Kol Nidre Sermon for Congregation Ner Shalom, October 7, 2011
(A morning flight over Manhattan this spring triggered these memories.)
If you were here for Selichot a couple weeks ago, you might remember my telling about the Seer of Lublin, who instructed his Chasidim to pray that their teshuvah might come from a place of abundance and expansiveness and joy. But we typically think of teshuvah, this process of repentance and forgiveness and repairing of relationships, as being instead a kind of contraction, a constriction. Teshuvah is inherently interior and humbling.
Plus the teshuvah we do this time of year has a special flavor of sadness to it. Yom Kippur serves, explicitly, as a memento mori. A reminder that we will all die. Death hangs over us in the Yom Kippur liturgy like the sword of Damocles. It is strategically placed to impel our teshuvah, to shortcut our resistance and give us quicker access to whatever regrets, old business or other shmutz we're hanging onto. Face it: compared to death, our feeble excuses for not doing the healing work we need to do are, well, feeble.
Awareness of death is so intrinsically part of the Yom Kippur toolbox that when I mentioned to a rabbi friend that I was still deciding on a Yom Kippur sermon topic, he replied, "Mortality always works." Which was meant to be both sarcastic and completely true.
On Yom Kippur we are reminded of being dust and ashes. Our lives are compared to a tzel over - a passing shadow. We ask, "Who by fire, who by water, who by sword, who by beast," and on and on, our possible bad ends spelled out with a kind of masochistic glee worthy of Edward Gorey:
A is for Amy who fell down the stairs
B is for Basil assulted by bears...
So death provides perspective. But it also provides impetus. It is a final Closing of the Gates, an ultimate deadline for getting our houses in order. In Pirkei Avot (2:15), we read the ancient words of Rabbi Eliezer, who says:
ושוב יום אחד לפני מיתתך
"You should repent the day before you die."
"But," Rabbi Eliezer's disciples objected, "one can't know the day of one's death!" Rabbi Eliezer replied, "Then do teshuvah today, lest you die tomorrow."
This instruction becomes the source of our custom of the bedtime shema, recited upon going to sleep, which features an actual vidui, an actual confession, like we do here on Yom Kippur, naming sins, asking for forgiveness and forgiving those who have harmed us.
But here's the irony of the bedtime shema or deathbed wills or impulse marriages or any kind of behavior undertaken in anticipation of imminent death. As Dorothy Parker once wrote:
Drink and dance and laugh and lie,
Love, the reeling midnight through,
For tomorrow we shall die.
(But, alas, we never do.)
We might prepare for imminent death. But then mostly, far more times than not, in fact all times except once really, we live. We just simply live. We are all in this room together today because we have lived. At every juncture when it might have been otherwise, we have lived. So what then is the role of an awareness of the imminence of death in a world in which, mostly, we live? I will tell you a story.
In September of 2001, someone I know was living temporarily in New York to be part of an Off-Broadway show. September 11 was his birthday, and he was eager to fly home to California and celebrate with his family. He'd intended to take an early morning flight out of Newark, but the show's producer had a scheduling problem, so she had to call a production meeting first thing in the morning on the 11th, despite his birthday and travel plans. So instead he booked a flight home for afternoon.
As you understand from the dates, the towers came down that day. The flight he would have preferred was hijacked and, like three other jets, used as a weapon of destruction. None of the passengers survived, of course.
This story is my story and I don't tell it very much. Because I lived. It is a near-miss story, and no one so much wants to hear a near-miss story, and after a while, no one wants to tell it either. I lived. It was that simple. I was not on that plane. And I might not have been anyway. The seats could have all been booked or I might have chosen a departure an hour later. I lived. I opened my show in New York, I closed my show in New York, I moved back, I began touring, I moved to Sonoma County. The rest you know. The thing I didn't really do was talk or think about this experience. Until a friend challenged me not long ago on the fact that I don't, and she found that suspicious.
But haven't we all had our near misses? Hasn't the Angel of Death passed over all of our houses once, or many times? The problem is that it feels wrong to dwell on our close shaves when there were others whom the Angel actually took.
We have all lost friends in untimely ways to disaster or danger or disease. Sometimes many people. In the 1980s and early 90s I lost so many friends and acquaintances to AIDS that I used to keep a list because I was so afraid I'd forget their names. Isn't this also the experience of survivors of the Shoah? The sea of loss and the inexplicability of survival.
Or the near misses that don't happen in dramatic times of plague or war or genocide, but instead happen on no particular day, in some random week, on a streetcorner. We carry our near misses with us. Whether we think about them or talk about them or not, they are under our skin, in our bones. We were in danger. We survived. Others didn't. This means something.
We have all had near misses, whether we're fully aware of them or not. Each of us has defeated odds to be here. Are we more deserving than those who didn't make it? I look back at some of my ACTUP friends of the early 1990s who were so brave and brilliant and beautiful and who died such miserable deaths and I know that the answer is obviously no. I am not more deserving. None of us is more deserving of life than the ones we lost were.
We are all deserving. They were. And we are. But sometimes we don't quite feel our own worthiness. It is so easy to think of them, think of the people we've lost, and wish that they were here. And think how wonderful the world would be, what a blessing it would be, if they were still here now.
But do we bother to notice how we are also the answer to the same prayer? What if we weren't here, and people were thinking how wonderful it would be if we were still alive. The answer is: it would be this wonderful, exactly this wonderful. This is how it would be. Because here we are. We are here when we might not have been.
The poet Billy Collins has a poem in which he pulls out of the driveway but pulls back in to go into the house and get a book. And he imagines a self that didn't bother, heading out without the book, running ten minutes ahead, living a slightly different life, and at times he feels like he can catch sight of him somewhere just ahead. We all imagine and sometimes wish for the lives we might have had, if we'd made a different decision at some important or unimportant juncture. What if. What if. But we also need to appreciate that right now we are living lives we might not have had at all, if we'd made a different decision at some important or unimportant juncture.
Each one of us is a blessing. Each one of us is unlikely. Every day you are here is a day you in fact might not have been. Every day is worthy of that great a joy. Even a day that is mundane. A day of shopping or bill paying or working or worrying or just hanging in and muddling through. This is a day you might not have had, a day the world might not have had you, a day this community might not have had you. This is a day worthy of celebration and gratitude.
I'll tell you, the thought that I might not have had these ten years; that I might not have had this life in this place with this family and this community; that I might not have had the chance to do this thing that I do here, that I am doing right now: that thought is unbearable. Even with life's typical moments of tediousness and mistakes and annoyances and hurt feelings and car trouble. Not to have had it is unthinkably heartbreaking.
This day is a bonus. Yesterday was a bonus. These 10 years. Or these 30 years. Or the whole thing. Because really what were the odds of any of us being born to begin with? This is all bonus.
So what a waste to spend it hobbled by fear of what could have happened, or numbed by the idea that our lives aren't important or interesting or fill-in-the-adjective enough. We are miracles. Each and every one of us in the room. And you should treat yourself as such. And everyone else in the room.
"Choose life," says Torah. "I have set before you Life and Death, Blessing and Curse. Therefore choose life that you may live." Torah wants us to do more than merely exist, to do more than opt against death. Torah says we have to choose life if we want to live. That is the blessing. Not just living. But choosing to live. To really live.
The memory of those who died is a great blessing to us. And so are the lives of those who survived. Everyone who survived disease or disaster or who dove back onto the curb as a car sped by. Everyone who survived and who went on to do any one of a million mundane and unglamorous things. Our lives are a blessing.
The Angel has passed by our doorsteps for now. And none of those who have gone before us would begrudge us this life that, for whatever reason, we're still living, or our joy at living it. So why should we begrudge or shortchange it? Instead, it is our job to make this a life that is full and awake and holy.
And so when Rabbi Eliezer says, "Do teshuvah now for tomorrow you may die," I am forced to think he was meaning something a little different. "Do teshuvah now," I think he might really have meant, "for tomorrow you may live."
And so I will do my teshuvah today, for tomorrow I may live. Dying with a clean conscience? Dying with my relationships whole and intact? Yeah, that'd be so nice. But more important: I want to live with a clean conscience. Live with my relationships whole and intact.
So, thank you Rabbi Eliezer, I will do my teshuvah today, I will do my teshuvah everyday, for who knows, tomorrow I may live, and I need to be prepared. I will do my teshuvah with gratitude and joy for this life that I have been inexplicably and undeservedly given, and with gratitude and joy for the blessing of the people around me, any one of whose lives is as unlikely and precious as mine. I will do my teshuvah ambitiously, to make this life as good as it can get, and to leave the world better than I found it. Might I have more chances? More lives after this one? The Buddhists and the Chasidim seem to think so. But this is the only one I can bank on. And so I will choose life. Really choose life. May we all really choose life.
Avinu Malkenu kotvenu b'sefer chayim tovim, our Source, our Guide, inscribe us this year in that book of yours not merely for life, but for a good life. A life that is treasured as the wonder that it is. A life which, even while having a fleeting shadow's brevity, boasts a fleeting shadow's beauty.
Let us do our teshuvah this holiday as the Seer of Lublin imagined it: with abundance and expansiveness and joy. And why not? For tomorrow we may live.
I am grateful to Michele Bonnarens for the insight, the love and the push, and to Eli Cohen for a very helpful dinner at the hot springs.