The ‘Jewish’ Way To #YOLO (You Only Live Once)©

The ‘Jewish’ Way To #YOLO (You Only Live Once)©
Kol Nidre – 2013/5774
By Rabbi David Baum

There are many acronyms that we have grown accustomed to:  LOL, JK, TTYL, and more.  I once taught our bar/bat mitzvah classes and they had a whole conversation with just acronyms! 

It was like a foreign language; I had to use a dictionary!  OMG! 

But there’s a new one that you might not be aware of that is going viral amongst our young ones:  YOLO, you only live once.

YOLO is a fun way to live – let me read you some tweets with the hashtag YOLO

I just flirt .. all the time .. even when I know I shouldn't #yolo

Sometimes ya gotta just jump out of your friends car and get into a strangers convertible#opportunityknocking #YOLO

(You can try it yourself!  Go to www.twitter.com and type #YOLO in the search box)

YOLO is something you might tweet after you go bungee jumping, sky diving, or when you buy a sports car even though you know you shouldn’t.  We say YOLO when we do something adventurous, dangerous, fun, and at times, let’s face it, irresponsible. 

As Ecclesiastes once said, “There’s nothing new under the sun.”  Of course, you and I know that YOLO is just another way of saying, Carpe Diem, Seize the Day, or Live for Today. 

The truth is, I don’t like YOLO.  I know, it’s just not cool to NOT be ok with YOLO.  But before you judge me, here me out, I have some good reasons. 

And yes, I say this today, the one day of the year where we rehearse our own deaths.  We wear our white kittels, the same garments we use to be buried in and we abstain from all earthly pleasures.  Today, we confront our mortality head on, and if any day would be a YOLO day, it would be today!

And yet even today isn’t a YOLO day, and I’ll go a step further:

YOLO isn’t Jewish. 

It’s not because we Jews are not the most adventurous people!  It’s because living only for today just isn’t Jewish.

Unfortunately, there is a price we pay for living only in the present, and not thinking of the past and the future, and it’s more than a nasty hangover, a diminished bank account, or worse. 

If we live like this, we become something truly unimaginable:  orphans in history.

So if YOLO isn’t the answer, if I shouldn’t seize the day, then what should I do? 

Here’s my answer – I want you to live in the present with one foot in the past and the other foot in the future.

I want to share a story told to me by Rabbi Jack Riemer of how living like this actually led to a modern day Jewish miracle:

Back in the thirties, the Labor party in Israel was struggling over whether to be in favor of partitioning the land of Israel or not.  If there was a partition, there would be a Jewish state, but on the other hand, if there was a partition, they would have to give up some of the most precious and sacred parts of the land of Israel. And so many people in the Labor Party were torn. Should they be in favor of partition, because it might lead to peace?  And because it might enable them to save some of the Jews of Europe, who had nowhere else to go? Or should they be against partition, because it meant surrendering part of the land of Israel forever?

Ben Gurion himself was divided on this question.  And so he went to Yosef Tabenkin, who was one of the elder statesmen of the Labor Party, and who had always been his mentor, and he asked him how he should vote.

Tabenkin said: Give me twenty four hours, and I will tell you what I think you should do, because, before I give you my advice, I need to consult with two people.
Tabenkin came back the next day, and said: I think you should vote for partition.
Ben Gurion thanked him for his advice, and then he said: Would you mind telling me who were the two people whom you consulted before you made your decision?
Tebenkin said: I asked my grandfather, who is no longer alive, and I asked my grandchildren who are not yet born. And only after I thought about what they would say, and about what would be best in their eyes, did I make my decision.”

Tebenkin proved that we don’t only live once, we can live forever.  And that’s what today is all about: past, present and future, surround us. 

First, let’s think about the past – how can we make sure that our long lost relatives are proud of us?  We can learn from their mistakes and live a different life. 

Let me ask you – who knows their Hebrew name by heart?  It is your name, son of your parents name.  Ashkenazim, which probably makes us the overwhelming majority of this room, have a custom to name their new born children for a relative who has passed away, who the newborn child will never have the chance to meet.  The logic must be for that person to live again in some way; but do we really go through with this? 

The fact is, our names are made up of the past – a long lost relative, or Tabenkin’s grandfather who is no longer alive, and your parents. 

Who in here knows which relatives they are named after?  
Who in here knows anything about these relatives?

My name is David Zalm Ben Yitzhak Shlomo v’Rachel Esther.  David was my grandmother Eva’s brother who was murdered in the Holocaust, and Zalman was my grandmother Eta’s brother who was also murdered in the Holocaust.  Passed that, I don’t know anything about them.  In fact, I never thought about it much until I had my own children.  I asked my parents about them, but they didn’t know, and both of my grandmothers are long gone. 

It’s a shame – I don’t even know who I’m named after.  

I know, it’s sad, and I wish I knew more.  I wish I knew what they were like, the great things they did in their lives, the families they built, the values they stood for – but I don’t.  But I will tell you, I think of them as almost super human, but I really have no reason to.  

We tend to deify our ancestors.  It is even a rabbinic concept called Zchut Avot, that we benefit from the righteous actions of our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  But, if you have learned anything from these high holidays, and from the rest of the Torah, you would know that our ancestors made big mistakes.  In fact, that’s what makes the Bible unique – rather than turn its characters into perfect gods, the characters were imperfect humans!  They are relatable! 

My name David, is after King David.  He may have been a great warrior, and killed the mighty Goliath; he might have been anointed by God, and united a kingdom, but he was also a womanizer, a man who was ruthless in his quest for power and a man who disappointed his prophets. 

Zalman is the Yiddish version of Shlomo, David’s son.  Sure, he was wise, he built the Holy Temple, one of the wonders of the ancient world, but he also bankrupted the kingdom, had way too many wives, and broke some major rules.  His sins eventually led to the split of the kingdom after his death! 

So if they could make big mistakes, why couldn’t those who you are named after have made similar if not worse mistakes?  What happens if your long past ancestors weren’t the greatest of people? 

Let me spare you the suspense – no one is perfect, and all of us have had days we have regretted. 

I am glad that David and Shlomo were the people they were– because I can learn from their mistakes. 

Every Jew should know their Hebrew name, and if you don’t, I want you to do one thing when Yom Kippur ends – I want you to research it – find out who you are named for and why. 

Our ancestors of the past have a leg up on our grandchildren yet to be born – they have a history, and with that history comes imperfections.  Don’t ignore it or cover it up, embrace it!  It’s what makes us human!  It also teaches us that we too can achieve the great things our long lost relatives achieved. 

I want to tell you the story of a man who passed away just a couple of weeks ago, a man who is now a true ancestor. 

Irwin Weiss was a great man who served our congregation and many others his whole life until his passing this year at the age of 91.  During one of the days of shiva, his son Matt gave a stirring memory of something Irwin once told him.  Irwin worked hard his whole life, and he would work even when he came home.  The time he spent with his children was meaningful and memorable, but it didn’t happen often because he thought that he needed to work harder to provide them with more opportunities. 

So he worked, six days a week, from the early morning until the night, over holidays, etc.  This was not atypical of men of his time; but he had regrets.  When he retired and came down to Florida, he told his son, “I worked hard all my life, I ignored my family, and for what!  It was a mistake!” 

So Irwin created a second life down here in Florida.  He stopped working, he spent time with his family and got to know them.  In this way, he did tesuvah, and he taught me something – you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but you can teach an old man to change.  

Irwin taught me that it’s never to late to turn back and change your focus from work to family and legacy.   Avot D’Rabbi Natan says a famous line, “Do tesuvah one day before your death.” 

Can we learn from the mistakes of our ancestors?  Can we realize that sacrificing memories with our children may not be worth the toys you can buy with them with the extra hours at the office? 

Can we learn that no matter how old we are, we can change because our ancestors did the same? 

If you are still alive, it’s possible for you to turn things around and leave the legacy you want to leave.  That’s how we Jews seize the day. 

Judaism is not just about the past – it’s also about the future. 

What does it mean to live for the future?  To live for the future, you have to be a dreamer. 

We Jews are famous dreamers, and there is a famous midrash that I want to share with you to highlight this attribute: 

One day, a long time ago, a simple Jew, Choni HaMa’agel sought the meaning of one sentence, “A Song of Ascents. When God brings about the return to Zion, we were like dreamers…”

It is a vision of the future that references the past.  Choni could not understand the meaning, it upset him, and he prayed to God to show him the meaning. 

The next day, he happened to be walking along the road and noticed an old man, bending over and panting while planting a sapling of a carob tree. Choni goes up the old man and asks him: “how long does it take for this tree to bear fruit?”

The old man stops working for just a moment and tells Choni:

“This tree will take 70 years to produce fruit, but I’m sorry, I can’t talk right now, I don’t have a lot of time,”

Choni was really confused and asked what anyone else would ask: 
“Do you really think that you will live 70 more years to taste from the fruits of this tree?”

The old man put down his shovel, looks at Choni and says:

“I found this carob tree in this world, just as my grandfather planted the tree for my sake, so I’m planting this tree for my grandchild.”

Choni is really puzzled, and he still doesn’t know what the pasuk means!  He sits down to eat, but After he finishes his meal, a deep sleep overtakes over him and he sleeps for 70 years! 

Finally, Choni wakes up, and starts walking around, looking desperately for someone to ask what day it was.  He then notices a young man picking carobs from sapling of the tree he had seen planted, and Choni is shocked, amazed!
But he cannot find the old man who performed this magic, so he asks the young man, “Do you know who planted the tree? He was much older, but maybe I was wrong, are you him?”

The young man replies - “No, I am not, this tree was planted by my father’s father, 70 years ago.”  And then, he understood what had happened – he became a dreamer, and he realized, dreamers plant Carob trees – plants that will give fruit to our unborn grandchildren, but not for us.

A colleague and friend, Rabbi David Seth Kirschner had an excellent take on this line that puzzled Choni Ha’Ma’agal: 

Dreamers are people that use their past to better shape their future.

Dreamers are influenced by challenge and adversity and know the road ahead is paved by the steps in the road already traveled.

Dreamers hope and aspire for something better but, they learn best from their own encounters.

To be a dreamer means that you have to think about the future, you have to look beyond yourself.  Dreamers live with urgency, just like the old man who planted the carob tree – they actively plant seeds for the future. 

And I would add, dreamers care more about the future than even the present.  They work so hard because they want to leave a better world for their grandchildren – they want their children to taste the fruits that could never have grown in their life times! 

As you age in life, you have to come to the realization – you will not see all the flowers of the seeds that you are planting.  I know, it isn’t fair, but you aren’t alone.  Last week, we read Moses’s last song to his people, Haazinu, a poem he recited on the day of his death.  In this poem, Moses tries to leave his children a legacy – a legacy of Torah, of values, of ethics, of practice, a legacy devoted to God and humanity.  And yet, Moses will never see what will happen.  Moses realized that life was not just about him, it was about his ancestors, and his descendents, and his true wish was that his children would remember this, that they would not become orphans in history.  

In between this Kol Nidre and next, I want you to do 3 things:

1.    Live for the past

Learn about who you are named after and write down their story – what were the positive things that they stood for?  Where did they fall short and how can you learn from the lessons that they learned?  Learn from my mistake:  take the opportunity to ask who you are named after before it is too late!  And if you really want to give your children a gift, tell them the story of who they are named after.  Put pictures of the people they are named after in your children’s rooms so they can see a glimpse of the past to give them the strength to live in the present.  Rav Kook famously said:  Make the old new and the new holy.  You have a chance to make the old holy this year, don’t pass it up. 

2.    Live for the future

Plant a carob tree – do something that you might not see give fruit in your lifetime but you know will in the future.

One way to do this in a very real way is through our Create a Jewish Legacy program, a program run through the South Palm Beach Federation where you can make a charitable bequest for our congregation. 

As the synagogue world changes, we have realized that in order to ensure a future for our congregation, we need your help. 

We often pass down family heirlooms to our children, a kiddish cup, grandmother’s candlesticks, but if we don’t pass down the knowledge, the values, and the sense of community, then these items will be worthless to our descendents. 

We have a chance to pass on more than things, but a legacy, and my hope is that our congregation will continue to teach our Jewish customs, tradition, our faith in God, and our commitment to Israel for future generations.  But we cannot do it without your help – I ask you to think about something – the future, think about what legacy you want to pass down here in Boca Raton Florida for future generations of Jews. 
If you are interested in taking part in Creating a Jewish Legacy for our congregation for years to come, please contact us at office@shaareikodesh.org or by phone, 561-852-6555.    

Remember, we cannot take anything with us to the next world, but we can leave something behind. 

(For more information about Create A Jewish Legacy, please click here). 

3.    AND FINALLY, Don’t forget to live for the present, I mean, YOLO, you only live once after all right?

Don’t forget that you are going to make a tremendous impact in this world if you can hold the past and the present in your hands.  You only have one shot to leave an impact in this world, to live for the past and future – in the present. 

Love life, love each other, and have fun.


YOLO, Seize the Day, because it goes by fast. 

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