Choose Life! – Yom Kippur 5779 – Rabbi Alexander Davis
Yom Kippur 5779
Rabbi Alexander Davis
Rabbi Greenberg was cleaning up the house when he came across a box he didn’t recognize. His wife had told him to leave it alone, to never touch it as it was personal. One day, however, when she was out, his curiosity got the best of him. He opened the box and inside found 3 eggs and $2,000. When his wife came home, she saw the box had been touched. Given the approach of Yom Kippur, Rabbi Greenberg admitted that he opened the box. He asked forgiveness and also asked her to explain the contents of the box. She told him that every time he gave a bad sermon, she would put an egg in the box. “Ahha!,” he interrupted, “In twenty years, only three bad sermons, that’s not bad.” His wife continued… “and every time I got a dozen eggs, I sold them for $1!”
I have to start with joke because my topic is not at all funny. The truth is, this is not a sermon I want to give. But it is one I feel I must give because it is central to these Yamim Noraim, because it is literally a matter of life and death, because each of us is called by God to “Choose life.”
“Who by? Mi baeish. Mi bamaim. Mi b’tzama.” Reading over the list of “who bys,” examples from this past year come easily to mind. Who by fire? California. Who by water? North Carolina. Who by earthquake? Indonesia.
But today I’d like to call to mind a different kind of death, a different kind of tragedy: Who by their own hand. I speak not only about celebrities- chef Anthony Bourdain, designer Kate Spade, NBA player, Tyler Honeycutt. I speak about those in our own congregation who answered for themselves the question, “who?” with “me.”
I know that to speak of suicide is incredibly painful for many- those who have lost loved ones as well as those who themselves in a time of great darkness and despair contemplated what to probably many of us seems incomprehensible. And so, I speak hesitantly, with a heart broken, with sorrow and with solace. But speak I must because as one mental health professional told me, “it’s beginning to feel like an epidemic.”
She is right. According to a CDC report released this summer, Minnesota is following a national trend. The suicide rate in our State has jumped 40% in the last 18 years. In 2017, over 750 people died by suicide. That doesn’t mean that everyone here has direct experience with suicide. You might not know or be close to those who have faced this tragedy. But each of us has a role to play in preventing suicide, in supporting those living in its aftermath, in building a healthy, holy world because “you are your brother’s keeper.”
“Death by suicide.” This is the appropriate language and we should be careful to use it. Professionals in the suicide prevention community discourage us from saying, “commit suicide.” We commit burglary. We commit a felony. The problem with suicide is not that it is a crime we commit. Instead, it is the tragic result of a disease- mental illness- or the result of severe trauma, loss, substance abuse, or impulsivity.
It wasn’t long ago that people spoke of the “c-word.” They wouldn’t say cancer. But that has changed. In the past few years, we have made the same efforts around death by suicide. We have worked to de-stigmatize and to humanize those suffering from mental illness. Popular shows like Dear Even Hansen and 13 Reasons Why have us talking about it. And talking saves lives. Today, there is a National Suicide Prevention Lifeline which you can find listed in the Hakol. There is a National Suicide Prevention Month, now in September, to shine a spotlight on the issue.
The Jewish community has created forums like the annual Jewish Mental Health Education Conference that provides opportunities to learn, to find valuable resources and to feel the support of community.
In this vein, I want to tell you about a new program. Based at Camp Ramah in Colorado, BaMidbar Wilderness Therapy uses nature-based therapy within a supportive Jewish community and with the expertise of mental health professions to guide young Jewish adults to a healthy, independent adulthood.
All of this is to say that if you, a family member or friend is suffering, I want you to know, you are not alone. Support is available. We are here for you. And today, on this holiest of days, we hold you in our prayers:
“God, teach them to believe in their power to return to life no matter what pains they have endured, no matter how bleak things feel. When they feel tainted, God, remind them they are holy. When they feel weak, teach them that they are strong. When they are shattered, assure them they can heal. When they feel alone, show them You are near. Revive them, God, so they can embrace life once more in joy, in passion, and in peace. Amen.” (After Naomi Levy, Talking to God)
To those supporting someone through a period of great darkness, to those survivors of suicide loss living in the long shadow of a loved one’s death, we are here for you as well. If you are consumed by questions, “Why did he have to do it? Why couldn’t she hold on? How do I forgive myself? How can I exorcise the gilt of ‘I could have done more, should have done more?’ How will I recover from this nightmare? Know that we are here for you. There are resources that can help. Today, on this holiest of days, we pray for you:
Help them, God. Give them strength to carry on. Heal their anger and their shame. Ease the burden on their heart. Teach them to believe that they are not to blame. Lead them back to life and hope and joy. Amen.” (After Naomi Levy)
Our changing understanding of suicide has ramifications in Jewish law and thought. You might have heard that Jews bury those who die by suicide on the outskirts of a cemetery. That is no longer the case. Our own Rabbi Abelson wrote the definitive tshuva (legal response) on the topic for the Conservative Movement in 2005. In Talmudic times, suicide was defined as “self-destruction with full mental capacity, maabed et atzmo lada’at.” Today however, we understand that suicide happens when a person’s da’at (mental capacity) is impaired. Therefore, he concludes, “though the early Halakhah denied the suicide the usual burial and mourning rites, the trend of Halakhic development was to … treat the ritual like the ritual for any other death.” From a Jewish perspective, of course, the issue of suicide goes far beyond burial rites and speaks to a larger issue.
I have this gnawing feeling that something in our society is going horribly wrong. Listen to the student profile of participants in BaMidbar Wilderness Therapy. They are young adults struggling with substance abuse, depression, trauma, anxiety, self-esteem, entitlement, a failure to launch and more. Others more qualified than me can speak to these conditions. They can explain the growth of depression and anxiety among our teens, the increase in opioid addiction, the increase in crazy mass shootings by young men who seem lost in life. I am sure there are many causes and factors. But as a rabbi, I believe that there is also an underlying spiritual malady plaguing our nation. We are a society desperately in search for meaning. Is that not the very heart of the religious quest?
Let me be clear. We need to embrace the new language and refined understanding of suicide. We need to do our utmost to ensure that people with suicidal thoughts have access to and take advantage of professional resources. Still from a Jewish perspective, I never want us as a society to normalize suicide, to have young people consider it an acceptable option in the face of great difficulty. And I believe religions in general and Judaism in particular have a crucial role to play and lesson to teach. It is up to each us, you and me, to safeguard the physical health of society by strengthening our spiritual core and affirming essential Jewish beliefs:
First, Judaism teaches that life is sacred to be cherished and guarded and that each of us is precious, infinitely valuable, a pure soul, an entire world.
Second, Judaism teaches that our bodies are not our own. They are on loan from God. We are forbidden, therefore, to damage them or return them early. Instead, we are to keep our bodies and our minds healthy.
Third, Judaism is both realistic and optimistic. Judaism does not promise a life of ease. This year, some will live, others will die. Some will be tranquil, others will be tormented. At the same, we believe in the words of our machzor that we have the power to “transform the severity of the decree, maavirin et roah hagzera.”
Fourth, Judaism cautions that happiness in things- in money, in possessions, in fame- is fleeting. We will never know true contentment or feel a deep sense of satisfaction when this is our focus. Rather, it is in finding what we can do for others that we find ourselves.
Fifth, Judaism offers us a framework for constructing a beautiful, meaningful life- a life of family and community, faith and friendship, gratitude and hope, repentance and renewal, a life of learning and doing and celebrating and growing and repairing and more.
Finally, Judaism teaches that each of us is needed. Our family needs us. Our community and our people need us. God needs us.
The story is told of a rabbi who was called to a hospital to see a Jewish teenager who was suicidal. Feeling that he was a good-for-nothing who could not get anything right, the boy had attempted to take his own life.
The rabbi arrived at the hospital not knowing what to expect. He found the boy lying in bed watching TV, black clouds of despair hanging over his head. The boy hardly looked up at the rabbi, and before he could even say hello, the boy said, “If you are here to tell me what the other chaplain just told me, you can leave now.”
Slightly taken aback, the rabbi asked, “What did he say?”
“He told me that God loves me. That is a load of garbage. Why would God love me?”
It was a good point. This kid could see nothing about himself that was worthy of love. He didn’t feel that he had achieved anything his life. So why would God love him?
The rabbi needed to touch this boy without patronizing him. But what do you say to someone who sees himself as worthless?
“You may be right,” said the rabbi. “Maybe God doesn’t love you.”
This got the boy’s attention. He wasn’t expecting that from a rabbi.
“Maybe God doesn’t love you. But one thing’s for sure: God needs you.”
This surprised the boy. He hadn’t heard that before.
“The very fact that you were born,” the rabbi continued, means that God needs you. God had plenty of people before you. But God brought you to the world because there is something you can do that no one else can. And if you haven’t done it yet, that makes it even more crucial that you continue to live, so that you are able to fulfill your mission, and give your unique gift to the world.” (After Aron Moss, Chabad.org).
The rabbi in the story teaches an important lesson: it’s not what you need but what you are needed for that matters most. Each of us has a purpose. Each of us has a place. The story also forces us to face a stark reality. Despite our best efforts, despite all our love and support, we cannot always save a person from himself. In the final analysis, it is up to each individual to “Choose Life.”
U’vacharta b’chayim. We say it all the time. “Choose life.” But what does it mean?
In its context, the phrase is about following the mitzvot. God says, “I’m giving you a choice- reward or punishment, blessing or curse, life or death. It’s not much of a choice. Choose life, God wisely recommends.
Interestingly, from the perspective of Jewish law, this verse has a different meaning all together. Rabbi Akiva taught that parents are obligated to teach their children a trade. If your parent didn’t teach you a trade, you must teach yourself, as the verse says, “choose life.” That is to say, take responsibility for making a living.
The same applies to our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. We must take responsibility. We know that for God to write us B’sefer Chayim in the Book of Life, we must first write ourselves in the ledger. No one else can do it for us. We must find a will to live, a reason to live.
Choose life. The person who has suffered setbacks and failures at work, is commanded, “choose life:” don’t give up. The person who has gone through a divorce or a break-up and must now start over is commanded, “choose life:” look forward to new possibilities. The person facing illness and pain is commanded, “choose life:” seek out help to pick up the pieces. The person who feels healthy, who feels blessed in life, is commanded “choose life:” help build a safe, healthy, holy community where people are loved and cared for. Be a support that others might live.
Choose life. Judaism is a this-worldly religion. We are commanded to live in and for this world, not the next. But as the hour for Yizkor approaches, we consider these words in a different light.
This morning’s Torah reading is called “Acharei Mot, After the Death.” The title is a reference to Aaron who continued to live and to serve after the tragic death of his two sons. No, they didn’t die by suicide. But in the aftermath of the death of a loved one, the message is the same. Aaron chose life. And so, must we. God wants us to embrace life- melekh chafetz b’chayim- “to live deep and suck the marrow out of life” (Thoreau). I know at times and for some, it’s just not that easy. It takes great effort and courage to live despite loneliness and heartache and darkness that sometimes plagues their heart. But for Jews, this is the meaning of acharei mot, life after a death. It is living even as we traverse a valley of shadows.
Commenting on the phrase, “choose life,” the 13th C Spanish commentator, Ibn Ezra writes, “choose life that you may live corporeally in this world. Choose life that you may live on in memory.” Did you catch that? By choosing life, he says, we live on in memory. “This world and its few years are the only chance each of us has to do good, to improve life just a bit for those around us and to leave a legacy of which we can be proud” (Art Green). When we live such a life, we will be remembered. In that way, we will attain life after death.
And so, our prayer on this Yom Kippur is a simple one addressed to each of us:
God, help me to live while I am alive. Even as I pray that years be added to our days, I ask that life be added to my years.
Help me discover my unique purpose in life, to feel that my being here matters.
Help me live by keeping my mind alive by being open to new ideas, nurturing curiosity.
Help me live by keeping my heart alive by growing in compassion and in wonder.
Help me live by keeping my soul alive by living with integrity, devoted to causes worthy of Your Name.
Help me live by keeping my spirit alive by facing the future with confidence and fortitude.
Help me live by keeping my faith alive by embracing my heritage and my community, and You God.
Help me live by keeping my memory alive by passing on to future generations how I “Chose Life.” (after Sidney Greenberg)