Practicing for Death, Practicing for Life Sermon for Yom Kippur 5775 by Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell

Practicing for Death, Practicing for Life in this Place 

Temple House of Israel, Staunton, VA

Temple Beth El, Harrisonburg, VA

10 Tishrei 5775

3-4 October 2014

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, PhD.


Welcome back. Were here again, in this place.

Bmakom hazeh.

For some of us, this place is familiar. For some of us, this is a new place.

Lets all take a moment to look around this space, this place, hamakom hazeh.

When I was young, I attended a school where we taught not only how to think but also how to behave. We were taught that we should walk into a space, particularly any gathering space, with eyes straight ahead. Once we had found our seats, we should not turn around; rather our composed stature would ground us and prepare us for whatever would come next.

Tonight, I ask you to follow a different direction. Look around, look up, behind you, then in front of you. Notice something you may not have noticed before about this place, haMakom ha Zeh.


HaMakom means this place. It is also one of any names for the Holy One, for Gods Self.

In Genesis, Parashat VaYetzei, Jacob begins what becomes his formative spiritual journey, and the very first night after leaving home, he dreams of a ladder with angels going up and coming down on it. The Holy One appears and speaks to Jacob, and when Jacob awakes, he says, Mah norah haMakom haZeh!How awesome is this place! (Genesis 28:17)

How Awesome is the ONE who is in every place.

We have returned to this place tonight to be grounded, to remember who we are, to reclaim our identity as Jews. To remember and recover, in community, the why of our lives, the reason for our strivings, the ways we are held and challenged by our Judaism.

Mah norah haMakom haZeh!

A couple of weeks ago, I spent part of a day helping my best friend go through her closets because, after 41 years in this house, she is going to move. In three separate closets we found her fathers neckties, her former husband's tuxedos, and many items belonging to her mother: pants, jackets, blouses, and more. As gently as I could, I asked her if she was ready to part with the clothing of these three family members, all of whom are dead.

How do clothes, and other belongings, represent life, or, conversely, feed our fears of death? What are we carrying forward into this New Year that may be pulling us back into the past, or into our fears? How can we go forward, to new projects, new hopes, new homes, in this New Year?

Rosh HaShana is a call to life, with over 100 shofar blasts, with our declaration that Today is the Birth Day of the World. Ten days ago, with pageantry and ritual and symbolic foods for long life and wisdom, we sang the New Year into being. Together we proclaimed, may this year, 5775 bring to us and the whole House of Israel life and peace, joy and exultation, redemption and comfort. We ate sweet foods and engaged in conversation, strengthening community, affirming our connection. Some of us stood on the banks and cast away our transgressions, reaffirming life and hope. In synagogues and homes, in the practices of the devout and those who call themselves secular, the message of Rosh Hashana is simple and strong: CHOOSE LIFE.

Yom Kippur is a call to death. Throughout the 25 hours of this day, we descend into death, as we fast, eschew bathing, wear simple white clothes, go barefoot or wear no leather, and spend the day in the synagogue, turning our backs on the world. We leave both the natural and the material worlds, distancing ourselves from commerce and community, from the cacophony of the marketplace and the comforts of home. We enter into the subdued light of the synagogue, read prepared liturgies, and chant the Torah with the particular trope of these Awesome days. The day stretches on, and we go more deeply inward, discovering, perhaps, a well of quiet of which we were unaware. We may fear the darkness. But descending, find light.

In A Bride for One Night, Professor Ruth Calderon, the Israeli Knesset member, retells Talmudic tales. In one, she writes that when the Angel of Death was sent by the Holy One to Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi, The Angel of Death knew from experience that escorting sages to their deaths, whether they were still in their prime or had reached ripe old age, was not a difficult task.  Sages were prepared to die; they were not shocked and startled by his arrival like other men. With sages the Angel of Death was spared the routine crying and pleading and the paralyzed looks of those not ready to depart from the world. Perhaps the little pride they had countered the fear of death, overcoming that momentary pain when the soul escapes the body. Perhaps they were consoled by the fact that the Torah they had learned in their lifetimes would secure them a place in heaven. In any case the Angel of Death tended to interact politely with sages, as if conversing with equals. (p. 101).

On Yom Kippur, we all become sages. On Yom Kippur, we are welcomed into the world of death. We wrestle with our pride, in both communal and individual confessions. And together, we study Torah.

Here are two pieces of Torah that we study on Yom Kippur:

We began the seamless flow of this day with Kol Nidre. listening to the words that remind us that we are absolutely accountable for everything that comes out of our mouths.{C}[1]{C} The version of Kol Nidre that we use names the words that we may speak between this Yom Kippur and the nextMi Yom Kippurim zeh  ad yom Kippurim ha ba, and expresses the hope that we use words judiciously, intentionally, and with care. Kol Nidre is understood to serve us as a prophylactic, a protective shield, if we are forced to utter words we do not believe, to articulate views with which we disagree, to acquiesce to opinions or positions we do not hold.

The Kol Nidre prayer, then, reminds us to be mindful of our speech even as it says, youre covered. The community, those who witness Kol Nidre, has our back. Were not alone if we stumble in our speech. The words we will say, from this Yom Kippur to the next, are protected.

What of the vows we make willingly, without coercion, with joy and intention, with clarity and commitment?

Tonight, I would like to challenge each of us, as we enter into this day of discernment, to consider a vow, a commitment, that we WANT to and CAN keep in the coming year: ““Mi Yom Kippurim zeh  ad yom Kippurim ha ba.

I would like each of us to spend some time on this day that begins tonight, this Sabbath of Sabbaths, this day like no other in the Jewish calendar, thinking about one vow that we can make to ourselves that we can PRACTICE for the next year.

I looked up that word, and heres how the dictionary helps us:

rehearse, run through, go over/through, work on/at; polish, perfect.

train, prepare, go through one's paces.

carry out, perform, observe.

What would you like to work on, polish, and observe this year?

What is one achievable ongoing practice, commitment, engagement FOR YOU in the new year that begins now?

Weve all done thismany, many times. Weve all started projects that weve then put aside. Weve all made commitments that, for a range of reasons, weve not completed or followed through on. We may be jaded, or resistant. Not again!

Can we make this year differentby choosing ONE ONGOING COMMITMENT TO OURSELVES THAT, a year from now, we will be able to say, I worked on this.

The Torah portion that we read tomorrow includes these words:

Ki haMitzvah hazot asher anochi mitzavcha hayom lo niflate he vlo rchocha heelo va shamayim hee

The opportunity which You have given us today is not too hard for you, nor too remote; it is not in the heavensno, it is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, and you can do it.

On this Yom Kippur day, each of us, I believe, can become sages, committing ourselves to living fully, even with the knowledge that each of us will die. The sages knew that looking death in the eye can help us to embrace life. I want to encourage each of us to do that: to immerse ourselves in the work of this Yom Kippur Day and to go forth into this year with a renewed sense of the powerand the beautyof life, and our own ability to increase that power and beauty.

Do you, like my friend, like me, have closets that need attention, belongings and memories that need to be sorted through?

Another friend, Susan, told me that as she prepared to move, she delightedly engaged in what she called revisionist history. I kept the mementos and the papers and books from the happy times in my life. I discarded all the rest.

This is a perfect time of year for us to clean our hearts closets. This is challenging work, but not impossible. We all have, intentionally or unintentionally, kept memories, and grudges, costumes and protective clothing that we no longer need or want. Weve begun a new year, and to better live in the present, we need to acknowledge, honor, and move beyond the past. For some of us, this means packing up our sorrows. Someone else will, perhaps, know how to use them. {C}[2]{C} And we, less burdened, can move on.

What is your vow, your commitment for this new year, Mi Yom Kippurim zeh  ad yom Kippurim ha ba that will help you move into this New Year with a greater sense of purpose, of clarity, of being fully yourself? This is your one precious life. Whatever your age, whatever your capacity, as this new year begins, you can claim your freedom and chart your next moves, moves towards life, towards health, towards engagement, towards service.

I want to encourage each of us here to identify ONE practice you would like to beginor set your mind to beginningfor yourself. This is between you and yourself, although, if appropriate, your commitment can involve service to another.

Your commitment to life might be as simple as spending 30 minutes a week walking outside. Or learning the Hebrew alphabet. Or taking up piano again. Or writing to an aging or lonely friend or relative once a month. Or volunteering, gardening, or learning carpentry. Or researching and then giving time or money to a cause or campaign you believe in.

What will enable you to mobilize your heart and claim an opportunity that is waiting for YOU in 5775?

By attending to our lives with intention and clarity, we are, consciously or not, preparing to meet the Angel of Death. Like the sages, each of us can cultivate equanimity, developing the muscle of calm so that when our time comes, we are not shocked or startled. We may not welcome the Angels knock, but we may acknowledge the inevitability of its arrival.

I invite you to write down your vow, your commitment, and to seal it in a self-addressed envelope. As you leave this service, you will find note cards and envelopes and pens at the front and at the rear of the sanctuary. I will collect the sealed envelopes. Three months from now, as the month of December draws to a close and the Hebrew month of Tevet begins, I will mail your letter to you. You will then have an opportunity to see how youve done for the first quarter of this new year, and to renew or revise your vow. Youll keep growing as the seasons and the months change. You will be making your way through the Jewish year, and through your own life. How alive will you be to each days opportunities and challenges?

In a few weeks, we will read Parashat VaYetze. Wherever we are on our own journeys,  I hope that we will hear Jacobs words echo in your own experience of the New Year that is unfolding: Mah norah haMakom haZeh: How amazing is this place; how fortunate am I to be here, now, in this place.


{C}[1] Alan Lew, This is Real and You are Absolutely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation (Boston: Little Brown, 2003).

{C}[2] Johnny Cash, “Pack Up Your Sorrows”