Yom Kippur 2018: Living while dying, dying while living

On Rosh Hashanah morning, the Rabbi noticed little Adam was staring up at the large plaque that hung in the foyer of the synagogue. It was covered with names, and small American flags were mounted on either side of it.

The seven-year old had been staring at the plaque for some time, so the Rabbi walked up, stood beside the boy, and said quietly, “Good morning, Adam.”

“Good morning, Rabbi,” replied the young man, still focused on the plaque. “Rabbi, what is this?” Adam
asked.

“Well, it’s a memorial to all the young men and women who died in the service.”

Soberly, they stood together, staring at the large plaque. Little Adam’s voice was barely audible when he asked: “RoshHashanah or Yom Kippur?”

The plaques at the back of our sanctuary are one of the most meaningful parts of this room, for it keeps people living even after they are gone. There is a family in our community who to come shul week in and week out. The Angrists, Greg and Sara, Alexandra, Fisher, and Jonah are here all of the time. And like so many they have a routine when they walk in. I want to share it. As I stand at this pulpit, Fisher 12 years old, walks in. Walks over to the plaque. Kisses the name Alan Angrist, like so many of us kiss a mezuzah,
and then proceeds to his seat. Why is the profoundly moving for me? Because this is the plaque of his grandfather, Greg’s father, whom Fisher never met. And yet, through what I am sure are stories and picture, and elucidated by this plaque, Fisher feels the presence of his grandfather here in shul, though they never met.

To be connected, and to create that connection throughout space and time is profound, and extremely Jewish. And on this Yom Kippur day, as we prepare to recite Yizkor, how do we anticipate that nexus between life and death? I want us to examine, how do we live, even when we are dying? And how,
after we die, do we continue to live?

The first question is emotionally trying-if we know that we are going to die, or rather, when we know we are going to die, can we continue to live?

Last year, a child of one of my rabbinic colleague’s 13 year old son died, and after the funeral the boy’s mother, shared the following:

Dearest Koby;

There’s been so much going through my mind, that it has been hard to write- but this is what I was dwelling on during services this evening.

Living while dying.

As human beings, we are always in the process of dying- but very few are told that their future is limited. We don’t know when our demise will be. However, you knew that you had a disease that was incurable- and yet, you kept on living. Fully. We kept trying new treatments, and each bought you a little more time, and a little more quality of life- but the end was inevitable. We just didn’t know when it would be.

You went to school for all of 6th grade, you even made honor roll. You made it to the first day of 7th grade, and even for a bit after your bar mitzvah in December.

You engaged with your friends- peers, adults, and smaller kids… because you knew how to connect with people at their level.

You drummed and sang at our shir hadash services with all of your heart. And you provided comfort to others.

You cried to us. You screamed this wasn’t fair. You told us this was bullshit (as Abba shared at your funeral)-But you lived.

We learned from you, to live fully, and to plan. We took our Make-A-Wish trip, met the Governor, and rockstars. We bought tickets for events months in advance. We planned parties and celebrations to embrace life and the people we love. We went to San Antonio, and appreciated the generosity of friends who shared their mountain homes with us.

You totally owned your bar mitzvah- and elevated our community.

We lived, while you were dying.

We never knew if you would have another year, or month, or week. Each Shabbat, recently, we would look at one another and wonder if it was our last.

And our last Shabbat together when you put down the kiddush cup in the midst of your prayer- and just told us you were done, we cried. We cried because we knew we might never hear you recite the kiddush at our Shabbat table again.

Each moment over the past two years was marked with fear they were your lasts- last first day of school, last school photo, last birthday, last holiday celebration. For some moments, you gave us more than we expected- we made it through almost two cycles of the year.

We lived while you were dying.

We mourned while you were living.

Maybe— definitely– one of the things we learned from you is that we always have to live- we have to live
fully, because we never know what tomorrow will bring.

And you taught us how to live while you were dying.

love,

Mommy

Living while dying isn’t easy. Not everyone gets the gift, if you want to call it that, of knowing that you are going to die. But I want to share ways that we can live while dying.

First, and most immediate to my experience comes a story from a month ago, where our beloved David Sachs, lay dying in his hospital room, surrounded by his friends and family. Knowing that the end was near I had the opportunity to go to the hospital and he reached out to me and asked me, what would I say at his funeral? Delivering his eulogy last month was so deeply sad and yet so deeply meaningful because I know that Dave lived, while he was dying. He said what needed to be said to those around him and they in return, shared their feelings.

Second, a few weeks ago I was at yet another funeral. The one though I was there as “a civilian.” It was for a man named Ron Glancz. Ron’s daughter, Rachel, has been one of my closest friends since we were 4 years old. Her parents called me Rachel A and my parents called her Rachel G. Ron too knew he was dying and yet he continued to live. From his HOSPICE bed he was making phone calls to members of one of the Jewish boards he was on-not to say goodbye, but to make sure that what needed to get done for the organization, did. Ron planned his funeral-down to who would speak, what order, and who the pallbearers would be. There was a sense that just because he was dying, didn’t mean that he would stop living.

So too, I believe that we can and should use opportunities like Yom Kippur to remind ourselves that even though we are all dying, we should remember to live. This doesn’t necessarily mean scaling high walls and jumping out of airplanes! It actually means something much harder. Speaking with the people you love. Telling people how they make you feel. Embracing the good and the challenging in your relationships. Shift your behaviors or your interactions if you don’t like what you are seeing.

But there will come a point where we will die but I believe that we will continue to live. Just in a different way.

People often ask me, does Judaism believe in an afterlife. YES YES YES. The problem is Jews don’t believe in anyone who died and came back….but that doesn’t mean that we don’t believe.

We believe that both the body and soul are created by God, the two together define the individual, and both bear the responsibility for the quality of the individual life. In all cases, this is measured by obedience to God’s torah. Body and soul reunited will appear together before God for the final judgment and both will bear God’s punishment or enjoy his reward.

My colleague Rabbi David Rose once wrote ‘For more than 2,000 years this belief in an afterlife and its
combined concept of judgment has been an important part of Jewish thought. Our tradition has always taught that the righteous of all peoples have a place in this afterlife. Our vision of this eternal life is not exclusive. Nor is it clearly and definitively imagined in its detail. Jewish thinkers in every age have
speculated as to the particulars of this world to come. The great abundance of different imaginings as to the nature of eternal life reminds us that we will not be able to comprehend this future existence until the end of our days – may they be blessed and long”

So how do we continue to live after we die?

First, it is in how we are remembered:

That often means what people will say at our funerals but Ralph Waldo Emerson has a beautiful reflection. To live while dying and to live after dying he says that means: To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.

At Dave Sach’s funeral, his daughter Marlene shared a beautiful teaching by Rabbi Milton Steinberg.

“Death cannot be and is not the end of life. Man transcends death in many altogether naturalistic fashions. He may be immortal biologically through his children, in thought through the survival of his memory; in influence by virtue of the continuance of his personality as a force among those who came after him, and, ideally through his identification with the timeless things of the spirit. When Judaism speaks of immortality, it has in mind all of these.  But its’ primary meaning is that man contains something independent of the flesh and surviving it; his consciousness and moral capacity; his essential personality; a soul.”

What are our opportunities to live after dying…

  1. Yizkor gives us the opportunity to live AFTER dying-those of you here continued to give breath and life to those who have passed away
  2. Visit graves-talk about
    when I visited by grandparents graves this summer-what I shared with them-the
    reactions I got from my aunt and my cousins
  3. Naming people who
    have passed on.

But if we know that we want to find ways to live after death, is there a way for those of us who are still living to connect to those that died?

Yes. And this brings me back to the stories and thoughts of this high holiday season.

Whether it is Fisher Angrist touching the plaque. Learning the stories of those who perished on 9/11. Connecting to people like my child’s babysitter Hannah Weiss through her actions and deeds.

We can connect with them whether we knew them or not. And we can learn from those who have die. In two weeks we will be back together in observance of Yizkor for Shmini Atzeret. It is my tradition to focus on at least one person who has died in this past year, so that, just as we learn from Moses, the morning of his “yahrzeit” so too, i choose someone we can learn from after they passed. My plan this year is to focus on John McCain. A man who taught us both how to live and how to die. This morning though, I actually want to focus on Steve Jobs. Why? Because though he was far from perfect, we can continue to learn from him.

Steve Jobs’ He died a billionaire at 56yrs of Pancreatic Cancer and here are his last words on the sick bed:

At this moment, lying on the sick bed and recalling my whole life, I realize that all the recognition and wealth that I took so much pride in, have paled and become meaningless in the face of impending death.

You can employ someone to drive the car for you, make money for you but you cannot have someone to bear the sickness for you.

Material things lost can be found. But there is one thing that can never be found when it is lost –
“Life”.

When a person goes into the operating room, he will realize that there is one book that he has yet to finish reading
– “Book of Healthy Life”.

As we grow older, and hence wiser, we
slowly realize that wearing a $300 or $30 watch – they both tell the same
time…

There is a big difference between
a human being and being human.

Only a few really understand it.

NOTE: If you just want to Walk Fast,
Walk Alone! But if you want to Walk Far, Walk Together!

I started these holidays together on Erev Rosh Hashanah by inviting you on a journey. A journey of our soul. A journey of our faith. A journey of our aspirations. Of our community. Of our failings. As we prepare to say yizkor, acknowledging those who have gone on another journey, we raise a proverbial glass, as we say “lchaim.” To life. Because i do believe. That we can live while dying. And live, even after.

May the memories of your loved ones forever be a blessing.