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Rabbi Howard Jaffe 

09/11/2009 09:22:31 PM


Yom Kippur - 2009 / 5770

With your permission, I would like to begin today speaking a bit more personally than usual.

I always think about death on Yom Kippur. We are supposed to think about death, and particularly him our own death today. We do not eat, we do not drink, we refrain from sexual relations. Traditional Jews customarily wear a kittel, a white robe, reminiscent of a shroud - note that the clergy and all of the choir are wearing white robes today. If we take this day seriously, we do not turn on the television, we do not listen to the radio, we do not sit down at the computer, we do not pick up the phone. It is as if we do not exist today, a small rehearsal for death.

But this year, I am thinking about death more than usual.

You see, in about a month and a half, I will be turning 54. Not that old, I know. Moses lived to be 120. Many people live well into their 70s and 80s, and even into the 90s. My own mother is in her 80s, and thank God, is healthy and well. My father, however, died when he was 54. And for much of the past year, I realize, I have been thinking about death, and about my own mortality in ways that I am not certain I ever have before. I even figured out the exact date on which I will have lived in this world longer than my father did.

In some ways, even though I have been eating and drinking and going about my life as usual, I have also been experiencing Yom Kippur for most of this past year - not consciously, at least not most of the time, and not in a maudlin or morose way. I have been thinking, sometimes quite clearly, about what it would mean for me to leave this world. I have been blessed to live a life of fullness, of love, and of meaning. And I want to be around for a lot more. I want to live to see grandchildren, as my father did not. I want to reach the day that I will hand over the reins of this congregation to the next rabbi who will guide and lead this precious community. And then I expect to travel and read and it does not really matter what else. The only thing that matters is how I live while I am here, starting today.

I have been thinking a lot about one particular passage in the Talmud which says that when we die, we will be asked six questions. I do not take this passage literally, any more than I take most any sacred text literally. I would like to think that there is an afterlife, just as the rabbis of the Talmud liked to think that there is an afterlife. They did not bother looking for proof. It was obviously never going to be found. So they lived their lives and taught us how to live as if there is another dimension of existence after this one. Unlike other religions, our teachers and sages did not devote their energies to creating images of what awaits. Instead, they inverted the notion of an afterlife into a focus on this life. They taught us that we have to live as fully and as completely as we can in this life, in part because if there is such a thing as an afterlife, and there is any kind of reward awaiting us, it will be for how we lived in this life, not because of any consideration about what the reward or punishment would be.

It was in that spirit that the great Talmudic sage, Rava, chose the six questions that he said we will each be asked on Judgment Day. I have a hard time believing that Rava believed this literally, any more than I do. I know, however, from thinking about these questions, that on a different level, he is absolutely right. The questions he poses force me to focus on who I am and who I need to be, the way good questions do. And there is no more important day for questions, especially good questions, than today.

A quick word before I share them:  As you know, I have a propensity for offering my own translations of sacred texts.  I usually share the literal translation first, though I am not going to do that right now. If you would like to see the more common, more literal translation, it will be on our website, along with the original from the Talmud, within the next day or two, along with a brief commentary explaining my translation (but please, do not go looking for it today -it will not be there yet, and we all need to stay away from the Internet today). 

These are the questions:

Did you conduct yourself honestly and with integrity?

Did you set aside time to learn?

Did you work to leave a legacy and to ensure future generations?

Did you seek to make yourself and the world better?

Did you argue openly and fairly and honestly?

And -- was the awe of God your treasure? Which I will assert should be parsed as: Did you take time to think about the meaning of life and your purpose on earth?

(Tractate Shabbat 31a)

These are the questions. Not "Did you fast on Yom Kippur?", not "Did you attend services regularly?", not "Did you eat only matzoh during Passover?"  Those are worthwhile questions, too, mostly because they help us create the rhythms, the sensitivities and the sensibilities that keep Rava's questions in our consciousness. But they are not the ultimate questions.

Did you conduct yourself honestly and with integrity?

Did you set aside time to learn?

Did you work to leave a legacy and to ensure future generations?

Did you seek to make yourself and the world better?

Did you argue openly and fairly and honestly?

Did you take time to think about the meaning of life and your purpose on earth?

These questions are on my mind. There are others, too,, and these are probably not the only questions that God would ask.  Ron Wolfson, one of the leading Jewish educators of our time, recently published a book that delves into Rava's questions. He adds others to them, including a surprising one, based on another Talmudic passage which says: "In the World to Come, a person will have to give an accounting for every good thing his eyes saw, but of which he did not eat." (Jerusalem Talmud Kiddushin 4:12). The story is told that Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great 19th-century German rabbi who is widely regarded as the founder of Modern Orthodoxy , surprised his disciples one day when he insisted on traveling to Switzerland. "When I stand shortly before the Almighty," he explained, "I will be answerable to many questions... But what will I say when...... and I am sure to be asked: "why did not you see my Alps?"

As I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah, Irene and I traveled to Italy for the first time this summer. What I did not mention then, and have only occasionally acknowledged, is how much of the drive to take that trip was related to my upcoming birthday. For Rabbi Hirsch, it was the Alps. For me, it was Venice. For me, the driving force for taking that trip was so that God would not ask me "why did you not see Venice?"  

What about you?

What tugs at you that have you not done, or seen, or experienced?

What are you going to do about it?

I wish that the rest of the questions could be addressed as easily.

And I wonder what the other questions are.

Wolfson asked others what questions they thought we might be asked, and he included some of them in his book.

"Did you bring joy to others?"

"Did you take full advantage of what you had?"

"Did you figure out what was really important?"

"Did you love?"

What question do you think we will be asked?

Will you share it with the rest of us?

As you leave the sanctuary today, the ushers will be handing out index cards  and pencils. I invite you to take one, and if you are prepared to write on Yom Kippur - not everyone is -jot down a question that you think we might be asked. It does not matter if you believe in God or in an afterlife. These are the questions we need to ask now, so that we can answer them now, while we still can. If you are certain of your question, and can write it down quickly, and hand it back to one of the ushers. If you need more time, bring it back with you this afternoon. During the afternoon service, and then again during the Neilah, closing service, we will read a few aloud. If you do not write on Yom Kippur, or you come up with questions after today, write them on an index card and drop them off in my mailbox in the office or email them to me.  Depending on how many we receive, we will plan, in the weeks ahead, to publish some on the website or in the Temple bulletin  -  because Yom Kippur is not the only time that we need to think about our mortality, and through its lens see more clearly how our lives must be lived.

Of course, Jewish tradition teaches us that it is never too late to begin, to turn things around, that all we have to do is turn, and the way we answer the questions today begins to override whatever answers we would have had to give before. As long as we have breath, it is not too late. In another famous Talmudic passage, Rabbi Eliezer declares to his students, "Repent one day before you die!" His students ask, "How can one know the day of his or her own death?". "Exactly," says Rabbi Eliezer. "That is why a person should repent every day."

Which is why we are here today. At least one day a year, every one of us confronts our mortality, and thinks about those questions, even if we never heard them before.

Perhaps you are familiar with the name of the Unitarian-Universalist minister, Forrest Church. He was a prolific writer and theologian, turning his nimble mind and able intellect to matters of history as well as religion, sometimes blending the two. A few years ago, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and while He decided to write about the experience, and the result was an exceptional book entitled Love and Death1, a bold, powerful and moving statement about what it means to live and what it means to die (I will post the book's title after Yom Kippur for those who are interested. It is highly recommended). At one point, it appeared that he had beaten the odds, but  his cancer came back with a vengeance, and he passed away this past Thursday, the day after his 61st birthday. Listen to his words, written with the full awareness that his time on earth was coming to a close:

All of our lives end in the middle of the story. There is ongoing business left unfinished. We leave the stage before discovering how the story will turn out. In the meantime, however, to help ensure a good exit, one thing is fully within our power. We can take care of unfinished business. We can make peace with ourselves, reconcile, where possible, with our loved ones, and free ourselves to say yes to the cosmos, to embrace allies in deaths, to make peace with God.

In taking care of your own unfinished business, and helping your loved ones take care of theirs, you can liberate yourself and them from suffering that, if you wait too long, may one day become intractable, written in indelible ink, darkening the pages of your book of life.

Church was not Jewish, but he obviously understood Yom Kippur.

Mitch Albom, on the other hand, is Jewish. Best known for his book, Tuesdays With Morrie, he has a new book with an official publication date of tomorrow, entitled Have a Little Faith2.  In a successful marketing move, ensuring that at least some of us would mention the book during the high holidays, his publisher sent advance copies to rabbis over the summer. It is a nonfiction work inspired, in part, by Albom's childhood rabbi, Albert Lewis, asking him if, when the time came, Albom would deliver the rabbi's eulogy. In the course of time, he got to know his rabbi in ways that he had never imagined. Of course, Rabbi Lewis added a few of his own questions, but also offered some answers, or at least some wisdom. Here is some from a sermon of his:

"A man seeks employment on a farm. He hands his letter of recommendation to his new employer. It read simply 'He sleeps in a storm'.

"The owner is desperate for help, so he hires the man.

"Several weeks pass, and suddenly, in the middle of the night, a powerful storm rips through the valley.

"Awakened by the swirling rain and howling wind, the owner leaps out of bed. He calls for his new hired hand, but the man is sleeping soundly.

"So he dashes off to the barn. He sees, to his amazement, that the animals are secure with plenty of feed.

"He runs out to the field. He sees the bales of wheat had been bound and are wrapped in tarpaulins.

"He races to the silo. The doors are latched, and the grain is dry.

"And then he understands. 'He sleeps in a storm.'

Rabbi Lewis continues: "My friends, if we tend to do things that are important in life, if we are right with those we love and behave in line with our faith, our lives will not be cursed with the aching throb of unfulfilled business. Our words will always be sincere, our embraces will be tight. We will never wallow in the agony of 'I could have, should have.' We can sleep in a storm.

"And when it's time, our goodbyes will be complete."

We all know that the storm will come eventually, though none of us knows exactly when it will arrive. For some, we have good reason to imagine that it will probably arrive sooner than later, and perhaps even on the horizon. For some, the storm will gather slowly, giving us more time to prepare for its arrival. And for some, it will arrive without notice, exactly why Rabbi Eliezer taught us to prepare for it every day. Until the storm does arrive, it is never too late to secure the animals, bind the bales of wheat, to latch the doors to the silo, or to answer the ultimate questions of our lives.

Today is the day we imagine the storm, and because we do, miraculously, paradoxically, we get to start fresh. Today is the day we consider our own death, the day that, according to our tradition, we stand in judgment before God exactly as we will on the day that we leave this earth. And the Talmud teaches us “After Yom Kippur one should feel as if one had been created anew: The Holy One  said... since you came before Me for judgment and emerged successfully, I look upon you as if you had been created anew.” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashana 4:8)

One of my favorite musicians , Phil Ochs, provided part of the soundtrack of the lives of many of us who grew up through the 60’s. I doubt that he realized it, but he wrote a lot of Jewish music*. The storm that ended his life tragically came about by his own hand at the age of 35. Ironically, one of his most powerful songs, When I'm Gone, acknowledges that we need to act now, while we can:

There's no place in this world where I'll belong when I'm gone
And I won't know the right from the wrong when I'm gone
And you won't find me singin' on this song when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here

And I won't breathe the bracing air when I'm gone
And I can't even worry 'bout my cares when I'm gone
Won't be asked to do my share when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here

Yes, we have to do it while we are here. And we need to start today. Because none of us knows when the storm is coming. And because today, just because we came before God, just because we are asking ourselves those questions, we will have emerged successfully and we can begin anew.

Hashiveinu, Adonai, v’nashuva – turn us, Oh God, and we will return.


* Subsequent to delivering this sermon, I discovered that while he was raised without much of a Jewish identity, Ochs’  parents were, in fact, Jewish). 

1 Church, Forrest Love and Death (Beacon Press, Boston 2008)
2 Albom, Mitch Have a Little Faith  (Hyperion, New York 2009)

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