Sermon: Yom Kippur 5771 by Rabbi Joe Blair

Beth El Congregation, Harrisonburg


Temple House of Israel, Staunton

Yom Kippur 5771

10 Tishrei 5771 / September 17-18 2010

Jewish Wisdom from Dr. Randy Pausch  

Rabbi Joe Blair

Gut yontiff, Chag sameach, Shana tovah, and Shabbat shalom!

A personal story: Most of you probably already know that I had a bit of a health scare earlier this summer, and I was also blessed with a grandson a month later. On Shabbat of July 17th. I was sitting, talking with Karen, and sipping coffee (as I am sometimes known to do), and suddenly I felt a little ‘funny’ – I can’t describe it other than that -  then I noticed that the coffee I had just sipped was leaking out the side of my mouth. I couldn’t swallow it, because I couldn’t control my tongue, and I was entirely numb on one side of my face. I wiped my face with a napkin, and asked Karen if I looked different to her. Even I could hear that I was slurring the words as I spoke, having trouble forming them. She looked at me strangely, and asked me, ‘what’s wrong? You look odd – half your face is sagging.’ Then, the same thought occurred to both of us – stroke; something that strikes a chord of fear in my heart, and probably of many others.

I went to the hospital, and in the end, after much testing, the diagnosis was Bell’s palsy, a reactivated viral nerve injury that can mimic stroke. There is no clear reason known for who gets it or why, no specific treatment protocol is set forth, and it is understood to clear up partially or wholly on its’ own over time, and not to recur. In my case, the symptoms have largely faded, but there are still a few minor aftereffects, such as that I become tired more easily than previously, my eyes tire more quickly from reading, and when I am tired I have slightly less control over my facial muscles on one side. Otherwise, thank God, I am back to myself, and there is no reason for concern. I feel extremely fortunate, and very grateful for the outcome, as well as for the outpouring of concern and caring from so many of you.

The birth of my grandson, Wyatt Joseph, exactly a month after this health scare brought me the joy of celebrating the miracle of new life and a renewed sense of hope for the future. Again, my thanks for all the good wishes that so many of you expressed.

So my summer was filled with a close encounter with both mortality and new life. The closeness in time of these two events called my attention firmly and immediately to the theme of the holiday we are celebrating today; a day which juxtaposes the two poles of life and death, and demands a consideration of what it is that really matters.  It was while I was pondering this, weighing the imponderable sense of the fragility of health and life - how we are all fragile and vulnerable – together with the miracle of birth and continuity, that I was reminded of someone who had an inspiring outlook on life that they shared, an outlook that seemed to apply to all of us on this holiday.  I want to share a little of that person’s story with you. It seems to me to be appropriate for today, dealing as it does with the twin issues of life and death, and how we give meaning and purpose to our existence.

I don’t know how many of you may remember the name Randy Pausch – probably not a lot. A Baltimore area native, he attended Brown University, then Carnegie Mellon for a doctorate. He became a professor of computer sciences in my old stomping grounds at UVa for a time in the late 80’s through the late 90’s. He left UVa and returned to Carnegie Mellon as a professor. He, along with others, did some amazing things in the areas of Virtual Reality, Human Computer Interfaces, interdisciplinary collaborations, and eventually in applying games to educate young people in computer programming by indirection through the Alice software project.

Dr. Pausch made headlines in a big way about two years ago. He was invited to address a university-wide audience at CMU as the featured speaker in an annual lecture in which a top academic was asked to think deeply about what matters to them, and then give a hypothetical "final talk", with a topic such as "what wisdom would you try to impart to the world if you knew it was your last chance?"  This lecture was premised on the idea that this was your opportunity to share what you had accomplished, what you had learned, and what you wanted others to know. The series was titled “The Last Lecture Series.” However, it was thought that the title, ‘Last Lecture’ was too downbeat and limiting, so the series was retitled as “Journeys.”

I envision the concept underlying this series as stemming from the idea that the speaker, like Moses in the book of Deuteronomy, was being given the opportunity to address his ‘people’ and share his or her accrued wisdom at the end of life, in light of contemplating no longer being there. The series had been held for some years, and Professor Pausch was selected as a good candidate to speak at this event – he was, after all, a well respected and highly regarded instructor, a widely-known and productive faculty member involved in some very high profile projects that crossed all sorts of disciplinary lines, one who had brought recognition and (no surprise) money to the university, and someone who had been a mentor to many students who then went on to become leading lights in their field. You can actually see this full lecture, or a shorter reprise of it, online – ask me later for the URL links to view it if you are interested, or simply search for ‘Randy Pausch Last Lecture’. It will definitely show up – it has over 12 million views on you tube alone. (full one hour plus version) or (shorter 12 minute version) .

The kicker in all this was that Dr. Pausch was battling pancreatic cancer. Through surgery, radiation treatments, and chemotherapy, he seemed to be doing well and holding his own, but after the lecture was scheduled, just about a month before the actual date, Dr. Pausch received an adverse medical report. It turned out that by that time the cancer had metastasized, spreading to other organs, and was untreatable, and terminal, so that he was given only about six months of good health. Rather than wallow in self-pity, he chose to use this upcoming lecture opportunity as best as he could to truly give an inspiring ‘Last Lecture’ in which he expressed his gratitude for his life, showed his sense of joy and fun, shared his work and philosophy, offered thanks to and for his colleagues, expressed his love for his family, and left a legacy for his three young children.  So, in spite of knowing that he was actively dying and had a limited time to live, Randy Pausch gave this talk, which he titled “Achieving your Childhood Dreams.”  (As a side note, he also turned the lecture into a book of the same title, which I recommend to you.)

Using humor and honesty, he shared the way he had achieved most of the dreams of his childhood, and the lessons he drew from all of his experiences.  It was an interesting story, quite spellbinding, with lots of great anecdotes and jokes, but as he said at the end of his lecture, it was all a ‘head fake’ – a way to teach by indirection. He told the audience that the real topic of the lecture was not how to achieve your childhood dreams, but rather, how to live; not a lecture about death or dying or the end of life, but about living, and living well.

Many of the lessons he offered resonate with why we are here today on this Yom Kippur, our day of atonement. Yom Kippur is both about looking back and looking forward; about the evaluation of our past, which prompts us to learn and grow as a person, and that offers us hope for the future. In that spirit, I would like to share with you a few of the lessons that Dr. Pausch spoke about, and relate them to this holiday. Here are ten thoughts I picked out of the many he offered, some profound, some less so, but all relevant to each of us today.  I make no pretense of telling you the stories, anecdotes, or jokes that Dr. Pausch used – you can hear those directly in the recorded lecture. Instead, I have simply drawn on the essence of the points that he made.

  • 1. “Choose people over things.” Relationships matter more than possessions. I might say this in language such as, choose to live in a Buberian I-Thou mode more of the time, as much as you can, rather than remaining in the I-it mode. Value others, and take pleasure in those you love. Spend your time and attention wisely. Another way to say this, is: As we are taught in B.T. Pirke Avot, ‘live each day as if it were your last. Since you cannot know your last day, live each day to the fullest,’ in a way you would want to be remembered, and as you would want to be judged.
  • 2. “You can’t control the cards you are dealt, but you can choose how to play them. You don’t have to like them.”We can be unhappy or even hate where we are today, the situation in which we find ourself, but we each have free will. We are given the ability to choose how we act and who we are, starting with this very minute. We can decide to make the best of our situation, and to seek to improve it - and ourselves - going forward from here, and in that way, change our situation.
  • 3. “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you wanted.” We all make mistakes, miss the mark, and fall short on occasion. That is part of why we are here today. It is part of being human. The key however, is that if we regret and learn from these mistakes, and decide to avoid the pitfalls in future, we have gained experience, and we can do better in future. We thereby will have benefited from the process of Teshuvah.
  • 4. “We encounter brick walls blocking our path. Brick walls are not there to keep us out, but to let us show how much we want it. The walls will keep the ‘other people’ out – those who don’t want it enough. All you have to do is keep trying and work harder.” For many of us, the brick walls we hit are habits and old choices that are not true to who we would want to be or to become. Change is difficult, and requires a lot from us. To make a meaningful and lasting change is a huge effort of will, but it is possible, if we really want it. All we have to do is keep trying, and work harder to make the changes we wish to incorporate and embody as a part of ourselves.  Our rabbis and teachers tell us that if we do something three times, we have begun to create a habit, and it becomes increasingly easier to do over and over. This is true for bad habits, but we can use this to our advantage; creating habits of those behaviors we wish to embody – good habits.
  • 5. “You are either a Tigger or an Eeyore. I know where I stand on the great Tigger-Eeyore debate.” Again, we have free will. You cannot choose what happens to you, but you can choose how you react to life. Seek to be like Tigger, enthusiastic, energetic, and someone who has fun. Love your life, appreciate the others around you, celebrate what you have and who you are. Complaining and looking on the dark side, as Eeyore does,  uses your time, energy, and efforts to no avail, all of which could better be used to try harder to make things better. B.T. Pirke Avot similarly tells us to ‘present a cheerful countenance to the world even in the bleakest of times.’ As it teaches us in the discussion about keva and kavannah, talking about praying when you don’t feel prayerful, if you act in a given way you may actually come to feel that way.
  • 6. “When people give you feedback, cherish it and use it.” Anyone who tells you the truth about how you are doing is doing you a favor and giving you a tremendous gift, no matter how it may feel in the moment. Appreciate it, and really consider what they say. Remember that your harshest critics are telling you at some level that they still care – it is the moment that you hear nothing from anyone when you are not doing your best that you know others have given up on you. At this time of year, when we come to Yom Kippur, we are often our own harshest critics. Know that even when you feel you merit the most severe criticisms, you should still love and forgive yourself, as we understand that God does, and remember that this holiday is given to us not so we can feel beaten up, but so we can do better.
  • 7. “Wait long enough and people will surprise and impress you.” Look for the good in others, even when they seem not to be capable of it. Remember that they, too, are Be’tzelem Elohim, created in the image of God, and endowed with a divine spark that can be fanned into flame. You just don’t know how long it will take, when it will happen, or what will cause it. Treat them as the vessels for the holy that they are. One day, if you just wait long enough, you will see that spark ignite, and they will indeed surprise and impress you.
  • 8. “Tell the truth always, and apologize when you do something wrong. A real apology means saying you are sorry, admitting that it was your fault, and asking how you can make it right.” This is a good description of the heart of the process of Teshuvah – and when we perform all the steps, including these, seeking forgiveness and making amends, and then go forward and strive to avoid repeating that action when the situation arises in future, we have truly done what we need to do. This is at the heart and of the very essence of what we are saying and doing here today, on this day of atonement.
  • 9. “Focus on others, not yourself, and help them.“ Doing Tzedakah (the righteous, and the right thing) to and for others will always be to your advantage. You will feel good knowing you have done it.  The world will be just a little bit better for it. And as a side benefit, but not as a reason for doing the right thing, you will find that fairly often doing the right thing will come back to you in different ways when you don’t expect it – a nice surprise and a bonus.
  • 10. “Live with integrity.” This is at the heart of all we do, all we stand for, and all we can achieve. In our scripture the prophet tells us, “Know, O Man, what is required of you: to be righteous, to pursue justice, and to walk humbly with your God.” That is our mission statement. Today, Yom Kippur, is when we return to it as our touchstone, reminding ourselves of it, and preparing to act in accordance with it throughout the year to come.

It is taught that Yom Kippur is a rehearsal for our death. We embody it, in that we do not eat or drink. Traditionally we do not use salves to soothe our skin or cosmetics to improve our appearance, we do not engage in intercourse, we do not wash; and we dress in the equivalent of shrouds (the white kittle robes). This rehearsal, or ‘little death’ allows us to take on the mindset that this is our last day, and we should live in light of that - repenting and making amends, performing Teshuvah (repentance), offering our Tefillah (prayer), acting righteously, justly, and  with Tzedakah (justice and righteousness); and behaving with Gemilut Chasidim (acts of loving kindness), forgiving others as we wish to be forgiven.

At the same time, we are to understand that God is merciful and compassionate, and that once we perform true Teshuvah, we will be given the chance to do better in the coming year.

Sadly, Dr. Randy Pausch died on July 25th 2008 at the age of 47. His philosophy and approach to life, particularly as he demonstrated them in view of his impending death, are inspirational to me, and I suspect, to many others. As we say, may his memory be for a blessing.

There is no comparison of his situation to my own, or that of most of us -  thank God; but if he could find meaning and purpose in his life even as he faced imminent death, all of us should be able to find our own meaning and purpose in our life without the full weight of that looming shadow presence approaching over the horizon.

May this holiday be for us a day of solemnity, causing each of us to find in ourselves the means to embody Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah, so that we are strengthened and empowered for the year ahead. At the same time, may it be a day of joy, with the sense of renewal and purity of spirit that we desire, and an awareness of the immanent presence of the divine around us and in us.

May we all be sealed in the book of life for a good year, and may the year before us be good and sweet and filled with godliness. May it be a year of prosperity, health, blessings, love, and joy, with a sense of meaning and purpose at the center of our lives.

Ken yehi ratzon, may it be so.  And let us all say, Amen.

(c) Rabbi Joe Blair 2010