today’s haftarah, is not the contemporary Har Tziyon.

Zion is one of two sacred mountains in our tradition. The other is, of course, Sinai. In Sinai and Zion, Jon Levenson explores the significance of the two mountains in biblical theology. The Revelation at Sinai, which follows the Pesaẖ exodus from Egypt, is essential to Jewish self-understanding. At Sinai, the Torah is given, the presence of God is experienced, and the character and covenant of the people of Israel is established. That b’rit is conditional, dependent on our living up to its stipulations, and is centred around the figure of Moses.  Sinai is the mountain that challenges us to achieve.

If Sinai represented Israel's infancy, Zion becomes the symbol of Israel's maturity as a nation. Zion is associated with King David, the Bet Hamiqdash, the Sacred Temple, and the messianic dream. The Davidic covenant, central to Zion, is unconditional and eternal. It makes Zion and the Temple the point of contact for Divinity and humanity. 

Jerusalem becomes identified with Zion as the this-world representation of the heavenly Temple, connected with creation and perfection, identified with the Binding of Isaac, and placed in the centre of the world. Sinai provides a base; Zion imagines transcendence.

In his new book, Two Mountains, David Brooks also uses the image of twin peaks to suggest that there are “two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral—whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?”

When we are young, we present ourselves as if we were offering our résumé, a statement of activities and accomplishments. “Hi. Nice to meet you. What do you do?” As we age, we are more focused on eulogy virtues, the values and relationships which have defined our lives. “So good to see you. Let’s check in about our lives, our families. What have you been thinking about recently?”

Brooks writes of people “who radiate joy—who seem to know why they were put on this earth.” There is a wholeness—sh'laymoot is the Hebrew term—about these people. For many of them, life has a two-mountain quality. School, career, establish themselves. Our culture validates this path: “establish an identity, separate from our parents, cultivate our talents, build a secure ego, and try to make a mark in the world. ... It’s all the normal stuff: nice home, nice family, nice vacations, good food, good friends.”

Then something happens. 

Some find the view insufficient. Is this all? They sense there must be a more meaningful life journey. 

A few fall off the mountain. Something happens to their career, their family, their reputation. Failure. Disappointment. Life doesn’t only go up.

Others face life-altering tragedy. Knocked sideways by the death of a child, a cancer, addiction, something not part of the plan. At any age. Forget the mountain. They are in the valley of the shadow of death, bewilderment, suffering.

“Seasons of suffering” sunder our souls. We are no longer the way we were. There are people in shul today who have faced that wilderness. Cracked open, no longer what they display.

Some wither. Shrink. Become isolated. Perhaps they hold enduring grievances, carry complaints about historic hurts.

But for others, the pain leads to caring for others. And when they have encountered this yearning, they may heal and become whole.

On their first mountain, they had some sense of what they wanted  In the valley,  they realize, as Henri Nouwen has written, they are even better than their ego ideal. 

Some who have grown through pain are courageous enough to set aside  aspects of their old self. Their motivations change. They want to be devoted by a cause. Instead of independence, they want what Rabbi Tanenbaum calls inter-dependence—a web of relationships. Free to be me becomes less desirable than intimacy, responsibility, and commitment. They’ve gone from self-centred to other-centred. 

A person may realize that first mountain wasn’t really my mountain. There’s another mountain that is actually mine. The second mountain need not be the opposite of the first mountain. To ascend it doesn’t mean rejecting the initial mountain. The journey from Sinai to the Land of Promise, to Zion, leads to a more generous and satisfying phase of life. 

I think of Della who left law to become an Anglican priest.  Alan Veingrad who became Shlomo, leaving NFL football championships to become an Orthodox rabbi. This isn’t limited to second-career clergy.  A Bay Street financial whiz begins to built toilets in Africa. An orthodontist starts to reclaim Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points to an example in our Torah. Moshe left his first life in the palace and began another with an enslaved people. He went on to speak with God panim el panim. God’s faithful servant, he led his people from slavery to freedom, endured their complaints, suffered their rebellions, and prayed for their forgiveness. Moshe was God’s agent to perform miracles.

As he approached the close of his life, Moshe’s closest allies, his sister and brother, died. He was told that he would not enter the Land of Promise. While Aaron’s children inherited the kohen priesthood, Moshe knew that his sons would not succeed him. Joshua would take over. These must have been great disappointments.

Anticipating his own mortality, what was left to do? The book of Devarim tells us: “In the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month … in the land of Moab, Moses began expounding this law …” The liberator and miracle-worker, will now teach his Torah to the generation that he “will send into the future he will never see.”

He is no longer the prophet who speaks for God. Now he become Rabbenu, our Teacher, who seeks to articulate the theology of the mitzvot. He emphasizes love: of God for Israel and love we should offer God. He reviews the years in the Wilderness and warns about the wearying way ahead.

Moshe is starkly realistic. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, Moshe tells the people who will enter the Land that the primary problem “will not be failure but success; not slavery but freedom; not the bread of affliction but the temptations of affluence. Remember, he says again and again; listen to the voice of God; rejoice in what God has given you. These are the key verbs of the book. They remain the most powerful immune-system ever developed against the decadence-and-decline that has affected every civilization since the dawn of time.”

The last month of Moshe’s life offers an example of what Erik Erickson called generativity: nurturing what will outlast a person. Moshe speaks not to his contemporaries, but to those who will carry on after them. This is Moses’ second mountain.

Moshe’s disappointments shape the last chapter of his Book of Life. He would not accompany the people into the land. His sons would not succeed him. He had to turn to the next generation. He addressed the future by making the people his students-–and we remain his disciples.

This suggests a powerful life changing message for all of us. As we consider our own mortality, what tasks might we still take on? When we remember our loved ones today, think of the spiritual legacy they sought to bequeath us. Consider their eulogy virtues, not just their resumés.

As I prepare to transition from my current role at Beth Tzedec, I’ve been thinking about my eulogy virtues, the values and relationships that have characterized my years here. I’m not planning an immediate funeral, but have been reflecting on what has defined my character over the past quarter-century. I am also wrestling with what have been my flaws, my sins, the problematic aspects of my personality that have impeded my aspirations and ideals. I’m looking for my second mountain.

Whatever has been written into our Book of Life, there is another chapter to be written, focused on being a blessing to others, sharing whatever gifts we have with those who have less, passing our values to new generations, using our experience to help others come through their difficult times, doing something that has little to do with ambition and much to do with making life better for at least one person ion this planet.

The great American poet, Mary Oliver, who died earlier this year, wrote

“When Death Comes”

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bridge married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the wold into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

It is never too late. I have been with families whose parent was unable to give them nurturing love as they matured, but—as the elder faced dependency, weakness and mortality—that individual still had the capacity to become a source of care, consideration, kindness and, yes, love. Even as lives founder on the rocks, there remain opportunities.

Just as our people moved from Sinai to Zion, we also are challenged to discover and climb our second mountain. Whatever your accomplishments and achievements, there is always another mountain. It may become your greatest gift to the future.