Choose Life: Yom Kippur Sermon, 2016

CHOOSE LIFE

Kol Nidre, 5777

EROS

This year, several articles in the Jewish press, from Haaretz to the Forward encouraged Jews to avoid synagogues on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. These allegedly “awesome days” are too solemn, stiff, even morose. Confessing sins is a major downer! Jews should come instead for the joy of Sukkot, the revelry of Purim or Simhat Torah. Those days are much more life-affirming than stressing about “who will die this year by fire or who by water.”

Those other holidays certainly are wonderful, and you should come to Ansche Chesed and celebrate with us. But I want to defend Yom Kippur!

It is true that today we fast, renounce sensual pleasures, and give account before heaven and earth of our shortcomings in conduct and character. And, no, that doesn’t sound like fun.

Actually, it sounds like simulating death. And while that might not be fun, that is what makes today deep: examining your life while imagining your death is deep. And for that reason, today is the most life-affirming day on the calendar. Because you never feel so alive as when you approach the doorways of death – then turn back toward life.

I have had that intense experience on a few occasions in my life. The time Amy and I were mugged at gun point. A couple of times being near the sites of terror attacks in Israel. Life never felt so vivid as when we walk away unharmed from potentially fatal moments. I have heard the same during pastoral encounters with some of you in this room tonight, who have survived – or are for the moment surviving and suffering through – serious illnesses. You’ve said that you’ve never been so glad to be alive as when you receive terrible health news. Because at that moment you recognize that life is finite in time, but infinite in value.

Yom Kippur is calibrated to help you have exactly that experience: to contemplate that life is finite in time, but infinite in value.

Our holy Torah contains both big things and small things. Minute details and the overarching principles, that make the details make sense. One of those greatest mottos is found in Devarim 30.19:

הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם אֶת־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ

הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה

 וּבָֽחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּ֔ים לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶֽךָ:

“Today, I call to witness heaven and earth: I place before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live.” 

Yom Kippur is the most affirming day on the calendar, because we stand poised between life and death, and choose life.

For example, each Yom Kippur, I wear this white coat, in which I was married – the self-same coat that will wrap my body in the grave. On this day, we put on our burial shrouds, metaphorically climb into our coffins, and ask ourselves: how do we best keep faith with that reality of our brief but infinitely valuable lives. How can we gather the courage to choose life, to choose to live as our best selves? How can we become who we want to be, who we almost are? How can we improve spiritually and ethically?

We are not the only ones choosing life on Yom Kippur.

According to the prayer book, God is melekh hafetz bahayim, the King who chooses or loves life. Hafetz/wanting andbocher/choosing are close to synonyms in Hebrew. These words suggest not just preferring one option over another, but loving it, delighting in it. The best translation for both words might be desire. Tonight, on this great life-affirming night, God and Israel together desire life!

A great 13th century French sage, Rabbi Yehuda ben Yakar [Perush HaTefilot 2.80], interpreted that phrase, Melekh hafetz bahayim, not as God choosing “life,” an abstract noun. God loves not the Darwinian profusion of “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.” But rather God loves the hayim – living people. God doesn’t want dead people; they have infinite time, but finite value.

God delights in living people, who have infinite value, but only finite time in which to realize it.

God loves people who make time to make love and make friends and make money. God loves people who pay debts honestly and tell the truth, who live with difficult neighbors and learn to love them, and treat them with respect and not fight too much. God loves mortals who must care for the vulnerable and not exploit them. Who infuse this all-too-brief life with God’s infinite love and care.

In Judaism, we are not satisfied to have abstract values. We want to turn our values into positive deeds, legal norms about how to behave. So, what is u’vaharta bahayim, “choosing life” in Halakhic terms? One ancient teaching [Yerushalmi Kiddushin 1.7] explains this mitzvah in terms of obligations that parents have toward children. In the words of Rabbi Ishmael, “choosing life” requires a parent to teach a child a practical trade: a way of making a living, and of contributing to thriving human society. Alternatively, Rabbi Akiva holds that this mitzvah requires parents to teach their children to swim – to give them skills to stay safe in danger. That practice of pikuach nefesh, life-saving, is near the top of the pyramid of Jewish norms.

A third view there holds that “choosing life” means to marry off your children: to bring them into the cycle of bringing more life into existence. Notably, Yom Kippur afternoon – this day of sexual abstinence – in Talmudic times was also a day of match-making! On Yom Kippur, Jews walk away from life to the doorway of renouncing life, and then choose life, choose love and Eros.

This norm of u’vaharta bahayim might seem so obvious, so natural, as to not be worth mentioning: Choose to live. Love this life. Love your own. Love others. That is the natural condition of human beings.

THANATOS

And yet it is not always so simple. Because choosing life is only one side of our character.

Freud had this one right: Within us, are both Eros and Thanatos. A drive to live, to love, to celebrate, to build. But alongside, a dark drive to die, to hurt ourselves, to sink into our sufferings, to love our pain. As the Talmud considers, sometimes, havivin yissurin, sometimes sufferings feel precious to us, so we feel compelled to repeat them again and again. 

Yom Kippur is deep, because it asks us to choose life and also recognizes that sometimes we don’t want to.

Yom Kippur gives voice to another natural human feeling:despair. Sure, sometimes we feel life-affirming drives to learn trades, to swim and to marry. But sometimes we feel death-affirming drives to flee, to sink to the bottom of the ocean.

That’s why on Yom Kippur afternoon we read the book of Jonah. Jonah possessed great talent and gifts – and a death wish. He was eaten alive by self-loathing. While God demands that he use his gifts to turn evil into good, he flees on a ship across the ocean. His personal turmoil is exemplified in the story of a sea storm that besets his ship. The world is raging but Jonah sinks into depression. The sailors row madly to save all their lives, but Jonah goes to the bottom of the ship and cannot get out of bed. They labor and he sleeps. When they try to rouse him, he says: these troubles are all my fault. You’re better off without me. Just throw me into the ocean. Later, when Jonah’s enemies prosper, when his personal comfort disappears, he says this world stinks. I hate life. Tov moti me’hayai. My death would be better than my life.

Jonah not the only Bible figure with a death wish. When struggling with infertility, our mother Rachel tells her husband: הָֽבָה־לִּי בָנִים וְאִם־אַיִן מֵתָה אָנֹֽכִי: Give me children or else I wish I would die!

The Bible is wise about human experience, which – despite many changes that separate us from our ancestors – is still the same experience. We’re still the same homo sapiens. And this darkness is a part of who we are.

If we are to choose life, we must confront this dark aspect. When we’re healthy and wealthy, it’s easy to love life. What about when we’re not? Wealth can be hard to come by, even for the healthy. And health runs out eventually, even for the wealthy. You get married. You get divorced. You get hired. You get fired.

This is the spiritual problem common to all human beings: how to love life and love God despite your pain. Sometimes we all feel like Rachel – if I can’t have my dream, I don’t want to live. Sometimes we all feel like Jonah – this is all my fault, I don’t deserve to live.

But Jews can never agree with Jonah. We never conclude with Rachel that death is better than frustration.

ובחרת בחיים / uvaharta bahayim, “choosing life” only seems self-evident. Sometimes you must force yourself to choose life. So, on Yom Kippur night, I hope Judaism contributes some resources to that noble fight.

To do that let’s spend a few minutes thinking about that drive to choose death, to think about suicide in the United States, and in our own specific communities.

This is on mind partly because, working as your rabbi, I’ve learned that a number you in this room are survivors of a loved one’s suicide. Some of you are children whose parents ended their lives. You might be parents whose children did, or you might be their spouses or siblings. You suffered a unique sort of loss, that warrants a special kind of comfort.

Every death is a mystery, but suicide can feel like a closed door, when you reflect on the unbearable pain that your loved one suffered. Any mourner can feel abandoned, guilty or angry. After suicides, mourners can feel that times 1,000. As one of you in this room once said to me: “It’s hard to feel good about yourself when you parent kills themselves during your childhood.” So, to those of you, who know who you are: we love you. We wish you strength in your grief, so you can hang on to love amidst the pain.

Another reason this is on my mind is a news item from this spring: the federal government reported that American suicide rates surged to their highest levels in 30 years. Suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death overall, and 2nd among those younger than 24. Suicide fell slightly among black males and people over 75. But rose sharply in every other age, racial and demographic category. In my cohort, males 45-64, rates rose 43% since 1999. For females in that age bracket, it rose 63%. Rates for teenage girls tripled. Many more males end their lives than females, 3 times more. Women are most likely to end their lives during middle-age; males are more likely to end their lives above 75.

American rates are around 14 suicides per 100,000 people. Compared to other countries, we are in the highest quartile, ranked about 40th. Greenland has an astonishing rate: more than 20% of the population will attempt to end their lives at some point, and more than 1 per 1,000 males succeeded in 2011.

It’s not just Seasonal Affective Disorder in long, dark winters. The next highest rate comes from Guyana in South America, perhaps related to poverty and tropical diseases. In South Korea, rates are high among the elderly. Similarly in Japan, perhaps related to its strong honor culture. A Japanese government minister killed himself in 2007 over a corruption scandal, and Tokyo’s mayor proclaimed him “a true samurai.” For what it’s worth, Israel has a low rate, less than half that of the US, and Saudi Arabia has the world’s lowest.

The spike in American suicide expresses something deep and dark about a society struggling with despair, a lost sense of purpose and social connection. Experts speculate about causes for the increase. From my reading, leading theories focus on social dislocation, correlating to poverty and job loss, substance abuse and mental illness.

Let’s assume those factors are true. What can we do? We are commanded uvaharta bahayim, choose life. Choose your own life. Choose others’ lives. How can we help? How can we comfort?

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, one key to preventing suicide is to foster connectedness. When people are “socially bound to others, when they share resources with institutions and groups, especially schools and faith groups,” they are less likely to harm themselves. That is an obvious way for a shul to help: Everyone should be welcome in our house. You all know people who are lonely, who are less connected than they want to be. To choose their lives, help them feel welcome.

There is a paradox in suicide prevention. The literature says paying attention to warning signs can save a life. And then, afterwards, God forbid, they all say: “it’s not you’re your fault. There is nothing you could have done.” Both things are probably true: you can help, but not always. Whenever someone takes their life, there must be multiple causes and really intractable pain. But to choose life in the deepest way, we should be ready to come through with helping resources whenever we can.

One is to direct someone to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1.800.273-TALK (8255). They have a special text line for teens, 741-741. Know these numbers and have them, so you can supply a suffering person with a potential lifeline.

If you feel someone is a suicide risk, stay with him or her. Don’t leave her alone, even for a short while, until more help can be summoned. Remove any weapons, drugs or poisons they might be tempted to reach for.

Know what warning signs to watch for. According to the Lifeline, you should pay close attention when people talk about feeling hopeless, about wanting to die and fantasizing about how to kill themselves, showing extreme mood swings, resorting to more drugs or alcohol.

In such cases, you should ask if these people are planning on ending their lives. Don’t worry: asking that question will not put the idea in their heads. In fact, saying the word suicide may reveal an elephant in the room, may help someone say the unspeakable, to get it out in the open. You might put yourself in the position to listen to someone who may have no one else to talk to. When a person is trapped in a box of despair, your caring may convey to them that they matter, and that you hope the world is not deprived of their light.

Another way to help: get people treatment for their mental illness. Almost by definition someone who attempts suicide has a mental illness. But most people with mental conditions get no treatment at all. And even those with very serious conditions like bi-polar disorder or psychosis, are untreated in about one-third of cases. You can read more about the public mental health policies at the website of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Obviously, having serious mental illness is not like having a broken leg. It is harder to help. You can’t just massage their feet and do their shopping. But one thing you can do is try to diminish the taboos surrounding mental illness, which only make it harder to admit suffering and seek help. As a test case, pay attention to yourself, and notice when you speak badly about someone, saying “she’s crazy,” or “what a lunatic.” Who overhears you say that? Do your words make it easier or harder for people to choose life?

Another thing you can do is train to be a mental health first-responder. As EMTs know how to treat people having heart attacks, mental health EMTs know how to respond to potentially life-threatening psychic crises. Michelle Obama is leading an effort to train a million mental health EMTs. We can be among them.

HOPE

And in addition to those important practical resources, our Judaism can give us spiritual resources to resist our Jonah moments. Being a Jew can teach us how not to say, with Jonah, tov moti mechay’yai, “my death is better than my life.” But instead, to say with Psalms: ahallela Adonay bechay’yai, “I will make my life into a song to God.” To overcome Rachel moments, when we say meta anokhi, I would rather die if I cannot have my dreams. Every life is meaningful, even with frustrations. Lo amut, “I won’t die.” Ki echyeh, “I will live.”

Let us borrow spiritual insights from two spiritual, psychological and moral masters.

First, the tortured but soaring soul of R. Nachman of Breslov. He actually was Jonah. To modern readers, he appears to be what we call bi-polar, alternating periods of great, joyful illumination with darkest depression.

Friday night, August 10, 1810, two months before he died [Likkutei Moharan 2.78], R. Nachman gathered his followers to say that “even if you are, may God save us, on the bottom rung, even if you are trapped in the depths of hell, it is forbidden to despair!” Become instead the living embodiment of Jonah’s own prayer [2.3] mibeten she’ol shavati, “from the belly of the hell I cried.” Even in hell, if you have it in you to hold on just a little bit, however small, he said, “there is hope for you yet to return to God.” At the climax of that night R. Nachman declared: “The main point is to strengthen yourself however little you can. For DESPAIR DOES NOT EXIST!” The student who recorded this talk added: “he drew out these words with such power, such wondrous, awesome depth, to teach all generations that no matter what you must endure, no one should ever despair.”

Of course, it’s not easy. Nachman [ibid 2.23-24] likens this struggle to a celebration where many are dancing, yet some stand at the edge, unable to join. Some dancers might ignore that feeling in themselves or in others, and rejoice despite pain. Nachman says instead that the great spiritual path is to pursue our pain, not ignore it. Chase your suffering, grab it by the hands, and squeeze it until it dances. Everyone suffers. That’s real. And life is still a wondrous dance. 

The next master is Victor Frankl, a Viennese psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor, who short book Man’s Search for Meaning is an deep well of wise counsel. 

He records a moving memoir, that he arrived in Auschwitz bearing the manuscript of his book, which of course the Nazis destroyed on the spot, with a laugh. He received instead a prisoner’s uniform. He reached into the pocket to discover the fragment of a siddur, and upon the page was written Shema Israel. “How should I have interpreted such a coincidence,” Frankl asks, “except as a challenge to live my thoughts, rather than putting them on paper?” (115).

U’vaharta bahayim. “Choose life.” At that moment Frankl lost so much. He lost his book. He lost his freedom. And he gained his free will. He wrote that you cannot choose everything in your life, but you can choose to affirm the meaning of your life.

As a scientist, Frankl knew the many constraints on human behavior. He wrote that “in addition to being a professor, I am a survivor of four concentration camps. As such I also bear witness to the unexpected extent to which man is capable of defying and braving even the worst conditions conceivable. … Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms … the freedom to choose one’s own way.”

In Auschwitz, he said, everyone thought of suicide. Those who indeed threw themselves on the electrified fence, asked “what do I expect from life?” Since the honest answer was “nothing,” they had no reason not to despair.

But those who resisted, asked instead “what did life expect from me?” They felt themselves questioned by life, and learned they could respond with right action and beauty amid brutality and ugliness [76-77].

Let me close with Frankl’s story [69] of a death he witnessed in a camp that showed one girl’s “inner greatness” in, literally, her final words.

“In my former life, I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously,” the girl said. Pointing through the window of her hut, she said, ‘This tree is my only friend in my loneliness.’ Through her window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree. On the branch were two blossoms. ‘I often talk to this tree,’ she said. I was startled and didn’t know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Was she hallucinating? Anxiously, I asked her if the tree replied. ‘Yes.’ What did it say?

She answered: ‘It says to me: I am here. I am here. I am life, eternal life.’”

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