Shaarei Shamayim

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I thank you all for coming to celebrate with me my 66th birthday. I tried to think of the significance of one’s 66th year and all I could come up with was that 66 in Hebrew is the letters samech vav, which is not really a word but it is 2/3 of the word sus—samech, vav, samech, which means, “horse.” I guess that’s better than 2/3 of a jackass! Perhaps it means that at 66 you have 2/3 of the strength of a horse. I can live with that.

At 66 I can say that it’s been a joy to be your rabbi over the years—some of you for almost 25 years! Like it or not, at this age I’m forced to admit that I’ve been here longer than I’m going to be here. Of course, we don’t like to think that way. That great chochom, Woody Allen, when asked what he would like people to say about him 100 years from now, replied, “I hope they’ll say, ‘He looks good for his age.’” Getting older is something we’re not anxious to do. But the reality is we’re doing it...each and every one of us, each and every day of our lives.

You know that cute list, “You Know You’re Getting Older When...” that makes its round on the internet every once in a while. I like to review it each year around my birthday just to see how I’m doing. Let me read some of them: “You know you’re getting older when your knees buckle and your belt doesn’t…when your back goes out more often than you do…when everything hurts and what doesn’t hurt doesn’t work…when you turn out the lights not for romantic reasons but for economic reasons.”

You know you’re getting older when you hear that list and rather than laugh you say, “Yeah...that’s right.” You begin forgetting the names of people you’ve known for years. Sometimes I find myself standing before the open refrigerator—just staring inside—wondering what it was I came looking for! Or—and this is a new one for me—have you ever heard a voice answer the other end of the phone and you have to look at your phone to remember whom you’ve called? And then there are all those Viagra jokes they toss at you. My favorite: Do you know they’re considering changing the name of Miami Beach to Viagra Falls?

One might think it would be hard to find insight in today’s Torah reading for the predicament of life because it’s an almost endless repetition of the details of the building of the Mishkan, the desert Tabernacle the Jews used on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land—interesting mostly to architects and engineers. 4 weeks ago in the Torah portion of Mishpatim, Moses ascends Mt. Sinai. And for the next 3 Torah readings, Gd teaches Moses all the details of the construction of the Mishkan and the holy items that went in it: like the Holy Ark, the menorah and the altar, along with the holy garments to be worn by the priests. Today and next week it’s all repeated as the instructions are carried out.

But although these Torah portions are rather technical, nevertheless, our commentators and mystics have probed the verses and have found great treasures—even life lessons. For example, in last week’s parsha, Ki Tisa, we read how our ancestors donated gold jewelry to form a Golden Calf. In today’s parsha, Vayakeyl, we read that these same ancestors then donated their remaining gold jewelry to build the Mishkan for the glory of Gd. This prompted our Sages to comment: “With earrings they sinned and with earrings they were restored to Gd’s favor.” In this brief comment the sages emphasized the ambivalent character of most things. Most things can be used for the noblest or the meanest of purposes. Whether they are good or bad depends upon us—on how we use them.

It’s a simple truth—almost a cliché—but a truth that must be retold. Science has done so much to prolong and improve life, but it can also produce weapons of mass destruction. A car can rush a doctor on a mission of mercy or it can carry a drunk on a mission of murder.

A chassid once asked his Rebbe why Gd created skepticism. “After all,” he said, “Hashem made everything and everything that He made He made for some benevolent purpose. But what possible goodness can skepticism bring? It only leads people to doubt Gd?”

          The Rebbe thought a minute and replied, “When a poor man comes to you for help don’t send him away with the assurance that Hashem will help him. At that time you must be a skeptic, filled with doubt that Hashem will help so that you will then help him yourself.”

Is anger good or bad? Again it depends. To be sure, it is said that anger is only one letter away from danger—just add the letter “d” to anger. Anger wrecks homes, destroys friendships and often leads to violence. But on the other hand, the prophets were Gd’s angry men. Oppression made them angry; injustice made them angry; cruelty and dishonesty made them angry. They were angry for the right reasons.

While looking at my pictures from a recent trip to Israel a friend asked about a picture on the beach south of Haifa, “Is that a picture of a sunrise or a sunset?” I’m sure that if my friend thought about it he would have realized that since the coast of Israel is on the West, it must be a sunset. Nevertheless, if you think about it, the question itself is a profound statement about life. So often we think we’re going through a “sunset” and to our delight it turns out that it wasn’t a sunset after all, but a “sunrise” ushering in a new day with new possibilities and hope. That’s how I look upon my life now. I think of the words Richard Bach wrote in Jonathan Livingston Seagull: “Here is the test to find out whether your mission on earth is finished or not: if you are alive…it isn’t.” Yes, as long as we are alive there are things to do!

How many of you have a “bucket list”—you know the things you want to do before you die? There was a bestselling book a few years back called, 1000 Places To See Before You Die. I’ve traveled somewhat. I’ve been to places like Jerusalem, Amsterdam, Budapest, Paris, London, Moscow, Hawaii, LA, Chicago and even to Buckhead. But you know what? I still haven’t been to over 900 of those 1000 places. And as I turn 66, I have to face the reality that those places and many other places and things I would have liked to have done are just not going to happen. I can’t complain though. I have seen how truly wonderful Gd’s world is.

I’ve been blessed—truly blessed—I have a marvelous family and a marvelous congregation. I thank Gd for that and much much more. So I won’t get to see all “1000 places to see before I die”…but there are still a few more that I will, please Gd, get to! But at the same time, rather than focus around the world, my focus will center more on Atlanta, southern Florida, Phoenix and New York where my family is. There are no greater sights in the world! I don’t know how much time I’m going to have left with my 93-year-old father…to be with him and to learn from him. And I don’t know how much more time I’m going to have with my beautiful wife, children and grandchildren…to be with them, play with them and laugh with them and love them. I always thought I would live to, as they say in Yiddish ah hundred untzfonzig, “until 120!” So I’m going to “go for it,” and give it all I’ve got.

So that’s my advice to you today on my 66th birthday. Getting older happens—Baruch Hashem. The alternative, as they say, is much worse. But like the ancient Israelites and their gold, whether it’s good or bad depends on how it’s used. As you get older, you can then crawl up and wait to die. I, on the other hand, will go for it till 120 and I suggest you do the same.

And one last piece of advice. As you get older, tell your family how much you love and appreciate them more and more. I’m starting to do that now more than ever before. I’ve come to understand that when my time comes what will matter are not my memories, but how I will be remembered. On my 66th birthday, to my family and to you, my beloved congregation—my extended family—I say words that I’ve told you to say many times: I love you. I need you. I’ve learned what things are worth going for, and I’m going to do just that. May Hashem grant us all the blessing of the Psalmist (91:16): Orech yamin asbi-eyhu v’ar-eyu bishu-ati, “With long life I [Gd] will satisfy him, and I will show him My salvation.” Amen!

                                      Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis


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