You’ve probably heard it before. I know that I’ve said it before from this very spot on this night in years past: that Yom Kippur comes to us shrouded as a rehearsal for our death.
Yom Kippur asks us to imagine that we are living the last day, preparing for our last breath. Traditionally, we wear white like the shrouds in which Jews are buried. We recite vidui or confession just as those facing death traditionally do. We reject those activities, just for one day, that are life-affirming like washing and eating and drinking – to just be. Just a body and a soul. So that we can get clear on that which is most important to us.
If Yom Kippur is a rehearsal, a run-through, a practice, a wake-up call… then we must ask: what can we learn from death?
How will this confrontation with our own mortality help us to truly live?
As some of you in our congregation may know, my mother, Melanie Starkweather, zichrona livracha, may her memory be for a blessing, died just three short months ago.
She had diabetes. She got an infection that probably could have been treated had she gone to see the doctor earlier. But she didn’t and it went into her bloodstream. She developed sepsis and from there, her major organs began to shut down, most notably her lungs. She died twelve days after being admitted to the hospital. Following the wishes that she had made clear to us on prior occasions, she died five and half hours after her sister–my aunt, my father, my sister, and I allowed the doctors to remove her from life support. She died at 1:35am as I held her hand.
In the hours before her death while her breath slowed, while I was holding her hand, someone shared a talk with me, a talk given by Vice President Joe Biden on coping with loss. It was a talk from three years before that referred back to when he had lost his first wife and son to a car accident forty years prior. This talk had resurfaced because his grown son, Beau Biden, had just died from brain cancer the day before.
And his words felt like they were written for me in that moment.
He said, “There will come a day – I promise you… when the thought of your son or daughter, or your husband or wife, [and I read into it, or your mother] will bring a smile to your life before it brings a tear to your eye… It will happen.”
Right then, for me, it was all about tears and mourning over experiences that would now never be had and conversations that would remain unspoken and it still is very much the same today, but it was comforting to hear affirmation of that which I prayed to be true, of that which I have shared with many families here: that one day, one day far off, the good memories would surround the one that was being made right then in that moment, the one in which my breath felt like it was disappearing from me as quickly as it was for my mother.
In my experience thus far in loss and in grieving, and in helping many through their grieving, I have found that the process of mourning is a lot like parenting.
Among the obligations a parent has for their children such as teaching them Torah and a trade, the Talmud tells us it is also a parent’s obligation to teach children how to swim. That is, a parent must teach a child how to survive, how to be on one’s own.
The goal of parenting is to let go, to push children to swim, to survive in the world without us.
Mourning, grieving, it’s like the arc of parenting. And we as the mourners – we’re the children. At first, our tradition holds us so close like a mother, like a father and then slowly, slowly, it prepares us to live life without a hand constantly gripping our own.
Rabbi Jonah Pesner compares the process of mourning to his father’s teaching him how to swim. He shares, “At first, I knew his hands were still there and I would test to make sure; ultimately I swam away and was on my own. He died when I was still a teen, not many years after he taught me to swim.”
There are milestones in parenting. And there are milestones in mourning.
They both begin with a period of intensity. Birth. Death. There is flailing and there is mess. There is a surrealness to life. There is beauty and awe and fear. And then reality sets in. You have an infant in your arms, a birth certificate with a name. You hear earth thudding onto a casket and there is a death certificate with a name.
This birth is real. This death is real.
And then, God-willing, community is there to hold you, to provide a meal, to visit, to let you know that you are thought of and cared for. And sometimes… even in the midst of community, you still feel alone. But you come to appreciate the sounds of life around you. Those helping you in your frail state as you begin to accept your new status in this world. As mom or dad. As mourner.
And just as parents eventually emerge from their home, slowly integrating themselves back into the world of life around them, shiva, too comes to a close as symbolically, mourners return to the movement of life with a traditional walk around the neighborhood.
And time moves. We count life in weeks. She is two weeks old. Or, it has been two weeks since she passed. And then we count in months.
And slowly our infant is no longer an infant, but a baby – no, a toddler and she is cruising and then walking away. And the wounds are healed but the scars remain as we light the yartzheit candle and begin to let go.
Let the toddler roam, allow ourselves to let go of our deepest grief…
From the poet Mary Oliver, a poem that has held me these last three months:
To live in this world
you must be able to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.
Our high holy day liturgy in the text of Unetaneh Tokef vocalizes this same message to us, but in different language.
To live in this world, our text tells us to do these three things: teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah.
When the harshness of life is upon us, we turn to these three things to temper that harshness.
To live in this world you must love what is mortal, that is teshuvah, that’s the process of real life.
Teshuvah, often translated as repentance or change, literally translates as ‘turning’ and is ultimately about the process of again and again getting back on the path of living life… To love what is mortal is to recognize and accept all of that which makes us and the ones around us human, our light along with our flaws.
To hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it – that’s tefillah, that’s prayer, that’s faith in love. That’s what faith is – it’s recognizing our connectedness to something beyond ourselves, to God, to other human beings. It’s knowing and accepting the painful vulnerability that faith in others around us implies. Existing only for ourselves is not and will be never be enough… so even when it is painful, even when we know that we will lose, we hold the mortal against our bones… because that is all we have.
And when the times comes to let it go, let it go… And that is tzedakah, that’s the giving of yourself. It’s far beyond the notion of monetary tzedakah, the collection of coins. No - It’s the loving, compassionate, vulnerable giving of one’s self. It’s strength through sacrifice. It’s strength through internalizing the core teachings of a life and living those teachings out each and every day.
It’s me taking my mom’s greatest gift, which was love and not hoarding it and shutting it away, but giving it away instead and sharing it with those around me.
When the times comes to let it go, let it go.
From the poet Merrit Malloy:
Love doesn't die,
So, when all that's left of me
Give me away.
Tzedakah, giving, loving, letting go.
When the baby is ready to toddle, let them go. When the memories no longer burn, loosen your grip over them and let them go…
Because letting go isn’t goodbye. No. It’s simply movement along the arc of life.
The toddler will walk back and find their parent once again. The memories will remain, but now they will serve to bring you more smiles than tears. They will hold you up rather than tear you down. The love that was given to you, don’t let it die, give it away.
In the V’ahavta taken from Deuteronomy, we’re told to place words of Torah upon our hearts, al l’vavecha. And the question is asked: why does it not tell us to place Torah in our hearts? Why al, why upon? It is because as we normally are, like we are on most days, our hearts are closed. So instead, we place them upon our hearts, on top of them until one day, our hearts break and the words finally fall in.
Here we are, on Yom Kippur, this rehearsal for death and our hearts are broken open and we are vulnerable and we can, if we allow it, let the words finally fall in.
Here we are at this confrontation – no, that’s not the right word – here we are at our acceptance of our own mortality, at the time when we traditionally invoke the memories of our loved ones who have left this world, at the time when we set our lives in motion for our re-birth at the end of tomorrow…
Here we are and we need to ask ourselves: What can we learn about life from death?
David Brooks, in his new book The Road to Character, gives us a gift when he compares what he calls resume virtues and eulogy virtues. “The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?”
As we consider this past year, as we consider our lives, we must ask ourselves: Are we living for our resume virtues or our eulogy ones?
Brooks writes, “Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character. But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys. Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self.”
This time, this time that we have on Yom Kippur – it is our somber, but precious reminder to notice that gap and work to close it to the best of our abilities.
As we consider our lives, Brooks urges us not to ask, “[W]hat do I want from life?” Rather, we should ask: “[W]hat is life asking of me?”
Asked another way: how do we love what is mortal and do teshuvah, how we hold it against our bones and have faith and do tefillah, and how do we let it go, spread our love wide and give and do tzedakah? How do we live, how do we live with purpose?
At a time when our public discourse is often infused with a certain mean-spiritedness that we play witness to both in politics and in pop culture, when public conversation thrives on the outrageous rather than the substantive, we need to make space in our hearts and in our days to ponder the moral course of our lives.
We are a culture that celebrates external success and achievement. We are a culture that celebrates the frivolous and the now.
But we have a choice.
We can accept that culture and let it shape us, define us… or… we can shift the conversation – at least for ourselves and for those around us. What we need, and in the clearest of moments, we know we crave is a culture of deep meaning; we crave conversation on purpose. We know in our hearts that the development of our souls needs more attention than the development of our resumes.
And so… let us imagine, if you will, that we have a jar. Let us imagine that we are blessed with the privilege of being able to fill up our jar.
And so, first, we fill it with rocks, the big stuff… and then we add in pebbles, which trickle down between the rocks… and then we pour in sand, which trickles down between the pebbles… and then we pour in water and the water fills in every empty crevice until finally, finally our jar is full.
But – let’s think - if we were to fill that jar in any other order… say, begin with the sand first followed by the pebbles – can you picture it? … well then there would be no room left for the rocks.
This jar – it’s our life.
We often run to fill our jars with the non-important and non-essential, with the sand and the pebbles. But when we fill our jars with only sand, then we find we have no room left for the rocks, for the big stuff, for the important and the essential and the sacred.
It’s your jar. It’s your life. And we need to ask ourselves: Is there room for the rocks?
When we fill our jars, when we prioritize our lives, let us choose to put the rocks in first. Let us choose our eulogy values, our kindness, our compassion, our ability to lift someone up rather than push someone down, our devotion to people and let us choose to put them in first.
When Rabbi Jaffe, when my mentor and my friend, Howard delivered my mother’s eulogy, he did not share the virtues of a resume; he shared the values of a life. The values of love. And that is the highest testament to any human being that I can think of.
We all will have our eulogies read. “Days are scrolls. Write on them only what you want remembered.” And the words are being written right now and every day.
These are the days of awe. They are meant to touch us and change us. And to help us find the strength we need to do this sacred work.
I know that I have been touched and changed.
As I sat over there on Rosh HaShanah ten days ago at the beginning of these Days of Awe, I found myself in tears. I cried because I realized after many years of my mother being home-bound due to illness and lack of mobility that it was going to be the first time that my mom, Melanie Starkweather, z”l was going to be with me while I delivered a sermon.
These days come to touch us, change us, and give us strength.
I find strength in knowing that she is with me and I am not alone.
I believe that none of us are.
When we are weary and we feel alone, let us glean strength from the powerful, last words of Adon Olam:
B’yado afkid ruchi.
B’eit ishan v’a’era
V’im ruchi g’viati
Adonai li. V’lo ira.
Into God’s hand, I place my spirit - when I sleep and when I wake. And with my spirit and my body, God is with me. I am not afraid.
I find in these words a response to loneliness and to loss; these lines sing to us of the comfort that comes in knowing and feeling God, the comfort that comes in the connection of knowing that we are a part of something much bigger and grander than we can possibly imagine, the comfort that comes when we love what is mortal, when we hold it against our bones, and when the time comes, we let it go.
Adonai li. V’lo ira. God is with me. I am not afraid.
 Vice President Joe Biden as quoted here: http://www.vox.com/2015/5/30/8693325/joe-biden-beau
 Talmud, Kiddushin 29a.
 Rabbi Jonah Pesner as quoted here: http://www.religionnews.com/2015/06/04/splainer-sheryl-sandberg-jewish-way-mourning/
 Mary Oliver, In Blackwater Woods.
 Merrit Malloy, Epitaph.
 Deuteronomy 6:6.
 Based on “The Broken-Open Heart: Living with Faith and Hope in the Tragic Gap,” Parker Palmer, Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, March/April 2009. http://www.couragerenewal.org/PDFs/PJP-WeavingsArticle-Broken-OpenHeart.pdf
 David Brooks in The Moral Bucket List adapted from The Road to Character. The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/opinion/sunday/david-brooks-the-moral-bucket-list.html?_r=0
 The story of the jar and the rocks from which I have adapted here is a story I have heard many times before. I am, unfortunately, unaware of its original author.
 Bachya ibn Pakuda
 My translation of the last stanza of Adon Olam.