On the most sacred Jewish holiday of the year–Yom Kippur–we literally imagine our own funeral. Men traditional wear a white sash that will also serve as their burial shroud. The purpose is to picture our own death in a way that helps us live more fully.
What if, however, we could not only imagine our death, but choose it. And what if that choice seemed the right and dignified thing to do.
The eternal question of religion is why do bad things happen to good people. Hundreds of thousands of volumes have addressed the questions. We still yearn for a satisfying answer.
The horrific and highly-visible impact of hurricanes and natural disaster continually raise this question. How can we come to grips with thousands of homeless families, a couple killed while walking a dog, a woman electrocuted in front of a fallen transformer, and other horrors? How do we come to grips with broken promises, betrayals, senseless hatred?
The Bible offers two main answers. I will add a third articulated most popularly by Rabbi Harold Kushner, who wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
Tonight begins the Jewish “Festival of Tabernacles.” Known in Hebrew as Sukkot, we spend time in temporary outdoor dwellings.
They remind us of the fragility of life our ancestors experienced during their journey across the Sinai Desert.
Vanity, Vanity, All is Vanity!
The biblical book we read on Sukkot is Ecclesiastes. Tonight we will chant it in my synagogue.
I confess this book has always mystified me. Ecclesiastes seems to contradict other parts of the Bible.
This past weekend around the world gathered for Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. This is the sermon I delivered on Friday evening. It is longer than my usual posts, so should you wish to hear the audio recording of the sermon, click the link right below the picture. A shorter version will appear shortly on the Huffington Post. With prayers and shalom, Evan
Once a year at summer camp, the entire camp would divide into four teams. We had races, basketball games, tennis matches and forth. Whichever team had the most points at the end of the day won.
hear the audio recording of the sermon
The final event was a tug of war. The four teams would face off against each other. Now, as you can probably imagine, because of my great strength, my team inevitably won.
But before the event we all used to chant—especially if our team was not in first place—“the tug is all that matters. The tug is all that matters.”
The point, of course, was that whoever won the tug of war was the strongest physically, and that ultimately mattered most.
Well I have a different message tonight. In Judaism, in our community, in our lives, the heart is all that matters. The heart is all that matters.
Yom Kippur is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. It is filled with solemn prayer, and most Jews fast. How, then, can it be the happiest day of the year? Allow me to explain…
Picture the scene: It is 1944, in Glasgow, Scotland, in the midst of the Second World War. The Yom Kippur service is about to begin in the city’s largest synagogue. The sanctuary is dark and full, and the rabbi prepares to take the Torah scroll out of the ark.
Before he does so, he calls up the only soldier in uniform in the congregation. That soldier goes and holds the Torah scroll, as the choir sings.
My Grandfather’s Wisdom
I think about that scene every year on Yom Kippur because the man holding the scroll was my grandfather. This Yom Kippur I cannot call him and wish him a happy New Year.
Once upon a time, a poor man walked from town to town. He carried a heavy load on his back.
One day a wagon driver stopped his horse and offered him a ride to the next town. The grateful man said “Yes, thank you for your kindness.”
After they had gone a few minutes, the wagon driver turned around. He saw the poor man still carried the load on his back.
“You don’t need to carry that heavy load. You can put it down on the wagon.”
The poor man, “You’ve been so kind to pick me up. I can’t ask you to carry my load as well.
While speaking at a church recently, I received an urgent question: “Is it okay for me to wish my Jewish friends ‘A Happy New Year’ on Rosh Hashanah?
“Absolutely,” I said. The questioner then asked what was appropriate to say on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, when many Jews do not eat or drink and spend most of the day in synagogue.
I thought for a minute. My answer was a bit disappointing. About the closest we get to a customary greeting in synagogue is “Have an easy fast.”
As I thought more about it, however, I realized we have a few other possibilities:
When Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinksy married, I wrote about the religious choices they would have to make.
Those choices come into sharper focus now that they are the parents of a beautiful daughter, Charlotte. Those choices are not clear-cut or absolute.
Having worked with hundreds of interfaith couples, I can say for certain that the only right choice is the one that is right for you.
To claim children will be “psychologically confused” with two religious traditions or “have to choose between mom and dad” if they are exposed to two religions has no evidence to support it.
What we do know, however, is that having no faith or religious practice in the home leaves children bereft of the richness and wisdom of our faith traditions.
This is the text of the sermon I delivered on the morning of the Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. At the bottom you can click to hear the audio recording of the sermon as delivered.
The most popular musical in the country when I was in college was Rent. Perhaps you saw it. It was not as edgy as, say, the Book of Mormon, but it had its moments.
One of its most popular songs was called “Another Day.” It is a paean to the idea of carpe diem, seize the day. You know the idea. Today is the only day we have. Make the most of it.
Such advice usually comes along with the encouragement to live without any regrets. One verse in the song says,
There’s only us
There’s only this
Or life is yours to miss
“Forget regret?” Is that really possible? Can we really live—make choices, form relationships, do important work—and have no regrets? To explore this question, let us turn to the biblical story we just read.
On Wednesday night and Thursday, Jews around the world will celebrate the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, which literally means “Head of the Year.”
What distinguishes Rosh Hashanah from every other holiday is the sounding of ancient ram’s horn, known as a shofar. It makes a scratchy, plaintive primitive sound. To hear it is the primary purpose of this day.
Even people can’t make it to synagogue try to hear the sound of the shofar. Rabbis have been known to visit hospitals and sound the shofar in patients’ rooms.