Yom Kippur 5773
Rabbi Joe Blair
Congregation Beth El, Harrisonburg VA
Temple House of Israel, Staunton VA
“Number our Days”
Shanah tovah, Chag Sameach.
Jews are crazy.
In the New York Times for September 25th, 2012 – today/yesterday – in the NY Region section, there was an article by Joseph Berger which describes a large room set aside in the Bobov Hasids' synagogue in Borough Park, Brooklyn, with medical equipment and cots set up so that about twenty people at a time who are too frail or too ill to be able to fast for Yom Kippur will be given intravenous nutrition drips to assist them so they won't have to eat. They will lie on cots for 20 to 30 minutes at a time, receiving these fluids, then go back to the service. Last year, 200 people took part in this – more are expected this year, each saying that they had approval to do so from both a doctor and a rabbi. And it is not just there – the same service is offered in Hasidic communities in Williamsburg, NY, and other places. This, despite the fact that the 'affliction of the soul' prescribed for today does not specifically say fasting, and that rabbis have consistently held that preserving life trumps almost any other commandment, so those on critical medications, too frail, or in a condition that would be endangered by fasting are not only exempted from fasting, but actually obliged, required to eat.
And this extreme behavior, behaving in a fashion that can endanger life, seems to fly in the face of this holiday, when we are praying to be sealed in the book of life for a good year! How can we pray for life when flirting with death? Is this simply aberrant behavior? Not typical Jewish thought or practice? Completely outside the mainstream and the norm of Judaism today? Can we, should we just write these folks off as crazies, not like us, not representative of Jews and Judaism?
The short answer is, no. To understand why, we need to look at what Yom Kippur is, what it means and represents.
Aside from the fasting and sitting in shul, praying for forgiveness and for life for much of the day, the symbolism and meaning of Yom Kippur carry a very specific image and message. Here is some of what we abstain from doing on Yom Kippur:
And here are some things we do on Yom Kippur that are not usual:
refrain from wearing leather
refrain from wearing jewelry
wear a kittel or white robe
So I ask you - who else abstains from and/or does these things?
The dead don't eat, drink, wash, annoint, study, work, or engage in sexual behaviors, they don't wear leather or jewelry, and traditionally they are dressed simply in a white linen or cotton shroud. In short, Yom Kippur is a day of rehearsal, a foretaste of our death.
Not that I want to be morbid or depressing! On the contrary, by giving us a day to be in touch with the reality that we will all one day die, we are sent back to life for the rest of this year with a rejuvenated sense of purpose, a reinvigorated desire to participate in lving, and a renewed appreciation for the precious gift of life. And maybe that will help us to appropriately “number our days”, as we say in the liturgy.
I want you to understand, however, that this is not a 'one-day wonder', not something that we recognize on Yom Kippur, and forget about the rest of the year. It is an opportunity for us to absorb this lesson, to take it to heart, and to act on it each time it appears before us. In that way, we will be enriched, and we can affect the world in which we live.
How do we do that?
It has to do in part with how we deal with life and death.
In life, we all know, there are those among us who become ill, or who are 'unable to go out and come in', in the words of Moses towards the end of his life, which we read just last Shabbat.
At that point, there is a mitzvah which is incumbent on all of us, the mitzvah of bikkur cholim, visiting the sick to comfort and cheer them. I will talk about this mitzvah more later this year, but for now, I simply point out that it is the obligation of every Jew to take this on.
When the person who is ill comes towards the end of their time, they enter a state called 'goses' – one who is presumed to be, technically, within 72 hours of death. Of course, we don't really know specifically in most cases when death may come, or if the person will in fact rally and recover. Nonetheless, Jewish law prescribes that during this period of goses, the person is to be given all possible means to enhance their comfort - physical, emotional, and spiritual – but nothing that will disturb them is to be done in their presence or to them. The medical personnel, family, and community members are responsible to provide comfort and a peaceful environment, to the greatest degree possible, easing any concerns that the person may have in this time of transition.
Once the person has died, the family members enter a new status, called 'aninut'. Their major focus is to prepare for the funeral of the deceased. They can do so themselves, or they can call on others to assist them.
Either way, there are in a special status or state, almost limbo, because their focus is still on the deceased and the honor due them, but they are obliged to also think about practical matters, things like a cemetery plot, which funeral home to deal with, what sort of funeral arrangements are to be made, how much it costs, an obituary, and who will take care of the arrangements.
This can be a really difficult time for the family. Those who are able to think ahead to their own death can ease this with pre-planning and leaving written instructions about what they want to happen. Again, I will talk about this more through the year, but not today.
Now we come to the heart of the process, and the place that the imagery and symbolism of Yom Kippur appear in this process.
Whether the body returns to and/or remains at home until the funeral, as in the past, or is taken to a funeral home prior to the funeral, as is more customary today, this is where the Chevrah Kadishah can enter the picture. The Chevrah Kadishah, or Holy Society, is a group, usually of volunteers, who will take on the task of performing the ritual of Taharah, purifying the body and preparing it for burial in a caring, traditional Jewish fashion. Some of the components of what they do include washing (both for cleanliness and ritually), combing the hair, cleaning the nails, drying the body, dressing it in shrouds, including tying the knots in a particular fashion, placing the body in a casket (if one is to be used), closing the casket, and reciting the liturgy that runs along with this entire process.
This is connected to Yom Kippur because the shrouds in which the deceased is dressed are modeled on the description of the clothing of the High Priest; the knots that are used are tied in a fashion that represents the letters of a name of God, as incorporated in the clothing of the High Priest; the preparations follow the sequence, and the liturgy used is drawn, in part, from the same sources as the liturgy of the High Holiday service where we describe and imagine the High Priest preparing to be ritually pure and ready to enter the Holy of Holies and encounter God. In a sense, we are readying this deceased person to be the High Priest, and to enter God's presence.
As you might imagine, those in the Chevrah Kadishah generally take this task with great seriousness, and most see it as a way to honor the deceased, to serve the community, and to praise God.
We read that the High Priest did not go to the Tabernacle alone, but was accompanied by throngs of people as an honor guard. So too, with the deceased. Ideally, there is someone with the deceased from the time of death until the funeral, serving as Shomer (guard). In many cases, our community has been too small, and there have been too few who were able or willing to take on this role, but we have done the best we could. As with the High Priest, throngs do accompany the deceased – the process called levaya - on the way to enter the presence of God, by attending the funeral and the burial. The similarity to Yom Kippur ends with the funeral, when the deceased enters the holy of holies to encounter God, at the moment of burial. The deceased is remembered in the community and by loved ones through the mourning period, and on each of the holidays when Yizkor is recited, as well as the Yahrzeit – the anniversary of death.
With the conclusion of the funeral service, the attention of the community turns towards those who are living, whose status changes from 'Aninut' to 'Aveilim', mourners. The community takes on the mitzvah of 'Nichum Aveilim', comforting the mourners. This is when Shiva begins, the meal of condolence is provided, and community members come to the home of the mourners to show their support.
I am fairly sure that some of you have been experiencing an 'ick' factor today.
I realize that this topic is not to everyone's taste, but let me share with you the view of a fellow student in the Gamliel Institute's Chevrah Kadishah courses. Rick Light describes his participation with the Chevrah Kadishah as the joyous process of 'mid-wifing a soul' as it begins it's journey of ascent. Whatever you may believe about what happens after death, this image is both beautiful, and powerful. Anyone who has ever had any experience with birth and ushering in new life knows that the process is not pristine, pain free, or easy, but the results are amazing and miraculous, and it is well worth what it took in the process.
In this light, the work of Chevrah Kadishah can be seen as both sad and joyous, as are so many of life's liminal moments, those instants of transition and change. And in that way, the work of the Chevrah Kadishah shares both with the role of the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest, and with all of us on Yom Kippur.
I will close with the request that you think about learning about the work of the Chevrah Kadishah. Those who think it is something they would be able to take on, please speak to me. And those who are sure it is not for them, I hope, will consider asking that this ritual be performed for them at their own death, so that members of the community can express their care, their affection, and their desire to serve through this ritual, when that time comes. I am happy to respond to any questions you may have, to talk to you about this, and to answer as best I can whatever concerns you may have. Perhaps in this way, when we talk about 'numbering our days' we will mean not 'counting our days,' but 'making our days count.'
It is customary that the members of the Chevrah Kadishah not be publicly named. I will follow that custom, but here, today, I offer my thanks publicly to each of them, and acknowledge the significant and meaningful role that they have undertaken in our community. They are few in number, but they have done important things that have meant a great deal. Chazak, Chazak, venitchazek. May they go from strength to strength, and may they be strengthened.
Similarly, may our community, and each of us, enter this new year ritually and spiritually pure, and be sealed for a good and sweet year.
Gmar Chatimah LeshanahTovah Umteukah!