Yom Kippur 5777
At this time of year, with the changing of seasons and the arrival of our holidays, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the passage of time. Hard as it is for me to believe, this is the 19th occasion we’ve celebrated the High Holy Days together here at Beth El, and for our Cantor, it’s his 20th year with you! I’ve had the distinct pleasure over the last year to officiate at a number of weddings for young people whose b’nai mitzvah I participated in when they were 13, right here in the Berman Rubin Sanctuary. Needless to say, my wife Becky is ageless. But our children, Talia, Josh, and Merav, are now 22, 20, and 17. And next week we will mark Rabbi Mark Loeb’s 7th yahrzeit. I realized just the other day, that at 52 I am now older than Rabbi Loeb was, when I came here to serve as his assistant.
And I would guess it is at least in part because of the nostalgic mood of the holidays that on Rosh Hashanah we look back to the very first Jews and read the biblical stories of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac. But we also read about them on RH because with their family struggles, their flaws and foibles, they are the perfect models for us in terms of understanding our own lives, our own needs and hopes and dreams – very much what the High Holy Days are about. So it is always a bit challenging – at least for me – to turn from the richness of those stories and characters to the dry 16th chapter of Leviticus that we read on Yom Kippur, with its rote description of the ancient sacrifices. But the truth is YK also has a biblical hero, just a little bit less obvious. Anyone want to take a guess as to who it is? To give you a hint, we’ve been reading the most intimate part of his story every Shabbat, during these last weeks of our liturgical year. Yes! Moses.
In the rabbinic mind, Moses and YK were synonymous. The Talmud teaches that it was on YK day that Moses convinced God to forgive the Israelites for the sin of the golden calf, and God granted the second set of tablets. If there is a refrain in the liturgy of YK, it is the 13 attributes, the Adonai, Adonai, El rachum v’chanun phrase from the Torah that we chant again and again, and that is God’s response in Exodus 34 when Moses asks for forgiveness. Tradition understands that phrase as a promise, still in effect today, that God will deal with us mercifully – with ‘rachmanis!’ -on Yom Kippur. And that promise is extracted from God by Moses. Moses and YK go together like gefilte fish and horse radish, if you’ll excuse the reference on a fast day!
But I’ve always suspected there is another reason why Moses is the central figure of Yom Kippur. Do a bit of math with me – if it is YK today, when is Simhat Torah? In two weeks. And that means in our weekly Torah cycle we are reading the very last chapters of Deuteronomy. Those chapters are all about Moses summing up the meaning of his life and what he hoped for in the future. They are a record of Moses’ last days, of the thoughts that he has as he looks back on his years. He remembers successes and failures, he realizes that some of his goals will remain unfulfilled, he revisits regrets, and ultimately he emerges from the process with head held high, with his dignity and moral strength intact.
Now in any book, the last chapters can be the most important. They make sense of the narrative’s previous events, they tie up the loose ends, solve the mysteries; sometimes they come to terms with the simple fact that not everything in life is resolved to our satisfaction. But when they are well done, when the writing is fluid and the language clear, the last chapters create a sense of wholeness and completion. You know that feeling when you’ve reached the end of a great book. Your eyes linger on the page, you read the last words reluctantly, you close the cover slowly and carefully, you feel sad, but you also feel whole. And so it is, as we read these last pages of Moses’ five books.
But what about our own last chapters? What about the last chapters of those we love? Are we prepared to write them, or help write them, the way we would want to? We often talk about being the authors of our own stories – it is a common metaphor today – and in the prime of life we may know exactly what it is we want and need. We set goals and pursue them, focusing on careers, supporting families and maintaining a quality of living. But when we arrive at old age, when we are challenged by illness or the passing of the years, it is more difficult to put pen to paper. What are our goals? What should our priorities be? If time is limited, what do we want to focus on? When we need clarity, where can we find it? Those last chapters are difficult ones to write, but they are perhaps the most important in our entire story.
I had the opportunity over the summer to read a beautiful and poignant book entitled Being Mortal, written by the physician and author Atul Gawande. Part memoir, part sociological survey, part exploration of medical ethics, the book traces Gawande’s struggle with the following dilemma – in a world where medical technology can often extend life, but in doing so may actually diminish its quality – how do we make wise and sound decisions about health care as we age? How do we face the frailties and fears that will inevitably arise in our lives? How do we help our parents and grandparents as they transition to supported living, or struggle with losing their independence? What does dignity mean, and who defines that? When choices need to be made, choices about health care or supported living, about terminal illness, who should make those choices, and how should they be made?
The book is beautifully written, and it is powerful. If you or someone you love is facing a significant health challenge, if you are caring for an elderly parent or grandparent, if you are growing older – and we all are – you should read this book. It does not necessarily give answers, because these questions don’t have right or wrong answers. But with depth and feeling it will help you wrestle with whatever challenge you may be facing. And we will all – every single one of us in this room – face these challenges in the course of our lives.
At its core, Gewande’s book is about one fundamental question: what makes a good life? When push comes to shove, when you realize time is limited, when you have to choose two or three things that are absolutely most important, that define your being, what are they? And his thesis is if you can figure out how to ask that question, of yourself, if you can have that conversation with someone you love, then you will be able to write the last chapters, or to help someone else write them, with some sense of control, and even more importantly, with dignity and with humanity.
The book is filled with anecdotes from Gewande’s work as a surgeon and physician, and there is just one I would like to share with you this morning, and I hope you’ll again excuse me because it does reference food. This is the story of a professor of psychology, in his mid-seventies, who discovers that he has a mass growing in the spinal chord region in his neck. His prognosis is grim, but there is a surgical procedure that may help him extend his life with quality. But it is a risky procedure, coming with a %20 chance of his becoming paraplegic.
While trying to decide what to do, the professor’s daughter asks him two questions: “What are you willing to go through to have a shot at being alive, and what level of being alive is tolerable to you?” And in responding, he surprised his daughter, and perhaps even himself: “If I’m able to eat chocolate ice cream and watch football, I want to give it a shot.”
Now I suppose if we asked everyone in this room the questions the man’s daughter asked him, we would get a different answer from each person. For some the answer might be time with family and friends. Others may say they want to visit a special place one last time, or finish a project they’ve spent years working on, or repair a relationship they’ve regretted for many years. The point is this – everyone has their ice cream and football. And the High Holy Days are supposed to help us remember what those things are in our own lives.
These sacred days and the words of our Mahzor come to remind all of us, no matter how old we are, of the passage of time, of our fragility and mortality, and of our significance and worth in God’s sight at every age of life. They remind us of the value of each day of our lives, young or old, each day to be treasured and purpose oriented, and so should be the arc of our years. As we age our priorities may slowly shift, as we begin to sense our time is limited, as we begin to think about mortality, our focus on family, on friends, on the things we love the most, on discovering the meaning of what has been – those things become more and more important to us. And this, our YK fast day, and the prayers and reflections with which we spend the day, are intended to focus our minds on those very same aspects of our experience.
In the last verses of Scripture we are told that at the end of Moses’ life, after 120 years of struggle with God and with his people, לא כהתה עינו ולא נס לחו, “his vision was undimmed, his vigor unabated.” Isn’t that what every one of us wishes for, every single day of our lives? We want our work to be meaningful, to engage our minds and our hearts. We want our loves to be true, enduring, and mutual. We want to be respected and loved even when we are imperfect and incomplete – even when we are infirm or grow old. Like Moses, we may never enter a promised land where all of our dreams are fulfilled, but we hope that we are able to see it from a distance, to have that perspective on our lives. So that when we each reach a certain age, we can look to the generations after ourselves, knowing that they live by values we cherish, continuing our ancient path in new ways and in new times. That we and they together may find comfort, hope, promise and peace in God’s sheltering embrace in all the new years yet to come.