Yizkor Yom Kippur, 1929


 Génie gardant le secret de la tombe 
[Wikimedia]
The Eternal Secret

Our text for this sermon comes from an undated manuscript, the title of which matches the title given in the Holy Blossom Bulletin for the sermon for the Memorial Service for Yom Kippur 1929.

Rabbi Eisendrath recounts his thoughts and emotions as the yizkor service for Yom Kippur draws to a close. He recalls a statue he has seen.
The figure which my imagination places at the threshold of memory's shrine has been beautifully carved into stone and is on exhibition in an art gallery of one of our larger cities. It is a statue portraying an angel seated upon a tomb, covering with its hands the orifice of a lovely vase by its side. This strange and somewhat perplexing modernistic creation bears the inscription Angel guarding the secret of the tomb. What an illuminating and what a profound thought has this sculptor chiseled into this block of marble. ... The angel carefully guards the tomb and its secret from the prying eyes of men. We strain our energies ... but the angel remains forever silent.
The sculpture referred to may be a work by René de Saint-Marceaux (1845-1915). The original marble, pictured above, is now in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. A plaster cast created for the Art Institute of Chicago may be what the rabbi saw. For photographs of the sculpture from other angles, see here (Paris) and here (Chicago). Online references refer to it in English as "Spirit guarding the secret of the tomb".

The spirit does not stand guard like a sentry. Rather, he is portrayed in a posture as if taken by surprise. Seated, almost with his back to a burial urn, he turns his head to his right to see a presumed intruder and at the same time, with his torso twisted, reaches back awkwardly to his left to hide the contents of the urn from view.

The statement that the sculpture is on exhibition in "one of our larger cities" suggests the sermon was originally written to be delivered in the United States. We do not know if it was ever delivered there or to what extent it was revised when delivered in Toronto.

The secret being guarded by the spirit, the rabbi says, is the answer to the question "when a man dies, shall he live again." To this question, the scientist can provide no answer.
In wonderment he confesses, "It is strange. Nature is wondrously provident and conservative - not a thing seems lost in the economy of the universe, not a sound, not a melody once produced ceases to vibrate in the immensities of space, not a particle of energy is wasted, not a single motion is lost. Yet the spirit of man eludes my grasp, my unerring instruments cannot probe his mysterious being."
But where the scientist fails, the religious teacher can provide an answer.
[H]e feels with the sage of old that the spirit of is the candle of the Lord [1] - a spark from God's fountain of eternal light. Confidently he asks - if man contains within himself a thread of the divine, can his essence e'er be completely extinguished. When the spirit of man is darkened can it wholly disappear.
The question, however, is only answered in part; some things remain unknown.
Others have conjured up vivid pictures of the state of the soul after death - of blessed islands, shady groves filled with music and gardens of unending [?] delight for the righteous, and also of regions of horror, of eternal torment, of fire and brimstone for the wicked - all of them mind you based on matter and sense - all of them failing to glimpse the reality and unknown nature of the spirit.
Rabbi Eisendrath is making a logical argument here: that we cannot extrapolate from this world to the next, and that we have no reason to conclude that in the hereafter the human soul will be rewarded or punished by gifts or afflictions of a particular material or sensual nature.
And although our religion has not always escaped these phantasmagoria of the mind - of Gehenna and Gan Eden, of Hell and Paradise, although we too have had our mystics who have dreamed rapturously of material rewards and dreaded fearfully physical punishments, Judaism itself has laid little stress upon such considerations. Standing before the silent tomb it declares: Let the angel guard zealously the secret of death, but as for man let him master well the secret of life. Let man dwell on the cardinal truths of this world rather than of the beyond. Guided by the candle of the Lord, let him strive to illumine and render more radiant his universe, and so make life, death and the vast forever, one grand sweet song.
Living thus in tune with the infinite and in harmony with the spiritual ideals of life we have no cause to fear the future. The god-like elements in our life, our love, our tenderness, our fellowship, our goodness ... our striving after harmony and justice, are endowed with permanent and enduring qualities. 
The sermon continues with additional illustrations of the enduring power of good deeds. Rabbi Eisendrath names Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Lincoln, Wilson, Beethoven, Raphael, Jesus, St. Francis, [Solomon ibn] Gabirol and [Samson Raphael] Hirsch as persons who "have not perished from this earth - their lights have not been extinguished, their beauty has not faded." This list shows us some of the diverse persons from whom Rabbi Eisendrath took inspiration. But his decision to mention these famous names at this time, especially his more unconventional choices, in a yizkor service intended for remembering family members, may have been for some of his congregants an unwelcome digression.

He concludes with a short poem "Music when soft voices die" by Shelley.

This sermon demonstrates the rabbi's interest in sculpture and poetry. Future sermons would reveal his interest in theater. In 1930 he delivered four sermons on plays by Eugene O'Neill. But the arts, for him, were not simply an entertainment; they had a clear moral core, which made them useful subjects, or at least jumping-off points, for his sermons.

Rabbi Eisendrath has transitioned in the course of the sermon from a discussion about the nature of the afterlife, to a traditional message of consolation, that the lives we remember at yizkor have lasting elements of goodness. He has also set up a contrast between the questions about "the secret of death" and the hereafter asked by the sculpture (and by extension, the general culture which the gallery represents and in which he and his congregants live) and the questions about "the secret of life" which Judaism addresses.

HR

[1] Rabbi Eisendrath is quoting Proverbs 20:27, traditionally attributed to King Solomon, "The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord."

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