Unetanah Tokef, Loss, and our Lives

Yom Kippur Yizkor 5779 2018
Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel

How do we look at the world? At prayer? What are we trying to accomplish today?

The Unataneh Tokef is one of the most beautiful and challenging prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Many machzorim share powerful, terrible, stories about Rabbi Amnon on Mainz and the origin of this prayer. They argue that he wrote this prayer as a confession. The archbishop of the area had challenged him to a disputation, a debate about which faith was correct, Judaism or Christianity. Amnon did not attend the day of the trial and said his tongue should be amputated. Why? Since by refusing to debate, he had momentarily expressed doubt in the truth of our faith. The archbishop had an even more cruel punishment in mind: his feet should be amputated, since they refused to come, and his hands, too--just for good measure. He was brought into services on Yom Kippur on a tray, offered the prayer, immediately after the Kedushah and then died. Three days later he appeared in the dream of another great rabbi, Kalynomus, where he told him to teach it to every Jewish community. While a very powerful story, there is a version of the prayer in the Cairo Genizah that predates the 11th century. The truth is out there.
בְּראֹשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן כַּמָּה יַעַבְרוּן וְכַמָּה יִבָּרֵאוּן מִי יִחְיֶה וּמִי יָמוּת. 
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on the Fast day, Yom Kippur, it is sealed, How many will pass on and how many will be born, who will die and who will live.
(Text from sefaria.org)

In this prayer every one of us cries out to Gd. We look around the room. We see those who are with us this year and those who seats are empty. We remember those we lost, the good times and the bad.

Yet at the same time, we celebrate. Yom Kippur is a day of deeply mixed emotion. It is truly a roller coaster of a day. (Or as Rebecca said, it is like a toddler--mixed emotions, lots of apologizing for things they did wrong, and for things they did right!) At Kol Nidre, we ask Gd for permission to pray among sinners, knowing not only that all of us are imperfect, that all of us have sinned. Whether the sins are large or small, hurting others, ourselves or Gd. As the Jewish parenting blog, Kveller shared, we even need to forgive ourselves for the sin of not fulfilling our expectations.  http://www.kveller.com/blog/parenting/this-yom-kippur-i-owe-myself-an-apology/   Yom Kippur morning we beat our chests repeatedly. We cry out to Gd to forgive our sins. We relive the Avodah service, remembering the powerful experience of the Temple, when the Cohen Gadol announced to the community that they were forgiven. At that point, the modern and ancient versions of Yom Kippur split! When our ancestors had the Temple in Jerusalem, the rest of Yom Kippur was a celebration. Once the high priest completed the Avodah service, we knew we were forgiven! Engagements were made, marriages announced. The traditional Torah reading for Yom Kippur afternoon is all about relationships--who exactly are you allowed to marry and who can you not?

Unlike in the days of the Temple, we do not see the crimson thread turn white, as our brethren did in the days of the Temple in Jerusalem. We do not see the scapegoat tossed off a cliff. We do not know if our sins have been forgiven. We DID hear the Eleh Ezkerah, remembering the martyrs of our tradition, Jews killed for teaching Judaism, for simply being Jews. While originally written about Roman persecution, our machzor, includes readings about the martyrs of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Shoah, the Holocaust. We could add readings from Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, where Jews were sent from their homes, exiled and killed because of the supposed blasphemy that there might be a Jewish state in the Middle East. We could share stories today of Jews attacked around the world, simply for being Jews.

Yom Kippur mincha tells us the story of Jonah. On a holiday about our particular relationship with Gd, we share a universal reminder of the power of redemption. We remember NON-Jews being told to repent, the people of Nineveh. Yet they do and they are saved, albeit temporarily.

After mincha, we offer one last prayer service. No other day of the year has FIVE different services, five different opportunities to beat our chests, to confess our sins. Yet we come back, again and again, to some of the same words. We cry out, again and again. For some the repetition is boring. They are ready to eat. (One more thing to confess!) Yet the repetition can bring us focus, can push us to greater heights. Coming back this afternoon, this evening, we imagine the gate of forgiveness, the book of life, and we try to write ourselves into it.

If only we work harder. . .
If only we do what we are supposed to do. . .

As I stand before you this morning, I am torn. I am broken. I am imperfect. I am vulnerable. I am a person who devotes his life to helping others, yet inevitably I fail. I have spent months looking for the perfect words to inspire you, to help you live your best, most meaningful lives this year. I want you to see the world the way I do, to look at the spirals of the Jewish calendar, to let the rhythm of the calendar be the heartbeat of your life. And yet as I stand here, the words fall flat. Not all of them will reach you. They will drift in the ether, in the echo of this beautiful room. There are not perfect words. So I fall silent.

וּבְשׁוֹפָר גָּדוֹל יִתָּקַע. וְקוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה יִשָּׁמַע.
THE GREAT SHOFAR will be sounded and the still small voice will be heard.

Yom Kippur is unlike any other day. While we have other fasts, other days of prayer, this is a day of reflection like no other. What are we trying to do? Who are we trying to be? How do our expectations help us succeed or fail? We have said this prayer many times, yet maybe there is a different way to understand its key words.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, as told by Lord Jonathan Sacks, reconsiders the words utshuvah, utefillah, utzedakah, maavirin et roah hagezerah which is commonly translated repentance, prayer and charity can remove the severity of the decree. The Lubavitcher Rebbe says all of these translations are wrong.

He said if it was repentance, the word would be hatarah in hebrew, which is remorse and the feeling of guilt with the intention of behaving in a completely new way in the future. But tshuva is returning, it is making new, tshuva implies that the Jews are essentially good. It is going back to one's roots and finding one's true character--rediscovering the good that is within all of us. The righteous do not need to repent, and the wicked may not be able to, but all can do tshuva. The righteous can strive to return even closer to Gd and the wicked can strive to be just a little closer than they currently are.

The same is true of prayer--much prayer is bakashot-requests, beseeching--tefillah, according to the rebbe, is attaching oneself. If our prayer is merely bakashot, then we pray to Gd only in times of need, but if we are feeling self sustaining, if we are doing well, we have no need for prayer. Tefillah though, is something we can do at all time. Our souls yearn for Gd, and we need to encourage them at all times to renew this connection. We can become trapped in our bodies, trapped in the material world, and forget the sanctity of ourselves and our Gd. Tefillah helps unlock this holiness so that we can bring it back into the world, we can bring Gdliness into the world.

Finally tzedakah is not charity--hesed is charity. Hesed implies that I have no requirement to give and the recipient may not deserve my gift. Hesed is wonderful, it is beautiful, but it is not tzedakah. Tzedakah is justice, it is righteousness, it is a duty, a requirement. It is a reminder that everything in this world, ultimately belongs to Gd. The rebbe says we are rewarded measure for measure, because we give feely, Gd gives freely to us.
From: http://www.jewishlights.com/page/product/978-1-58023-271-5 Yom Kippur Readings: Inspiration, Information and Contemplation, Edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins

Does anyone remember the musical Avenue Q? There is an entire song about “if you help others, you can’t help helping yourself.” This helping ourselves is one way we feel Gd’s presence in our lives.

Through studying Torah, through connecting to our history we feel our present more deeply. We learn lessons of hope, of survival. We learn that we are not alone. We learn that we have a job, a task, a mission. We have been chosen and we choose to answer the call.

Yizkor is a time of remembrance. I think of those whom I have lost, my grandfathers Artie and Benjamin, my grandmothers Doris and Alice. In every family, we have a story of suffering, of illness, of challenge. Whether it is cancer or heart disease, AIDS, alcohol, drugs, gun violence, mental illness or tragic accidents, we all have our tsurris, our troubles. Bad things do not just happen elsewhere. They happen to all of us. We are all connected to one another and no family is without issues.

This past Shabbat I was reminded of the story of Rabbi Berger from Rodeph Shalom in Tampa. His story was in the New York Times two years ago and I have read his “Five Minutes to Live” Sermon a dozen times in as many years. He spoke of the last minutes of the Challenger, wondering what we would do if we knew we had only a few minutes left. He wrote:

For perhaps as much as five minutes, the astronauts were alive and conscious and yet knew that death was certain. The thought terrorizes me. Can you imagine knowing that in a few moments death was imminent? What would we think of? If God forbid, you and I were in such circumstances? What would go through our mind? What went through their minds. The seven astronauts? Of course, no one will ever know for sure...I know it is not pleasant, but I want you to consider on this Yom Kippur, what If? What if I had five minutes to live?
Rabbi Kenneth Berger's "Five Minutes to Live" retrieved from:  http://www.sdiworld.org/sites/default/files/educational-event/five-minutes-to-live-rabbi-kenneth-berger-z22l-yom-kippur-sermon-sept-1986%20%282%29.pdf

Horrifically, he died in a plane crash where they knew for 40 minutes that things were not right. If five minutes is challenging, how awful could forty minutes be? The New York Times retrospective shared that:

Rabbi Berger reached across the seats and gathered the hands of his daughter Avigail, 16, and son Jonathan, 9, trying to reassure them, Avigail would later recall. The plane burst into flames after it hit the ground in Sioux City, Iowa, killing 112 people, including the rabbi and his wife, both in their early 40s.  https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/02/us/a-rabbis-enduring-sermon-on-living-your-last-five-minutes.html

I cannot even begin to imagine that horror. Standing here, in this holy space, I know we are thinking of a similar tragedy from our own CBI community. Before I came down to meet you all, I spoke to Reva Pearlstein, Eric Ludin and Leslie Weiss regularly. We discussed everything under the sun. We planned my visit, skyped and considered what it would look like for me to be the rabbi of CBI. Then I heard on the news about a plane crash in Costa Rica. Slowly, horrifically, the dots connected for me. Leslie, the Leslie I was to meet in a few weeks was no longer with us. As the new spread on facebook and online, the connections overwhelmed. Rabbis and friends from across the country knew Hannah, Ari, Mitch and Leslie. Having grown up in HaNegev USY I should not have been surprised about the huge web of connections, but it was heart-wrenching. Watching bits and pieces of the Memorial Services at CBI via a poor internet connection at a Jewish retreat center in Baltimore, I found more and more ways our lives were linked.

Coming here, I feel their presence. This summer USY on Wheels sent a bus to our area. Of all the buses that could have come to St. Pete--it was the one with my nephew. He was ecstatic to see our holy community and I was proud to show him and his friends CBI. I was glad that members of our community came together to talk with the USYers and share the legacy of the Weiss family. I’m proud that in a few months we will have a beautiful sculpture in the courtyard, celebrating their impact on our community.

Standing here, I know that the loss of the Weiss family was not our only major loss this year. I could speak of so many others that we lost this year--like Phil Redisch or Irma Mayer. As the Weiss family loss was a shock to the community, every death is a shock to a family. Even in cases when someone has been ill for years, even when they suffer, even when we KNOW that death is the only way to relieve their pain, death is hard. It does not take a tremendous tragedy for us to feel tremendous loss.

We cannot be afraid of our feelings. We cannot be afraid to mourn. As Jews, we are blessed with our mourning practices. Shiva, Shloshim, Yarhzeit are some of the greatest gifts of the Jewish people. Giving us a process to mourn, forcing community upon us, our Jewish rituals allow us the space and time we need to process our emotions.

As the great shofar is sounded, as we imagine writing ourselves in the Book of Life for the next year, I wonder about how we react to all these challenges. What holds us up when times are tough? How do we keep our strength when we feel like we will crumble? What do we have in our toolbox to help us manage our expectations?

At the end of the day, Gd, faith, love, one another, therapy, community are all tools to get us through our difficult times, to help us find ways to celebrate again after and even DURING times of tragedy. We cannot forget the power of AND: that we can be both happy AND sad, jubilant AND disappointed, sweet AND bitter. Sadness and joy are not mutually exclusive possibilities.

As much as we like, we cannot control every aspects of our lives, every little or big thing that happens to us. What we can control is our reaction. How do we deal with the challenges of life? Choosing to respond positively, with hope, with a new plan for action, that we can do. As I said on Rosh Hashanah, today is the day Gd has made, rejoice in it.

As we prepare for Yizkor, as we think of those who we have loved and lost, let us think of the decisions they made. Did they react well to stress and change? How can we emulate them when they did? If they did not, how can we use their example to react with love and hope!

Next year, we will ask ourselves again, for whom has the shofar tolled--and how did we react?

The most powerful line of the Unetaneh Tokef tells us that T’shuvah, T’fillah and Tz’dakah have the power to transform the harshness of our destiny. Renewing ourselves/repenting, prayer/yearning and charity/deeds of righteousness do not miraculously defeat cancer or solve all our problems. Rather, they change our attitudes; they help us gain the tools to thrive in any situation. Thus, we look at the world through the supportive, corrective lens of our traditions. We come together to improve ourselves and this world. Together we can make this world a holier place.

Standing here we are changing the fabric of the universe. We are changing the atoms, the energy, the matter. We are supporting the long arc of history, working towards positive change. We are also nourishing ourselves. We are reminding ourselves that we are PART of that fabric. We give ourselves the strength not just to exist, but to thrive.

Everyone of us has blessings and challenges. Ultimately, through teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah, we lift the harshness of our destiny and allow us to celebrate it. May we see only simchas this year.

G’mar Tov!

For further reference:
Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman has edited an incredible volume on the Un'taneh Tokef