Who Shall Live, and Who Shall Die? Me!

Sermon by Rabbi Joel M. Mosbacher on Yom Kippur, 5783
October 5, 2022

Sermon Text:

I am now the same age, 52 years old, as my dad was when he died. I’ve been thinking a lot about that; I miss him everyday. He would have loved this congregation.

My dad Lester was such an outgoing and friendly person; he would have been working this room.

He would have given Liz Sherman a run for her money in the schmoozing department.

I admire and try to emulate him as a husband, father, and friend. I admire the way he lived his life, without regrets, and without holding back what he thought and felt and dreamed about. I love that I know what he was about, and I love that I know what was important to him.

And, of course, I’m sad about all the moments in my life that he’s missed, all that my kids have missed out on by not having their amazing grandfather in their lives, and most of all, for how hard it’s been for my strong, resilent mom, who is here today, these last 24 years, sad for what she lost, and for all that she and her high school sweetheart were looking forward to when my dad’s life was tragically taken from him.

When I think about our high holiday liturgy in light of all that, I have to say, some of it is really hard for me to take; maybe that’s true for you, too. And no text is more challenging to me than the one we’re going to chant in just a few minutes:

Cantor quietly chants
“b’rosh hashanah yeekateivun, uvyom tzom kippur y’chateimun”

just one time, almost imperceptibly,

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who shall live, and who shall die.

When I think about the unfairness in the world, about my dad’s life, snuffed out in his prime, when I look out into this sacred congregation and see so many of you who have lost loved ones way too soon, I admit that I have such a hard time breathing through this prayer. I was meditating on these words a few weeks back, wrestling with it in my head, trying to think about what I’d say to you about them today, trying to feel my way through why they leave me so bugged and so angry.

And each time I read the words, all I could think was, “Really, God? That’s what this day is about? You’re keeping score, and if my good deeds outweigh my bad ones, I’ll merit to live another year? I guess then, that I supposed to conclude that my dad’s bad deeds must have outweighed his good ones, so that’s why his life was taken from him when his first grandchild was just short of their first birthday?”

I don’t know about you, but if that’s what that text means, no small part of me wants to skip, or, better yet, to personally go machzor by machzor through the hundreds that our congregation owns, and white that text out, or tear the page out altogether. Because, while I admit that I don’t always know how justice in the universe works, I know that that’s not what I believe. Who shall live, and who shall die.

Really, God?

Is that what you’re thinking about on Yom Kippur while I’m thinking about You, about what you want from me, about how I’ve been my best self this past year, and where I’ve missed the mark? You are making a list, and checking it twice?

And then you want me to hear these words: Cantor quietly chants “uteshuvah u’tefila utzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a hagezeirah” quietly… “but repentance, prayer, and charity will temper the decree,”

You want me to hear those words and feel better about it?

You want me to believe that if I say the right words in the right order, with perfect Hebrew pronunciation and perfect pitch, if I stay all the way through Neilah, that I’ll get to live until next Yom Kippur, and that how much I give to charity determines my existential fate? And that if I don’t do all of these things just right, I won’t see another new year? If I’m being totally honest, I want to just say, “forget that. If that’s what this text means, I’m out.” (did I mention that these words are hard for me?) But what if I’ve been thinking about it all wrong? What if these words are not about God deciding which of us will be sitting here next year and which of us will not?

What if the answer to the seemingly rhetorical question in our liturgy, “Who shall live, and who shall die?” is, me. I shall live, and I shall die.

All of us will. I will live, and then I will die; it is the way of things.

As the words of the prayer say, people die in different ways, some at peace, some tormented, some at the end of a long life, and some far far too soon, some of natural causes, others violently at the hands of another human being or at the hands of mother nature. But we all, each of us, will live. And we all, each of us, will die. That’s a fact. We will live. And then we will die. What if that’s what the machzor insists on confronting us with each year at this season?

If so, then the second line that Cantor sang, uteshuvah, utefilah, utzedakah ma’avirin et roah hagezeirah, repentance, prayer, and charity temper the decree, can mean something different.

Faced with the understanding that we will live, and that we will die, we can choose, with even more urgency and focus and awareness, how we will live. We can live with repentance, prayer and charity, or not. We can live with integrity and honesty and love, or not. We can live having pursued meaning, connection, and purpose in our lives, or not. We can live showing and telling others what our values are, what matters most to us in life and in death, or not.

That I can accept.

Now all we’re left with is the fact that we are all going to live. And that we’re all going to die. I recently read a bookby Dr. Todd May called “Death: The Art of Living.” If you are as big a fan as me of a television show called The Good Place, a show that appeared on NBC for four seasons a few years back, you should definitely add May’s book to your reading list, because he was the philosopher who consulted on the show. And the upshot of the book, and also the show, is that it is the fact that we know that we will die that gives ultimate meaning to our lives.

I know that death is a hard topic. Even if we set aside the idea that there’s some colossal scale on high somewhere that determines the nature of our lives and our deaths, death is still a hard topic. It’s one we don’t like to talk about in our culture; it’s one that we talk about in whispers if we talk about it at all. It’s one of the topics we certainly don’t talk about in polite company. It’s easier to talk about how we live.

As I suggested on Rosh Hashanah, it’s equally important to talk about pressing our souls gently so that we might find more light in our lives. But the topic of death scares us; it might worry or even obsess us; since we’re not sure we know what happens to us when we die, the uncertainty can make us afraid.

We as humans, by and large, don’t really like what we don’t or can’t understand. But we should talk about death, about our experiences, our fears, our doubts. We shouldn’t be obsessed with it, but we should talk about it.

And here’s why.

For one thing, when we don’t talk about death as a society, that topic gets pushed aside. And then no attention is paid to what might well be the most important experience in our lives that has the ability to define how we live.

Secondly, when we don’t speak about the deaths we’ve experienced in our lives, when don’t process those experiences and feel whatever feelings they raise in us we can be continually traumatized by them; the pain and loss we never fully allowed ourselves to grieve can ooze or explode out into other moments of our lives, causing harm and renewed pain, and can make us re experience the loss all over again.

And lastly, if we are facing the death of a loved one, and we haven’t asked them about how they feel, about what they want to have happen when they die, we can be left holding enormous emotional baggage and big decisions that we’re going to need to make whether or not we’ve asked our loved ones what they want.

I know that in our sanctuary right now, and watching online, are friends whose loved ones have died since last Yom Kippur; likely there are very few of us who have not dealt with the death of dear ones at some point in our lives; I recognize that this is a sensitive subject, and one that might trigger feelings for you.

Our clergy team and our social worker Rabbi Miriam Herscher are here for you, always. If you want or need to process your feelings; you do not have to do so alone.

In speaking about this topic, I am aware that it can be a difficult one; but that’s part of what it means to be a real community– to be able to talk about things that we have in common, and not just the easy things.

How we deal with death, our attitudes, our practices, and how we deal with it as a congregation—these are a reflection, in many ways, of our approach to life.

Moreover, both the inevitability and the uncertainty of death are facts that we cannot escape; we are, ultimately, creatures who are aware there is an end that awaits us. And that awareness structures the way we go about our lives, even – perhaps especially – when we act as though we are never going to die.

I want to ask you five questions–questions that might feel as hard or even harder than, “who shall live, and who shall die?”

For this moment, they are rhetorical questions, in that I’m not asking you to answer them out loud right now.

But I am asking you to think about them seriously, and I am asking you to begin to answer them in your head. And then, even after this long day together, I am going to send you home with some homework that I’m glad to help you with.

So here we go.

Number 1. What are you most proud of accomplishing in your life, and how do you want others to speak about you when you’ve died?

Number 2. Have you talked with those you love about how you feel about death, what you wonder, what you doubt, what you fear?

Number 3. As death approaches for you, may it be many years from now, what are your wishes that you would like your loved ones and friends and medical professionals to honor?

Number 4. Have you written not just a will outlining how your physical assets are to be dispersed, but an ethical will that outlines the values and advice you want your loved ones to hold on to and pass on to others when you die?

Number 5. What are your wishes for when you die, and have you communicated those wishes to your friends and loved ones? Have you made arrangements with a funeral home, so that your loved ones won’t need to both guess what you’d want, and scramble to make plans that you could have made?

My friends, why am I asking you these questions?

Because they are important. Because you are entitled to answer them. Because the answers to these questions will teach something to those you love about how you ideally want to live, and how you ideally want to die.

And because I have met too many families who didn’t have these important and difficult conversations with their loved ones, and then, when it was too late to ask, it wasn’t known what their loved one would have wanted. They have left too many words unspoken, and now they live with regrets.

I’ve been with too many families who avoided these questions because they felt scary and superstitious, but then ended up divided and upset with one another as they struggled to decide what to do, and what their loved ones would have wanted.

If you think about these questions, and then answer them, and then tell your nearest and dearest exactly what you want, then, when the time comes, may it be many years from now, everyone will know what your wishes for the future were. There will be no guessing. There will be more comfort.

I am so grateful that I’ll have the opportunity to be in conversation here at 3:30 today with Shaaray Tefila member Stephanie Garry, who is the Executive Vice President for Communal Partnerships at Plaza Community Chapel, as we talk publicly about these sensitive matters.

And I’m also grateful that fellow congregants Ben Hakim, Jennifer Seidman, and Cliff Schneider will be sharing their experiences with the recent deaths of their loved ones during the afternoon service starting at 4:30 today. I hope you will join us this afternoon. I am asking you these questions because, whether we talk about them or not, my friends, we will live. And we will die.

And the ultimate question for us on Yom Kippur is: what kind of legacy will we leave for those who will come after us?

We have a choice today: to leave a clearly communicated legacy that we shared while we lived, or a legacy that is murky because we chose not to talk about things that seemed scary, because we thought, for reasons my heart completely understands, that if we didn’t talk about them, they would never happen.

Rabbi Sharon Brous teaches that, “We need to have these conversations not only so that our families know our wishes…(It’s always too early to have the conversation, until it’s too late.) But also because, somehow, talking about dying reminds us that we are still living.”1

As someone who lost a loved one so suddenly, I speak from experience when I say: please don’t wait. Please don’t avoid saying all the things you need to say. I can promise you that you will never regret saying those things, answering these questions.

But you might well, or your loved ones might well, regret having avoided talking about these things. I know that for many of us, these topics feel hard and scary. Maybe; but as Mr. Rogers, one of my most important teachers, said: “What is mentionable is manageable.” What is mentionable is manageable. So here’s where the homework comes in.

Have these conversations, and write your answers down, and put the answers in a safe place where your loved ones know where to find them–or, better yet, make copies of your answers and give them to your loved ones and talk them through with them.

In the coming weeks and months, we are going to provide forums for all of us to become more knowledgeable about Jewish traditions around death, dying and burial, which are some of the most meaningful and powerful rituals we have. We’re going to invite you to explore with us Jewish views on what happens when we die.

We are going to make the space for conversations that would help us be more present when we or someone we love suffers a loss or approaches death so that we’ll be more supportive friends, family members, and community members as we accompany one another through the stages of grief and loss. How do I show up for someone I love? What should I say when there are no words, and what should I not say?

And, with the help of volunteers from the congregation, we’re going to create opportunities for us all to get clear on critically important end of life decisions, and we’re going to endeavor to create a Chevra Kaddisha, a group of congregants who will learn to tend to the bodies of our loved ones who have died. If you’re interested in being a part of any these efforts, please send me an email in the days ahead. “Who shall live, and who shall die?” our liturgy asks. The answer is at once more simple and more intense than I ever thought it could be.

Who shall live, and who shall die?

I will. We will.

And because we know that we will someday die, we have a greater awareness, a great invitation, to choose how we will live. Let’s choose to live with as few regrets as possible, with as few words as possible left unspoken. Let’s choose to live lives that we would be proud for our friends and our families to emulate. Let’s choose to have the hard conversations, so that our loved ones fully understand what we live for, what we most value, so that when the time comes for us to die, they will know what we were about and what mattered most to us.

I miss my dad every single day. When the White Sox win, I want to call him and celebrate. When they blow a big lead, I want to call him and commiserate. I would do anything to have him back, to have him sitting right here with my mom. I know I can’t have that.

But I know what I do have every day. I have the knowledge I learned from him as a husband, father, and friend. I admire the way he lived his life, without regrets, and without holding back what he thought and felt and dreamed about, even though none of us could have known how few years he’d have. Of all the many gifts he left to my mom, my brother, our families and me is the way he lived his one wild and precious life. As he lived, we knew what he valued. And when he died, all too soon, we knew through the oceans of tears what he wanted, too. On this day of vows, I vow that my children will know the same about me.

Will you join me in this vow? G’mar chatimah tovah. May we be sealed for blessing in the book of lives well lived.

1 In the Valley of the Shadow of Death Ikar, Kol Nidre, October 2016