A look back at
High Holy Days 5783/2022
Kol Nidre 5783
Rabbi Michael Zedek
You may recall a once very popular and still performing comedian named Stephen Wright. With his signature deadpan delivery, he would offer remarkably cogent and very funny reflections. For instance, and I’ll try to get close to his delivery, the sign said “Breakfast any time. So I ordered French toast during the Renaissance.” More challenging, “My ambition is to live forever. So far, so good.”
And that recalls an interview of the comic genius Groucho Marx. Asked what he’d like people to say about him in 100 years, he didn’t hesitate. “I’d like them to say he looks really good for someone his age.”
Worlds away from Groucho’s mordant humor, the 17th-century poet/cleric John Donne – he of no man is an island renown – is enjoying a moment of resurgent popularity with the publication of a new magisterial biography. I’ve been spending some time with him as it seems clear he believed that “[i]t is only by keeping death nearby that one can truly live.” His meaning that mortality calls us to attention; “it wakes us up to life.”
So this reflection from one of his sermons. By the way, he would speak for hours, so I pray your indulgence if I near 20 minutes. To quote him, “… between the prison and the place of execution, does any man sleep? [Yet] we sleep all the way, from the womb to the grave. We are never fully awake.”
I trust you’ll not be surprised that I do not share his conclusion. We must and we can be alert, awake, which leads to my theme for this evening.
As some are aware, and now all will know, about two years ago, I began treatment for CLL. Before any oy veys or “I’m so sad for you, Rabbi,” I’m doing fine, and the oncologist’s words provide a modest safe harbor. To quote her, “If you have to have cancer, this is the one you want to have.” By the way, Rabbi Schaalman had a similar diagnosis, and he managed a few years, reaching well into 101.
To be clear, I am not imploring for sympathy or to evoke melancholy. Rather that my diagnosis removed any – were such possible – any pretense about denying mortality. In fact, even before this challenge, I described my age and circumstance accurately, if metaphorically, as having entered the autumn of life, albeit I hope for a plethora of what we used to call Indian summers. And I’ll admit, post diagnosis, part of the challenge was wrestling with the prospect (one I could no longer disguise or run from) that my fall season might not be as lengthy as I hoped. In brief, I found myself wrestling with and occasionally trying to hide from the shadow of mortality and to be precise, my own.
Now you may be familiar with the suggestion that Yom Kippur can be imagined as a symbolic near-death experience. For instance, the 25 hour total fast (for those who do so), the white robes or kittel, worn by many in traditional synagogues, which is an intentional allusion to a burial shroud.
And, perhaps, like me, you’ve known someone who had a medical near-death, meaning they manifested the “symptoms” of death, as in a moment gone and then successfully revived. Well, I recall such a friend’s wisdom as he celebrated two birthdays – his natal one of course and more vital, for so he considered, the day he woke up from a lifelong slumber. For his second chance became a wake-up call not only to an awareness of limits but also to an exhilarating decision to live fully, passionately for as long and as well as he could.
With that, I am drawn to an image born in Jewish tradition, one I’ve shared with persons near-death in the hope that it provided a modest moment of comfort and/or courage as the Angel of Death near.
I suspect it comes to mind now as I am the one who needs its wisdom. As well, I have sufficient hubris to imagine it may provide solace for others, even I pray for you.
I ask you to imagine that the only thing there is is ocean. All reality consists of/subsumed in ocean. Of course, that means there are waves on the ocean. Waves are part of the ocean before they are; while they are and after they are. The ocean, then, is the source of life, the ground of being out of which all life emerges. That means, of course, we are connected to all the other waves, and we are never not connected to the Source of our being.
When the wave called Michael – what’s the right word – returns is insufficient,
for I was part of the Source before I was, while I am and after I “return.”.
Simply stated, that which makes me doesn’t end. It is infinitely present, even
though you and I are but the briefest moment in the scope of eternity. We
call our end death, but it is no more and no less than returning to the place
we never left – meaning to be a part of God, in God. And while we inhabit
these bodies, we are never not connected to the Source, to God. Rather, we
are just a brief moment between the eternity before we were and the eternity
after we are. To recall John Donne once more, “Tap humans and they ring
with the sound of infinity.” Better than his abstraction, I believe we ring with
the sound of infinity.
As to notions of eternal life or heaven, I recall the playwright George Bernard
Shaw’s sardonic reflection. “Millions of people are worried about living forever,
and they wouldn’t know what to do if they had a free weekend.” And on that
subject our tradition has a brilliant response. After all, I could tell you anything
I want happens when you die. But you know I don’t know, and I know that
you know I don’t know. So our tradition offers a brilliant response.
We don’t know. There may be some continuity when we die, and there may be nothing. I’ll be happy to be surprised. But we trust God, and while we are here, our job is to live a life that makes a difference for someone and someone and another and another. For Judaism’s emphasis isn’t about getting into God’s world when we die. If you followed my reasoning, we are already and always there. Rather our job is to be a vessel through which something of God, something of goodness, of holiness gets into the world. Indeed, how else might that get done?
Consider, should you amble down the office corridor, you’ll note some Yahrzeit tablets from Congregation Kol Ami. Upon those boards, you may read Ner Adonai Nishmat Adam. That same phrase is often printed on a shiva candle. Found in the biblical book of Proverbs, it means “God’s candle is a person soul.” To mix technologies, you and I, we are God’s flashlight, as we make a way for holiness, make a path for the sacred, make way for eternity.
To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, for the end of the matter being thus, revere God and do God’s commandments. I’d put it in a bit more modern garb. As Emily Dickinson offered,” To live is so startling, it leaves little time for anything else.”
For as long as I, as long as we live, as long as we are custodians of a divine fire, may we be startled by life and startling, embracing and nurturing for others. After all, there will be more than enough time to be dead, an eternity of time to be dead.
But right now and for all the nows remaining to us, let us use our time, all of it, so brilliantly, so well that at journey’s end, others may whisper and a divine echo may insist, “Well done. Well done.” Or as the remarkable poet Mary Oliver offered:
To live in this world
you must be able to do three things.
To love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it.
And when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
And I would add, until that time, may I urge us, let’s go. May all that is holy in and around us guide us on our way.
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Book of Remembrance
It is a sacred tradition of our faith to honor in prayers and acts of charity the memory of loved ones, particularly when we gather for our High Holy Day Services. There will be Yizkor on Yom Kippur and we will remember our family and friends in our Book of Remembrance.
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This year's Book of Remembrance will be available for congregants to pick-up on Yom Kippur. We are also working on a way to mail the book to those who will not be attending services in person. Thank you.
Tikkun Olam - Repair the World
Emanuel Congregation is working with the following organizations before and during the High Holy Days in an effort to help repair our world:
Care for Real - To help our neighbors in need this winter, we will be collecting items needed by Care for Real to help serve their clients this winter. More information to come.
Shalva - When you donate a used cell phone or iPad, Shalva sends them to a recycling company and then receives money to help fund their much needed services to women healing from abuse. If you have a used cell phone or iPad that you would like to donate to Shalva, please email firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a time drop it off at Emanuel. For more information about Shalva visit shalvaonline.org.
The Ark - Annual Food Drive. The Ark is collecting kosher, non-perishable foods to distribute to its clients for the High Holy Days and beyond. More information about The Ark's Annual High Holy Day Food Drive coming soon.
Machzor (Prayer Books)
Emanuel Congregation uses Mishkan HaNefesh, Machzor for the Days of Awe. Should you wish to purchase your own copy, they may be purchased from the publisher, CCAR Press, or they might also be available at Rosenblum's in Skokie, 773-262-1700.
Emanuel Congregation has some machzorim to loan to those who will be attending services in person. Large print versions are also available.
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