Losing a World- Yom Kippur 2015
There is an idea in Judaism that the loss of a person is like the loss of a world.
The Mishnah states: “Therefore was a single man [first] created to teach thee that if anyone destroys a single soul from the children of man, Scripture charges him as though he had destroyed a whole world, and whosoever rescues a single soul from the children of man, Scripture credits him as though he had saved a whole world.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9).
In other words, God only created only one person, Adam, first, to make a point. Killing a person is like killing a whole world, since if you had killed Adam, humanity would have ended. And visa-versa, saving one person is like saving a whole world, since saving Adam would have saved all of humanity.
Speaking in the language of its time, the passage expresses this idea in terms of punishment and reward. That is what it means when it says “Scripture charges him.” The punishment the killer of one person receives is like the punishment that would be charged to someone who killed an entire world. On the other hand, a person gets the same reward he or she would have received if he or she saved an entire world when saving just one person.
This text suggests that the value of each individual person is as important as the value of everyone together. It expresses how much our tradition honors the worth of each one of us. No one can be simply written off. I think that we can put the same value on a person’s life even when we are not talking about murder or the saving of a life. People are just this important and inherently valuable.
The implications of this passage are stunning, if one thinks about them. If the loss of a person is the same as losing a world, then, ultimately no one has greater inherent value than anyone else. We are each a whole world. Regardless of one’s wealth, status, or health. A whole world. It’s beautiful.
Perhaps though, there is another meaning to this comparison between an individual and a world. Maybe we can think about this teaching in terms of our own experience. Do we feel this teaching instead of only understanding it intellectually?
We might say no, at least at first. When someone we love passes, does the world actually end? How many of us have had the experience of leaving a hospital room, or even the cemetery, and noticing the irony that, even as we are experiencing a tragedy, the world moves on? The sun still shines, traffic still moves, and we can still hear kids playing off in the distance. We may take some days off from our usual routine, but most of the world does not vary its schedule in any way. What does it mean that a world is lost? It seems to be running along just fine.
But, perhaps we can think of this in a different way. Over the past two years, I have come to understand this maxim on a deeper level than I had in the past.
About two years ago, my father was diagnosed with a rather rare condition called amyloidosis. It is a form of blood cancer that involves the build-up of protein in a person’s blood. It can be lethal, particularly if it gets to a person’s heart. In general, treatment methodologies are in an early stage.
My father’s first course of chemo treatments did not really do the job. He was not a candidate for future experimental trials or a stem cell transfer. Over time, he had to start on dialysis since his kidneys stopped working correctly. Fortunately, the new chemo seems to be having positive results in holding off the disease.
I mention this about my family neither for sympathy nor to say my family is special in any way. I mention it rather to discuss the lesson I think I have been learning over the past couple of years. The advent of my father’s illness (and I hate admit, turning 40) has forced me to confront the need to anticipate my father’s passing and consider his mortality in general. I think the members of my family are dealing with it in different ways, from acting over rationally to exhibiting some level of denial.
The lesson I am learning, one that we all may learn consciously or unconsciously, is that losing a life is losing an entire world. It has become clear to me, that on some level, my father is my whole world.
Please understand that I am not saying I am a “daddy’s boy.” At times, our relationship has been complicated. We have fought. Also, even though I respect my father, I see his faults and do not over idealize him.
Rather, I realize that pretty much everything in my world has been touched by him. I am not sure what is the best metaphor, particularly without sounding trite. We often talk about that our parents influence us. But doesn’t it sometimes go further than that? For example:
-My passion for academics, the area of life which has been one of my strengths comes from my Dad, both in terms of talent and study skills
-My openness to meeting and greeting new people comes from him. If you think I can be outgoing, my father is that times 50. When you meet me, you really meet me channeling my Dad.
-Also, my moments of shyness are from him. They are from the times that I wish he had been less outgoing.
-My love of dirty jokes, probably one of the least helpful traits for a rabbi, that’s my Dad.
-If you think that sometimes I can be a good listener or express compassion, that is from my father. I marvel at the times that I have seen my father be kind and counsel my friends and his students (He has been a college professor for over fifty years). He is so good at doing this. A former hockey player, he has continually shown that being a strong man does not mean lacking compassion.
-In the same vein, my respect for women comes from my father. It is not a coincidence that I married a woman who can challenge me and cut me down at a moment’s notice when I get too full of myself.
-My dad taught me to be proud of being Jewish and to savor Jewish learning.
So it ends up that my father has directly impacted my school career, my professional career, my choice of person to marry, and my sense of humor. Pretty much most of what is my world. And this is only a partial list.
I know that I am going to miss my father when he passes, regardless if the cause is this disease or something else. But, not only that, I am going to lose a foundation of my life, a whole world. A world of love, a world of compassion. Not a perfect one, but one that made me who I am and affects almost every moment of my day. The effects of a world builder whose impact I share with the rest of my family and the hundreds, if not thousands, of people my father has touched throughout his lifetime.
But this is not a sermon about unhappiness, or even loss.
I am amazed at how much of my father will live on, how much of his world will go on. He has been a world builder. So much will continue past his lifespan as his values will hopefully be demonstrated by his children, by his grandchild, by his students, and by their families.
More importantly, I want to stress that each of us, is a world builder for someone else. We are part of the foundation of what makes a person who he or she is. We each serve this role for multiple people. What we do matters for them. I do not mean only for our children, whose world we never stop building, but for our parents, our friends, our coworkers, and other members of the communities in which we live.
The question we need to ask, on this Day of Yom Kippur, is “what type of worlds are we creating for them?” What types of structures are we building in their lives? Are we building for them a world with shelters of compassion and caring? Are we creating houses of pain? We have the power to not just influence those around us, but to help determine the shape of the world in which they live. Can we strive in the next year to ensure that we are doing our best to make these worlds places of love, peace, and kindness?
Our tradition teaches us that our mission is to partner with God to make the world a better place. We are supposed to help complete the glory of Creation. Let us ask for the strength, in the year ahead, to partner with God to improve all of the worlds which we help create: the lives of our family, friends, and fellow community members. In the next year, may your world and the worlds you create be filled with joy and peace.