What death helps us see: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning
September 19, 2018
This is not my beautiful sermon. (Do you know that Talking Heads song? "You may ask yourself, how did I get here? ... You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife." Well: this is the time of year for asking ourselves, how did I get here? And this is not my beautiful sermon.)
I wrote a beautiful sermon for Yom Kippur morning. I started it weeks ago. It's clean, and clear, and polished. It's about the lenses we wear, the habits and perspectives and narratives that shape our view of the world. It's about how this is the time of year for recognizing our lenses and cleaning them, and how that's the work of teshuvah. It fit perfectly with this year's theme of Vision. I spent hours tinkering with it, reading it out loud, refining every phrase.
And then last week I threw it away. Because it doesn't feel urgent. And if there is anything that I can say with certainty, it is that this is a day for paying attention to what's urgent.
I spoke last year about how Yom Kippur is a day of rehearsal for our death. I spoke about the instruction to make teshuvah, to turn our lives around, the day before we die. Of course, none of us knows when we will die: so we need to make teshuvah every day.
There are all kinds of spiritual practices for that. Before sleep each night we can go back over the events of the day, and discern where we could have done better, and cultivate gratitude for the day's gifts, and make a conscious effort to let go of the day's grudges and missteps. I try to do those things, most nights. And precisely because I try to do those things every day, they don't feel especially urgent, either. They're part of my routine soul-maintenance, the spiritual equivalent of brushing my teeth.
If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what sermon would you want to hear from me today? Okay, in fairness, if you knew you were going to die tomorrow, you might not be in synagogue today. But humor me. Imagine that somehow, against all odds, you received a message from the Universe that tomorrow you were going to die. What would you want to spend today thinking about, and feeling, and doing? If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what might you suddenly see?
If I knew I were going to die tomorrow, I would want to spend today telling everyone that I love exactly how much I love them. I would lavish my child with all the love I could manage. I would hug my friends. I would call my parents and my siblings. I would write endless love letters to people who matter to me, and I would tell them in no uncertain terms that they are beautiful, extraordinary, luminous human beings and that I am grateful for them to the ends of the earth and beyond.
That tells me that once I remove my ordinary lenses and look at the world as though this moment could be my last, one of the things that matters to me is my capacity to love.
If I knew I were going to die tomorrow, I would write a long, probably overly-detailed, probably rambling ethical will telling my child all of the qualities I hope he will grow up to inherit. I would write about how I hope that he will always be curious, and kind, and thoughtful, and empathetic. I would write about how I hope he will travel the world with interest in its cultures and its inhabitants. I would write about how I hope that he will always be ready and willing to talk to God, and to learn about how others talk to God. I would write about how important it is to care for the vulnerable, to share our abundance with those who have less, to stand up for dignity and human rights, to use his privilege to help others who are less fortunate than he.
That tells me that once I remove my ordinary lenses and look at the world as though this moment could be my last, Jewish values matter to me. The value of standing up for what's right, the value of loving the stranger and protecting the vulnerable, the value of deep ecumenism and learning both from and with those on other spiritual paths.
If I knew I were going to die tomorrow, I would cook foods that I love and I would share them with people in my life. Many of us are fasting today, so I'll spare all of us the description of that multi-course meal. But I would choose foods that remind me of people and places and adventures and conversations. I would not count calories. I would seek to nourish others with the creations of my hands. I would seek to savor every bite, and I would sing the Grace After Meals with gratitude and gusto.
I would call up people with whom I have sung over the last twenty-five years and sing with them again. Over zoom or Facetime, if I had to. Anything to touch, again, the sense of holiness I find when our voices mingle into more than the sum of their parts.
I would make sure my will was in order. I would think about how best to give things away. What worthy causes could I support with some of my dollars if my life were going to end tomorrow?
I would ask a friend to teach me something new: a new insight, a new Hasidic master's take on a piece of Torah, a new snippet of Zohar, a new poem.
I would enjoy every little thing I could find to enjoy, from a hot shower to a cup of coffee to gazing at the twilight sky or the stars.
If I knew I were going to die tomorrow, I wouldn't email people who have hurt me or betrayed me or damaged my trust to invite them to make amends on my last day of life. Because it's possible that I'd be doing that to serve my own ego needs. Besides, I wouldn't want to spend my last day on earth rehashing old wounds. Instead, I'd do my best to make my peace with the fact that there are people who have hurt me and aren't going to apologize, and then I'd do my best to let it go.
I wouldn't watch cable news or refresh Facebook and Twitter endlessly, because if this were my last day in this life, there would be better ways to spend it.
I might write a poem, though I can't tell you what it would be about. Not because it's a secret, but because I don't myself know. Though this afternoon during our break I might take a few minutes to meditate on this, and then see what kind of poem arises.
So far I've mentioned mostly joyous things I would do if I knew I were going to die tomorrow. But let's be real: I would also be angry and sad. Angry about all the things I still wanted to do. Sad about the time with loved ones that I had hoped was still ahead of me. Sad about all the moments I would miss, in my child's life and the lives of those whom I love.
I would fall on the neck of someone who matters to me, probably several someones who matter to me, and I would wail: what was it all for, if it was just going to end so quickly? And then when my internal storm had passed, I would answer my own question: we don't get to know how long we're here for. No one is promised fourscore and ten. And my best understanding of what we're here for is to become, and to connect, and to care for each other, and to love. And that's true whether I get one more day, or fifty more years.
That's what I see, when I imagine how impending death would strip away my roles and my responsibilities and my to-do lists -- the lenses through which I usually see the world.
When our sages said today was a rehearsal for our death, they didn't just mean that when we go without food and drink it's as though we were no longer alive, or that when we wear white it's as though we were wearing our burial shrouds. They meant, wake up! You could be dead tomorrow. In light of that, what do you see?
The fact that we will die is a clarifying lens. Most of the time we ignore our mortality, because when we realize we are going to die our hearts open wide, and it's hard to live in the world with hearts and souls that are so tender. But today is the day to recognize that we will die, and notice what snaps into clear focus when we sit with that truth. Because whatever that is, is what's really important to us.
I could be dead tomorrow. In light of that, a lot of the things I fixate on don't matter much.
The brokenness of the world does still matter. Systemic injustice does still matter. Bigotry and prejudice and racism and misogyny and homophobia and antisemitism do still matter, and if I were going to die tomorrow, I would grieve the fact that I hadn't done enough to try to eradicate those things. I would grieve the fact that I had wasted any minutes of this life mired in things that are unimportant instead of working toward justice and increasing the world's amount of love. And then I would try to find a few last things I could do, on that last day of my life on this earth, to bring about more justice and more love -- the two qualities in whose perfect balance we imagine God.
I wear a bracelet that says, on one side, אנכי עפר ואפר, "I am dust and ashes," and on the other, בשבילי נברא העולם, "for my sake was the world created." This koan comes to us from Rabbi Simcha Bunim, and both of these statements are always true.
On the one hand: I am dust and ashes. We all are. When Torah teaches that the first human being was molded from the clay of the earth, it's offering a poignant reminder that when our bodies die, we melt into the soil from which that poetic text says we came. And on the proverbial other hand, this world was made for me. This world was made for each one of us, each precious human being, and each of us is a reflection of Infinity.
Make teshuvah on the day before your death doesn't mean "email the people you might have angered last year, just in case you kick the bucket tonight." It means we never know how much time we have. It means wake up and use the time you have. It means imagine that you might die tomorrow, and notice all of the hopes and dreams and regrets that come up -- and then work with those hopes and dreams and regrets. It means imagine that you might die tomorrow, and notice the ache of what would be left un-done, and then do it.
It means give love freely to the people in your life who deserve it. It means life is too short to give energy to people who harm you. It means don't be afraid to feel, don't be afraid to laugh, don't be afraid to weep. It means take risks, tell other people what matters to you, let yourself be vulnerable. It means what are you so afraid of: if dying is inevitable, what's so bad about making mistakes, or looking ridiculous, or taking the leap of saying "I love you"?
It means, as Mary Oliver asks:
The Summer Day
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean --
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down --
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
(Love, compassion, kindness, and peace.)
This year my shul's theme for the Days of Awe is Vision. My sermons reflect and refract that theme in different ways.
Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.