After Charlottesville: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah
Who by fire: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning

A rehearsal for the day of our death: a sermon for Kol Nidre

KNBefore he died, Reb Zalman -- the teacher of my teachers -- made an unusual request. He knew that once he died, the chevra kadisha would perform the rituals of taharah: they would wash his body, and bless his body, and dress his body in white linen shrouds in preparation for burial. He wanted to experience that while he was alive, so that his neshamah, his soul, would be prepared for what was coming.

So he asked them to perform the rituals as though he were dead, and he closed his eyes and let himself be tended-to and prayed-over and cared-for in that unique way.

Can you imagine what that would be like? To lie still, as though your soul had already departed your body, and submit without flinching and without fear to your community's tender care? Can you imagine wanting that kind of "dress rehearsal" for your own death?

I've got news for you: today is that dress rehearsal. Welcome to the rehearsal for your death. Does that sound strange? It's a traditional way of thinking about Yom Kippur. To be clear, it's not about already being dead, or being deadened. (If your heart feels deadened today, then we're "doing it wrong.") Today is a rehearsal for feeling, with your whole heart, what it is like to know that you are dying.

Because of course, we are all dying.

Here are five practices that we take on, to varying degrees and in different ways, to make today a rehearsal for death. Maybe the most obvious is not eating. Today those of us who are physically capable of fasting will forego food and drink -- maybe because when you know you're dying, there are more important things than mindlessly ingesting calories.

Some have the custom of immersing in a mikvah, a gathering of living waters, before Yom Kippur -- as the dead are immersed in a mikvah before burial. In the mikvah before burial, we wash away the psycho-spiritual schmutz of a lifetime and declare the soul to be tahor, pure and clear.

In the book of Jeremiah we read that God is the mikvah of Israel. (This is a bit of rabbinic wordplay: read literally, what Jeremiah is saying is that God is the hope of Israel. But the words come from the same root, a reminder that mikvah is all about hope: hoping to feel reborn, hoping to be better tomorrow than we were yesterday.) If God is our mikvah, then even if we didn't immerse in a literal river or pond or ritual bath before the holiday, we can immerse today in God. Today we immerse in God's presence, and when we emerge tomorrow night our hearts will be open and our souls will be pure and clear.

Today we say the vidui prayer, confessing our mis-steps before God. Some have the custom of doing this daily. Of course, the other time when our tradition invites us to recite a vidui is on our deathbed. Before death, we confess where we've missed the mark... just as we do on this holiest of days. And as we recite the vidui, we look back on our actions and our choices. We wonder: did we do the best we could with what we were given?

Many of us follow the custom of wearing white on Yom Kippur. White is a Shabbat color, too, and Yom Kippur is called The Shabbat of Shabbats -- even when it falls on a weekday. (This year, Yom Kippur is Shabbat squared.) White represents the purity to which our souls aspire. And white is the color of the shrouds in which all of us will be buried. Some wear white kittels today: the very garments in which they will someday be buried.

And many of us follow the custom of avoiding leather on Yom Kippur. We wear shoes made from canvas or rubber because we don't want to profit from the death of any living being on this day when we open ourselves to God's judgment. Another interpretation: soft shoes remind us to maintain tender hearts. Stiff leather protects us from the world, as stiff habits protect us from our own feelings, but today we seek to wholly feel.

This is a custom also during shiva, the first week of mourning. During shiva we avoid leather because as we mourn, we don't want to benefit from the death of other living beings, like the cow or goat or alligator that gave its life so that we could have belts and shoes and handbags. So if you don't resonate with the idea of today as a rehearsal for death, you could think of it instead as a shiva minyan, in which the person being eulogized is -- you.

There's a famous story about Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite. Maybe you've heard it. The story goes that he opened the newspaper on the day after his brother's death, and saw printed there not his brother's obituary, but his own. The obituary described him as having the dubious honor of having made it possible to kill more people at one time than anyone had ever done before.

Alfred was horrified. That wasn't how he wanted to be remembered. So he changed his life. Most of us now don't think of him as someone who facilitated mass murder: we think of him as the creator of the Nobel Prize, who dedicated his fortune to honoring people whose work benefits humanity.

Imagine opening up the newspaper tomorrow and seeing your own obituary. What would it say? When you die, what will the world remember about you?

These are the questions to which Yom Kippur invites us. If I died tonight, how would I be remembered? What would my obituary say? The person described in that obituary: is that the person I want to be?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, in his essay "Death as Homecoming:"

If life is a pilgrimage, death is an arrival. [...] Death, what follows death, is a mystery defying imagination. Facing it, our language is silence. Yet while the body descends into the grave, trust remains, hope persists. [...] This is the hope that in dying I become a seed and that after I decay I am born again.

Death is a mystery. We may not all be able to share Heschel's faith that when we die, we come home... or that after coming home into God, our souls will be born into life again. But what would it be like to seek that feeling of "coming home" even while we're still here?

As we sang earlier tonight, in the words of Lev Friedman: Bar'chu, dear One; Shechinah, holy Name; when I call on the light of my soul, I come home. As we call ourselves into prayer, we call ourselves to come home. Prayer is always an opportunity to come home.

Shabbat calls us to come home. No matter what we may experience during the workweek, no matter what alienation or distance or frustration, Shabbat is the time to relinquish our binaries and our distinctions and melt gratefully into the embrace of our tradition, the embrace of that One we name as God. Shabbat is always an opportunity to come home.

And Yom Kippur calls us to come home. Our mystics teach that Yom Kippur is a day of intense joy. Because all year long, our souls get schmutzed up: we make poor choices, we miss the mark, we fail to live up to our highest selves -- but today we get to shed all of that and be clean and clear. All year long, we fall into distance from God and distance from our truest selves, and today we're invited to come back again. Yom Kippur invites us to call on the light of our souls and come home.

Today is a rehearsal for our death: in Heschel's words, the ultimate homecoming.

Dying is a transformation. A portal: though to what, we don't know. We might have theories, but we can't know. Today can transform you, too, if you let it.

Of course, death isn't only literal. There are other forms of death besides the physical. Some of you may be familiar with tarot cards as a tool for interpreting one's life. In most schools of tarot interpretation, the Death card doesn't mean there's a literal death ahead. Instead, it points toward some kind of metaphorical dying. It means endings, beginnings, change, transitions, transformation. Every life contains those -- in abundance.

Sometimes life becomes constricting, holding us too tightly for the growth our hearts and spirits need in order to thrive. Sometimes we have to let go of an old life in order to be ready to be born into a new one. That might take the form of leaving home, or ending a relationship, or leaving a job. It almost certainly means accepting the death of a cherished narrative who you thought you were or who you thought you would become.

And I don't mean to minimize that. Dying to one's old self is hard work. It requires letting go, sometimes of hopes and dreams that had been a lifeline. It requires accepting that some things won't come to pass. It's natural to feel resistance to this kind of death. Most of us don't want to die to our old self. Even if who we are and how we are isn't entirely who or how we wish we could be, change is hard.

But dying to one's old self is a necessary precursor to the rebirth of new beginnings. In time, our old dreams and stories can become fertilizer for new unfolding that we can't yet begin to imagine, as the autumn's old leaves become food for spring's new green.

The only way to avoid change is, in fact, death: literal death, physical death. As long as we're alive, we're changing. The only question is, will we embrace the opportunity to change in ways that open our hearts and deepen our compassion, or will we resist that self-awareness?

Today is a rehearsal for your death. For all of our deaths. But we all know that it is possible to be physically alive while being deadened emotionally and spiritually -- and it's equally possible to embrace the death of old certainties, in order to open ourselves to new life.

The mishna, that great second-century compendium of early rabbinic wisdom, instructs us to make teshuvah -- to return to our best selves, to re/turn toward God -- on the day before our death. But we never know when the day of our death will be, so we'd better make teshuvah every day.

Of course, ordinary life gets in the way. Our to-do lists, our obligations, bills, homework, the job search, the laundry, the 24-hour news cycle, the internet, our favorite tv shows: we have endless ways of distracting ourselves from the need to look seriously at our lives.

That's why Jewish tradition gives us the Days of Awe: an opportunity to set all of that aside. Not forever! There's nothing wrong with to-do lists or tv shows or laundry. (There is something wrong with the 24/7 news cycle, and that's part of why we need Shabbat.) But we need to set our distractions aside from time to time, so we can pay attention to life's big questions. Now is one of those times.

Today tradition calls us to face the truth we usually do everything we can to ignore: we're all going to die. So how do we want to live?


[Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.]