Yom Kippur 5779: Who is Honored?

In July, Brent Cizek took a small, plastic boat out onto Lake Bemidji in northern Minnesota. An amateur nature photographer, he tried to steer the boat and snap a few photos in the choppy water. He spotted a common merganser … that is … a duck… with a group of ducklings following her and took a few photos. It was only after he returned home that he realized the scene had been unusual.

Cizek later counted 76 ducklings following one mother duck. 76! The photo, to the delight of all who’ve seen it, looks like a real Make-Way-For-Ducklings parade. But is it possible that all of these ducklings were related to her?

The National Audubon Society featured Brent’s photo this summer and explained some of the science behind it. Common merganser usually lay about a dozen eggs at a time. However, as experts explain,

“Some birds, including mergansers and ostriches, raise their babies in a day care system that’s called a crèche…In a crèche, females leave their ducklings in the care of one female — often an older female who is experienced at raising babies…The females at Lake Bemidji, many of which are related, lay eggs that hatch around the same time… Afterward… the adult ducks go off to molt their feathers, leaving their broods in the care of [one] matriarchal female.” 

All 76 of them, in the care of one mother duck! 

As we say at religious school, this is a real “Mah Rabu” moment! A moment to say, in the words of our prayer for creation, yotzeir or, 
mah rabu ma’asecha adonai, kulam b’chochma asita - 
how wonderful are all of your creations, oh God - you made everything in wisdom.

Who is honored?, asks Pirke Avot.
The one who honors all of God’s creations.

I love this story about the ducks of Lake Bemidji because it illustrates our fourth and final question from Pirke Avot on many levels.

These mah rabu moments, these moments when we see the beauty of nature before us, are times when we honor creation. We look at the nature photo or a beautiful scene out our backdoors, and when we stop, offer gratitude, take a moment, say a blessing - we honor God’s creations. On our second day service in nature, last week on Rosh Hashanah, at Pleasant Valley, our local bird sanctuary, we paused by the water for a moment of taslich, of casting off the old year and moving into the new. With light rain falling into a mirror-flat pond, we honored our journeys to arrive at this moment, and we honored God’s beautiful creation all around us.

But the 76 ducks on Lake Bemidji are more than just a passing moment of natural beauty and wonder. We can learn a lot from that one mother duck. She is caring not just for her own family, but for her entire community. She is raising the next generation. And the rest of the community entrusts her to do the same. 

Sometimes, as your rabbi, I am that mother duck. Sometimes, that mother duck is God. In fact, our High Holy Day liturgy includes images of God as shepherd, the Jewish people as the flock, God as parent, we, children. 

But I think the mother duck teaches us more than that. In a community, different members take turns stepping up, caring for each other’s families, caring for each other, and honoring all of God’s creations. 

You all do this in your own way, here for our Temple Anshe Amunim family, in Pittsfield, and beyond. And Pirke Avot actually gives us a practical guide to honoring all of God’s creations - the first three questions of our text.

Who is wise - asks Pirke Avot - the one who learns from everyone.

We honor others by looking to them for their wisdom and guidance. Each of us knows a lot about some things, but not about everything. We honor others when we recognize that each of us, individually, does not know everything, does not have the answer to everything, that we all have different experience and expertise to offer. We recognize that we know more when we put our heads together. When we get curious about each other, we grow as people, and we grow stronger as a community.

Who is strong - our second question. The one who controls one’s passions. We honor others when we get curious, not angry, about why someone thinks what they think, or acts the way they act. We honor others when we control our tempers, when we respond with respect, or take a deep breath before shouting a reply. We honor others when we recognize that strength comes in many forms, that leaders come in many stripes and spots. We honor others when we treat everyone with compassion - a true sign of strength of character.

Who is rich - we asked last night - the one who is content with one’s portion.

We honor others when we give ourselves - and everyone around us - a little slack. When we recognize that we’re all human, and that there’s no such thing as perfect. We honor others when we work toward goals and help others do the same. We honor others when we “spend out” - when we give tzedakah and elevate everyone around us.

When we think about what kind of community, what kind of Temple family we want to be in the year 5779, we can ask ourselves use these questions - who is wise, who is strong, who is rich, and who is honored. This day of prayer and introspection is a natural time to start.

Today, for our afternoon study session at 1:30, we will dive deeper into all four questions in this text, and use them as a frame for self-reflection. I encourage you to join us.

In November, we’ll come together as a Temple community for a town hall meeting to talk about our traditions, our transitions, and our trajectory into the future. I encourage us to think about how we learn from each other, how we strengthen each other, how we enrich each other, and how we honor each other. We can use these four questions of Pirke Avot to frame how and who we want to be as a temple family - a community that is curious, compassionate, content, and focused on kavod - respect and honor. 

Obadiah ben Abraham Bartenura, a 15th century rabbi and commentator, noted the following about our fourth and final question - who is honored? “Someone who displays the first three traits that are mentioned - wise, strong, and rich - is honored automatically. So what should this person do to be honored by others? Honor everyone, every person.”

It’s a message both simple and profound. This year, may we honor God, God’s creations, ourselves, and everyone around us. Shanah tovah!