Yom Kippur: Making This Year Count
Yom Kippur -Making This Year Count
(This was my talk on Yom Kippur) On Rosh Hashanah our 12 year old daughter sat in on the Natanah Tokef prayer in synagogue for the first time. This is the prayer that says ‘Who will live in Who will die’ this year, and then proceeds to go through various ways of leaving this world in detail. She said ‘you do not let me watch scary and overly violent movies, so why did you let me hear this scary prayer?.’ She did have a point, and I answered that seeing such things is much worse than hearing about them, and that is why we do not want her to watch violent movies. She also complained that she was in synagogue so much, and the second day of the holiday we let her hang out more in the park with her friends. I could have also told her that there is a constructive reason why we say this prayer Rosh Hashanah and YK. We take our lives for granted. We feel that things will continue the way they have been, going along its course, hopefully improving, but basically the same. Yet at the same time the message of Yom Kippur is that we step out of our everyday lives to get a new perspective so that we can course correct. I can change and improve, and I can overcome my weaknesses and negative traits. I can chart a new course for my life. Each of us probably has a list of things to improve, and in the back there is a worksheet to help us identify what those might be. Yet we do not make the changes because we do not feel a sense of urgency, we feel like we will live forever, and if there are changes to make there is always manyana, I will do it tomorrow. So the Netanah Tokef prayer, and the whole Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur experience is there to get us to put things in question, and becoming more conscious of the transient nature of life is one way to do so. And of course realizing that the Almighty evaluates us each year to see if we are fulfilling our purpose is also a powerful message to get us to change.
My sister is an avid biker. She bikes every morning and does multiple loops around Central Park at 6:30 am. She bikes up to Bear Mountain on a Sunday and back for fun, a 100 mile trek. She has been in some accidents, broke a clavicle and has a gash on her cheek, but three weeks ago she went flying and landed on her head. She has been in the icu for the last three weeks, basically unconscious but fortunately not in a coma. We do not know when she will regain consciousness and if her life will ever be the same. Of course my first concern is with her and her recovery, and our family and her wide network of friends are all broken over what has happened to her, but we also believe that events in our lives are messages from the Almighty. And one of the messages here is not to take life for granted, not to feel like I will live forever and to not put off for tomorrow what could or should be done today. Seeing my sister’s life upended, put in question, and not knowing if she will ever be able to resume her life as it was is drives home the tenuous nature of our lives, and has made me focus more on what is important. It was living with this outlook that gave us the strength to make Aliyah a year ago and move to Israel. We are all praying for Jane bat Devorah and I would like to dedicate these words toward her recovery.
So what we are saying is that the reason the prayer on Yom Kippur gets us in touch with our mortality in order to feel our fragility and to motivate us to change. The Psalms quoted in the Yizkor prayer tomorrow express this idea so powerfully:
A person is like a fleeting breath, their days passing like a shadow. In the morning she flourishes and grows, in the evening she withers and dries up. Teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.
There is an exercise some people do to concretize the passage of time. They take a large jar and place small pebbles in it. Let’s say you put 2600 pebbles in it, and each week you would take out a pebble. After ten years, 20% or 520 pebbles would be taken out. If you are in your early thirties, the jar represents your expected adult lifespan. Each pebble is a week of our lives, and so the jar emptying in the opportunities we have. It drives home the idea that each day and each week is an opportunity that we cannot get back again, and that our opportunities are not unlimited. When you get to my age, the jar is more than halfway empty, and that is when we really become aware of our mortality.
The second exercise is to follow the words of our Sages, who say “ To Teshuva (change for the better) one day before you die.” The glaring question is how do I know when I will die. To which the answer is view every day as if it is my last. This is kind of like a spiritual bucket list. The message is not quit your job and travel around the world seeing all the places you want to see before you leave this world. It is to stay focused on what is really important. Spend time with family and friends and tell them you love them. Try to be the best me I can each day. Wake up in the morning and feel the gratitude over being alive, living in one of the most prosperous times of human history. Feel grateful that we live in a time when Jews can be safe, (relative to past moments in history),
So we have the message to value our days and time. The second message is to stay focused on what is important. The third message is to use Yom Kippur as a day to course correct. As we mentioned before, we believe that the Almighty re-evaluates us throughout the High Holidays. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is inscribed.” G-d is not judging us because He is out to get us, which is unfortunately the way people often view this idea of a day of judgement. Think of it rather as an annual review. Like a CEO who takes stock of who is contributing to the mission of the company, and those who are not are either let go or given the message to course-correct, so too we are being evaluated by the Almighty. The more we fulfill our Divine mission, the more the Almighty will keep us around to help in the task of fixing the world and bringing G-dliness and goodness into the world. This is a heavy message, but there is good news.
First of all, we have three secret weapons to assure our continuity. Tomorrow in the service right after the scary part we say that Teshuva, personal transformation and repentance, Tefila, prayer, and Tzedaka, charity and good deeds can transform a negative evaluation. We can change our destiny through these three avenues.
The other good news is that the Jewish outlook on life is a very optimistic outlook. Right after the natana tokef prayer we sing Ain Kitvah to a very upbeat, positive tune. We sing it this way because we believe that the Almighty is like a father who sees the best in their child and wants them to do well. And He gives us credit that we know we want to be good, and we know that He also knows this and gives us the benefit of the doubt. So to conclude, Yom Kippur gets us in touch with our mortality not in order to scare us, well maybe a little, but to get us in touch with what is truly important in our lives, and to motivate us to become better.