G’mar chatimah tovah, may you already have been sealed for good in the Book of Life! I am honored to be standing before you this evening as your rabbi on this most solemn day of the year. There are arguments to be made that Shabbat is a holier day than Yom Kippur, but on a day in which we combine the two, there is no question. Rosh Hashanah is solemn as well, but Rosh Hashanah in many ways is about creation, about beginnings. In some ways, Yom Kippur is about endings. It is about our last chance.
On Yom Kippur we turn our backs on life, in a sense. We do not do any of the things that usually sustain us. We do not eat, bathe, or enjoy marital relations. You see your clergy before you dressed in white, not like angels, but like a body laid out in a shroud. All of us have done both good and bad, but on this day when we beg for atonement, we think only of our guilt. We consider ourselves unworthy of this life we have been given, this wonderful opportunity. We pray that we will be able to do t’shuvah, to turn to our better selves.
If we were truly to be judged by the strictest interpretation of the law, who among us would be found righteous? Today we ask to be judged leniently, with mercy and forbearance. Although we do not deserve these wonderful lives we have been given, we beg for another chance to do better. Confronting the possibility of being written out of the Book, we beg for our lives to be restored to us. As it is written in our prayerbook, anything that seems trivial when one confronts death is then truly trivial. Today we abandon everything that is trivial and consider only that which is most important.
This is a day of last chances, of endings. We deserve death, but pray for life. If our prayer is not granted then truly it is the end. We have been given ten days, the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to pay off our debts, to rid ourselves of our bad habits, to utterly reject our sins and flaws, and to restore our relationship with the Holy One, blessed be Gd. The setting of the sun this evening began the last day of our time to finish these tasks.
If we do t’shuvah next week, is that not also acceptable? Will the gates of repentance close if we do not finish our attempt to make ourselves better people by the setting of the sun tomorrow night?
As our prayerbook tells us, the gates of repentance are always open. But how tempting it is to say perhaps the day after tomorrow I will make things right with Gd. Next week I will apologize to my wife, I will call my estranged friend, I will make peace with my brother. And the day after tomorrow becomes the day after that, and then the day after that. And someday there will be no tomorrow. And it will be too late.
No. Today is the day we must finish our task. As if tomorrow it would be too late. As if we had no longer than sundown tomorrow. As if the gates would truly close, and leave us on the other side. As if tomorrow would not only be the end of our Holy Day, but the end of our lives.
Someday, we know, that day will come. Then there will be no more opportunity to accomplish our tasks. We will have no more chance to make peace with our families, to tell people we love them, to turn to Gd. And then there will be a funeral, and people will come to our funeral and speak about us.
On Yom Kippur, we weigh our hearts to see if we have lived well or poorly. This is done also at our funeral. The chesbon nefesh, the summing up of our soul that we should be doing today will be done for us when we die, whether we are ready or not. Our lives will be judged, perhaps by Gd and His angels, and perhaps not. But surely judged by those who attend our funerals, and surely summed up by those who will give our eulogy.
It is not possible to truly sum up a life in a few words, or even in many words. The person we are is comprised of everything we have ever done, every thought we have ever had. Nonetheless, the goal of a eulogy is to give a sense of the person who is gone, so it will strike a chord of recognition with those who knew the person well.
In my job, I attend a lot of funerals. I hear a lot of eulogies, and I give a lot of eulogies. The word ‘eulogy’ comes from the Greek, meaning ‘good words.’ There is a tradition that one should not speak ill of the dead. We should only hear good words about those who have passed on. My job as a eulogist is to say good things about the person who has passed on, and still have the person I describe be recognizable to the people at the funeral. Usually that is an easy task. Not always. As a rabbi preparing to officiate at a funeral, I sometimes hear words that are less than good.
I sometimes hear of parents who never fully accepted sons-in-law or daughters-in-law. I hear about people who cheated on spouses, who were not there for children, who were emotionally distant, or worse, abusive. But a eulogy should consist of good words, and so I look for those words, because, of course, no one is all bad.
There is a story of a rabbi who has to lead a funeral on his very first day at a new synagogue. When he comes to the part of the ritual where one would expect a eulogy, the rabbi says “Friends, as you know, I am very new to this community, and I never met Mr. Kline. So instead of giving a eulogy, I thought I would ask some of his friends in the congregation to stand and say something good about him.”
There is an uncomfortable shifting in seats, but no one rises. The rabbi says “Just a good memory about him, or something about him that you liked.” People look at each other awkwardly. Desperate, the rabbi spots Mr. Rosenberg, who he knows because he was on the search committee. “Mr. Rosenberg,” says the rabbi, “please stand up and say something nice about the late Mr. Kline.” Rosenberg unwillingly gets to his feet and looks around the room helplessly. “Well,” he finally says, “his brother was worse.”
What would you like people to say at your funeral? For what would you like to be remembered? It is up to you. Whenever your funeral will be, and I hope it will be many many years in the future, you can decide right now to live your life in such a way that there would be no end of the good things people could say about you. So that if you were the Mr. Kline of the story, the rabbi would be overwhelmed with people standing up to say good words about you.
I love it when I am able to say in a eulogy ‘I spoke to him before he died, and he was content and ready to go. He told me that he had accomplished everything he wanted to accomplish.’ I love it when I am able to say ‘She spent every day with her children and grandchildren.’ But these are things that are difficult to control. Many people live far from family and friends. Sometimes there are family rifts that cannot be easily mended. Sometimes people die too young, and it is hard for them to say they are content to go.
But there are many things that we can control. I also love to say about people that they were kind to others. I love to say about people that they were always generous. I love to say that they loved life, and enjoyed it as much as they could. I love to say about people that they were always curious and never stopped learning. I love to say about people that they quickly turned strangers into friends.
I was able to tell a story at a funeral of a man, connected to this synagogue, who was so pleased to hear he was going to get a grandson that he skipped down the street. I was able, at a different funeral, to tell the story of a man who stopped to chat with a homeless man when walking with his family one cold winter’s night. When he returned to his family, his daughter asked him, “Dad, where are your gloves?” “That guy needed them more than I did,” her father replied.
These are the stories I love to tell. These people truly deserve the good words of a eulogy. But more, they should inspire us to live lives of greater kindness, greater generosity, and greater joy. Take advantage of the opportunities you were given, to live as you want to be remembered.
The question ‘What would you like people to say at your funeral,’ or ‘How would you like to be remembered,’ is really the same as the question: What do you find most important in life? Where do you find meaning and value? Do you want your eulogist to say ‘He had an awful lot of money?’ Do you want people to say ‘She created value for shareholders?’ Do you want them to say ‘He never let anyone put one over on him, and never forgave anyone who treated him poorly?’
Or would you prefer that people say ‘She was generous with her time and money to anyone who needed help?’ Would you rather people say ‘He loved his friends and family, and they loved him?’ The eulogy is your final grade in life, and their are no make-ups that we know about.
Except for a very few people like Tom Sawyer, we don’t get to attend our own funerals. If we want to have any influence over them, we have to begin right now. We have to live so that we will get the kind of funeral that we want.
Funerals are not about death. Funerals are about life. The funeral is a reflection of how a person has lived. Yom Kippur is also about life. What kind of life have you been living, and how does that compare with the kind of life you should live? What do you think is important in life, and what can you do to make what is important more a part of your life? What will people remember about you in years to come?
Yom Kippur, like a funeral, is a time to reflect on how you live your life. The advantage of Yom Kippur is that the day after you continue living. At your funeral it will be too late to make changes, to live a better life. It is not too late now.
Some people approach Yom Kippur fearfully. There are many changes to make, and the difficulty of doing tshuvah weighs heavily. Those who live their lives well fear Yom Kippur less. Everyone can improve, but those who are already trying hard to be the best people they can be are not overwhelmed by all the changes this day calls upon them to make. Those who live their lives well fear death less. They know what will be said at their funeral.
A good eulogy is easy to give for someone who has lived his life right. Yom Kippur reminds us that we have the opportunity now to decide to live that kind of life. Yom Kippur is our reminder that the time is coming when someone will stand before a crowd of our friends and relatives and tell them about our lives. What do you want them to say?
Before the gates close, before the sun sets tomorrow night, before it is too late, commit to the kind of life that you want your eulogist to speak about. No one can make these changes but you. You have no other time than now. None of us will hear our own eulogy. We must live our lives so that we will be confident that what will be said about us will be words that would make us, our families, and even Gd proud.
Shanah tovah to everyone, may 5778 be a year of happiness and good fortune for you. The days before the High Holidays are a time of tension and stress for many people. The Cantor and I do a lot of planning, Rachel and all of our volunteers do a lot of arranging, the tickets have to go out to the right people, and all in all there is a great deal to do to make sure the holidays go smoothly.
I know that everyone has their own preparations to make. Some people have to arrange to get off from work (I don’t have that problem), and then there are often family dinners and get togethers to arrange. And this is apart from all the spiritual preparation that everyone does.
Nonetheless, I do love the holidays. I love the music, the traditional prayers, and especially the opportunity to grapple with some of the big questions to which we may pay less attention during the year. The Torah we just read on this first day of Rosh Hashanah is the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac. This portion alone brings up many of those great questions.
We may ask ourselves what Gd asked of Abraham, and by extension, what Gd asks of us. We ask what kind of test this was, whether Abraham passed or failed, Isaac’s rôle, and so on. But are these academic questions, or is this a matter of life and death for us? Most of us probably do not feel very connected to this story. We are not afraid of what will happen to Isaac, we know how it turns out. And the story does not fill us with fear and trembling because we know it will never happen to us.
It is not only that we do not believe that Gd will not tell us to sacrifice our children. For many of us, this story is not frightening because we do not believe in a Gd who asks for anything.
As Reform Jews, we doubt the existence of a Gd who cares whether we eat pork or not. We doubt that Gd is angry if we drive on Shabbat, if we don’t cover our heads, if we eat a cheeseburger.
And this is not just a Reform problem. All thinking Jews must wonder about the nature of a Gd who rescued the slaves in Egypt but not the slaves in the United States, who parted the sea to rescue the Jews of ancient times but wouldn’t part a fence to rescue the Jews of the Holocaust. Who wouldn’t shift a plane 50 feet to the side to save thousands of lives on September 11th, 2001.
But many of us are not angry with Gd for failing to save those people. We don’t expect Gd to do things for us because we doubt the very existence of that kind of Gd. We doubt the existence of a supernatural Gd.
When we say ‘supernatural,’ we mean outside the physical existence of the universe. Without a doubt, the Jewish Gd is a supernatural Gd. Judaism says that Gd created the universe, which means that Gd was around before the universe. Before there was time, before there was space. If you can have a ‘before’ without there being time. We can’t, but Gd is supernatural, and therefore logic does not apply. When we create, we reshape materials that ex
, something out of . . .. . ist, or combine materials to make new things. When Gd creates, it is .
nothing. Where did the materials come from? Where did the energy to create come from? If logic is a system in which we state “If x, then y,” Gd is the very opposite of logic. We get the “y” without the “x.”
T. Gardner -9/21/17- . Gd’s creation defies logic. It defies the laws of the universe, and that is the point. Gd created the universe, and is not bound by its laws. But this is difficult for many of us to accept. Many of us do not believe in a Gd who is outside of the laws of nature, or the laws of logic. Many of us cannot accept a supernatural Gd.
We have grown up in an era in which we all learn about the scientific method. You form a hypothesis, and you test it. Based on the results of the test, you may conclude that you were right, or you may need to change your hypothesis. Things that we cannot prove scientifically we say are false. The value of science is that it separates the true from the fictitious, reality from fantasy.
Before the modern era, there were many people who believed in the supernatural. Some of it was fraud–fortunetelling, phrenology. Some of it was remnants of primative religions-ghosts, witches, faeries, trolls… People believed in good and bad luck, in the evil eye, in magic. We don’t believe in that stuff any more. We have science now! We don’t believe in anything supernatural–except that we are asked to believe in Gd. A Gd who is outside of nature, Who is greater than heaven and earth, Who is not bound by the laws of nature or science or logic. And that is not so easy.
My father did not believe in a supernatural Gd. He did not approve of organized religion. He did not like going to synagogue. But he would always say that he was a good Jew, and he was. He was generous, he was kind, and he worked all of his life to make this world a better place. But how can you be a good Jew if you do not believe in Gd?
We are Reform Jews, and many of us operate pretty well as people who keep some of the Jewish commandments, are connected to the history and culture of the Jewish people, and dont think too much about what kind of a Gd we believe in. We value Judaism for its many fine points. But what is the value of Judaism without a supernatural deity?
Judaism has a lot to say about ethics, about good and bad behavior. Judaism has a lot to say about meaning, about the purpose of existence. But if it is all based on a presumption that many of us doubt–that is, that the Torah is an accurate record of humanity’s interaction with a supernatural being–then where does that leave us? If Gd spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai
But if Gd did not speak to Moses on Mount Sinai, what then? Why is murder wrong?
There is always the golden rule, as given by Hillel–“What is hateful to yourself, do not do to others.”1 But so what? A man said it. Another man might say ‘What is hateful to you do to others so that they cannot do it to you.’ If it doesn’t come from Gd, how do we know we are not allowed to commit murder?
In the story of the Binding of Isaac that we just read, we are told that we should not sacrifice our children. If there is one Gd in Heaven and Earth who said ‘Do not sacrifice your children,’ then that is a rule that applies to the entire world. But if that was written by a human being, then people who choose to follow it may do so, and people who choose not to follow it may do so as well.
Without Gd, the Torah has no authority. And without the authority of the Torah, there is no ultimate right or wrong. There are civil laws, but who is to say if the laws are better in
1. BT Shabbat 31a –Donotmurder,”thenweshouldnotmurder.. We owe Gd our obedience, and said “ . ……
.. ! . …. . as our creator. As our Gd!
New York or New Jersey, in the United States or in North Korea? Without a belief in the supernatural, we are left without good and evil, without meaning. Without Gd.
In the 21st century we know not to be superstitious. We know not to believe in the supernatural. We New Yorkers are harder to convince than anyone. New York is full of people trying to take advantage. There are con men and gamblers, sharps of every variety. We don’t leave our doors unlocked. We know not to play three card monte on the street. So why should we believe in the supernatural stories we see in our Torah? Why should we believe in Gd? Why should we follow any of the commandments of the Torah?
If you have a difficult time believing in the supernatural, I have good news for you: You don’t have to. You don’t have to believe in angels, you don’t have to believe in creation from nothing. Because Judaism doesn’t really care what you believe.
You can be superstitious, you can believe in astrology. You can believe in string theory, you can believe in a Gd sitting on a throne in the clouds. Or you can believe in none of them. What our tradition cares about is what you do.
We care if you put a stumbling block before the blind. We care if you honor your father and your mother. We care if you are honest in business, if you give charity with an open heart. Judaism not only cares, Judaism demands that you follow the commandments of the Torah. And not only the commandments that say ‘Do not murder,’ and ‘Do not steal.’ Judaism demands that you also keep Shabbat. That you celebrate Rosh Hashanah. Judaism demands that you keep all the commandments in the Torah, whether you believe in Gd or not.
I am not saying that you should keep the commandments the way the Orthodox do. Keep the commandments in whatever way you, as a Reform Jew, see fit. But not a single commandment should be ignored.
How can this be? If we have doubts about the existence of a supernatural Gd, how can the Torah have any authority for us? According to the rabbis, we have permission not to believe in a supernatural Gd. And where do we get that permission? From Gd Himself!
In the book of Jeremiah, Gd complains about His treatment at the hands of the Is
.. . .” “They have forsaken Me and have not kept My Torah.”2 . … … ….. .. . . raelites. “ ..
The early rabbis interpreted this radically. Why did Gd complain both ‘They have forsaken Me” and also complain “and [they] have not kept My Torah?’ Because Gd was saying ‘I don’t care if they forsake Me, as long as they keep My Torah!’3
Gd says “Don’t believe in Me, if you find that difficult. But keep the Torah. I don’t care what you believe. But keep the Torah.” Do you have a hard time believing in a supernatural Gd? Fine, but keep the Torah! Do you doubt that the Torah was handed to Moses on Mount Sinai? It doesn’t matter. Keep the Torah!
Love your neighbor as yourself! You may not offer your children up as a sacrifice! Be kind to the stranger, for you were a stranger in the land of Egypt! Keep the Torah.
Judaism really doesn’t care what you believe. Judaism cares what you do. If you don’t believe in a Gd not subject to the laws of logic, that’s your business. But if you don’t keep the Torah, you are not fulfilling your obligations as a Jew.
Give to charity, hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Attend a seder on Passover, remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy, rejoice in your festivals. On what basis? On no basis.
2. Jeremiah 16:11
3. Pesika de Rav Kahana 15
But these are the things that Jews do. My father did them, and he was a good Jew. We keep the Torah, no matter what our opinion of the supernatural might be.
Keep the Torah and be fully a Jew, a real Jew, a practicing Jew, whether or not you believe in a trancendant Gd. Whatever it may mean to be a practicing Jew. You have permission to be a good Jew without Gd. You have permission to disbelieve in the supernatural. And your permission comes from the very highest source.
Gd spoke to Abraham and said to him “Abraham!” And Abraham said “Here I am.” Abraham’s relationship with Gd was his business. And your relationship with Gd is your business. But never say you are not a good Jew because of your belief or lack of belief in Gd.
Today is the first day of the Jewish year 5778. Let us enter that year with a renewed determination to be good Jews, to keep the Torah, and to thereby make the world a better place, and fill our lives with meaning. Shanah Tovah.