Yom Kippur Drash for Congregation Ner Shalom, 5775
הודיעני ה' קצי ומדת ימי מה–היא
Hodieni Yah kitzi umidat yamay mah hi.
"Yah," Psalm 39 says, "make my end known to me and the measure of my days."
The measure of our days - if only we could know such a thing! How we might be different, for good and for ill. How the entire emotional landscape of our lives would be altered. What would be our ambition? What would be the source of our calm? What are the things we would rush to do because there's no time to waste? What are the things we'd put off because there is?
But such knowledge is withheld from us. You'd think our cells could figure it out. That our DNA could speak it to our brains. Or that an angel might whisper in our ears who by fire and who by water, and when. But instead we live in this greatest of mysteries with this greatest of anxieties. The measure of our days. Sometimes it gets us moving in meaningful ways. And sometimes it stops us in our tracks.
I made the mistake of picking up a National Geographic that was sitting in our house the other day. Between the manatees and the mammoth tusks, I found a report on changing average life expectancies in America. And of course, average just means average. As much above as below. But still, the ages colorfully printed on the US map looked like prognoses. No, worse. They looked like destiny.
I tried to make sense of the numbers and I noticed that my mother had outlived the average female life expectancy by four years. "Oh, good for her," I thought, as a parent might kvell over a child bringing home an A on their report card. Then after a moment I melted into bitter resentment that she only outlived the average by four years.
My eyes then, nebech, drifted over to the average life expectancy for men, and I didn't like that very much either. My remaining allotment, for so it felt to me, was far too short to accomplish the things I still want. I'll probably never get to master another new language. My days for rough travel are probably over, certainly if my achey back has anything to say about it. Doubtful I'll ever go to rabbinical school. Oh, and hadn't I intended to work out and get into shape some day? So many things I figured I'd get around to. Now I don't even know if I'll get through my old papers in the shed.
This mortality and this uncertainty about time. They are always the elephant in the room, especially on Yom Kippur. Looking over our shoulders into the prayerbook, pressuring us to make amends, egging us on toward a renewed future, or, frankly, just scaring the shit out of us.
How do we make our lives what we want them to be? Now that we're old enough to feel the finiteness, how do we make our unknown number of days count? In this year of loss, in what felt like the premature loss of my mother - and what loss doesn't feel premature? - my wandering mind wondered whether she got to the things that she wanted to get to in her time. And I've concluded that she did.
One explicit piece of evidence had to do with her bucket list. Now as a disclaimer, I think that this whole bucket list concept that has evolved over these last years is a mixed blessing. It might be good as a values clarification exercise; if it causes you to do something very beautiful or meaningful that you might otherwise not have thought to do, then it's a good thing. If it just dangles before you beautiful and meaningful things that you don't actually have the means to do, then it's just a final, eleventh-hour taunt. If you really want to be Julia Roberts in "Eat, Pray, Love," then you probably needed to have started earlier and to have been, well, Julia Roberts.
But on the subject of my mother's bucket list. Last summer, in 2013, I was back home and Mom and I had shabbos dinner with our friends Dawn and Eitan in Skokie. I don't remember how the topic came up, but my mother announced that she needed to have a bucket list. I had never heard her talk like this; she never acknowledged her mortality. We all leaned closer and asked her what would be on her bucket list. She thought for a moment, and then announced, "Well, I'm not jumping out of a plane." Everyone around the table was agreeable to this. So I asked her again what would be on her bucket list. She thought some more. "Well, I'm certainly not going bungie jumping," she said with a somewhat accusatory tone, as if we were just waiting to slap bungies on her ankles and knock her off a bridge. We sat for a while in silence. After a while I pressed further. "Mom, instead of telling us what's not on your bucket list, why don't you tell us what is." She drew a blank. She couldn't think of anything. In the moment it felt a little bit like failure of imagination: there must be things she wants to do or experience that she hasn't. Then she asked us for suggestions. Exotic travel and going back to school she dismissed out of hand. The suggestions that most appealed to her included hearing music, seeing theatre, and visiting her children in California. All things that she was already doing.
It wasn't failure of imagination. My mother had achieved her ambitions. She was doing just what she wanted to be doing. Her bucket list was actually a description of her life. It seemed the only thing missing was her being able to tell her friends that she had a bucket list. But otherwise, there wasn't really anything significant that she had put off, no loose ends sitting around obviously untied.
I don't know if this kind of outcome is rare. Or as we continue to get older, do our desires scale down to match what is already working well in our lives? Either way, this is something I shamelessly wish for myself and for everyone I know. That our desires should be simple and manageable, and that we should grow into a time, if we haven't already, when we are fulfilling our desires over and over.
Hodieni Yah kitzi, what are the number of our days? The question of how we handle this particular kind of not-knowing is articulated all too clearly on Yom Kippur. The possibility that this year could be our last year, tfu tfu tfu, is mentioned more than once in our liturgy. We sing it, we declaim it, we beat our breasts with it. Yom Kippur intends this face-off with mortality to be a motivator. To impel our cheshbon hanefesh, our accounting for ourselves in the face of God and this world. And it is meant to grease the wheels of resolution in our bumpy relationships, if not making real apology easier, then at least making it pressing enough for us to do it anyway.
But it also leaves us unsettled too, vulnerable in a way that might be good, but is nonetheless alarming. By the end of the Ne'ilah service, I often feel incredible pathos, I hear myself pleading, not fully knowing who I'm pleading with. With God? Let me live, God! Let me get another crack at this! Write me in that Book! Or am I pleading with the Universe? Let me live! Universe, let these cells of mine thrive and fight off disease for a while longer! Or am I pleading with myself? Irwin! Be careful! Be safe! Don't text and drive! Or maybe I'm not pleading with myself for my life but for a change in my life. Change, already, Irwin, change! Be the person you want to be! Embody the values that you insist are important!
Yom Kippur is a hugely important check-in for us, for our people. It's hard not to be affected by it. It's hard not to emerge from it without feeling some kind of bitul hayesh, a breakdown of the ego. (No worries, we'll rebuild our egos in a jiffy.) But for this day, to feel such openness, such vulnerability, is really quite something.
I find that on this holy day there's a lot that bubbles up. Stuff that I've stored away in my cells somewhere, stuff I don't look at even though upon reflection I imagine it's always somewhere in my peripheral vision. Old stuff. Disappointments. Longings. Grudges. Shame. Desires. Experiences. Emotional memorabilia. On Yom Kippur I get a chance to look at these things directly, to turn them over in my hand like rocks from a river - examining their shapes and heft and markings, and then putting them back down again.
I do this every year. But this year, in this shmitah year, this fallow year of the Hebrew calendar, I've determined to look at what I've stored away a little bit differently. I'm going to use a shmitah lens, or two shmitah lenses actually - sort of shmitah bifocals, if you will - and I'll tell you what I mean by that.
First, just the quickest of refreshers. Shmitah is the sabbatical year - the seventh year in which Torah commands us to give the land a rest, not just a rest but a shabbos. As of 10 days ago, we are now resident in a real live shmitah year. Last week we talked about shmitah as being a kind of being-not-doing boot camp, teaching us to live in the not-knowing, to let go - for some period of time, maybe one seventh of the time - of our need to find out about and tinker with everything in sight.
BTW, anyone make any headway with that this week?
But there are two other elements of shmitah, two lenses that I think are worth using as we look at all of these things we've stored up over time, especially the painful things. The first shmitah lens has to do with looking for sustenance. In the shmitah laws laid out in Torah, God anticipates the people's concern that they will not have enough to eat to make it through the fallow period, the time of not-knowing. So God promises abundance in the 6th year that can carry the people through.
So the first lens that I want to use this year is that. What, of the things that I've sacked away in my spirit actually has the ability to offer me some sustenance? What of my old interests, friendships, skills, delights and longings are still in there somewhere? What are the elements of me that at some point I abandoned, perhaps because they didn't seem useful enough, or they were too time consuming, or they came to feel childish, or maybe other people told me not to value those things and I believed them. What are the things I felt shame about still because I was taught that those things are shameful, that now could offer me some real joy, some new energy, some delight, some strength, some wholeness? These life experiences, even the difficult ones, can be a source, a stockpile, of nourishment during times of uncertainty. Times of uncertainty like the Biblical shmitah year, like Yom Kippur, like, well, always. So with this first lens maybe I can identify what there is to haul out of mothballs. Even what we rejected in our younger years can still become a cornerstone of our future lives. Consider it an inheritance, a gift, a time capsule, from an earlier you.
The second shmitah lens also involves that collection of stuff stored in our psyches. And it connects to another element of the Biblical sabbatical year, and that is the release of debts. Not only do the fields stop being thrall to our will, so do our debtors. Obligations are let go.
So I think there's something here for us to consider on Yom Kippur about release of obligations. It closely parallels much of our Yom Kippur liturgy, including the Kol Nidre prayer, where we ask to be released from vows we made. But I'd like to propose we look at the obligations that we've carried internally, which might now be ready to be let go.
Much of that stuff had a quality of being put away in anticipation. Socked away for later. But for what? My sister at last put words to this as she was looking through the umpteenth construction paper masterpiece of her grade school career. She said, "It was like all of this was put away so that it could be looked at and appreciated again. And now that's what we are doing."
And once she said that, it was as if something had been released. Our obligation to these things melted away even while our love for them didn't. They stopped being there for us to store for yet another generation. They were there for us to appreciate and let go of. And that's what we were able to start doing. Appreciate, maybe talk about, maybe even photograph in special cases, and then let go.
Now this happened to be lovely stuff, nostalgic stuff, but I think the same holds true about anything from our pasts that obligates us, that binds us: old disappointments, regrets, grudges, shame. Those things might be deserving of some appreciation too. We can appreciate them for what they say about who we were once; what we longed for, what we dreamed of, even if it didn't come true. We can appreciate them as souvenirs of what we suffered and what we survived. We can offer our appreciation and some forgiveness to those artifacts of difficult times. And we can also consider letting them go.
I know it's easy to just get up and say, "let go of the things that hold you back." It's not like that hasn't occurred to any of us before. It's not like we haven't spent good time and possibly lots of money on therapy trying to do just that. It might not even be doable. But still, on this Yom Kippur, the one that falls during the shmitah year, when we are released from obligations, it might be a good time to revisit this project. To adopt this shmitah view: that this year we are not under any obligation to our old grudges. We are not under any obligation to our hurt feelings. We are not under any obligation to old shame that continues to bully us even at this advanced age. So even though it's difficult, perhaps we can at least make the effort to imagine what it would be like to let go.
Imagining. After all, we're talking about the state of our spirits. It is something in that spiritual world that we wish to shift. And so using our imaginations is a legitimate tool. The Slonimer Rebbe gave the view that a way to enter Shabbat with a true feeling of Shabbat peace, is to imagine that all your work is done. Such an imagining is completely ineffective if your goal is to finish your work. But if your goal is to feel Shabbat, then it's the right prescription. Similarly, imagination can work here, I think. Of course it's difficult to let go of things we've held onto, even destructive things that for whatever reason have become in some way precious to us. But a reasonable first step might be to imagine. Imagine how it would feel if we were released from this bond. What lightness would enter us? What light - what Holy Spark - might we see reflecting in that now emptier mirrored chamber of our soul? Imagine feeling that way right now, as if the work were already done, the hard thing released. Feel it now, and perhaps that in itself will be a big enough step.
Hodieni Yah kitzi. Our time is uncertain, our future is uncertain. We come here for Yom Kippur, year after year, because the future is uncertain. We are ignorant of the measure of our days. We don't know if we will hit the National Geographic averages or, God willing, 30 years beyond them. We don't know whether we will meet sickness or sorrow or have a year in which we are blessedly, blissfully spared. But let us consider carrying these three shmitah lessons with us through this Holy Day and into the year beyond. And they are these:
(1) You have what you need to get through. Your abundant soul has stored away resources for you, resources that can sustain you. Look and see what's there! There might be some lovely stuff that you long ago shelved that could still become the cornerstone of your future self.
(2) You can let go of your obligation to what harms you. If it hobbles you, if it haunts you, if it's not helping you see your Holy Spark, maybe you don't owe it anything anymore. Appreciate what it's meant to you, offer it some love and forgiveness. And then let it go. Or, if that's too much to ask, at least begin imagining how letting go might feel. And finally,
(3) Your bucket list is now. There is no future that is certain. You can only be sure of what you are doing at this moment. So whatever you dream of inviting into your life so you can have greater richness later, you have to begin inviting now. There is a legend you probably know about the two angels that follow you home on Erev Shabbat. One is your defender, one your adversary. If your house is aglow and ready for Shabbat, your defender says, "So may it be next week," and the adversary is obliged to say, "Amen." But if your house is cold and unready for Shabbat, the adversary says, "So may it be next week," and your defender is obliged to say, "Amen." And although it is told in this folkloric way, there is an underlying real-life truth here. What you do now is in fact your practice. If you want Shabbat, you need to be doing Shabbat, not waiting for a time that is better suited, or Shabbat will never be your practice. The same can be said of anything on your bucket list. If you want it in your life, now is the time to invite it in. Resolving to invite it in later is no guarantee of anything. All it means is that today you have a practice of making resolutions about the future.
So that's it. The shmitah lessons. Activate your hidden resources. Release your obligation to what doesn't serve you. And live your bucket list now. Because we don't know how long we have to put it off. And when your angel sees that you are in fact living the life you want, the life you value, it will say, "So be it," and the adversary will be obliged to say, "Amen."
Here is a poetic treatment of these themes by Ner Shalom's Poet Laureate, Sally Churgel: Shmita Year for the Heart.
Some thoughts here were impelled by two chant settings by Rabbi Shefa Gold: "Inviting Our Future Selves" and "The Cornerstone." Gratitude to Ellen Atzilah Solot for always making me think.