Saturday, September 18, 2010


Delivered at the "alternative" Kol Nidre service
Congregation Beth Jacob
Redwood City CA

Repent one day before your death!

These are the words of Rabbi Eliezer recorded in Pirke Avot.

Repent one day before your death!

Not knowing when that day will arrive, we are left to repent every day. In other words, every day could be, and perhaps should be like Yom Kippur.

What would your life be like if you lived it as if death were imminent? As a rule most of us don’t think much about the inevitability of death. We are pretty much loath to even consider the subject. Even if we were willing to entertain such thoughts, the idea of our own death is still a concept most find almost impossible to truly comprehend. (If you think this seems a bit disturbing or morbid a topic, you may be as surprised, as I was, to learn that Rabbi Ezray quite independently has also chosen this very topic to address in the main sanctuary this Yom Kippur.)

Why think about our death? What would such morbid thoughts do to improve our life in the here and now? Morrie Schwartz, the subject of Mitch Albom’s bestselling book Tuesdays With Morrie said it well: “Everyone knows they’re going to die, but nobody believes it. If we did, we would do things differently.” Since doing things differently is the goal of the High Holy Day observance, accepting the inevitability of our death may be a powerful point of entry to making tshuvah.

Consider the rituals surrounding this Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur is a day of physical deprivation, of fasting. Traditionally men wear a kittel—the white robe that also serves as our burial shroud. We spend much of the day in confession, urgently seeking to be inscribed in the Book of Life before the final gates close, not so different from the vidui, the deathbed confessional. All of these images are designed to heighten our awareness of our mortality. In a sense Yom Kippur is a dress rehearsal for our death.

Let’s see how this rehearsal can help us change our lives. I will suggest three ways we could do things differently as a consequence of facing our mortality.

The first thing we might do differently is to live more fully the life we are truly meant to live.

Recently, I was listening to an interview by Terry Gross on National Public Radio. She was speaking to psychologist Dan Gottlieb who, when he was a young man, was in a near fatal accident that left him a quadriplegic. Terry asked him how the accident changed his life, and whether it allowed him to live in ways he may have always wanted, but not been able to do before the accident.

Gottlieb responded that this was true. He said, “I live, as Sartre said we should live—with death on my shoulder. The vision I have about my accident is that when my neck broke my soul began to breathe.... ...each time I faced death I became more of who I am and less worried about what others might think of me. ... my only choice was—if I was going to live, I would live as me not as the person I wanted to be ideally. Most people I know spend their lives trying to be the person they think they should be and never get to discover who they are.”

The first powerful benefit of confronting one’s mortality is to let go of trying to be who and what we are not, and to be inspired to be who we are truly meant to be. As Morrie Schwartz also said, “Dying is only one thing to be sad over. Living unhappily is something else.”

A second outcome of acknowledging the inevitability of our death would be to consider the kind of legacy we would leave.

Terry Gross was interviewing Dan Gottlieb to discuss his book Letters to Sam: A Grandfather's Lessons on Love, Loss, and the Gifts of Life. Terry asked Gottlieb what had especially compelled him to write these letters to his newborn grandson.

Gottlieb was 56 years old when his grandson was born, and he sensed, due to his physical condition, that his life expectancy was likely to be shortened, and that he would probably not be a part of his grandson’s world. Gottlieb wanted the boy to know who his grandfather was, and how he saw the world. In other words, he wanted to leave a legacy of his learning and his love.

Gottlieb’s awareness of his mortality led him to write these letters. Although he didn’t label his letters as such, this tangible document of his life lessons is the essence of what is often called an “ethical will”. Ethical wills are an increasingly popular process of writing and sharing your most important thoughts, values, blessings, teachings, love and forgiveness with your family, friends, and community. They can be written at any stage of life, and are usually shared with others while the writer is still alive. An ethical will can take any form--a small paragraph, a poem, a book, an annotated collection of favorite photos or recipes--anything that conveys who you are and what is important to you. For most of us financial wills and trusts provide an important measure of security by passing our physical assets on as we desire. As one who has written and shared my ethical will I can say that it’s a profoundly moving experience and a surprising source of comfort to know that my spiritual legacy is also in order.

So in addition to living our lives more fully, a second action that may come from confronting our mortality is to document and share our spiritual legacy.

A third way we may act differently as a result of facing death is to fill one’s life with compassion, acceptance, and forgiveness.

Consider these verses from a poem by the 13th century Persian poet, Rumi, entitled Die Before You Die —

Everybody in this world is dying.
Everybody is already in their death agony.

So listen to what anyone says as though it were
The last words of a dying father to his son.
Listen with that much compassion, and you’ll
Never feel jealousy or simple anger again.

People say everything that’s coming will come.
Understand this: It’s all here right now.

And me? I’ve been so woven into the mesh
Of my trivial errands
That only now do I begin to hear the mystery
Of dying everywhere.

By listening to what everyone says as though these were their last words, by looking around the congregation on Yom Kippur, in fact by looking at everyone in our lives everyday with this awareness, we may realize that we all have the same fate, we share much of the same hopes and fears, triumphs and struggles.

The founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, Rabbi Zalman Shacter Shalomi, in his book From Age-ing to Sage-ing, writes about facing the end of life. He suggests that we bring the wisdom of our years to reinterpret occurrences in our life that once vexed us, for it does not serve us to condemn others or ourselves for what cannot be undone. Reb Zalman suggests a daily practice of forgiveness—not only to give it, but to seek forgiveness as well—a daily practice of forgiveness!

So in addition to being our true selves and sharing our spiritual legacy, a third way to change our lives that may come from hearing “the mystery of dying everywhere” is to become less judging and more forgiving of one another and of ourselves.

Repent one day before your death!

Were we to heed these words of Rabbi Eliezer, we would carry with us, throughout the year, the heightened awareness that comes from this Day of Atonement.

As we observe this Holy Day, I pray that we let the images of Yom Kippur infuse us with a healthy sense of our finite existence. I pray that this inspires us to go forward to be fully who we are meant to be, to leave a legacy for our loved ones, and to fill our hearts with compassion for all.

Kol Nidre 5771

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Metaphor Is All I Can Remember

My brother called to wish me a happy new year. Well, it was Ann Lois who called, and I’m not really certain if Jeff said those words, but that’s what happened.

I understood a lot of what he said (and/or got the details from A-L). He will sit on the bema as the old revered rabbi emeritus at Rosh Hashanah. They will fly to Florida for his grandnephew’s brit milah and to see Father Rick one more time—that he would especially enjoy. They would drive to Illinois for Yom Kippur with A-L’s brother. Going to Lisa’s wedding in Cincinnati from there would make too much sense. Instead they’ll drive back to Alabama so Bo won’t have to stay in a kennel, then drive up to Cincy for the wedding the following weekend. That’s just the next three weeks.

Drinking it all in.

After the call I was just able to squeeze out the words, "My brother wishes you shana tova” without my voice cracking too noticeably, I think. I had started from my office to say this to Deb and Becca. Didn’t quite make it from the hall to the dining room where they were sitting. Veered off to the left. Sat on the edge of my bed. Let the tears fall into a tissue. Grateful for each one. A blessing of comfort. Each squeezed out drop a measure of love and compassion.

* * *

It’s not that I haven’t been dreaming. Lately, when I regain consciousness, the details disappear quicker than usual and the message seems to linger like a vanishing chord on a piano. If I were to search too far and too long for the missing notes I would lose the ones ringing this second in my ears.

Tonight I understood this maybe for the first time. Understood enough to embrace what I heard and not worry about what I lost. That was what I heard. That is what I did. Here is the result:

The Metaphor Is All I Can Remember
We should all take advantage
of whatever comes our way.
In my dream, for one person it
would have been a superball,
for another a laptop computer—
none of the particulars matter.
Everyone is waiting for the “big prize”
but no one knows what it is
or even when.
Just a continuous stream of life
flying past every second.
Grab something! Anything.
or everything you can....
Every second.