Most of us recognize Yom Kippur as a solemn day. But is it? It is true that the season confronts us with life’s fragility. In fact, three experiences recently have reminded me how fragile life is.
The first was Hurricane Matthew. Fortunately, for us, there was no significant damage in our area. However, north of us and south of us, especially Haiti, communities suffered significant damage, humbling reminders of the randomness of nature and our fragility. Waiting out the hurricane was like living in a state of limbo. The TV stations had 24/7 coverage of the pending storm and doomsday warnings about the worst possible effects. For two days, I was tuning in for constant updates. Is the storm staying out to sea or is it turning west towards land? I couldn’t do a thing about it except get my house ready and pray. The lack of control caused me great anxiety.
Second, on the heals of the hurricane coverage, our nation’s political climate reminded me of life’s fragility. I’m not discussing politics or the Presidential race itself. I must express how sad I was Sunday evening leading up to the debate. Many parents wrote on Facebook that they could not allow their children to watch the debate because of concern there would be inappropriate material for children, given the video controversy that erupted over the weekend. At least one middle school in our community sent out an email on Sunday advising parents that the social studies faculty no longer recommended students watch the debate when they had previously been assigned to watch it for school. During a presidential campaign the debates should be the ultimate civics lesson for our children to see democracy in action. Where have we gone wrong as a society if we must shield our children from the most important civics lesson in the free world? Given all of the negative influences in society, the responsibility that parents have to teach important values to our children is sometimes daunting and another reminder of life’s fragility.
The third reason that I’m reminded of fragility is a New York Times article published last Sunday in which I had the honor to be quoted. Sam Freedman in his column “On Religion” commemorated a sermon by the late Rabbi Kenneth Berger at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Tampa on Yom Kippur, 1986, 30 years ago today. I have cited this sermon in the past, and in his reporting Freedman was inquiring what drew me and other rabbis over the years to Rabbi Berger’s message. Rabbi Berger asked his congregation, “What would you do if you had five minutes to live?”
The premise of Rabbi Berger’s question was the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster that occurred earlier that year. Evidence was found that the astronauts did not die in the explosion but when the capsule impacted the ocean waters. Rabbi Berger said, “For perhaps as much as five minutes, the astronauts were alive and conscious and yet knew that death was certain.”
Rabbi Berger then asked his congregation to consider the question: “What would you do if you had five minutes to live?” He challenged his congregation to live their lives as though they had five minutes left. Not in a cynical way by saying, “What’s the point?” But in a spiritual way; a way that will help us channel our direction. He spoke about serving God in those five minutes and expressing our love for our loved ones.
Less than three years later, in July 1989, Rabbi Berger was with his wife and two of his children on United Airlines flight 232 from Denver to Philadelphia. After the engines failed, the flight made a crash landing in Sioux City, Iowa. Out of 296 passengers, 111 were killed, including Rabbi Berger and his wife, Aviva, while their children survived. During those final moments as the plane was descending rapidly to an uncertain fate, I imagine that Rabbi Berger thought about his own sermon.
My interview with Sam Freedman returned me to Rabbi Berger’s powerful message. It has withstood the test of time for three reasons: Rabbi Berger used a vivd story that everyone could relate to, the Challenger disaster; he drew from that a compelling message of living a life that matters; and, finally, Rabbi Berger’s own tragic death turned his sermon into a prophecy and gave his words added kedushah, holiness. For these reasons, “Five Minutes to Live” is a classic, and its message has a poignant urgency for me this year. The Rabbi Berger story on one level is a tragic story of life’s fragility. However, Rabbi Berger’s message is also one of hope and renewal that relates to the deeper meaning of Yom Kippur.
In fact, while many of the symbols and rituals of Yom Kippur remind us of our fragility and mortality, Yom Kippur is really in its essence a joyous day. Yes, we gather for Yizkor to remember our departed loved ones. However, as we remember our departed we affirm life. Yom Kippur as a whole is a day that affirms and celebrates life.
The Jerusalem Talmud puts it this way:
Said Rabbi Abahu: The way of the word is that when one comes to be judged, one wears black clothes. This is not the case concerning the People of Israel. The Book of Life and Death are before us, who will live and who will die. And yet, we wear white, we wrap ourselves in white garments, and we believe that the Holy One will act kindly towards us. (Rosh Hashanah 1:3)
Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook adds another element regarding the act of confession:
A person should also be joyous concerning the good he or she has done. It follows that just as there is a great benefit to self-improvement through confessing one’s sins, so is there great benefit to confessing one’s good deeds. (Rabbi Kook’s Commentary to Mishnah Ma’aser Sheni 5:10)
For Rav Kook, reminding ourselves of what we’ve done well builds self-confidence, which is critical to our belief in our ability to do and accomplish for ourselves for the Jewish people and for the world.
Inspired by this approach, I’d like to introduce a prayer composed by Rabbi Avi Weiss that affirms life through noting our positive actions. It supplements the Ashamnu confessional that we say throughout the day to confess the things that we have done wrong. This new vidui confessional highlights the things we have done right.
אָהַבְנוּ, בֵּרַכְנוּ, גָּדַלְנוּ, דִִִּבַּרְנוּ יֹפִי
We have loved, we have blessed, we have grown, we have spoken positively.
הֶעֱלִינוּ, וְחַסְנוּ, זֵרַזְנוּ
We have raised up, we have shown compassion, we have acted enthusiastically,
חָמַלְנוּ, טִפַּחְנוּ אֱמֶת
We have been empathetic, we have cultivated truth,
יָעַצְנוּ טוֹב, כִּבַּדְנוּ, לָמַדְנוּ, מָחַלְנוּ
We have given good advice, we have respected, we have learned, we have forgiven,
נִחַמְנוּ, סָלַלְנוּ, עוֹרַרְנוּ
We have comforted, we have been creative, we have stirred,
פָּעַלְנוּ, צָדַקְנוּ, קִוִּינוּ לָאָרֶץ
We have been spiritual activists, we have been just, we have longed for Israel,
We have been merciful, we have given full effort,
תָּמַכְנוּ, תָּרַמְנוּ, תִּקַּנּוּ we have supported, we have contributed, we have repaired.
I am not discounting the traditional Ashamnu. We will continue to say it today. At the same time, Ahavnu is a welcome supplement that is true to the spirit of today. When we feel good about our accomplishments both as individuals and within our community, we may feel extra motivation to do more good. We will be inspired to make the next five minutes of our lives count.
Perhaps everyone should consider reflecting upon his or her good attributes by writing out a personal Ahavnu in English or Hebrew alphabetical order. It would also be good to do the same relative to the Jewish community, our country and the State of Israel. With all of our challenges, there is so much to be proud of.
Last week, when a hurricane approached we got our homes ready, we stayed home with our families and ahavnu, we loved one another just by being there together. I pray that our affirmation of our love inspire us to bring more love into the new year.
When recent news reports revealed the dishonorable speech of public figures, many of us instinctively thought how best we could teach our children honor and respect of others. Kibadnu—we honored and respected. I pray that our sense of kavod inspire us to infuse our lives this year with intense kavod habriyot, honor of all human beings.
When we are confronted with life’s mortality and the figurative sense that we may just have five minutes to live, we instinctively bless those close to us. Beirachnu—we have blessed. I pray that our instinct to bless those dear to us in times of turmoil, inspire us to bless our dear ones frequently and to bring greater berachah, blessing, into our world.
As we remember the lives of our departed loved ones and the lessons that they taught us, let us honor their memory by taking note of our goodness that we strive to increase. With all of our faults, let us recognize our inner decency. Through our combined efforts, may God grant us the strength to bring love, honor and blessing into our world. Ken Yehi Ratzon.