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Therefore Choose Life: A Yom Kippur 5771 Sermon

Therefore Choose Life

Rabbi Denise L. Eger, Yom Kippur Morning 5771.

We live in a world surrounded by death.  War, famine, floods, gas line explosions in San Bruno and vampires.   We are a culture that glorifies death.  Who would have thought that one of the most popular TV shows is about a police man that is a serial killer-Dexter?  And the current vampire craze is further proof.  Beginning with Anne Rice books to the Twilight movies to the campy, True Blood. All the vampires do is suck the life blood out of their victims.  And so we crave in our entertainment Eternal death rather than Eternal life.

Perhaps these fictional characters are the metaphors that describe our world view today.   Perhaps as a society we feel so beaten up by day to day existence that we try to escape by seeing and watching that which is even more brutal than the world around us.  How much crime are we witness to whether on the news or in one of the myriads of Law and Order shows?  How much mayhem and mischief can we follow in others?  Even while trying to quell our own mayhem and mischief. But this emphasis on the cult of death darkens our inner light.

Face it life is hard.  And it is harder still when the economy is tough.  And harder still as we age and our bodies don’t respond as we want.

And harder still when health issues crop up making each day a struggle.

It is harder still when you are lonely.

And so we create escapes that are more tragic and more violent and dark and more difficult than our daily lives.

That is why Yom Kippur is such an important marker for us.  I know what you were taught. Today is all about asking for forgiveness.  Today is all about repentance from your sins and errors. That is only one aspect of today.  But Yom Kippur is more than that. There is something deeper.  Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement is about Choosing Life and a learning to let the holy light inside of you shine forth again.

Yom Kippur is a day to start over. To wipe the slate clean. And yes there is a process to do that. You know it –Uteshuvah, tefillah, utzedakah  Repentance Prayer and charity.  These help us shine our inner light again.  But today is at its core about affirming the most important Jewish value that there is. ובחרת בחיים  Choosing Life.  Choosing to live.  Choosing Life over death and brutality.  Choosing life over pain and suffering and evil.  Choosing life over the daily struggles that get in our way.  Choosing to live fully present not dwelling in the past and not only projecting into the future.  But choosing life and here and now.   Yom Kippur is about choosing to let your inner light glow brightly without the encumbrances of things and masks that we wear.  Today is about letting the light of life come forth from your soul.

This is the core of Yom Kippur.  A day of Life.  In fact our Torah portion this morning from Parshat Nitzavim. Reminds us of this very fact. “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live”

The Torah’s prescription for us is not to choose death, not to sanctify death or glorify death but to affirm life. This is one reason our Kaddish prayer makes no mention of death even though we say it as a remembrance of those who died. It is a praise of life and God. And Yom Kippur is a prescription for just that- affirming life.  It is about affirming your worth as a child of God.

Today on Yom Kippur however we choose life and raise ourselves up to a life renewed by our atonement.  We raise ourselves up because today we need to really take a hard and deep look at ourselves.  And say: “What can I release today?”   “What can I surrender today? “ What control is not mine today?”   That is in part why we fast, why we refrain from sexual pleasure, why we are to have the outward rituals of mourning.   It is not that we are choosing eternal death.

We are choosing life by mourning the death of our old, bad habits.  Only to arise in a few hours at the close of Neilah to a New Year and a new life with the potential for a new self.  Not hampered by the old, worn out ways of doing business.  We are choosing the light of life, even though we stumbled; we renew our ability to shine brightly in the world.

So I ask you today. How will you affirm life today?  How will you fight back the forces in our society that will ask you, sometimes demand of you to affirm death and destruction? That cause you to be encumbered and weighed down by material things that prevent you from shining brightly?

On Rosh Hashanah we read of the near sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham.  At the very moment when the knife was poised to come down—an angel of God called out to our patriarch… Avraham Avraham,  and  he answered Hinneni…. I am here….. God tells Abraham not to do so… On Rosh Hashanah we read a story that rejects the ancient cult of death for choosing life!

And on this morning of Yom Kippur we are told directly…. With heaven and earth as witnesses, we—humanity must choose life.  In every case. In every situation. Life is not just something to be taken for granted.  Something you are owed.  Entitlements that come your way.  No we choose life today—with the understanding that how we act and how we live in the world must matter too.  That is the context for our repentance, for being out of control, for giving in to our baser behaviors, for being uncharitable, unkind, catty, and downright mean at times.  None of these things help us choose life.  They tear down at life our own and other people’s lives.

Our mystics teach that when we affirm life and choose life we increase the light in the world.  That light, our inner light, from the first light of creation is in our souls.   That light helps to restore and heal the world when we let it shine from within us.  That Divine light that lives in us is stoked and brightens when we live up to our highest Jewish ideals.

We do so when we do righteous acts, give tzedakah, observe a Jewish holy day, pray, be part of a community.  It is that light that radiated from Moses when he carried down the Ten Commandments.  It is that holy light that beams from your face when you perform acts of  חסד, lovingkindness.  It is the light of life and God when you reaffirm your place in the covenant of our people.

There is a wonderful traditional Jewish folk tale taken from the book by David Patterson, “Greatest Jewish Stories” (2001, Jonathan David Publishers, NY p. 268-270) that illustrates this very point.

“ Like a star that has light only inasmuch as it gives out light, we have only as much life as we impart to others”.  The introduction continues:

“It tells that any substance we may acquire for ourselves lies in our becoming a sign of the substance, of the depth and the dearness of our fellow human being. A narcissistic life, therefore, is the way of death. Focused only on our own interests, we are beggared by our abundance. For, like Narcissus, when we gaze enthralled only upon the image of ourselves we end up starving to death. “

A very wealthy but miserly man who hoarded every penny he could lay his hands on wanted only one thing in life: More! Never satisfied with what he had, he was blind to the plight of those who had nothing.

In the town where the miser lived was a rabbi known not only for her wisdom but for her lovingkindess. Indeed, she was wise enough to realize that there is no wisdom without lovingkindness.  One day the rabbi learned of a family in the community in terrible need of food and medicine who had absolutely no money. After turning to her usual sources for help, she still had not accumulated enough to provide for the poor family, so she went to the miser hoping to convince him to contribute to this fund.

“I;m sorry, Rabbi, “ The miser replied. “Those people are no concern of mine. I have nothing for them.”

The rabbi stared at the man for a moment and then pulled from her coat pocket a mirror.  “Here,” she said, handing the man the mirror. “Gaze into this and tell me what you see.”

The man glanced at it and said, “I see a mirror no different than any other mirror. I see my face. That ‘s all”
“Now,” said the rabbi, “Come over here and look out the window. What do you see?”

The man stepped up to a window overlooking the street and peered outside. “ Nothing unusual out there,” he said. “ I see men and women going about their business, children playing. There’s a couple walking arm in arm. What of it?”

“I’ll tell you what of it,” answered the rabbi. “When you gaze through this window, through a glass that has nothing to block your vision, you gaze upon life. But when you peer into the mirror with its back coated in silver, you see nothing but your miserable, miserly self.”

:What do you mean?” the man asked, actually showing a sign of interest in what the rabbi had to say.

“Like the window, “the rabbi explained, “the mirror is just a piece of glass. But the layer of silver on the back keeps you from seeing past it. Just as this silver coating prevents you from seeing the life on the other side, so has your own silver, your own wealth, blinded you to what is truly dear in life, to life itself.’

The man looked down and thought for a moment about what the rabbi had said.

“You are right, Rabbi,” he finally spoke.  “I have been blinded by something that has no light of its own, something that is full of unreal images.  Now I see the light of life.”

Then he looked up at the rabbi and asked, “How much do you need?”

This is our challenge to see the light of life.  And that is what today is about.  Yom Kippur is about really waking up to see the light of life: the light in your own life, the light in those around you.  We can’t do that until we purify ourselves from the errors, and transgressions that have darkened our inner light in the past year.  So ask for forgiveness, grant it to others, pray with sincerity, meditate, give generously of yourself and of tzedakah, do acts of lovingkindness, acts of  חסד .  Wash your soul clean so that the light of your life can shine brightly.  And then you too can choose life today and every day.

Ken Yehi Ratzon.