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Yom Kippur 2

04/06/2015 07:18:00 AM


Before God created the human being, according to an legend of the Midrash, He consulted the angels of heaven. The angel of peace argued, "Let him not be created, he will bring contention into the world." But the angel of compassion countered, "Let him be created, he will bring lovingkindness into the world." The angel of truth argued, "Let him not be created, he will be deceitful and fill the world with lies." And the angel of justice countered, "Let him be created, he will attach himself to righteousness." What did God do? He threw truth into the earth and proceeded to create the Human Being.

The Rabbis knew that there is a fundamental incompatibility between human beings and truth. We don't want truth. We can't tolerate truth. Especially truth about ourselves -- our failures, our limitations, our finitude. Once a year, at Yom Kippur, Jewish tradition forces us to face the truth.

Yom Kippur is an unusual holiday. We are such a passionately life-affirming culture. We cherish and sanctify life. Any ritual law of the tradition may be suspended to save or protect a human life. We say "L'Chaim -- To Life!" over every glass of wine. But on Yom Kippur, we confront death. We rehearse death. We deny the body -- fasting (which for Jews is a form of death!), abstaining from sexual intimacy, removing our jewelry and finery, our fashionable clothes, our polished, comfortable shoes, to don the simplest of garb. Tradition dictates the wearing of a kittel -- a death shroud. In Medieval monasteries, monks slept each night in their coffins, to remind them that the wage of sin is death. That's morbid. But to don a shroud once a year, to seriously confront death, is cleansing. Because in the face of death all the rationalizations, all the excuses, all the defenses fall away, and I am forced to see who and what I really am.

The philosopher Franz Rosensweig taught that on Yom Kippur, the Jew is given the unique opportunity to see his or her life through the eyes of eternity. From the vantage of eternity, what in my life matters? What is real? What is important? What is valuable? And what, from eternity's perspective, are all the needless obsessions and worries that waste of my soul and sap my strength?

Despite all our evasions, the truth is that we don't have an endless string of tomorrows. Life is finite. And life's finitude forces us to have priorities, and makes our choices important. Pretend for a moment that you only had 25 hours to live. To whom would you run to say "thank you" or "I'm sorry" or "I love you"? What relationships would you attempt to resolve, to repair? What would you be proud of in your life? What would you regret? What would you most miss? Now, why are you waiting? I have been a rabbi long enough to know that the saddest, most bitter tears at the graveside are those for the life not lived, for the love not shared, for the tenderness not expressed, for the words unspoken.

"Teach us to number our days," prays the Psalmist, "to get us a heart of wisdom." Ordinarily a morbid thought. But once a year, confronting the truth liberates us from the bondage of illusions and excuses, so that we can begin the new year with renewed strength, with renewed vision, with renewed hope. Gemar Tov. May you be sealed in God's Book of Life for a year of sweetness and peace.

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Sat, August 15 2020 25 Av 5780