Rabbi Debra Orenstein

The following sermon was delivered during the 2001 Jewish High Holiday season following the tragic events of September 11, 2001. It has been included on the Torah From Terror website as a resource and retains the copyright of its author. Please cite the source accordingly.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein

Yom Kippur Sermon 5762

If there are any children here now under bar or bat mitzvah age, I want to ask parents to take them to childcare now. This is not a drash for young children. And if any teenagers or adults find my subject too disturbing, please take care of yourself however you need to--including by going for a walk and rejoining us for prayer in about half an hour.

For some people, this will be a very difficult sermon, and for others it may sound like nothing new. In fact, there is nothing new here. But there is something very old--as old as Adam and Eve--that we all have to face.

We have to face death.

The events of September 11 broke through some of our denial. The tragedy caused us to imagine, what if I was in that smoldering tower? What if my loved one were missing, and I was carrying one of those hand--made posters with all the statistics of height and weight and hair color? And how could I keep going past the terrible moment when I decided to put away the posters in a memorial book--lacking the usual memorial of a body, with its familiar/beloved height and weight and hair color?

With all the personal and global tragedy, still, we go back to normal. This normality has its virtues and even its heroism. Normal life was among the terrorists' targets. For some, daily errands can take on a kind of defiance that has become all-too-familiar to Israeli mall goers and restaurant diners. The most popular restaurant in Jerusalem today is Sbarro's.

But, with everything we have witnessed, do we really know that we are going to die? Do we really appreciate how precious and perilous life is?
Fragile as a sukkah.

In the words of the Psalmist: (103) the days of a human are as grass Flourishing like a flower in the field. The wind passes over it, and it is gone It is gone. You are gone.
Life is limited. Death cuts it short at any age.

We have a taste of this in rare moments Near death experiences. Loss of a loved one. And even these cataclysmic disruptions are temporary. With time, the keenness fades, and life returns to normal--which is to say, life returns to denial.

When you truly face your own mortality (either because of an imminent threat, or just in philosophical terms), then you stand at an awesome and fearsome precipice.

I stopped breathing once. In my unconscious state, I could still hear one paramedic tell the other, in a panicky voice, that I was turning blue.

I was much more frightened when I filled a bath at about age 14, forcing myself to contemplate the fact that I will die, for as long as it took the water to fill the tub. Those two minutes have informed all my life since.

Reb Zalman had a wonderful teaching when I told him about my topic today. He said," With all the work I have done on spiritual eldering, I truly faced my mortality. But, then, when they wheeled me in to surgery, I realized that I hadn't faced my dying."

Another layer. Another attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible.
I want to tell you a brutal truth. I want to look at it together, and not avert our eyes, the way we usually do.
I will stop. I will die. Life will end for me. The world will go on without me. You will stop. Life will end for you. The world will go on without you. And maybe sooner than later.
No person, or pet, or possession you love will come with you. You will die.

This can be a statement of the obvious, or you can let it enter you with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your might.

I don't say dwell on death to scare you, or to be cruel, or depressing. More than one person observed to me about Rosh Hashana services, that I used less humor than usual. These days, like many people, I don't feel much like joking. Life and death seem very serious.

But I don't dwell on death just because of global events. I dwell on death because it is our great leverage in the work of tikkun perati, personal, inner repair--repentance, and forgiveness. Death can be a great impulse to better living.

Do you really know that you may run out of time before you realize your potential? How long do you want to take to reconcile with your family?
If you wait until you're ripe, you may wait too long. So say "l love you", now.
Forgive and ask forgiveness now. Contribute and volunteer with the resources you have
now. Unleash your creativity now.

This past year, the community of Makom Ohr Shalom has come face to face with death. It seemed, for part of the year, that we were going from funeral to funeral.
We lost three beloved members, Mike XXX, Ruth XXX, and Toby XXX--all died relatively young; the oldest in their early sixties. Each was integral to the community. All three were regulars at the Makom retreats and at services throughout the year.Mike was known for his inimitable Friday night dancing. Ruth, for her musical gifts, as arranger, composer, and singer. Toby contributed through Torah study and singing.

So much could be and has been said about their unique lives. I want to talk To you about their deaths. Whether you knew them or not, I think you can learn from them.

Ruth had pancreatic cancer--one of the most virulent forms of cancer. On average, people live only a few months after the diagnosis--and they suffer. More than most people--more, even, than most dying people--Ruth knew that she was dying.

The only gift of this kind of death is that it grants you time to say goodbye and to make your peace. Ruth had a very conscious death. She asked all the big questions: Why death? Why life? Am I ready to meet God? What is left undone that I need to do now? What do I do with all my love and all my anger? Whom do I need to forgive, and from whom shall I ask forgiveness? How can I make my life holy? How shall I spend my precious time while I yet live? What waits for me in the next world?

Zecher tzadeket livracha. Let the memory of a righteous woman be a blessing in your life, by asking those same questions yourself. We know, as surely as Ruth knew, that we are dying. There are only two differences: we don't know when, and we have better health and energy to devote to the questions. Rabbi Elieser taught: Repent one day before your death. Ruth had the schedule, and she did. We are called to do it without the schedule, by repenting today and everyday.

Mike had a very different experience. Initially, he had an operation for a brain tumor, which doctors assured him and Rosalie could be contained. Later, more tumors grew and the prognosis changed. The XXX family was told that Mike had a terminal illness. Through the effects of chemotherapy or perhaps the cancer itself, Mike lost his short--term memory. The last medical information he remembered was the assurance that he would be fine after a relatively minor operation. He was dying, and he didn't know he was dying. If you told him, you would have to keep telling him, breaking the horrible news over and over--because he couldn't retain it. His wife and daughters and closest friends couldn't talk to him about it, as they watched him grow weaker and less communicative. They couldn't say goodbye to the Mike they knew in the way they wished. But they fed him his favorite foods, they hugged him, they had the kinds of everyday, loving, unimportant conversations we take for granted--and they did so consciously, daily, for as long as they could.

The only blessing was that the disease and the family conspired to spare Mike. At times, of course, everyone wished he had known. But, in some ways, too, for Mike, ignorance really was bliss.

Zecher tzaddik livracha Let the memory of a righteous man be a blessing in your life, by showing you all the joy, all the connection, all the love that is to be had--every moment until it's over. As Rosalie has said to me more than once since Mike's death," It doesn't matter how fast it is, or how slow it is--what the numbers are. It's all fast. Life is so short. People say they understand that, but they don't."

I used to go from visiting Ruth to visiting Mike or vice versa. And sometimes I would ask myself: which shall I pray for: relentless knowing, or not knowing. Saying goodbye fully and painfully to your children, over and over, knowing you are about to die, or saying goodbye in the way we usually send each other out the door, "see you. lehitraot. zei gezunt" casually, easily, taking it all blissfully for granted.

The truth is: we have our Ruth moments and we have our Mike moments. Neither reality is sustainable over the course of a lifetime. Both are valuable in proportion.

These are the extremes: Most of us won't die with the hyper--conscious certainty. And most of us won't be wholly innocent of the approaching end. Most of us will die in a state that falls somewhere in between, and occasionally swings between those extremes. Most of us will die like Toby XXX.

Toby had a protracted struggle. It lasted years, not months. She knew she had a serious condition, but she was given reason to hope. The same could be said for all of us. We have a serious condition--the human condition--and we have been given reason to hope. Our struggle with death is, if we are lucky, sure to be protracted.

Toby had a diagnosis of breast cancer, and there were many ups and downs. Chemotherapy, but then her hair grew back. A stem--cell transplant, a respite, but then she needed another one. She gave up work, but was able to go back. Then, forced retirement. When Toby couldn't come to Torah class, she listened in on speaker phone. She sang, and when she lacked the strength, she listened to singing. Just days before she died, Toby was admitted to City of Hope (a telling name)for her second transplant. Her sister was a perfect match, but Toby was too sick for the procedure, and she died.

Up until the very end, Toby loved life, fought death, and held on to hope. In the last day and a half of her life, this powerful, lawyer, this passionate Torah discussant, lost every word in her vocabulary but one: OK. She repeated: OK, OK, OK. I took this as a theological coda to her life. I accept. Closer to the next world than to this one, I can comfort you and myself.

Zecher tzadeket livracha. May the memory of a righteous woman be for a blessing in your life. You who knew Toby, and you who didn't. May her passionate struggle for life, and her final acceptance of death be a guide to you. May you not give up even one moment too soon. And when the last moment comes, may you meet it with grace.

What do these three beautiful people, with their three poignant ends, have to teach us about Yom Kippur?

On Yom Kippur, we cleanse our sins. We dress in white. We abstain from food and drink and sex and washing--from anything bodily. In this sense, we are like angels, and so we say the prayer of angels aloud: baruch shem kevod malchuto le'olam va'ed. Blessed is the Name of God's glorious kingdom forever and ever.
That's one way to look at it.

It is equally true to say, we are like corpses. Death is the final atonement for our sins. We dress in kittels--white holiday robes that are also shrouds. We don't eat or drink or make love or wash--because corpses have no ability and no need for these things.

Today is a rehearsal for death. On these High Holidays, souls meet their Maker for Judgment.

What will it take for you to get ready? Do you need a doctor to give you a certain number of weeks or months to live? As a rabbi, I give you 120 years. …Even that is not much time.

God affirms various elements of creation by saying "tov"--creation is good. And then God says of a completed world "tov me'od" creation is very good. The midrash explains that the "good" of creation refers to life, but the "very good" refers to death. What is very good about death? Death is an impetus to better living. The finitude of life makes demands on us to be productive, to express love, to act now. Death motivates us to prepare for God's judgment. Death can be a release from suffering. It brings us to a good place. Death gives us the opportunity to care for the dying, to help the elder generation make its transition. Death appoints us as historians and storytellers to the next generation. Death can serve as an atonement for sins committed in life. Int he words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, "if life is a journey, death is a homecoming."

When the Torah instructs us to "choose life," it isn't--and cannot--be talking about longevity. Life, in the sense of continuing to live, cannot be chosen by any of us—maybe not at all and certainly not indefinitely. Life as we know it ends--for real, for each of us. But every one of us can choose life--in the sense of vitality and creative force, of communal and global and personal viability. In that sense, even death cannot prevent us from choosing life.

That's what the High Holidays are about. Will you choose life by choosing to make your limited life time here viable? Will the way you live be a gift of gratitude, in thanks for life itself?

Will you remember why you are here, and what you are capable of? And will you remember in time to do everything you are meant to do on this plane?

Every day is decisive. Every day is precious. Atem nitzavim hayom--we read in this morning's Torah reading. You are standing here today. Today is Sinai all over again. Today is the covenant. Today, we receive the Torah. Today, we choose life. Today, and
any day we get conscious.

Today, the alarm sounds. The great shofar is blown.
Only you can decide if the still, small voice will also be heard.

The memory of the righteous is painful as well as inspirational. I thank all the families for their permission to discuss three great lives. The fear of not leaving your mark is chilling, as well as compelling. I thank you for looking it square in the
face with me today. Death begs you: get motivated and get moving.

I want to conclude in the way that Jews traditionally conclude a life--with the Jew's dying prayer. There are two prayers called "viddui"--which means confessional. One is the ashamnu we recite today, when we beat our breasts, confessing to our sins. The other viddui is the confessional before dying:

A witness begins by saying: Many have confessed and did not die, while many who did not confess died nonetheless. Having confessed, you may live. But one who confesses sincerely has a share in he world to come.

And then the one for whom death is imminent recites: My source, God of those who came before me: I know that my cure and my death are in your hands. You may heal me completely, move me to wholeness but, if death is nearing, I am ready to receive it from Your hand.

May all the wrongdoings I have done in my life--those sins I have done unwittingly, those things I have done knowingly; acts I have done to myself, to others, to
You--may they all be forgiven. Allow the hidden goodness stored for the righteous to flow over me. Help me to understand the path of life. Gift me continuing life in the hidden world yet to come. Let my death serve as an atonement. As I come close to You now, Your face bathes me with light. Being at Your right hand fills me deeply. One who watches over the vulnerable and needy, take care of my close ones, those precious ones, with whom my soul is intertwined, whom I now leave behind. Shema yisra'el adonai eloheinu adonai ehad. Hear, O Israel, Adonai, Our God, Adonai is One.

We will take a few moments for meditation. I invite you to contemplate your death--not just your mortality, but your dying. I will assist you in focusing, and then we will sit in silence. Close your eyes. Relax in the chair. This place is very safe. You can and will come back to this chair, this community, this support.

Imagine the end as vividly as you can. Leaving everything you love. Sit with that reality, really paint that picture to yourself . No more life as you know it. You may feel fear. You may cry. It's OK, OK, OK. Maybe you have a very beautiful picture of what happens next. But stay in the nothingness for a moment. No body. No family. No friends. No possessions. No breath. No pain. No pleasure. No life.

And now from this place ask yourself: How do I want life to be? What is important? What do I need? What shall I give? From this palce of ending, how will you
renew life in the New Year?

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