If this were it

Last week I read a story in the Times about a rabbi and his Yom Kippur sermon.

Samuel Freedman wrote about how 30 years ago Rabbi Kenneth Berger delivered a sermon called “Five Minutes to Live”. Rabbi Berger spoke about the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle (which had happened quite recently), it’s 65,000-foot-fall into the ocean, and its seven astronauts, who were left with five minutes, between explosion and impact, to live. He pondered, “what were they thinking? What kind of heshbon hanefesh —of soul-searching— would be going through their minds? Would they have been satisfied with their lives in every respect?״

A powerful sermon in its own right, it developed a whole new awful poignancy three years later when tragedy struck. Rabbi Berger and his family were returning from a family vacation, with 40 minutes left to the trip, when suddenly his plane caught fire midair. He, his wife, and their children had no idea if they would survive the landing. His children did. He and his wife did not. They had forty minutes to live.

Another story: did you know that Alfred Nobel, of the Nobel prize, made his wealth through inventing dynamite? When Nobel’s brother died, a French newspaper erroneously wrote that Alfred had passed and its headline read, “the merchant of death is dead.” It continued, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” Realizing that if he were to die that moment this would be his legacy, Nobel rerouted his life, to live in a way for which he actually wanted to be remembered. Before researching this sermon, I had no knowledge of his history in dynamite; I knew of Nobel as man in whose name we reward human ingenuity, altruism, and blessing.

What is it about the prospect of dying that bothers us? Many of us fear the pain associated with death, and for good reason, but why death itself?

I believe that one reason is that death challenges us, asking, “did we make the best possible use of the days we received? Did we live in a way that honored life itself? Am I content with how I treated others, how I worked, how I played, what I brought to his world, and how I am leaving it?” Contemplating our deaths, for most of us, makes us realize that we’re not done with living, and we’re not yet content with what we’ve accomplished.

On Yom Kippur we Jews receive a special gift. It is that headline, that sermon. Yom Kippur forces us to confront our mortality and look the possibility of end right in the face. One of my teachers, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, presented to our class a shocking lesson, at least to me, on Yom Kippur. He brought up the holy ark that houses the Torahs— the one right behind me, in Hebrew called, Aron HaKodesh. He asked, “what is it that makes this aron—this ark—holy?” We answered, “the Torah scrolls of course.” He then said, “so at Kol Nidre, when we remove all the Torah scrolls, what is left of that empty ark into which we’re staring? No kodesh, only an aron. And in Hebrew, aron is the word for coffin.” Our ark, without the holiness and life of Torah, is simply a coffin, and we begin Yom Kippur by staring right into it.

When we read the High Holy Day prayer U’n’taneh Tokef, we are often made uncomfortable by its content, as it explores whether or not God is going to write us into the book of life, and if not, how we may to die: by fire or water, by strangling or by stoning, in joy or sadness. We liberal Jews are troubled by the theology that God actively decides whether we live or die based on our behavior over this past year, and whether we’ve done adequate t’shuvah, t’fillah, and tz’dakah. However, Un’taneh Tokef can be read another way. Not as “today is your day of judgment, what shall be your end?,” But as, “today could be the day of judgment, your last day of life.” Un’taneh Tokef says, “death can happen to us at any moment, by any means.” It asks, “What are you going to do with this revelation?”

How many of us in this room are content with all that we have done, to the point that if life ended tomorrow, we would know that every minute was used well? Did we accomplish what we wanted professionally? Did we volunteer enough? Did we have the right relationships, spend enough time with our loved ones and share how we felt with them? Did we spend enough time appreciating all the beauty that natural life and human creativity have to offer? Have we made the world a better place? Have we helped to make a difference in anyone else’s life? Have we improved the world around us?

The good news is that we all have life ahead of us. We do look into that empty coffin at the beginning of Yom Kippur, but this sight is only symbolic, and at the end of Yom Kippur, at Neilah, the ark stands open once again filled with Torah scrolls, filled with kadosh, and filled with life. We return back to life, to another chance to do well, to renewal and possibility.

We come to T’shuvah— to turning from the life we were living to the life we wish to live.

So let us ask ourselves, what would we do differently?

I challenge us to come up with two items we would like to work on for the coming year. Just two, to start with.

Mine would be in two areas where I often disappoint myself,  particularly, when I am feeling weak or tired or overspent. I often feel that I am not kind enough, and not strong enough. In Hebrew, these attributes I seek are called chesed and g’vurah.

Why do I wish to focus on strength? We all need strength to survive and thrive in this world. Sometimes strength comes easily, but sometimes it’s much harder to find. It can be tremendously difficult to speak up and act when necessary. We rabbis are taught that we have symbolic roles to play; in the absence of both since ancient times, it is we who serve as priests and prophets. We are priests in that we serve to perform rituals that connect Jews with God and God with Jews, and we are prophets in that we translate God’s words to humanity and speak out when things need to be said. Priesthood is typically easy enough for me, but speaking as a prophet is much harder. The prophetic voice can take a lot of strength to raise up, as it is not often the popular one. Sometimes we rabbis offer comfort to the afflicted, but there are times where we must afflict the comfortable. And that is really hard, and requires tremendous strength. Which I do not always have when I need it, and which has meant that I have not spoken up on issues when I should have.

What about kindness? While I am Canadian, I am not always as nice as I should be. I can be impatient with others. There are times where I ought to be fully present with my children or folks in my office, and instead my mind is elsewhere, distracted, working on another problem. Sometimes, instead of picking up that phone to call my parents when it’s been a few days since we last checked in, I sit on the couch instead and watch tv. And sometimes, instead of taking the time to go lobby and fight for causes I believe in, like ending solitary confinement and requiring smarter weapons, I remain at my desk for work that I probably could put off for another hour or day.

I’m not indicting myself for anything very egregious. All my instances of sharpness, lack of presence, or being distracted or engaged in something else are understandable and likely quite common. But that doesn’t mean that I should be content with imperfection, with being only a little kind or a little strong when more kindness and strength are called for. Being somewhat present, somewhat honest, somewhat outspoken, and somewhat loving is not who I want to be.

I have my work cut out for me. For today, and for the coming year, and for the coming life. Likewise, I’m sure that most of you have work to do too.

The next step, after stating the problem, is acting on it, and remembering every day throughout the coming year to continue to act. What can serve as reminders to help us?

Perhaps we might start by wearing a tallit. You see, the tallit is a garment that exists for one purpose: reminding. The Torah tells us that the point of wearing a garment with tzitzit is for memory—the tzitzit are designed to serve as reminders for everything else that is in the Torah. Perhaps tzitzit on one’s tallit could also remind us of a particular goal for the coming year. As another option, perhaps there’s an item of clothing or jewelry you might put on regularly as a reminder. Or maybe just some well-placed sticky notes.

Another trick: you might laugh at this, but I actually write reminders on myself. If you check my inner wrists when I seem particularly out of it, you might find the words chesed and g’vurah written down. And I’m not the only one to use this tactic; there are some who use tattoos for similar purposes. I recently read of a rabbi who for setting the right intention for high holy days put as a henna tattoo up and down her arms, Da Lifnei Mi Atah Omed – know before Whom you stand.

Alternatively, we can make good use of our community. Did you know that it’s because of all of you that last November I finished the Philadelphia marathon? Being in tremendous knee pain by mile 8 of a 26.2 mile race, I was so very tempted to get off at the half-marathon mark, but I had spoken with so many of you here in the community about my plans to run the marathon that I would not have been able to look you in the face had I​ not finished it! Sometimes telling others of our goals and having them check in on us can make all the difference. It always helps to have a gym buddy or a study partner, as they both hold us accountable and move alongside us on a similar journey.

When we think about T’shuvah, we often think of things we’ve done this year that were wrong upon which we can improve. But T’shuvah is so much bigger than that. T’shuvah can mean turning ourselves to simply be better at living, at being the best human beings we can be. T’shuvah is our way out, our way up, our way of wanting more, of stating our goals, and working for change, so that we can start living the lives that we want to live, of which we would be proud.

There’s a story about a beloved teacher, Rabbi Zusya. At the end of his life, when his students came to see him lying in his bed, they found him crying. They asked him, “haven’t you taught us that all living things must die, as death is part of the natural cycle?” He replied, “you are absolutely correct.” One of his students then said, “What have you to be concerned about? You lived a life with as much faith as Abraham, you followed the mitzvot as closely as Moses, and you have taught as well as the great rabbis of the Mishnah.” Rabbi Zusya responded, “This is not why I am upset. If God asks me why I didn’t act more like Abraham, I’ll say it’s because I’m not Abraham. If God asks me why I didn’t act more like Moses, I’ll say I’m not Moses, and the same with the rabbis of the Mishnah. But, If God asks me why I didn’t act more like Zusya, what will I say?”

Friends, this is it. We have but one life, one time on earth to make a difference, one set of moments to connect, to love, to experience, and be. None of us have any idea of how long these moments will last. The one thing that we do know is that they will, at some point in the future far or near, come to an end. If we were to get those five or forty minutes at the end of life, how would we feel as we live now, and how would we feel if we lived life exactly as we know we ought to?

Let us begin this new year by bridging that gap, between the life that ought to be and the life that is. May we be blessed this coming year with strength and kindness, with integrity and resolve, with thoughtfulness and self-critique, and may this year be one in which we all come that much closer to living lives of which we can all be proud.

Gamar Chatimah Tovah.


Delivered Erev Yom Kippur at Temple Emanu-El of Edison, 5777

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davidzvaisberg Written by:

David Vaisberg, originally from Montreal and Mississauga, Canada, serves as Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El of Edison, NJ and lives in Metuchen, NJ with his family.

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