Yom Kippur Morning Drashah
A Day (and a Year) of Dying
Rabbi Andy Bachman
September 14, 2013
10 Tishri 5774
Ha Yom Harat Olam, Today is the birthday of the world, we say on Rosh Hashanah and now, on Yom Kippur, we prepare for our death. Dressed in pure but funereal white, abstaining from food and sex, standing before an open Aron, an Ark, which is the same name for the casket which will carry our bodies to the grave, we are stripped down to our essence, before the Book of Life, willing to be judged. To anchor the day even more deeply, we say Yizkor on Yom Kippur, recalling the souls of our loved ones, those who made us, brought us into being, in all their valor and love and complexity and imperfection. They leave us, to finish their work, to heal the wounds they may have even inflicted on us, and to make peace so that they, and we too, can rest in peace. Yom Ayom v’Norah. A day that is awesome and full of dread. So powerful in its metaphoric constructs, it’s no wonder we can only tolerate it once a year.
Unless of course one is in a year of mourning. When that’s the case--an inescapable reality that faces each of us, unavoidably, at various intervals of life--we experience not a day of dying but a year of dying. A year of shock and anguish; a year of irrational bursts of anger, hysteria, laughter, and depression. A year of confusion, numbness, of never fully being able to get going. A year of walking along the edge of commitments--to work, to family, to friends, to children, to obligation. The very disorientation of death and mourning and what it does to us, the potential devastations it wreaks on our lives, its havoc-making, is both the most mundane and most profoundly transformative experience we humans know, especially since, after all, few of us remember our birth (but I suppose there is always an exception).
They say the Throne of God is surrounded by the souls of the dead, who plead on our behalf on this day, to make it into the Book of Life for another year. Like many of you, I carry around a lot souls with me on Yom Kippur. I carry my grandparents, friends who died from cancer and suicide and car accidents and terrorist attacks, teachers who animated my mind and soul and whose voices still guide my steps, and of course, my parents of blessed memory, who died thirty years apart, unreconciled to one another, incomplete. I used to experience this day like that famous scene from Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” souls neatly seated, observant of me though impenetrably distant, silent and virtually unknown to me. At other times I experienced the dead as the Sages once imagined, unfinished souls tethered to earth, yearning for us, in life, to honor them with Torah and Prayer and Good Deeds in their name, thereby liberating them, setting them free into Eternal Life. For more than twenty years this was the only way I could reconcile myself to the wreck my dad made of his life--a promising career and beautiful family dashed up against an unwillingness to face his demons, his anger, his depression; his failure to channel his gifts for the good. Like a rodeo cowboy, I spent years capturing his demons, wrestling them to the ground, taming and domesticating them.
(Some years, when I get distracted at services on Rosh Hashanah, I read texts in reverse--like maybe Isaac took his father Abraham and put him on the wood, lit the fire, and said, “Dad, you’re my sacrifice. I’m giving you back to God. You messed up. You gotta start over.” They say the Yemenites can read Torah upside down in the Beit Midrash. I don’t know. Seems to work sometimes.)
But after spending much of 2012 helping my mother die and then spending much of 2013 mourning that death from three different forms of cancer, I learned a few more things that I thought might be instructive to share with our community. In all candor, I’ll say that on one hand I hesitate to do this. After all, Yom Kippur is about all of us, our individual lives and our collective fate; I’m but one soul in this sea of souls on this holiest day of the year. God forbid--seriously--that this should be about me.
On the other hand, in our Musaf service for Yom Kippur, when we recall the ancient ritual in Jerusalem, of the High Priest offering sacrifices on behalf of himself, his household, and the whole House of Israel, we are appropriately reminded of the great, shared, leveling experience of the mystery of death. Death the Great Equalizer. According to both Torah and the Talmud (and recorded in our Mahzor) the Priest’s sacrificial work on this day is so dangerous it could kill him. His is a public drama, a ritualized staging of the fearsomeness of death caused by proximity to God as he pleads for himself, his household and his people, the Jewish people, to be saved for another year of life.
And I’ll be candid: I walked that line in the last year. There were times when those moments of terror that I imagine the High Priest to have felt, coming so close to death and having to face it, understand it, process it, and execute his duty to serve others along the way were nearly too much to handle. But, if death is the great equalizer, so too, is its ineluctable characterological conclusion: humility.
Since the High Priest’s confession was public, I guess I’ll justify the personal, humbly requesting your forbearance, through that lens. The foggy filter of recollection burned clear by the bright light of scrutiny; anecdotal impressions that served as signposts, post-traumatic totems of truth that allowed me to feel my way through the year; searing truths delivered at moments of despair; ice-cold wake-up calls in the middle of the dark night of mourning; and then, as Rabbi Akiva so brilliantly taught us at the end of the Mishnah Yoma about the ultimate lesson for all the Jewish people with regard to the Temple Ritual on Yom Kippur: the experience of death is in fact like the cleansing waters of the mikveh, a chance to start over, a chance to be re-born, a signal fire of hope, from soul to soul, from hill to hill, from town to town. Proximity to death purifies, Akiva taught, reduces us to our essence, which, in turn, allows us to begin again toward the future with hope.
This is true for each of us--which is why this day’s lessons are so powerful.
Diagnosis and Facing Reality: I remember when Mom’s breast cancer moved to her lungs. I remember when the doctors, standing over her and us in a shady beige hospital room in Milwaukee said the word “inoperable.” I remember looking at my sisters’ and brother’s faces and I remember imagining that at that moment a clock began, like at the start of a road race. Digital tenths of seconds melding into minutes, hours and days of running away from and running toward a finish line no one wanted to cross. I remember going for a walk down the hospital hallway and running into a childhood friend I hadn’t seen in thirty years, taking care of her mother, dying of cancer. The initiation ceremony was brief and wordless. But the vows last forever: “They raised us up and we lay them down. That’s the order of things.” Where did those words even come from? How do we know how to do that? Like a parent protects its young, the children rise up to lead their parents to the other side. One of evolution’s tricks, I guess.
Bargaining for Time. I was heroic for a long time during the year of Mom dying. On planes every few weeks--Air Tran Airways into Milwaukee (crappy seats, a dying airport--though the ping-pong table is cool) or Jet Blue into Chicago, a rented car, and contemplative drives across the Illinois/Wisconsin border. The silent soundtrack and landscape of the account-taking of life’s ultimate horizon. When I’d bury people in Brooklyn, visit homes for Shiva, I’d see myself as super-human, beyond death, almost manic in my confidence. Rabbis are faithful; brave; inexhaustible. I was depleting myself, of course, without fully realizing it. I ran non-stop. The paths in Prospect Park seemed to move like airport escalators. I wasn’t *really* aware until one day I showed up at therapy--straight from a visit with Mom to LaGuardia to the Upper West Side--in a Milwaukee Brewers hat; a sweatshirt from my favorite Milwaukee restaurant; with my favorite Milwaukee roasted coffee in a Green Bay Packer mug. “You’re looking rather patriotic today,” my shrink said.
So the bargaining came to a screeching halt. The rally cap, that Shaman of modern sports, that nutty idol,wound up on the trash heap of superstition. I was powerless to stop death. I’d have to face my own limits. And death’s ultimate lessons.
That’s When We Started Making Plans. Mom wanted to be cremated. I didn’t. So we argued sometimes. “I hate my body,” she’d say, describing cancer’s ruthless campaign. Getting her to drink Ensure had been an issue. Reminding her to take her medical marijuana and then preparing her poached eggs was a highlight. So was sitting next to her in April and May, watching Spring descend on Lake Michigan, turning on a ballgame and parsing out a new pitching staff; and noticing lilacs in bloom. She was a late convert to Depends, which was frustrating. “I remember my father’s own funeral,” she began that day. It was 1939. She was six when he was killed by a mentally ill man with a gun. An aunt lifted her up to his casket to kiss him goodbye. “I stopped believing in God that day,” she said. “But you taught me to pray,” I said. “Why should I ruin a good thing for you,” she said. We didn’t laugh so much those last couple months but there were alot of smiles, a bottomless well of sarcasm, searing truths to share. “Burn my body,” she said. I refused. My sisters and brothers granted me the chance to persuade her to be buried and I mounted a two month attack. I made the case for burial by saying that following the traditions of her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents was one of the most valuable lessons she gave me and that she had no right to deny me the expression of the value she had taught me. “No take backs to life lessons,” I said that first month. The second month I laid it on thick. “I still visit grandma’s grave,” I told her. “And your father whom I never met. And dad’s parents who you loved even though you kicked him out of our house. And dad. And I’m going to visit you. And one day your grandkids will have kids and they’ll visit your grave and will learn all about you. Your laugh, your cooking, your knitting, your loyalty, your goodness. And there it will be. In our family plots. In Milwaukee. This is our homeland. The last piece of ground you’ll ever occupy and it will be yours and holy forever. Sorry--this is all bigger than you.” We were both crying. “You win,” she said. I officially had no regrets. That night the Brewers even won.
Faltering Faith and Final Indignities. One day, about a month before Mom died, when we were preparing to move her into hospice care at the Jewish Home, the last vestiges of her chemotherapy, which had ravaged her insides like acid, caused her to make a devastating indignity of herself in her bed. She was ashamed, broken and unable to speak. My brother and I picked up her, undressed her, bathed her, dressed her, and put her back into bed. And it happened again. So again we picked her up, undressed her, bathed her, dressed her, and put her back into bed.
That’s when my Atheism crept in. I began to allow myself to rebel. My brother was silent and devoted and I was furious at God for allowing such a kind and decent person to suffer. Not just now at the end of her life but at the beginning. And in the middle. The famous Talmudic legend of the Messiah cleaning and bandaging the wounds of the sick at the gates of the city fell flat. I took off my tefilin. I stopped praying. I felt like a fraud and a fake leading services on Shabbat. I wondered if families knew? If there was a Golem like ALEF on my forehead, seen by all. “Mi chamocha be’elim?” Who is like you among the gods? sang Bnai Yisrael after their escape from Egypt. But the Sages, having witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, said, “Mi chamocha be’ilmim?” Who is like you among the deaf? You, God, ignore suffering. You’re powerless to stop it. And I joined that accusation.
It was there I remained. If not atheist, certainly agnostic. Too wounded to speak to God. The bindedness of obligation a shadow, at best. The funeral I ran on fumes. The high of seeing family and old friends, of the absorption into sympathy. I said Kaddish at my grandparents shul in Milwaukee and came back to Brooklyn to the embrace of this generous and remarkable community. The outpouring of support was fundamentally beautiful and restorative. But my faith was shattered.
At Shiva one day, my favorite moyel, Rabbi David Kedmi, pierced a moment of silence by saying, “כשאבא ואמא מתים יש לנו רק את משה רבינו--When our parents die, we are only left with Moses our Teacher. And there I found comfort and tears. In my parents my teachers, and my teachers my teachers. Mosse. Saposnik. Hertzberg. Dreyfus. And all others, whose words in books were oxygen, piped to me beneath the surface of my descent into the rocky moonscape of faithlessness. I read Meghan O’Rourke’s memoir and poetry of her mother’s death; Roland Barthe’s “Mourning Diary,” and Abba Kovner’s poems about his last days in “Sloane Kettering.” Christopher Hitchens, atheist to the end, lifted me, like a baby eagle on the wings of an inveterate skeptic mother. He who also died from a brutal cancer carried me for days from the pages of his little black book entitled, appropriately, “Mortality.”
But despite feeling liberated from the notion of an all-powerful, redeeming God, I was miserable and didn’t know how to express it. “God said “ayeka” -- “where are you?” to Adam and Eve hiding in the Garden of Eden,” my friend Mish Zion told me one day. “Rebbe Nachman taught that sometimes we say to God, “Where are you?” Like instead of “the whole earth is filled with God’s glory,” sometimes we have to pray, “Where is God’s glory in all the earth?”
This invitation into the perception of Divine Absence was the greatest gift I had been given in the year of mourning. It shattered my shatteredness. Pulverized my righteous anger and allowed me talk to God again. Where are you? I prayed. Your miracles? Your healing power? Your redeeming reputation? Through the Hurricane and our community’s inspiring response; our activism against gun violence; our creation of a shelter for homeless men; our community’s trips to Israel, to the human made miracle of the first Jewish state in 2000 years; through all of this I gave my rage, my anger, my sadness, my silence, His silence, a voice.
Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Pisetzner Rebbe, who taught in the Warsaw Ghetto until the Nazis killed him, said, “Besides your many plans of action that you should use until you have healed your soul, you can also take advantage of our Sages advice based on the verse in Proverbs 12.25, ‘When a person has a heavy heart, let him speak it out to others.’ (Yoma 75a). The Sages make no mention of what the *listener* should do to ease the distress of the other. That’s because just talking about it and getting it out in the open are so healing and prevent the need for self-deception to numb the buried pain. The Baal Shem Tov explained the verse, ‘My soul was brought out when it spoke,’ (Song of Songs 5:6) in this context. You can experience this with your own anger or upset; you may feel that the emotional pain has subsided, but it’s only from your conscious world. Inside, the poisonous emotions still hide. If more events continue to evoke those same emotions and you continue to suppress them out of sight, eventually your emotional bank will be bursting and will explode when even slightly provoked...This would not happen if they had a trusted friend before whom they could pour out their hearts. They would immediately feel a load off their hearts and the pain lifted from their souls.”
This is the very solution, the very foundation of what it means to be in community, of the idea behind the oldest Jewish traditions of the Hevra Kadisha, the society of those who come together to break bread, to learn, to live, to talk, and yes, even to die. Our blessing for bread was developed here and our birkat mazon for after we eat, giving thanks. Our Kiddush. Our Passover Seders. And our ritual for the burial of the dead. The Hevra Kadisha. The Holy Society. Each circumscribed by words, human words, forming questions and responses, cries of anguish in remembrance of evil and gratitude for the blessings of life, for friendship, for food, for drink, for community, for each other’s voices.
I chose to say Kaddish at the end of the year of mourning in Jerusalem. I was supposed to fly on Mom’s yahrzeit with the Bronfman Youth Fellows, who I would be teaching in Israel for the summer. But the idea of saying Kaddish on a plane seemed wrong. So I flew early, landed, joined the Women of the Wall on the first day, went for a run, took a nap, lit a yahrzeit candle, said Kaddish alone in the kitchen, and went for a burger and a beer. It all seemed right. Not in a minyan; not in prayer; but as a protesting partisan, in dialogue with my God, unsure of where this conversation would ultimately end up. But kind of figuring I was already on the way back.
The Jerusalem running path became my house of prayer all summer long. Five, six days a week, along the old Turkish rail line that the British manned before being taken over by the Israelis, I ran through layers of history. The same nineteenth century that brought rail lines and European goods to Palestine brought Germans and Russians to Milwaukee, from where rail lines distributed industrial goods and agricultural throughout the United States. I ran through pitched battles between Jews and Arabs, Nazis and Jews, Jews and Christians, Northerners and Southerners--immersed in history, its questions, great and small. It’s effect on us all. On how Jews became American and Israeli; on we suffered in the first half of the twentieth century our greatest calamity only to realize our greatest triumphs of a state of our own and the freest diaspora existence we have ever known.
And I kept returning to my conundrum. That throughout the calamities and triumphs of our history, some of us were always talking to God and others were rejecting; some of us were making meaning of faith and others were building reality with the work of their own hands. But all along we were talking. About tragedy and triumph; about morality and ethics; about choices we make with, and even sometimes against our will.
I ran and I talked. I talked when I ran. And on a few warm nights, in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, in Tzfat, and even at a small Lotto stand in Hod Hasharon, I spoke to a friend about life and death; and fathers and mothers; and wives and children; and the past, the present and the future. I downloaded apps to talk to Rachel for free; to sneak conversations in with the girls at camp; and one day I realized that there was a “pain lifted from my soul.” Talking brought me back to faith, to life. קחו עמכם דברים--take with you words, said the prophet Hosea on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return. The Return to life. To dialogue. To community. Even to faith, bruised and battered as it is. I found comfort. המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך אבלי ציון וירושלים--Jerusalem is a place where I found comfort. God is called The Place. I found comfort in The Place. Talking.
So I guess you can say we’re back on speaking terms.
I leave you with an image that marks an end and a beginning and what I hope will be the appropriate way of saying that on this day of days, on this day that is awesome and full of dread, that when we remember that all of us walk through the valley of the shadow of death, that all of us willingly and unwillingly must give ourselves over to the reality of our existence, its beginnings and middles and ends; and that in the endless choices we face navigating the lines between life and death; we are bound to talk and to listen, to talk and to question, to pray our pain and our doubt; and pray our triumphs and exaltations.
My story is unique, I suppose that’s true, as are all our stories. Maybe you found similar experiences when you faced death; maybe mine have been completely different from yours. Either way, it’s my wish today that we make room to talk about it with one another, to listen to one another, to lead each other through the darkness, through the valley of the shadows of our pain and remorse into the clearer light of day when mourning lifts and we can come home again, having experienced the absence of a loved one and sometimes even God; but become again, paradoxically, more whole.
On one of my first days back in Brooklyn I went for a run in Prospect Park. Verdant paths under shading trees, damp, late summer heat sweltering with each step. In the still corner by the lower lake I saw a Great Blue Heron, tucked in the reeds, still. I came to a dead halt and addressed him. “Good day, fine sir. I salute you.” And in that flawless, effortless, powerful way of the larger of the species, he took flight. His wings flapping like a pouring out of the heart. His direction focused, his wings speaking, lifting pain from the hearts of the souls that beheld his beauty. He took off over the water, the cleansing waters of hope.
May each of us on this day face our lives and their terrifying questions with an openness and honesty, reflecting on the end as a chance to begin again. In the new year may that reflection bring us to a place, to The Place, of more clear-eyed reckoning, taking our words, talking the words, and the words of those who shaped us, into our daily lives--lives lived with blessing and with hope.
Gmar Hatima Tova. May you finish this year inscribed in the Book of Life for another year of blessing, hope and peace.