Friday, September 29, 2017

Neilah 5778: The Final Drasha

How would you act if you believed today was your last on earth?
It’s a question I have been thinking more about this year than any other time in my life.

The initial trigger that sparked this thought that hasn’t left my mind for the past three months was reading the book Thirty Days about the wonderful Kerryn Baker, who was loved and admired by many people in this room here tonight.

Thirty Days
When I went to Mark’s book launch two months ago, I initially didn’t buy the book, thinking that even though I wanted to know and understand the story, reading it in full detail would be too confronting in that it would bring up memories of the loss of my father when I was 21.

As fate would have it, a week later the book appeared on my bedside table, after Carm had borrowed a copy from a friend. 48 hours later, I had finished reading the entire testimony.

The key questions of the book that I’d like to explore in this drasha is:

“Is it possible to live everyday as if it were your last?”

This often heard cliche heard at so many simcha’s and graduations in our community, is seemingly a goal to which many aspire, yet how many people take a moment to actually internalize what it means to truly live each moment with the full awareness that death could be imminent?

The question asked in the book is similar to that posed by the Days of Awe

Babylonian Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 16b
שלושה ספרים נפתחים בראש השנה:
אחד של רשעים גמורים
ואחד של צדיקים גמורים
ואחד של בינונים.

On Rosh HaShanah, three books are opened: one for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for the intermediates. The thoroughly righteous are immediately inscribed and sealed for life. The thoroughly wicked are immediately inscribed and sealed for death. The intermediates hang in the balance from Rosh HaShanah until Yom Kippur. If they are found worthy, then they are inscribed for life. If not, then they are inscribed for death.

Which brings to today and this moment of Neila. According to the Talmud, our lives now hang in the balance, with just over an hour left until our fate will be determined based on our actions of the past year. This is why  we annulled our vows at Kol Nidre last night, lest we go to the grave having made a promise or commitment which we will be unable to keep.

Rabbi Laura Geller, writes in The Torah of our Lives
“Yom Kippur is a day lived without bonds, without the obligations created by our vows and oaths. On Yom Kippur what matters is that we stand naked and alone before God. We are disembodied souls, confronting the reality of our mortality.  Yom Kippur is a symbolic encounter with death. We are supposed to refrain from life-affirming activities – eating, drinking, bathing, making love, and adorning ourselves. Because leather is viewed as adornment, we are instructed to take off our leather shoes, to stand barefoot, resembling the shoeless corpses we will someday be. We are to wear white; with some even wearing a kittel, which is the white garment in which we are buried.”

On the other hand, as much as Yom Kippur is the most awesome day of our lives, it’s also a bit like the hearing a Leonard Cohen tune at shira, where everyone knows in advance that it will come, but is always pleasantly surprised when it appears.

This is affirmed by none other than Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi who disagrees with the other sages,  stating in the gemara that:
“For all transgressions that are stated in the Torah, whether one repented, or whether one did not repent, Yom Kippur atones.”

Yom Kippur as a day of joy
For this reason, the last Mishnah in Ta'anit declares that "there were no more joyous days for Israel than the Fifteenth Day of Av and Yom Kippur." Also, Yom Kippur --like all the other festivals of the Jewish calendar-- has the power to cut short and even entirely cancel the mourning period of a mourner because of the national festive nature of the day as one where all forgiven.  
So perhaps the appropriate greeting for this day shouldn’t be “gut yontef” but rather, “chag sameach” or  “only 24 hours to go, see you in the book of life.”

So, ladies and gentlemen, if this is true, what we have come here to do today, is all part of an act, the final play in a cosmic narrative. Part of an elaborate imaginative exercise of teshuva that affirms the words of our other Rebbe, the late Leonard Cohen Z”l who stated in his holy lyrics:

“Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

As someone who experiences Judaism as less about covenant with God and more about infusing rituals with meaning, I’d like to practice what I preach in the last few minutes of this drasha, by imagining for a moment that this may be the last drasha I will ever give.

If I only had five minutes left to live, to say the most important words, to the most important people in my life, many of whom are in this shul right now, what would they be?

Before I answer this question, I’d like to tell you about something I shared with my partner Carm after reading Thirty Days. I finished the book on a sunday morning, when as luck would have it, both our young children were sleeping at Nana’s, a rare occurrence in our lives.

I told Carm how I felt about the book, and about how I didn’t want to wait till I had cancer or another illness before telling her some truths about my life. At first she said, “you are being too intense, let me have a shower and breakfast, after which we can talk.”

Half an hour later, we sat around our kitchen table, in our very quiet child free bubble which was only to last two hours, and I began talking, and  Carm began typing. Everything I said to Carm, and she said to me went into a google doc, a shared record of what we want, when we do face our real Neila, our final hours, without the Book of Life lying safely on the other side.

The doc begins with me telling Carm how I want to die. I tell her that there is no need to hide me from the world, that anyone who wants to visit should be welcome. I tell her than if euthanasia is legal, I’d like to die peacefully at a time of our choosing rather than suffer through the agony of a painful death. I also tell her that I’d like all my organs donated so that my death can be a gift to save as many lives as possible. I tell her that at my funeral, I want men and women to sit together, despite the mechitza and whatever rabbis says it is forbidden. I list all the people I’d like to speak at the funeral. Finally, I tell her how I’d like my children to be raised in my absence.

Unlike many parents who say, “whatever they choose that makes them happy will be good” I want my children, Nava and Eitan, to be reminded throughout their lives that their purpose on the short time they have on this earth is to do more than find joy and gladness.

I wanted it to be known that I share the view of renowned psychologist Martin Seligman who says that meaning comes from belonging to and serving something beyond yourself and from developing the best within you.”

As a teacher, I see the unintended consequences of a culture that places the desire for happiness before the obligation of community service every day in ever growing rates of anxiety and depression that are at close to all time highs in 2017.

I wanted Carm to write down, that when it comes time for my children to choose the path in their lives, that if I am no longer around to be a part of this conversation, I’d like them to choose a direction leading them towards relationships, professions and religious rituals and communities that enable them to make our world a better place, even if this may appear to come before their own immediate needs for happiness. This is because I believe, that true happiness, can only be found in a life that is filled with meaning.

After 40 minutes of typing, each sharing with each other our wishes and thoughts around the future, we both felt  comforted, and whole. It’s a moment we felt very close and affirmed the importance of having difficult conversations with those whom you love.

I started this drasha by asking, “How would you act if you believed today was your last on earth?”

I know my answer to this question. If today was my last day on earth, I would spend it with my close friends and family, sharing stories, hearing about their lives, avoiding small talk by asking big questions, having meaningful conversations, and above all, singing together. What better a way to have a last day than that.

My hope for the people in this shule, is that at the end of this Yom Kippur, before you go to sleep tonight, you are able to take a moment to find the people most important in your lives, either those in this room, or those in your home, or those at the MCG, and take an hour to tell them how you want to be remembered, and the teshuva you want to do.

Life’s too short to wait until cancer or another tragedy plucks the life out of us mortals before we have filled the time we deserve to have on this earth to be with those we love.

Mark wrote recently on his author page, “'Stop just assuming you have a full lifetime to do whatever it is you dream of doing.' This indeed is the challenge of Yom Kippur.

To face our inevitable deaths together as a collective, yet to die with as much grace and dignity in which we lived.

May we all be granted the gift of being stamped in the book of life.      Shana Tova

Drasha delivered at Shira Melbourne, Neila 2017

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