Sign In Forgot Password

Yom Kippur 5784      September 25, 2023

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Gemar Tov-May we all have a good finish for this day.

I would like to start today with a little bit of Meditation. Get comfortable in your chair; let your body relax (I am not going to scold you for anything today) and breathe normally. Try really hard not to think about anything you forgot to do or anything you are planning to do. Just breathe in and out and feel this moment as it passes by. (pause)

If someone meditates regularly, let’s say, daily for 10-20 minutes a day, this is not a difficult exercise. This is what meditation is all about. To be mindful of the moment. To enjoy some time when we can just sit with ourselves and be present in the moment. If anyone would like to try mindful meditation, let me know and I can help you learn.

For most Jews, Yom Kippur is designed as a day of mindful meditation, mindful prayer. Yom Kippur is a time when, for just 25 hours, we discard our concept of time, discard our watches and timepieces, and be in this moment. That is what Yom Kippur was designed to be. A day that is timeless in the strict meaning of the word.

I have been a Rabbi long enough to know that for modern Jews, this is NOT their experience of Yom Kippur. For many Jews, Yom Kippur is a day when we sit for long periods of time reading Hebrew that we don’t understand; saying prayers where we read the words but have no connection to the words. We see some friends we have not seen for a while, and we say a memorial prayer for loved ones who have died. For many Jews, the trick is to spend just enough time in synagogue to feel like you have not wasted the day.

Part of the reason so many Jews miss the meaning of this day is because its message is one we would rather avoid. Today is not about forgiving sins. We will do a lot of praying about our past sins, but forgiveness is not the essence of the day. The essence of Yom Kippur is to experience our own death. We wear white, like a shroud; we don’t eat or drink, or do any of the regular things that living people do. As singer Don McLean sings in his ballad “American Pie,” “This will be the day that I die.”

Last night I mentioned the book “4000 weeks, Time Management for Mortals” by Oliver Burkeman. The title refers to the 4000 weeks of an average lifespan, assuming we live to age 80. If you plan to live to age 90 you will get 4700 weeks. The person who has the record of the longest lifespan, 112 years, received just 6400 weeks. That is the most time we can expect from life. But before you begin to panic, remember that the entire span of human civilization is only 310,000 weeks.

This is only the average lifespan. We could die tomorrow, or next week, or in a couple of weeks. I discovered a few weeks ago a lesson by Tiffany Shlain, an Emmy winning filmmaker, who wrote, 15 years ago, my father was diagnosed with brain cancer and given nine months to live, and I found out I was pregnant. That nine month period felt like life was grabbing me by the shoulders, looking me in the eye and saying, “focus on what matters.”

I am not telling you all of this to make you afraid or depressed, or even anxious. Alexander the Great conquered the entire known world. When he was my age, he had been dead for 34 years. The great composer Frederic Chopin, when he was my age, had been dead for 28 years. What have we accomplished in the extra years we have lived? NOW you have my permission to be depressed.

Where do we spend most of our time? As I mentioned last night, we spend it living in the future. Olliver Burkeman notes our rather strange perception of time. He writes, “We imagine time to be something separate from us and from the world around us, “an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences,” in the words of the American cultural critic Lewis Mumford. To see what he means, consider some time-related questions - how you plan to spend tomorrow afternoon, say, or what you’ve accomplished over the last year – and without being fully conscious of it at first, you’ll probably find yourself visualizing a calendar, a yardstick, a tape measure, the numbers on a clock face or some hazier kind of abstract timeline. You’ll then proceed to measure and judge your real life against this imaginary gauge, lining up our activities against the timeline in your head. Edward Hall was making the same point with his image of time as a conveyor belt that’s constantly passing us by. Each hour or week or year is like a container being carried on the belt, which we must fill as it passes, if we’re to feel that we’re making good use of our time. When there are too many activities to fit comfortably into the containers, we feel unpleasantly busy; when there are too few, we feel bored. If we keep pace with the passing containers, we congratulate ourselves for “staying on top of things” and feel like we’re justifying our existence.”

But why should we compare our time to Alexander the Great or Frederic Chopin? They had their time, and we have our time. Is conquering the known world by age 33 really better than raising three children to be mensches? In the 1995 film, “Mr. Holland’s Opus” a conductor is working on his musical masterpiece when he discovers he and his wife are the parents of a disabled child. So, to pay the bills he becomes a music teacher for a high school; he conducts the school band and orchestra. The opus is put aside as he struggles on a teacher’s salary to feed his family, help his deaf son, and teach children the beauty of music. When he finally gets to conduct an orchestra playing his opus, the orchestra is made up of the students he has taught over the twenty years of teaching who have come together for his retirement party. I don’t know if Frederic Chopin had a better life than that.

Our lives are made up of present moments. Ask anyone who has had a near death experience about the importance of every moment. Ask someone who has lost a child about the importance of living each day. J.K. Rowlings in her series of books about Harry Potter creates a magical creature, a flying horse she calls a “thestral.” The horse is invisible except for those who have had a close encounter with death. Once one is able to “see a thestral” there is no turning back. It is a reminder that once we have been touched by death, either our own near death or the death of someone we love, there is no going back to seeing time the way we saw it before. Time is not endless and once we confront death, that becomes our reality.

In the play, “Our Town” Thorton Wilder begins the last act of the play with the death of the main character, a young woman, Emily, who dies in childbirth. She takes her place in the graveyard and discovers that she is able to go back and relive another moment of her life. The other “residents” of the graveyard warn her not to do this as it would be very disheartening. Emily decides to go back to her 10th birthday, a day she remembers fondly, so it will not be a depressing moment. And as she experiences that day again, knowing how few days she has in life, Wilder has her discover that we live life without really appreciating what life has to offer. Once we die and see what we had, it is too late. Emily returns to the graveyard and takes her place there with the others.

Yom Kippur has us live this day as our last. At the end of the day, we will see the thestral. We are to discover that we are living our lives without appreciating what life has to offer. Where else but religion can we learn this lesson? Judaism has us live this lesson annually, as a chance not to repurify the Temple from its impurities, but to purify our lives from the things that defile it. We have to understand that life is this present moment, and this moment will never exist again.

Oliver Burkeman explains it this way, “Certainly, it’s true that a fast-developing newborn baby makes it especially hard to ignore the fact that life is a succession of transient experiences, valuable in themselves, which you’ll miss if you’re completely focused on the destination to which you hope they might be leading. But the author and podcast host Sam Harris makes the disturbing observation that the same applies to everything: our lives, thanks to their finitude, are inevitably full of activities that we’re doing for the very last time. Just as there will be a final occasion of which I pick up my son – a thought that appalls me, but one that’s hard to deny, since I surely won’t be doing it when he’s thirty – there will be a last time that you visit your childhood home, or swim in the ocean, or make love, or have a deep conversation with a certain close friend. Yet usually there’ll be no way to know in the moment itself, that you are doing it for the last time. Harris’s point is that we should therefore try to treat every such experience with the reverence we’d show if it were the final instance of it. And indeed, there’s a sense in which every moment of life is a “last time.” It arrives; you’ll never get it again – and once it’s passed, your remining supply of moments will be one smaller than before. To treat all these moments solely as stepping-stones to some future moment is to demonstrate a level of obliviousness to our real situation that would be jaw-dropping if it weren’t for the fact that we all do it, all the time.

Take, for example, the Book of Jonah, that we just read. Jonah is so worried about his future reputation that he tries to run away from God. God drags him back to his duty and Jonah becomes the most successful prophet in human history. He preaches fire and brimstone to the people of Nineveh, and they listen to him, and they repent, and God forgives them and Jonah, is angry that now his reputation is shot. He preached destruction and there will be no destruction. God gently reminds him that his future is less valuable than the lives that he has just, in this moment, saved.

Or take the book of Job, a man who has it all, loses it all in a moment. He loses his children, his livelihood, his health; all of it gone. Anything that gave his life meaning disappears. He has no future, and his friends tell him to examine his past to find what he did wrong to cause all this catastrophe. But Job refuses to leave the moment. We learn that there is no contract about our life. We can’t ensure a good future when at any moment we can be struck with disaster. All we can do is live each moment the best we can when it arrives and through those moments, we create our life.

Yom Kippur is not a depressing holiday. In ancient times, the afternoon of this day was when families announced the engagement of their children. The day of death becomes a day of new possibilities. It is only when we contemplate that we have only 4000 or 5000 weeks to live, that we are able to better live the days and weeks that we have. We not only make better choices of what to do with each moment of our lives, but we also get to choose what we don’t want to do. We can shake our head and declare young people crazy who give up high paying jobs as accountants and lawyers and doctors in order to live on a farm, grow their own food, and slow down the pace of their lives. But who are we to judge how they spend their lives? Singer Billy Joel sings about this in his song, “My Life” with the lyrics:

Got a call from an old friend we used to be real close
Said he couldn't go on the American way
Closed the shop, sold a house, bought a ticket to the west coast
Now he gives them a stand-up routine in L.A.

I don't need you to worry for me 'cause I'm alright
I don't want you to tell me it's time to come home
I don't care what you say anymore this is my life
Go ahead with your own life leave me alone.”

Here we are, on Yom Kippur, fasting and praying like this is our last day on earth. Maybe you are thinking, “If this is my last day why would I want to spend it here in synagogue? I want to be with my family, I want to see my friends one last time. Maybe I can go to the beach and spend my last sunset watching it over the water, or to my cabin in the woods. If this were my last day, what am I grateful for in my life, and did I thank those who made it so special? What did I miss doing that I am sad that I will never have the chance to experience it? Why did I put it off for so long?

W.C. Fields (Anyone here remember him?) a comic actor, in one of his famous movies, is about to be put to death by the townspeople he is accused of scamming. As they place a noose around his neck, the executioner asks him if he has any last requests. Fields replies, “Yes, I would like to see Hong Kong before I die.” The executioner shakes his head and tightens the noose. Fields exclaims, “Ummmm. Philadelphia will do!”

Tiffany Shlain, the filmmaker I quoted earlier, whose father died just days before her daughter was born, learned from the experience to “focus on what matters” for her family. What mattered was having a day of rest, no technology from sunset Friday until sunset Saturday. What mattered was learning to laugh as much as possible, writing down in a journal all the funny things that happened so she could laugh about it again when she reread her journal in the future. And what mattered was thinking big. There are many challenges in the future and many people will tell her “No,” but you have to have a bigger vision than that so that you can make powerful things happen.

I have often told the story of the teacher who put a large glass bottle on the table and brought out a box of fist sized rocks, asking the students how many rocks they thought he could get into the jar. “Eight or ten” they replied. So, he put as many of the big rocks into the jar as he could. “Is the Jar full?”  “Sure” said the students. “Oh really” said the teacher and brought out a box of pebbles. Getting several scoops into the jar while shaking it. “Now is it full?” The students were on to him now, “NO!” they exclaimed. The teacher smiled and brought out a box of sand and shook into the jar several scoops of sand. “Is it full yet?” “NO! said the students and out came a pitcher of water that filled the rest of the jar. “Now is it full?” The students were satisfied since nothing more could go in without something coming out. “What do we learn from this?” asked the teacher. One student replied, “no matter how busy we are there is always room for something else!”  “NO!” exclaimed the teacher, “that is NOT the lesson. What you must learn is that if you don’t put the big rocks in first, you will never be able to get them in.”

For Ms. Shlain, the big rocks were Shabbat, laughter, and thinking big. What are our big rocks? If today is our last day, what big rocks are still missing from our jar? This is the point of all those lists of sins that we recite on this holy day. They are the pebbles, the sand, and water that fill our lives, making life only mud. What would we miss if we were to die today? How long will we go on waiting for them?

We will do the Avodah service in a little while. It is after Yizkor, so I am sure that many of you have never heard of it. It is a description of the High Priest on this Holy Day and the one time a year he could enter the Holy of Holies, the holiest place in the Temple, the place where God dwells. If he should see God in that room, he will die. They fill the room first with the smoke of incense lest he gaze upon the face of God. But, and the text does not mention this, before he enters this most holy place, the other priests tie a rope around his waist. If he should die there, they will be able to pull his body out. The High Priest went into the room not knowing if he would be able to walk out.

My favorite part of that service is the blessing he recited when he got home after that life changing event. I will read it later when we get to that part of the service. You can look it up in your Machzor; it is on page 333. What would you ask God for after a near death experience like that? Would you ask for a million dollars? A Mercedes Benz? A bigger house? Fancier clothes or shoes? Would you want to hob nob with famous people?

I doubt that any of that stuff would be on our minds after our close encounter with death. Our concerns would center on life and living. On having what we need, not what we desire. On knowing joy, having delight in small things, that others should be as successful as you wish you could be. If we ask for strength, it would be so we could conquer our inner impulses. We don’t ask for wealth; we ask only to be satisfied with what we already have. Our life will not be about posts on Instagram or Facebook or X, but our life will be about the love that we leave in the hearts of those we care most deeply about. When we see that thestral, we understand how important it is to hold those we love close and to choose what matters most to us, not to some influencer on social media.

Michelle and I often take walks in the city cemetery near our home. It is a peaceful place to walk, and, during the pandemic, we always knew that the people there were at least six feet away. But you can’t walk in a cemetery without reading the gravestones. The woman who died in her 20’s, the children who died after a few days, weeks, or years from diseases that we have long ago defeated. The young men who died in war, no matter the Revolutionary war the Civil War, the Great War or WWII. There are the graves that are still visited by family and those that are neglected, the names and dates faded over time. What would they all say to us if they could share their wisdom? They would, like Emily in “Our Town” tell us not to waste our days on future plans or wallow in pain over deeds done long ago. Live in this moment and make it count. The future is not a promise. Today is a gift to enjoy in the moment.

Meditate on it. Breathe and understand the blessing that is breath. Take the time to hear your heartbeat and express gratitude that it does this without your having to instruct it to beat. We need to open our eyes to the real beauty around us; the birds in flight, the sun shining in a blue sky, the stars shining against a night sky. Children playing and laughing, the love in someone else’s eyes. See the world full of flowers and mountains and clouds and the earth where a multitude of creatures make their home.

The news may be full of terrible things, but we can open our eyes to the many acts of kindness we can observe if only we would look. People are not monsters; most people care about other people and do what is right because they know it is right. If this were your last day, spend it with the many good people and just ignore those few who are looking for trouble.

Yom Kippur is to remind us that if this were the last day of our life, how would we spend it? If God gives us another day, another week, another year, what will remain important and what would we gladly leave behind? Nobody here has 4000 weeks left. Most of us have already used up about half of them. We don’t need a brush with cancer or an auto accident to understand how precious time is. It is finite. We don’t have infinite time. But we do have now to make the most of the time we are given. Now is the time to focus on what really matters in our life.

We ask God for long life. May we survive this day and for many days, but may God fill our hearts with wisdom to use our time wisely and may we daily make the choices that will make every day count. As we say …. Amen and Gemar Tov

It is time to start Yizkor. A time for us to remember the lives that are gone from this world but not from our hearts. In some cultures, the dead need our food and our gifts to survive the world beyond. In Judaism, all we need to do is to remember. To remember the gifts of love and understanding they gave us in life and to remember the love that we once shared between us. I know that there are some we remember, not for good but for the pain they left behind; but we can learn from them as we learn from all people, we learn what we need to do and what we must never do. We learn what is really important and what is not important. Yizkor reminds us that once they sat in the seat next to us on Yom Kippur. Now it is a child or grandchild that occupies that seat. Now it is our turn to pass on to the next generation what is important in life and what is not very important at all. Yizkor is for remembering those not here so we who are here can pass on what needs to live after we are gone. That is our cycle of life and that is why we rise now, taking hold of our Yizkor books, to allow our memories to bridge the generations.

Mon, April 15 2024 7 Nisan 5784