Sermon by Rabbi Dorit Edut (Judaism)

Sermon for Yom Kippur 5754

By Rabbi Dorit Edut
Detroit, Michigan

"La-kol zeman, v'et l'chol chefetz tachat ha-shamayim.
'Et la-ledet v'et la-moot."

So begin the words of Ecclesiastes which we quote in our Yizkor Service today and which many of us remember from the 60’s folksong “Turn, Turn, Turn”: “To everything there is a season – a time to be born, time to die.” These were the words a dear friend and wonderful cantor, Kenneth Gould, wrote as his motto in our Ordination Journal – and, sadly, just two weeks ago, he left this world. It is for his sake and for all of ours, that I dedicate this Yom Kippur sermon today.

Today is a day that we look forward into our futures and backward over our past; we are keenly aware that our life here is time-limited. Most other days we focus on the here and now, the day-to-day things that we have to take care of just to stay alive, but once a year we get to have a more global perspective on who we are and where we are going. Certainly by fasting, praying, meditating and refraining from our other daily activities, we put ourselves in a special position, we create a different atmosphere where we physically and emotionally alter how we feel, think, and behave. Some would even say it is a ‘quasi-death’ experience, and maybe that is what our Sages wanted us to experience, in order to be keenly aware of the preciousness of our life.

The connection between life and death is very pronounced in our prayers today where not only do we recount our faults and sins of the past year, but also ask God to forgive us, and record us in the Book of Life for the coming year. When we say “Kama Ya’avayrun v’chama yebareyoon – How many shall leave this world and how many shall be born into it” in the coming year – we are keenly aware of the absence of those dear family and friends who have gone to their eternal rest during this past year, while at that same time we note the many additions in our lives of the new babies born into our families and those of our friends and neighbors. Yes, we are cognizant that the cycle of life continues DAILY – and we are just a part of it, somewhere along the continuum that God has created for each of us.

I remember vividly, how I prepared for the birth of my twin daughters – the first of my children – some 41 years ago. I had taken Lamaze Natural Childbirth classes and prepared with my husband and my mother who served as my coaches, practicing daily with me all the breathing and relaxation techniques. Baruch HaShem, thank G-d, everything went well, and after only 5 hours I delivered two healthy girls. For me the most amazing moment was just AFTER they were born, when I both physically and spiritually felt the connection, the awesome power of standing between life and death if only for a few seconds! I was deeply moved to thank God that all had gone well and my children were born alive and healthy. Now, 41 years later, having experienced more births, but also some deaths of ones near and dear such as my parents, my aunts, uncles, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, some cousins, and a number of very good friends, I realize that it is also time for me to prepare for death because it IS part of LIFE. And although this is a subject that I have long ignored or been in denial about – I realized today that it is something we ALL need to think about and do some advance planning for. Life has changed, too, and we now have all kinds of options to think about because the medical community has become so deeply involved with our lives, and the laws have changed, too, so that now it is essential for each of us to have an ADVANCE DIRECTIVE – a legal document that states clearly what our wishes are in the event of terminal illness or life-threatening conditions where there is little hope of recovery. Since our Sages have told us to live every day as if it were our last here on earth, I want to emphasize that THIS IS A SUBJECT THAT ALL ADULTS – NO MATTER WHAT AGE – SHOULD BE CAREFULLY CONSIDERING AND MAKING DECISIONS ABOUT – NOW!!

Before we proceed with the whys and wherefores, let us first look at what our tradition and our Sages have to say about preparing ourselves for this last stage of life. Let me start with a little story – that of Hershel of Ostropov, the joker, of whom you may have heard many stories. His attitude towards death seems to reflect that which I think many of us can identify- I’ll deal with it when I get there:

As he lay weak and dying the rabbi came to see Hershel, the joker, and asked him if he was now ready to be serious. But Hershel answered him: “Why start now?”

“But Hershel, in a few minutes the Angel of Death will come to you,” the rabbi tells him.“ He will ask for your name – and what will you say?"

Hershel replies, "I’ll tell him it’s Moses."

“But he’ll know you’re not Moses – you’re Hershel.”

“Well,” says Hershel, if he knows already, then why will he ask?"

“But, you know, Rabbi, I do have one final request,” says Hershel rather weakly, and everyone leans in to hear. “I ask simply this – that when you place me in my coffin, please, I beg of you – do not carry me under my arms.” And with that, Hershel closed his eyes and died.

Everyone was silent at first – and then they all began talking. What a strange request. Why? Oy, Hershel, why didn’t you explain this?

After a minute had passed, Hershel opened his eyes and spoke to them all from the World Beyond. “The reason is… that under my arms – I’ve always been a little ticklish there.”

OK, so Hershel got the last laugh that he wanted!! But to me this says that death is not something we shouldn’t talk about, or even have to be afraid of in our tradition. When we look into the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible, we find several examples of our ancestors preparing for death and also thinking of the future of their children and grandchildren. We know, for example, that Abraham purchased the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron so he would have a family burial site for his wife, himself, as well as his children and grandchildren. We also know that Jacob purchased land for a plot for burial in Shechem, foreseeing that the Cave of Machpelah would fill up with three or four couples there, and gave this other site to his son Joseph. Both Jacob and Joseph died in the Land of Egypt – and both made their children promise that their bodies would be brought back to Israel so that they could be buried there. In Joseph’s case this was not so easy – as by the time Joseph died, the Jews’ position was no longer so secure, and they could not easily leave Egypt, even temporarily. Therefore, we are told that Joseph’s body was embalmed – as was done to Egyptian officials – and was kept in a coffin which was brought out of Egypt during the Exodus. At least twice in the Bible we have our forefathers on their deathbeds giving their blessings and advice to their children for their future – as in the case of Isaac and Jacob; in this way, they indicated their thoughts about their own legacy, as well as spending their last days doing something they want to do and that they felt was important.

Quite in contrast to this are the deaths that we read about in the Torah portion today and earlier this year – aptly named Acharei Mot – After Death. Here we see Aaron, the High Priest and brother of Moses, having to deal with the unexpected, sudden deaths of his two sons, Nadav and Abihu, which occurred the day the Tabernacle was first dedicated. Aaron’s initial reaction is silence and he is basically asked to continue in his function as High Priest that day to offer atonement for the people of Israel. Moses gives other priests the job of burying these men and the community of Israel goes into mourning. Aaron has no involvement in the funeral arrangements or even in the mourning period, though he is excused from eating of the sacrificial offering that day; it was all too shocking and sudden.

The person about whose anticipated death we most know is Moses – for God tells him repeatedly that he will NOT lead the Children of Israel into the Promised Land but will die before that. Moses does prepare himself in two ways: he lets the people know well in advance about this situation, and he publicly appoints and ordains Joshua to be his successor. We also know that Moses gets to see the Promised Land from the heights of Mt. Nebo and it is there that God also tells him he will die there, but his exact burial place is unknown, as this was all in God’s hands. Yet our Midrash is full of accounts of not only Moses but the angels in Heaven pleading with God not to let Moses die, at least not before he enters the Promised Land. These poignant stories deal with the deep-seated human wish to avoid death and to live forever, but this is not in accordance with God’s plans - though one beautiful Midrash explains that after God called Moses’ spirit, his neshama, to Him in Heaven, even God was weeping.

Indeed, our attitude towards death is that it is something we do not look forward to, and yet, we must at some point face. In the case of the young sons of Aaron, there is precedent here for thinking about what MIGHT happen even at an early age of adulthood. Of course, none of these Biblical figures, to our knowledge, was ill at the time of their death or had been mortally wounded. And this is exactly where our modern lives and technology present us with new dilemmas. For while Judaism upholds the sanctity of life as the supreme principal, the question becomes how do we determine at what point the life-saving or life-prolonging machines and medicines actually interfere with the natural dying process, especially when one is terminally ill? How do we deal with situations where we might be incapacitated and others will have to figure out what is the best treatment for us? Whom do we want to make these decisions for us- our family members, our doctors, our lawyers, or the government? Or better yet, how can this person or designated institution really know what our wishes are?

All these questions need to be carefully weighed, options need to be studied, Jewish sources and rabbis may need to be consulted – but then, we CAN make decisions and put this in writing in the form of an ADVANCE DIRECTIVE. The Conservative Movement actually has created one online called “Jewish Medical Directives of Health Care” and it encompasses options based on two slightly different halachic rulings – one by Rabbi Elliot Dorff and one by Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner. While I won’t go into the details of these rulings today, suffice it to say that they have to do with the right of a terminally ill person to refuse certain life-prolonging treatments. These documents include both a proxy directive wherein you appoint someone to be your agent in the event of becoming incapacitated, and an instruction directive, wherein you state specifically what your health care choices are. These documents are legally recognized in the state of New York – and may be used elsewhere, but it is best to consult with a lawyer in Michigan or wherever you live. And, of course, like a will, these documents need to be periodically reviewed and revised as need be, especially with the advances in medicine which may open up more options for us.

Now, I certainly don’t mean to imply that we are all going to die very soon – but rather that we must be aware that we DO have a say in our health care treatment, even at the end of life – whenever that will be. If, Heaven forbid, we should become terminally ill or incapacitated, how would we want to be treated? Maybe it is hard for us to even imagine or know what we would think then – but it IS crucial that we look at the options NOW. When there is NO advance directive, then we may actually be causing strife in our own families as our loved ones battle out with the doctors and each other about what should be done. Or we may be leaving these decisions to the impersonal institutions of a hospital or government which will act in accordance with some established procedure or statute without concern for the individual human being. We have before us the example of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon – who is already lying in the Tel HaShomer Hospital for seven years in a vegetative state. Even though this past January test indicated surprisingly that there is some brain function and slight responses to certain visual and tactile stimuli, this is far from indicating that he will ever regain full consciousness. This is certainly a difficult dilemma since we absolutely support the continuation of life, and as long as there is brain activity, one can not officially say the person has no chance at life. However, in the Sharon case – had there been an advance directive, we would know what Ariel Sharon’s wishes were.

The czar in Russia threatened to close all the synagogues by Yom Kippur if the Jews could not answer his question – How can the God you Jews believe in see God’s self if God is all-powerful yet invisible? Even the Chief Rabbi was stumped by this question – until one day a Jewish child stopped him in the street, noticing he looked so sad. When the rabbi told the child that he had no answer to a difficult question that might affect the lives of all the Jews there, the child asked what the question was. “Oh,” said the child, after hearing the question,“I know the answer – I learned it in Cheder.” The rabbi was quite astonished and said to the child, “What do you mean?”

The child answered. “Rabbi, don’t you remember? We have been taught that we are each made in God’s image. So when God wants to see God’s self, all God has to do is look at one of us. WE are all God’s mirror.”

So let us live our lives today and plan for the end of our lives, reflecting the Tzelem Elohim – the Divine Image in which we each were made.

Gut Yontif – and Gmar Chatima Tova! May You Each Be Inscribed in The Book of Life!