So have you heard the story of Alfred Nobel and how he started the Nobel Prizes?
He was the inventor of dynamite, a Swedish chemist and pacifist who thought he was creating something so terrible that it would end all wars. When his brother Ludwig died, one paper mistakenly ran Alfred’s obituary, with the headline calling him the “merchant of death,” reporting that “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” He was horrified and realized that he didn’t want to be remembered that way, and that was the catalyst to the Nobel Prizes.
I have heard from a couple of you that my description of the High Holy Days in the newsletter was surprising to you: I’d written that our upcoming Yom Kippur is the rehearsal of our death… So, first, I’m going to recommend my all time favorite book for preparing for this season: This is Completely Real and You are Totally Unprepared, by Rabbi Alan Lew, of blessed memory. He writes,
“Yom Kippur is the day we all get to read our own obituary… That’s why some of us wear a kittle, a shroudlike garment, and why we refrain from life-affirming activities…” (p. 28)
No drinking, no eating, no sex, no washing, no shoes.
I bet the shoes also were surprising… And you should have seen the looks I got in Tahoe as I was the barefoot rabbi. It has something to do with not protecting our feet from the elements of earth…The rabbis later changed it from no shoes to no leather shoes. But the point was to ignore your material body.
And we wear white, traditionally – for us the color of purity, the color of the kittel, the shroud-like garment men would traditionally be buried in. Indeed, men would traditionally wear their kittel at their wedding, when they would lead Passover seders, on Yom Kippur and then, in their grave…It is one of those funeral rituals that shows that we are all equal in death, and a wedding ritual that announces that we are not marrying for possessions. On Yom Kippur, it is both about purity and is linked to a verse from the prophet Isaiah: “Our sins shall be as white as snow (Isaiah 1:18).”
All of this on one hand is to take us out of the material realm, the realm of our bodies and our bodies’ needs into the realm of our soul and our souls’ needs and responsibilities.
On the other hand, it is a symbolic way of getting to think about what our obituary will say and encouraging us to change our lives similar to Alfred Nobel. It is a way of reminding us to think about that day when we die, when we finally say good-bye to our loved ones, when everything that is not important fades away.
I believe we won’t be thinking about whether we worked enough, but whether we told our loved ones we loved them enough. We won’t be thinking about politics, although we might be thinking about whether we did enough to leave the planet in a good place for our grandchildren or their grandchildren. We won’t be thinking about how much money we accumulated, but how much good we accumulated.
I think…I hope…
So these days of awe are about facing these questions without having to be a death’s door.
One of our prayers—the one we read a bit of and of which we read an interpretive version—the Unetaneh Tokef, about seizing the power of this day—forces us to acknowledge that this year, something might happen to us or our loved ones or our neighbors, over which we have NO CONTROL.
And we know this instinctively. Just looking around this table, we know we are missing a few people who used to be regulars just last year. Some of you have lost dearly beloved ones. Others of us are facing new limitations. We don’t like to think about it. Death is often close to us, as we age, as we live here, but still, we think of it as other people’s death, not our own.
This prayer demands that we do think about it. I read a powerful piece about this year and how this prayer has never been more timely; here’s my adaptation: the prayer asks:
- Who by fire? In Israel, a group of right wing Jews set fire to an Arab family’s home and the baby and his parents were killed. And a woman who was wheelchair bound who couldn’t evacuate her home died just last weekend in the Valley Fire in Lake County.
- Who by water? Who can forget the photo of the child who drowned as his family tried to make their way from Syria to a safe haven in Europe and washed up dead on a beach?
- Who by sword? I think of the nine people killed in their church in Charleston. And the people who die by guns every day all over our country.
- Who by plague? How many people die of disease here and around the world? Too many.
- Who by earthquake? Are you prepared?
So often we don’t want to acknowledge that these things happen, and can happen to us. I talked with a family at the hospital this week whose mother and grandmother had been a vibrant woman who suddenly, without warning, had a stroke, and as I arrived, they were signing her organ donation papers. One day she was fine, the next day brain dead.
I believe that the prayer tells us that while these things happen, what’s really important is how we deal with it when it does. Do we curse God, or our lot, or do we figure out how to carry on? We all know stories of people—many of us ARE those people—who have faced adversity and who carry on and still find the grace and the beauty around them, and we know people who have become embittered.
The choice of our attitude—what the prayer calls Teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah: whether we can find the space to return to our pure souls, whether we can access some version of prayer or gratitude, whether we are generous… that’s on us. And of course, it’s always easier when we are surrounded by the same generosity, prayer and purity of heart.
I met a beautiful man in the hospital last weekend… He shared his life story over the course of an hour’s visit. He wanted me to know him so I would know how to pray for him, an attitude I loved. The first thing he told me, after relating that the only thing he really wanted was for the pain to stop, was that his wife had been killed in a car accident a few years ago, and that he considered it an Act of Nature. He—let’s call him Shmuel, not his real name—had driven on that road many times, and sometimes the coming in and out of the sunlight and back into the shade of the trees was blinding. He believed that the man whose car had gone out of control and crossed the line and struck his wife, pushing her into an irrigation ditch, and killing her, had likely been exposed to that blinding light/dark/light pattern.
Shmuel had gone to court appearances, as the man who had killed his wife was being charged with voluntary vehicular manslaughter, and Shmuel talked to the man’s attorney, and then the DA, and the man who had killed his wife was given probation, based at least in part on Shmuel’s words. At the final hearing, Shmuel told me, he was seized by a strong desire to hug the man, to give him his forgiveness, and he did so. And he told me that as they hugged, he felt such a sense of relief and release, and felt he would now be able to move on with the job of mourning his wife and moving ahead with his life.
This is a person who gets that generosity and purity of heart can make a difference in his life. This is the attitude the Unetaneh Tokef is trying to engender in us.
And you’ll notice that we have returned again to that recognition—either overt or subtle—that death or a brush with it, summons our most valiant efforts to access that good attitude. And so Yom Kippur offers us a yearly way to encourage that access without having to actually touch death itself.
I want to make one obvious, but important point about this. Alfred Nobel, Shmuel—they did what they did to write their obituary the way they wanted it while they were still very much alive. Because, truly, the way to write your own obituary is to choose to live your life while you are alive, and to live it in a way that tells the story of who you are, deep in your soul.
Death might come to any of us tomorrow, or not for years, but it will come. What matters, what has always mattered to Jews, is not what happens after death, but what happens while we are alive. So rehearse once a year, and then adjust your life to be more like yourself, more like who you are meant to be. I said this a couple of Sundays ago:
To some extent, it can be boiled down to what Victor Frankl wrote in his masterpiece, Man’s Search for Meaning. “Everything can be taken from a [person] but one thing, the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Write your own obituary by the way you live your life. Choose life.