Sermon: Yom Kippur 5772 by Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell

Practicing for Death; Renewing our hunger for life

Yom Kippur 5772
7/8 October 2011
Beth El Congregation, Harrisonburg, VA
Temple House of Israel, Staunton, VA
Sue Levi Elwell

Shabbat shalom and shana tova. This year, Yom Kippur arrives on Shabbat. What does this mean for us? Shabbat, which literally means “stop,” is our day of rest, our day of unplugging, our day of remembering that just as God took a break from the work of creating the world, so do we need to stop, each week, and rest from our sometimes frantic activities in the world. In the Torah, Yom Kippur is called “Shabbat Shabbaton.” We speak of the expert of experts, the professor’s professor, the physician’s physician: Yom Kippur is the Sabbath’s Sabbath.

So what does that mean for us, we who may struggle with slowing down on a weekly basis? For many of us, that slowing down comes with immersing ourselves in pleasurable, life-affirming activities: eating, drinking, spending time in nature, enjoying our beloveds. So what happens when Shabbat meets the big Shabbat, the gantze Shabbat?

S.Y. Agnon’s classic book The Days of Awe teaches, referring to the liturgical changes when special days fall on the Sabbath:
When the holy Sabbath has a worthy guest like the New Moon, it surrenders one prayer…When the Sabbath has a guest who is even greater than the New Moon, it surrenders all its prayers, but it does not surrender any of its feasts. But when the Sabbath has a guest who is very great, than whom is none greater, that is the holy day, Yom Kippur,--lo, it surrenders all its prayers and all its feasts too.
Well, not all--the tradition of withholding petitions on Shabbat, resisting the desire to ask the Creator for one more favor, is observed on Yom Kippur. That is why we do not repeat Avinu Malkenu tonight or tomorrow, except during our final Neilah service.)

Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer writes that on Yom Kippur we are challenged not only to refrain from work and commerce, but “in addition to the rules against working, driving, and the like we add prohibitions against bathing, anointing, sexual relations, wearing leather, and eating or drinking. Some of us wear a kittel, a shroud. …Yom Kippur is a stop on steroids, the mother of all stops. Now we have stopped doing the very things living people do… We are not only unplugging from our computer. Now we are the computer and we are shutting down the system.”

Yom Kippur is the day on which we Jews practice death.

Let’s sit with that idea for a moment.
We practice death. Rabbi David Wolpe calls it a “death rehearsal.” What does that mean for each of us?

The Talmud teaches that sleep is a taste of death, and that babies, who are closer than most of us to the boundary of life and death, know this. That is why they cry before sleep, resisting returning to the place before birth. Traditional bedtime prayers ask God to bless us with peace, both as we lie down, and as we rise up. The first prayer of the morning, known to many by its opening words, Modeh/ Modah Ani, thanks God for returning our soul to us, as if our souls are been kept safe by God while we sleep.

During Yom Kippur, however, we do not sleep. We rehearse for our deaths while awake. For most of us, that is a frightening thought. And we know that fear can paralyze. When we are afraid, we flee—or we fight.

Yom Kippur stops us in our tracks because it demands that we confront two issues that most of us avoid: death and God. For many of us, the two are intertwined. On this day, we cannot escape either. God is at the center of our prayers, and death seems to be all around us. Yet Yom Kippur is about facing, not avoiding, essential issues, central challenges for each of us. Let’s examine how this day welcomes us to rehearse for death without frightening us into paralysis. And we’ll explore, too, how we may be able to discover openings to God that do not cause us to run away.

Our rehearsal for death begins, for some of us, by intentionally donning specific clothing. Just as many in America and Europe wear black for funerals, the color white plays a large part in our preparation for death today. White is the absence of color, and in many cultures, reflects purity, asceticism, renewal; the 16th century R. Moses Isserles of Cracow taught that white garments help us resemble the ministering angels. We prepare the synagogue, our shared home, by putting white covers on the Torah. Some of us wear white clothing. Some of us wear a kittle like this one. This garment will, when I die, serve as my shroud.

We also rehearse for death by fasting. Those of us who are able intentionally deprive our bodies by abstaining from food and drink. And we may spread a white cloth on our dining tables, and set the table with books, not utensils or dishes. On this day, we’ll be nourished by Torah and text. Our attention will not on the body but on the spirit.

How else do we practice death? We may acknowledge our connection with all life as we refrain from wearing leather and animal skins. Vegetable and plant fibers are, by definition, biodegradable. Consciously nor not, we may dress ourselves in clothing that, like our own bodies, will, one day, return to dust.

And what of the music and the words and the silences of this day? The Kol Nidre chant that invites us into Yom Kippur is a mysterious and haunting combination of words and music that create a powerful, and for some, irresistible web of contemplation. The minor/major strains, the throbbing repetition, and the drama of the presentation all encourage introspection. And then, we repeat the challenging U’Netaneh Tokef, with its frightening questions, “Who will live and who will die…” These words bring us face to face with the inescapable fact that we will all die. This powerful, mythical poem burns into our resistant hearts and says: your life will end. The only questions are how and when.

The cadences of the day invite contemplation and reflection, taking us into corners of our souls and our memories that force us to look at the inevitability of death. But sometimes, the words of the liturgy fall like stones at our feet; we cannot hear them. They seem inert, devoid of meaning. They become symbols frozen on the page, repeated by a leader who does not connect to us at all. The simple weight of words on this day may feel like a death sentence. The words become a barrier to feeling, to engagement, to being present. And the prayerbook seems an empty vessel without meaning, purpose, or direction.

Yet for some of us, the prayers, the songs, the poetry “works,” as the words and music invite us to see with greater clarity. The masses of words crafted by our sages help us to consider how we have missed the mark during the past year, and help us to grant forgiveness to ourselves for our inability or unwillingness to care for ourselves and for others, both those close at hand and those farther away. Some of us find a life-force in the words that help us to imagine and rehearse death..

And then there is silence. There are many invitations to silence in the course of Yom Kippur Day. For some of us, silence is initially a relief, a balm, a gift. For others, silence is a fearful experience, a place devoid of care or support. When we enter silence, deeply, intentionally, we may discover that there are silences within silence. Silence can offer discovery, insight, welcome. How is silence, for you? A taste of death or a promise of possible insight and calm?

Yom Kippur is not a day of death. Rather, this day enables us to practice for death in a safe context. Yom Kippur is a day of immersion in time-tested rituals that invite us to acknowledge the fear and trembling that we all feel when we think about death. Yom Kippur invites us to experience one day when we interrupt our routines and “shut down our system.” But our system is not asleep. Rather, this day enables us to awaken to the deep possibilities of being in the world with all of our faculties, unencumbered by concerns about what to wear, what to eat, what to say and do. This day is fully proscribed. The Torah teaches: “it shall be a sacred occasion for you: you shall practice self-denial…you shall do no work throughout that day…” Today, by rehearsing death, we may, in some small way, face our fears. And, when we conclude this day with the sound of the shofar, when we end our fast, when we return to our homes and the pleasures that bring us comfort, we may feel renewed, refreshed, and ready to face and engage in the New Year that opens before us.

I would like to suggest that this process of moving from death to life happens as a result of context and content. The context for our process is of course, our communal observance of this Day of Awe. We are here together, each of us with our own stories, our own troubles, our own successes and our own losses. Our prayers, our sighs, our songs are shared in community. We repeat our sins in the first person plural so that none of us needs to distinguish ourselves as one who has lied, or cheated, or slandered another. We take responsibility for our collective humanity, and ask the Holy One to forgive us. We are present for one another as a shiva minyan, gathering together to reassure the bereaved that they are not alone in their grief. What is unique about this day is that we are experiencing our own shiva minyan. Look around. Some of us are looking into the faces of those who have comforted us when we have mourned a beloved. Some of us are looking into the faces of those who will gather when we are mourned by our beloveds. This is the Jewish way: even in the loneliness of death, we try to serve one another, we try to represent God by sitting with, and weeping with, and praying and singing and laughing with those who mourn. Today we practice death, and reclaim the power of showing up for one another, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

And, I suggest, Yom Kippur offers us specific content, words that also help us on this journey from fear. This early Medieval poem, or piyyut, is beloved by many; it is part of the Yom Kippur morning service. The version that is in our Gates of Prayer reads:
Ki anu amecha v’ata Malkenu
Ki anu vanecha v’ata Avinu
Here is one English interpretation:
We are your people, you are our Sovereign;
We are your children, you are our parent;
We are your heritage, You are our destiny
We are your flock, You are our shepherd
We are your vineyard, You are our keeper
We are your beloved, You are our friend.

On this day, we confront both death and the Source of life and death. On this day, each of us meets, and confronts, God.
This poem tells us: there are many ways to image and imagine God.
God can be imaged as a king, a queen, a royal presence: unapproachable, all powerful, perhaps kind and generous, perhaps callous and capricious. Perhaps inscrutable.
God can be thought of as a parent, loving yet setting boundaries, indulgent or cautious, comforting, protective, celebrating our uniqueness.
God may seen as be our destiny, our portion, beyond our understanding yet waiting, always for us.
God may envisioned as be a shepherd, gathering us when we stray and guiding us home.
God may be imaged as the vineyard keeper, pruning our extraneous branches, helping us to grow.
And finally, this poem invites us to consider our relationship with God as beloved, as friend.

This single poem, recited and sung on this day, reminds us that we Jews have always imagined God in many ways. Every time we repeat the Amidah, we speak of Elohai Avraham, Elohai Yitzahak, Elohai Ya’akov; Elohai Sarah, Elohai Rivka, Elohai Leah v’Elohai Rachel. Each time we repeat this prayer, we are reminded that each of the patriarchs and matriarchs had a unique relationship with the Holy One. And so do we. And as Reform Jews, following in the dynamic tradition of our ancestors, each of us is not only invited but encouraged to discover and develop a relationship with God that works for us. And as we grow and change and live our lives, our images for and understanding of and relationship with God will grow and change. We’ll find new language, and old, to imagine and re-image this dynamic, ever-changing, amazing and confounding connection.

So as we go forth on this Shabbat of Shabbats, this Shabbat Shabbaton, this Yom Kippur Day, let us open ourselves to this death rehearsal with open eyes and hearts. We are not alone as we practice death. We are here with others. And we are here with God, even if we are not ready to claim or name or embrace the Holy One of many names. One of the deep messages of this day, and of every day, is that God is always present, always waiting for us. When we are ready to open ourselves to God’s presence, we may be surprised that God has been here, holding us, guiding us, loving us, all along.

I conclude with these lines from Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav: Kol haOlam kulo, gesher za’ar m’od: All of the world is a but a narrow bridge. V’ha ikkar lo l’fached klal. And the important thing, the essential thing is not to fear.

On this Yom Kippur Day, may we practice for death with attentive hearts, with gratitude for the presence of others, and without fear. Thus, may we open ourselves to life in this New Year, a life luminous with self-care, a life shimmering with God’s love, a life rich in joy.