As if we are dead
Kol Nidre 5778
Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh
Rabbi Larry Freedman
Rosh Hashana is about celebration. The nine days following are about thoughtfulness, thinking deeply about how we lead our life. And now, with the gates of heaven that were swung wide open nine days ago we begin the slow but unstoppable closing that concludes with our final neila service tomorrow night. Now as we enter the final laps of the final day, as a new year is about to take off, we enter into the tension of Yom Kippur.
We are at a moment in time. We are able to make amends for the past and able to make plans for the future. Mortified about the past, motivated for the future we are in this amazing position of choice and decision. With each passing hour of the next 24, our chances to make amends for the past become fewer and fewer and our plans for the future are about to be put into practice with less and less time to prepare. The clock is ticking, the urgency is real. This is a moment in time that should shake you. Does it? Do you need some help being shaken? Then let’s pretend “as if.”
At our Pesach seder we pretend as if we are there in Egypt waiting for the word to get up and leave. During Sukkot we eat in a sukkah pretending as if we are wandering in the desert. At Shavuot we pretend as if we are there at Sinai, the very first to receive Torah. And now, with a new year ahead and an old year behind we pretend “as if” once again. What if you weren’t here? What if you were dead? On Yom Kippur, we pretend “as if” we are dead.
Yom Kippur is a rehearsal for death. Have you ever seen those roadside billboards or bumper stickers evangelical Christians post that say, “if you died today, would you be right with God?” Or Jesus. They probably would say Jesus but the point is that we have the same challenge. (And don’t forget, as I often remind you, we came first with the notion.) We have the challenge to be honest with our lives because if it ended right now, what would people remember about you?
When we sing Who by Fire, Who by Water, we sing the truest words ever written in liturgy. How many of our friends and family died last year? How many died peacefully and how many died in pain? Which of our friends or family died suddenly and which ones suffered so much that death was a blessing? In our country, in our county, some died by fire, some by water. Some are blessed with long life; some leave us tragically too soon. We could not have predicted it even though we knew it would happen.
Now as we look forward, we are pulled up short and reminded that just as we could not predict last year, we cannot predict this year. The sad reality for me as I look out over you all is that I will be officiating at a funeral for someone here or a family member of someone here. I don’t mean to bum you out but that is a truth we must face.
There are five things we do not do on Yom Kippur. Why not? To pretend as if we are dead. We don’t eat and we don’t drink. Neither do the dead. We don’t wear leather or anoint with oils, signs of luxury that are limited to this world. We don’t engage in sexual relations, a very earthly joy. And this kittle I’m wearing in which I was married one day, please God it should be far in the future, I will be buried in. I am dressed for a rehearsal for death.
Kol Nidre begins with the Torah scrolls taken out as witnesses in a court room and we wear our tallit at night, a once a year event, playing the parts of both members of the court and the defendant wondering how we shall be judged. We are on trial as if at the end of our life.
If you died today, would you be okay with your life? That is the bumper sticker question and I suggest to you that it doesn’t work because we can dismiss it as silly. You see, I’m not dead so why do I need to think about it? We can drive past the roadside billboard and not worry if we are right with God were we to die today because, well, because I’m driving somewhere and the radio is on and I’m very much not dead so leave me alone already!
The signs don’t catch me because while they are provocative they leave no lingering impact. As soon as the light turns green. I hit the gas and I’m gone. Yom Kippur says, “I know I’m not dead. You know you’re not dead. But what if, what if we played a little game and pretended. What if we took 24 hours and really tried to imagine it. What if we leave our worries of the world outside and forget about eating and drinking and customary joys. What if we gave ourselves the space and time to really think about this? Let’s not do this at 55 miles per hour. Let’s take a whole day. What if I were dead? I know I’m not and it’s really morbid but… what if I were dead? How did I do? Let’s not feel guilty, now. No guilt allowed. Just an honest question: what did I leave on the table? Do I have regrets? Again, and this is important, no guilt. Just ask yourself, honestly, if today were the day to tell the end of my story, how would my story turn out?
Today is not the end of your story but let’s pretend it is. I invite you to talk with your family, a good friend and ask them, “how ’m I doing?” Ask them, if today were the end of my story, what would you say? Brutal, I know but that is what this day is about. And then make a plan to write another chapter. Maybe you’ll write the next chapter just like the last chapter. Maybe you’ll write the next chapter completely differently. Maybe somewhere in between. Just be honest with yourself. This is rough stuff but it is what this day is made for.
The gates of repentance were swung wide open on Rosh Hashana, they begin to close now. Little by little they inch a bit closer. Tonight we reflect. Tomorrow we reflect. Read the prayers a little more closely. Use the music to lift your thoughts to a place of introspection. Use our new machzor and let your eye wander reading that which resonates with you, that which moves you. Be here with the community as you have your individual moment as the gates close.
Tomorrow we gather again and the gates close some more. We will struggle with hunger and our avoidance of earthly joy because our minds are elsewhere. The day will go on and the gates will be closing and as the afternoon arrives you will stand before the ark and our Torah for a final private moment and the gates will shut and we will have made it. We will have gotten through the day and we will eat! We will break that fast not as a symbol of gluttony but as a statement: I am alive, I am alive and the new year looms before me! We eat that bagel with joy and we drink that juice having made a promise to write the next chapter well. That break fast is not the conclusion of the day. Dead people don’t eat, remember? That break fast is the real start of the year. Pretending is over. You are alive! You eat the whitefish to live and with the privilege to live another year comes the sacred challenge to write your next chapter. The end of the story is not yet here. I have more to write. You have more to write. For the next 24 hours, let’s think about what we’ll write.