For We Are Still Here
Rabbi David S. Widzer
When those who are dear to us depart this world, we feel a loss. We miss their presence. We miss their smile. We miss their embrace. We miss knowing that they are there for us. We may feel that nothing will ever be the same. And that is true. We may feel that the special qualities that they had are forever diminished. And that may be true as well. There is a hole in our hearts the size and shape of their soul, and it feels like it may never be filled.
Rabbi David Stern of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas shares a teaching that shows that the rabbis of our people’s past, the authors of the Talmud, understood this feeling. He writes:
At the end of Tractate Sotah (49b), we encounter the powerful litany of qualities that passed from the world with the passing of each of our sages: When R. Meir died, there ceased to be masters of parables; when Ben Zoma died, there ceased to be experts in exegesis; when R. Akiva died, the glory of Torah ceased; when Rabbi [Yehudah haNasi] died, humility and fear of sin passed from the world. [That is to say, as each famous rabbi died, the qualities that made them great no longer were seen in the world.]
[Rabbi Stern continues:] It’s all pretty dark at first, but there is a last-minute, last-word nechemta [a word of consolation and comfort]. After the litany of loss, the text offers a correction of sorts. R. Nachman says to the Tanna, “Do not say that with the passing of Rabbi [Judah], fear of sin no longer exists, d’ika ana – because I’m still here.”
[Rabbi Stern teaches:] I choose to read R. Nachman’s statement not as an expression of ego, but of hope. In the very last two words of the tractate, d’ika ana: a declaration of human presence and possibility in the face of devastating loss. For them and for us, a gentle pushing back against mortality’s reign. For [those we love] have died – but their love and wisdom, the lessons of their lives in our own, have not. D’ika anan: for we … are still here – humble and blessed and learning from them still.
In this past year, two rabbis of our own day and age have left this world, both too young, both with much to share and teach, whose lessons of their lives carry on.
Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, PhD., was President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement’s seminary for rabbis, cantors, educators, and Jewish communal professionals. Rabbi Panken was an incredibly bright guy and incredibly funny, too. Before he became head of the seminary, back when I was in rabbinical school, he was my Dean of Students, a trusted advisor, teacher, and friend. He had a knack for always knowing exactly the right text to share in any given situation. My favorite of his teachings took a short phrase from Torah about Abraham and transformed it into a lesson about living each of our days to the fullest. As the conclusion of the lesson, Rabbi Panken wrote:
“We who are given the gift of life, no matter how short or long it happens to be, do best by imbuing its every moment with meaningful actions that are complete, whole, and innocent. If we can have the strength to do so (and it is far from easy) then we, too, can one day face death with deeds that speak to our life’s goodness and the way we lived it well.”
Rabbi Panken died tragically in a plane crash earlier this year. But the gift of his teaching remains, d’ika ana, for we are still here.
Rabbi Dan Treiser was a classmate and friend from the time we started rabbinical school together in 1996. Dan was my opposite in many ways – a large guy, in height and girth, mischievous, while I followed rules, a master procrastinator, while I turned things in on time. We got engaged to our girlfriends around the same time, and I remember comparing notes with him about schlepping from one store to another to register for wedding gifts. The only saving grace was the little scanner that looked like a Star Wars toy that we got to use. Many of my best rabbinical school stories have Dan in them, for he always was a source of joy and fun. He was big-hearted, too. Every student rabbi has to deliver a major sermon in front of the entire school during their 4th year. Dan was “lucky” enough to draw the week when the portion was Tazria-Metzora, the passage in Leviticus about skin diseases and leprosy. He persevered and found something meaningful to teach. A year later, when we were all looking for jobs for after ordination, the week when all of the congregations scheduled their on-site interviews, when they were sure to ask their prospective candidates to teach something about the Torah portion of the week, that week turned out to be Tazria-Metzora. We all scrambled for something to teach – and there was Dan, with folders full of notes from his sermon preparation. He happily shared his research with us all.
Rabbi Treiser died tragically from cancer, just over a month ago. But the gift of his generosity of spirit, the joy and fun that he brought to everything and everyone, these remain, d’ika ana, for we are still here.
Take a moment now and reflect on those whom you are remembering at this moment of Yizkor. What is the core of their memory that you will preserve? What is lesson of their life that you will embody? Which of their values will you carry forward, d’ika ana, for you are still here?
For those whom we loved
For those whose lives we cherished
we recite these Yizkor prayers, d’ika ana, for we are still here.
May their memories always be for a blessing.
 Rabbi David Stern, 2015 CCAR Convention Service, Azkara.