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.