“Our origin is dust and our end is dust. At the hazard of our life we earn our bread. We are like a fragile vessel, like the grass that withers, the flower that fades, the shadow that passes, the cloud that vanishes, the wind that blows, the dust that floats, the dream that flies away. But You, Sovereign of all – Are the Living and Everlasting God.”
These are the words of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer that we recite throughout the High Holyday period. The words speak of the fleeting nature of life, all life, our life, and of the everlasting eternity of the Divine. This is the mindset with which we begin Rosh Hashannah… On Yom Kippur, however, we dive much deeper.
On Yom Kippur, there is a tradition to wear white, as a symbol of heavenly angels and as some believe – of our Jewish burial shards. We stop eating and drinking, those practices which keep us alive and signal that we are living beings. One of the prohibitions of Yom Kippur is from procreation — we stop ourselves from creating life altogether.
In the Torah – Yom Kippur is called a Shabbat shabbaton, a Shabbat of all shabbats, a great and complete rest. On Shabbat we have all of the don’t dos, the negative commandments, but we also have all of the does, all of the positive commandments, such as the Kiddush and the challah, that create the feeling of the delight of Shabbat, Oneg Shabbat. But on Yom Kippur, we are only commanded to stop.
On Yom Kippur we come to a place where we bridge our world and the next. In thought, in spirit, and even in action. Our minds are filled with the themes of the day – we peel away the layers of our sense of self-aggrandizement through the endless repetition of our sins in the vidui, confessionals. We wither away at our ego with the beating of our chests.
As in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, throughout the day we go deeper and deeper into this theme.
In the Yizkor service we bring up the memories of all those whom we loved who have passed. As we begin with the words, ‘Lord what are we humans, that you have regard for us,/ Mere mortals, that You take account of us?’
In the Avodah service, we follow the High Priest into the Holy of Holies where like the sons of Aaron – Nadav and Avihu, the High Priest risked death in the presence of the intensity of holiness.
In the Martyrology we conjure up the thoughts of all of our dead ancestors who gave their life for our people and religion.
At Minchah, we look to Yonah who spends three days in complete silence, in complete contemplation, near his end, inside of a great fish.
And finally at Neilah, we push ourselves even further to the limits of our physical potential. During the last hour of Neilah there is a custom for those who are able — to stay standing for the whole service as the ark remains open.
Yom Kippur takes us closer and closer to the truth of mortality and death, to the thought of the death experience of others, and finally to the thought of our own death. Why do we do this? Why are we taken to the brink? Are we Jews not a life loving this worldly people?
Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse, spent years working with the terminally ill. She became accustomed to hearing the elderly talk about their lives and reveals their biggest regrets. She eventually put her experiences into a book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the dearly Departing. She said that the number one regret of them all was– ‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.’ – This was the most common regret of them all.
What they regretted most was not listening to their own heart.
We focus on mortality on Yom Kippur because it forces us to put aside all of our fantasies about our life, the stories we tell ourselves, and see our lives as they truly are. On Yom Kippur, we stare death in the face and ask ourselves, “What would happen if I died tomorrow?”, “What would happen if I died today?”
A question never too early or too late to ask.
We focus on mortality on Yom Kippur because it peels away all of the layers that build up from daily existence and enables to contemplate who we really are, why we have come into this world – what is the dream we want to fulfill before we die.
Sometimes it takes being faced with our own mortality to find the courage to live the life we really want to live. To uncover what we really want deep down inside. It’s only when we ask ourselves that question – what if I died today? – that everything becomes clear. This is the work of Yom Kippur.
But we can take great comfort from the fact that uncovering and living our dreams is not an impossible task – if we look at history and the world, we can see that it is in the very DNA of our people and of all peoples. A way of life that people usually are forced into as a result of impossible circumstances. As we speak, hundreds of thousands of migrants are facing death to chase a dream of a better life in Europe. Many of our family members risked death to let go of everything that they knew to travel to a far-away land of dreamers.
It is the most distinguishing feature of human beings – That we are willing to give up the concrete, the known, for something that is merely an idea. But that is the spirit that founded this country, that founded the land of Israel –that brought our people to this country and made us so successful.
Uncovering that spirit inside of us, how we truly want to live, and being ready to do it, is transformative, life shattering for us and ennobling for all of humanity. This is the purpose of Yom Kippur – to access and enliven that place inside of us that is the place of dreaming, when we fear no fear, and are ready to take a huge leap for an idea, for a dream.
As we said on Rosh Hashannah – our dreaming quality – when combined with our hands in the ground practicality is the defining characteristic of Jews. What has allowed us to contribute so much to the world.
And it is during the High Holidays that we reawaken our dreams. Our dreams for the world and our dreams for ourselves. That is the purpose of staring down our mortality, to urge us to ask ourselves: who are we? what are we? Ma chayenu? What are our lives? And in between those questions – to find the space and to give ourselves the permission –to dream.
That quality is our human birthright.
In the Talmud, the rabbis imagined the infinite power of the human spirit before it was birthed into the limited bounds of the world. They imagined that when we are in the stomachs of our mothers, we have the ability to see from one end of the earth to the other. That we are taught all of the Torah from beginning to end and retain it! That all knowledge in the world is ours.
But then when we are birthed into this reality, before we leave our mothers, an angel comes and taps us on the lip and we forget everything and lose all of our vision. But before we are birthed, we are administered an oath, to continually remember that God is pure and that our soul is pure. That we are infinite boundless beings.
This oath is the way back to that knowledge and to that vision. The way back to the dreams that lay buried inside of us. We have to remember that God is pure and that our soul is pure. That we are infinite boundless beings. If we remember that – we can go back to where we were before the tap of the angel. And we don’t have to go looking anywhere else. It’s our natural state, our birth right. We were taught it all before we were even born.
And if we fulfill our oath our vision can span the entire world. Our dreams can encompass the whole world. All that we have to do is remember that we are not truly mortal beings caught up in all of this activity – we are immortal divine souls.
We are immortal – because the purpose of Yom Kippur is not to teach us that we are mortals –we know that already. But to teach us that we are immortal, that living by our dreams transports us beyond all limitations. That our vision can span the whole world.
Sometimes we need a brutal awakening – for the realization to be truly effective. So they take away our food and our water, make us sit all day in a building, and pray words that reminds we are but ashes and withering grass.
On Yom Kippur we find the courage and energy to live life as we truly want, to be who we really are, to cast aside what society tells us we should do – and be our true selves. This is the profound joy of Yom Kippur, it is the joy of the homecoming. Of the rediscovery of self. Of the moment we grab onto that place inside of us that is us and don’t let go.
In the Sephardic rite, the melodies of Yom Kippur are rousing and inspiring and uplifting because it is a day of great joy and potential. The day we begin to turn our dreams into action.
According to Rebbe Natan of Nemirov, in a teaching I’ve quoted before, the holidays are like blowing a shofar. You gather air from deep inside of you and through the shofar it becomes this blast of sound that rises to heavens. During the holidays, we gather deep inside of us the abstract vague thoughts that are our dreams and turn them into a concrete reality that blasts to the heavens.
Sometimes, It is only by looking at the sheer truth of our mortality that we can be shaken out of our slumber, that we can give voice to thoughts that have been simmering for years – to admit the things we don’t like about our life – and find the courage to actually do something about it.
Yom Kippur is the day we get to the bottom of our soul and recalibrate ourselves, armed with the conviction that it may take some work to put it into reality – but with our will and love, anything is truly possible. On Yom Kippur we do battle with our own sense of normality and our tendency to rationalize what is wrong and disjointed in our lives.
On Yom Kippur, we connect to eternal life and spirit and opportunity. To celebrate immortality and to touch on the fabric of the other world – to remind ourselves of what life is all about.
I will conclude with excerpts from a letter of a dear family friend of my wife Rachel, who several weeks ago passed on after a terrible illness:
It is a sad time but it SO makes me smile to know that you are all here together – keeping the circle of love and life going; taking time out of your busy lives to be with each other, to support each other, to share stories and to trade big hugs.
Since I have you all gathered– the most special people in my life, I hope you’ll indulge me one last time, because I’d like to offer some thoughts.
Many of you have heard me say these words of praise, but I would like to take a minute to publicly thank my incredible medical team during this journey.
And I’d like to thank each of you for your kindness as you shared this journey with us. For the food and flowers and cards and walks and visits and meals at your homes and movies and healing hands. For the prayers and the love. For making me laugh and for sitting quietly; for listening intently to my words and my soul; for dreaming and crying with me. For visiting from around the country and down the street.
All of you who knew me, know well that my life journey couldn’t possibly have been the blessing it was without my dearest husband and life partner – my guy – the most amazing example of living each day, of loving unconditionally and of a willingness to try to change.
And you know that my life could not possibly have been the blessing it was without my family – family by birth, by marriage, by fate, by choice.
So, for all of you I have a few requests to ask of you today:
Here’s to life – in the words of our Dad’s favorite musical, Fiddler on the Roof:
Here’s to our prosperity. Our good health and happiness. And most important,
To life, to life, l’chaim
L’chaim, l’chaim, to life
Life has a way of confusing us
Blessing and bruising us
Drink l’chaim, to life
God would like us to be joyful
Even when our hearts lie panting on the floor.
To us and our good fortune
Be happy, be healthy, long life
And if good fortune doesn’t come
Here’s to whatever comes
Drink, l’chaim, to life
Oh, and how much better if you’re drinking your toast with Industry Standard vodka from Brooklyn!
As the saying goes – row row row your boat gently down the stream, merrily merrily merrily merrily life is but a dream.
-Rabbi Adir Glick, September 23, 2015, 10 Tishri 5776