Yom Kippur – 5779 – Make Memories

By: Alan Bach

“We are all going to die and that makes us the lucky ones”. And no, the scene is not set in a lake full of alligators where death by drowning is better than being eaten alive. This quote is from Richard Dawkin, an atheist. I may be the only one delivering a Yom Kippur talk quoting an atheist. While shocking to hear at first, this thought from Dawkin makes sense. All of us are destined for death, and yes, that makes us the lucky ones because we have had the opportunity to live and to share special times with family, with friends and with community.

This summer I read a book by Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, which advocates the positive in the world rather than our natural inclination to focus on the negative. It is difficult to see the positive around us when we are constantly bombarded with bad news. It is unfortunate that ratings are always higher when broadcasting tragedy rather than the good side of the news. We see endless hours of reporters standing in the wind and rain during a hurricane, constant coverage of political infighting or the breaking news of a tragic event like a school shooting. In contrast, we may see a thirty-second clip of people helping others in times of need. I believe our concern for others draws us to these tragedies, but why is more attention not given to the good in the world?

In fact, overall the world is a better place than it has ever been.  There is less poverty, the illiteracy rate is down, and the developed world has become a safer place to live.  Yes, the acts by terrorists are increasing, yes there are still shootings in our schools and other public places, yes there are vehicles deliberately driven into crowds of people, and yes there is a rise in anti-Semitism in this country and even more so in Europe. But there were no babies born with Aids in Africa last year and there are less children dying around the world due to the advancements in health care funded by both government and philanthropic efforts. Pinker writes, “Most people agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war…”.

In the past month, two national figures died, John McCain and Aretha Franklin.  They both rose to national prominence during their lifetimes.  The country was enthralled by their funerals held one and two weeks after their deaths. In contrast, we Jews bury our dead as quickly as possible. Our practices of mourning during the shiva and sholshim periods, has proven psychological benefits. In the African American, Christian culture, the funeral is known as a Homegoing.  Death is not just about mourning, but a moment of joy and celebration of going home to the Lord – going home to heaven. The funeral starts out with solemn prayer, the reading of scripture, and then transitions to the joyful and uplifting gospel prayers. Our custom is to transition the mourner back to the normalcy of life slowly while they begin the transition the same day. The reality sets in that death is a natural part of living.

Aretha Franklin’s funeral was an all-day service, about the same length as our Yom Kippur service. However, I am sure they were provided nourishment periodically during the day and were entertained by A-list celebrities singing gospel hymns.

Who needs celebrities when we have our wonderful troupe of chazanim to lead us in spiritual and uplifting prayer. We recited Unetaneh Tokef, the masterful and timeless piyyut during the Rosh Hashanah Musaf Amidah, and we will recite it again shortly. One of the most recognizable parts of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur service, this piyyut is remembered for the lines, “Who shall live and who shall die.” During the days leading up to Yom Kippur, we extend wishes of גמר חתומה טובה, literally translated as, “May your final sealing be good” or more commonly known as “May you be sealed in the book of life”.

The book of life does not just mean living. Being sealed for life is essential, but Unetaneh Tokef also focuses on being sealed for a quality of life.

“…Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.”

The questions are asked. Your behavior, as Larry so beautifully spoke about on Rosh Hashanah, will lessen the decree and determine the answers.

Despite the growing anti-Semitism in Europe and the US, we live in the diaspora as Jews with more influence, with more freedom and with more wealth than any time in history. We have opportunities that our grandparents and in some cases our parents would never have dreamed possible. And their wish of a better life for their children and grandchildren has come true. For those of you who are parents, I know your wish is for your children to have a comfortable and fulfilling life.

Sitting in Shul this High Holidays brings back pleasant memories. During the Musaf service on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Shelley evoked a wonderful memory of a time when I would take my grandfather to High Holiday services at Shearith Israel in Atlanta.  The joyous tune Shelley used for ארשת שפתינו  immediately following the Shofar blasts was the same tune the cantor and the men’s choir used in Atlanta. I recall a pre-Bar Mitzvah boy in the choir who would belt out in his tenor voice singing Tekiah, just as we did.  Feelings I have not felt for 30 years. Memories that will never depart.

Like the news, it is easy to forget the good and dwell only on bad memories. Leave those thoughts behind and think of the joyous times you have had with parents, with grandparents, with children and with other family members. Think about how fortunate you are to have shared these experiences during your life. Take these experiences and the values passed down to you that have been essential to our survival for thousands of years and develop new memories. Our future as a people, your future and the future of generations to come is defined by these traditions, the passing down of values and the living of a righteous life.

As the book is closing, now is the time to remember these cherished relationships in the new year. Focus on the positive and minimize the negative around you. We all start tomorrow with a clean slate with G-d. Reach out to a family member you have not spoken to recently, repair relationships that may be damaged, do something to help those less fortunate than you. At sundown tonight, may the sound of the shofar awaken us to begin a year filled with health, happiness and memories to be made for generations to come.

Teachings, Words From Our Members|