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Let Us Affirm Life!

By Rabbi Rebecca L. Dubowe, Rosh Hashanah 5770/2009
Last week, on Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about the value of how important it is to take care of ourselves both physically and spiritually especially at this time of the New Year. We have the ability to change for the better however there is one part of our lives that we have no control over and that is our own mortality. On this day of Yom Kippur we are required to acknowledge that one day we will die therefore it is worthwhile to determine how we wish to live.
Let me begin with a joke:
“A rabbi, a priest and a minister were together one day just schmoozing and wondering what they would want their eulogies to sound like. “At my funeral, when they peer into my coffin,” the minister intoned, “ I want them to say Look here lies a pious man a man who looked after his father and his flock.” The priest countered, “Well when they look into my coffin, I want them to say, look, here lies a good man a man who cared and had character.” And finally they turned to the rabbi who said, “When they peer into my coffin, I want them to say, ‘Look, he’s moving!” And that’s it. What we really want is to have a life we are a life affirming people. “ - Rabbi Mervin B. Tomsky
Yes, we are a life-affirming people. And sometimes we have this need to tell jokes to alleviate our discomfort especially around death because it is really no laughing matter. In fact, most of us would rather not talk about our own deaths because of the unknown fear as to when or how we will die.
Death in the Jewish tradition is a normal process of life as it says in the Torah: “For you are dust and to dust shall you return.” Genesis 3:19.
In essence, death is a part of the life cycle. If it is part of the human life, then why do many of us not talk about death. What we may not realize is that if we do not accept death then we cannot fully affirm the treasure of our lives. When we accept our own mortality as well others then we make our lives as meaningful as possible.
During our High Holy Day services, one of the most dramatic prayers in our liturgy is the chanting of U’Netaneh Tokef, which describes an image of us passing before God as a flock of sheep passes before a shepherd. As it says: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” We silently struggle to listen to this prayer wondering what our fate will be or for others. The prayer is very clear. We are all going to die one day. Our lives are placed on the balance scales. Which scale will weigh more or less? God will decide as to who shall live and who shall die. By putting ourselves on the scales, we are making a conscious effort that our lives require close inspection.
There are four thoughts for us to consider about death.
  1. Life is not fair.
  2. We must live our lives to the fullest
  3. We must not fear our death nor be afraid to live.
  4. Life is a journey: embrace the ride.

Life is not fair.

That is right. Whether or not we want to admit, the fact of the matter is that life is just not fair. Rabbi Harold Kushner, who lost a young son due to a genetic disease, wrote a book: “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”, explains- “We don’t want to hear that message. ‘Life is not fair’…we would rather believe that somebody else is driving the bus. We would rather blame ourselves and tell ourselves we deserve it than admit that some things happen in the world at random. Do you know why we respond the way we do to this prayer? (The U’Netaneh Tokef) Do you know why we give it prime space and get more emotionally responsive to that than any other moment of the service? Because that’s what it says to us… B’Rosh Hashanah yikateivun… it is decided on Rosh Hashanah and confirmed on Yom Kippur who shall live and who shall die and there is nothing you can do about it.”
There is nothing we can do about it. Life is not fair. That is right. It is unsettling, it’s painful and it hurts so much to live in the face of death that even on this day of Yom Kippur, when we rehearse our own death by fasting – we really want this prayer to be only a metaphor. “A metaphor,” as Rabbi Elyse Goldstein describes, “is that we want the inevitable questions of who was here last year that is not here now and who is here this year that won’t be there next year to be a poem, or a parable. It is not. It is a wake up call just as we hear the piercing sounds of the Shofar blasts. This year to come will bring death. That is the inescapable truth that we hear every year during the High Holy Days. We can be certain that this year will bring more death. “

We must live our lives to the fullest:

“If God didn’t hide from all people the date of their death, nobody would build a home, nobody would build a vineyard, because everyone would say, “I am going to die tomorrow, so of what purpose is it for me to work today?” For this reason, God denies us knowing the day of our death, in the hope we will build and plant. If not us, others will benefit from our labor.” - Yalkut Shimon
I posed this question to my 7th graders this past week: If you knew the day that you were going to die what would you want to do? They responded: Climb Mt. Everest, go skydiving, and all those fun cool things that adults can do. And then the mood shifted and they said that they would be more generous, give money to charity, and be kind and good to others. So I retorted back and said, are you saying that if you knew the day you will die that you will be more kind to one another? What difference does it make if we knew or not? How can we not be kind nor help others in need. There was silence and the 7th graders immediately understood.
We are one day closer to our death so why wait- let’s live our lives fully not knowing the day when we will die. Our days are numbered and we are urged to ask ourselves as to whether or not we are truly living our lives to the best we can. We must not fear our death nor be afraid to live: Once there was a student who was with a teacher for many years. And when the teacher felt he was going to die, he wanted to make sure that even his death was a lesson. That night, the teacher took a torch, called his student, and set off with him through the forest. Soon they reached the middle of the woods, where the teacher blew out his torch without explanation. “What is the matter?” asked the student. “This torch has gone out,” the teacher answered and walked on. “But,” shouted the student, his voice plucking his fear, “will you leave me here in the dark?” “No! I will not leave you in the dark,” returned the teacher’s voice from the surrounding blackness. “I will leave you searching for the light.” - Noah benShea
When one candle burns down, another candle will be lit. No one will be left in the dark for as long as we hold our own candle knowing that others will hold on to their candles when we leave this world.

Life is a Journey Embrace the Ride on the Train

“We get on board that train at birth, and we want to cross the continent because we have in mind that somewhere out there is a station. We pass by the sleepy little towns looking out the window of life’s train, grain fields and silos, level grade crossings, buses full of people on the road beside us. We pass by cities and factories, but we don’t look at any of it because we want to get to the station. We believe that out there is a station where a band is playing and banners are hung and flags are waving, and when we get there that will be life’s destination. We don’t really get to know anybody on the train. We pace up and down the aisles looking at our watches eager to get to the station because we know that life has a station for us. This station changes for us during life. To being with, for most of us, it’s turning 18, getting out of high school. Then the station is that first promotion and then the station becomes getting the kids out of college, and then the station becomes retirement and then… all too late we recognize the truth that this of the city whose builder is God, there really isn’t a station. The joy is in the journey and the journey is the joy. Sooner or later, you realize that there is no station and the truth of life is the trip. Read a book, eat more ice cream, go barefoot more often, hug a child, go fishing, and laugh more. The station will come soon enough. And as you go, find a way to make this world more beautiful.” - Former First Lady Barbara Bush
We are all on the same train but what each of us brings on the train is how we can make our lives fully blessed. No matter which direction our lives may be going, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring and thus, it is best that we treat today, and then treat tomorrow, and then treat the day after, and then treat every day with which we are blessed to be alive, as though if it was our last day here on earth. The more we are able to bless each day only then will each day of our lives will indeed become a blessing.
On Rosh Hashanah, I asked you to check –in and evaluate your lives both physically and spiritually. On this day of Yom Kippur I ask you to accept that whatever life will become because all those who are a part of your lives, including your loved ones, your community and God will be with you forever. Yes! We are a life-affirming people and that is how we should live. One of my favorite blessings that we can recite daily is the Shehecheyanu and it is about affirming life. The true meaning of this blessing is thanking God who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this day. Let us make every effort to say this blessing every single day of our lives. We are a life-affirming people so I encourage you to go forward and celebrate life to the fullest.
Join me and let us hear our voices together as we recite the Shehecheyanu to affirm that we truly love life!
Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha’olam shehecheyanu v’kiy’manu v’higyanu lazman hazeh.
May it be God’s Will
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