Yom Kippur: Coming Back to Life

Yom Kippur: Coming Back to Life

Gut Yontuv and G’mar Chatimah Tovah. 

I have experienced resurrection.

Before you storm out in shock or protest, aren’t you dying (heheh) to know what I mean by that? Why would your rabbi make such a statement? Is she trying to shock you? Why would she mention a concept that doesn’t seem very Jewish? Wait – Did she die? Did she come back to life? For Pete’s Sake, who does she think she is?

Well, friends, I will tell you what I mean, and I will tell you my story. I will speak to you as one adult to another, and I trust that you will receive it as such. I know that, sometimes, you need to view your rabbi in different roles: teacher, parent, and yes, even granddaughter, but today we will speak adult to adult.

I was resurrected.

Very few of you know this – fifteen years ago, in 2004, I was in a very serious car accident. Though I was living and working in New York City, I was in Chicago to see my youngest brother, Ricky, perform as the lead in his high school play. I was so excited – I had missed so many of his milestones since I am nearly eleven years older than he is. Yet, finally, I was able to be in town at the right time – and I was thrilled to see one of his performances. I just had to make a quick stop to pick up my grandmother, and then we’d head over to the high school. Well, while on the way to pick her up (and thank goodness she wasn’t yet in the car), I had to slow down on a major street to stop behind someone who was attempting to make a left turn.

Unfortunately, the driver behind me never slowed down, and plowed into my car at 50 miles an hour. In that split second – everything changed. I was pushed into oncoming traffic, yet, miraculously, even on that busy street, no one was there. Still in the middle of the road, I called my father, who kept me calm until the police arrived. Before I knew it, an ambulance  pulled up. Somehow, I was able to get up out of the crushed vehicle, and walk to the ambulance, where I was put on a backboard and driven to a local emergency room.

The x-rays showed no fractures, and the doctors told me that I had a mild brain injury, whiplash, and an enormous welt on my forehead from hitting my head on the steering wheel (when you are rear-ended, the air bag doesn’t deploy).

It took me three weeks to be stable enough to travel back to my home and my job in Manhattan – I had only been ordained about six months earlier, and I was still new in my position at Temple Shaaray Tefila on the Upper East Side. Over the next three years, my physical health deteriorated steadily. I was in my mid-twenties, I wanted to be active and energetic and productive. But, instead, my lower back began to hurt all the time. Doctors and surgeons repeatedly told me that there was nothing really wrong. Just a bulging disc. Just an irritated nerve. Rounds of physical therapy did nothing. Meds could only do so much. I got worse and worse.

Eventually, I was disabled, walking full-time with a cane, unable to sit for long periods of time, unable to walk or stand much at all. I felt at least 50 years older than my age.

These were dark days. Chronic pain is a foreign land that you don’t understand unless you’ve been there. The emotional and psychological toll is indescribable. Being told again and again that nothing was showing up on the tests was disheartening. Yet, somehow, my body was still communicating that something was very wrong – and I trusted my body.

In 2007, I finally worked up the nerve to start over with a new set of doctors, to start over from scratch. I wasn’t ready to resign myself to a life of disability. I wasn’t ready to give up hope that I could recover. The new surgeon noticed something on a new MRI – something strange in my vertebrae. He told me that spinal surgery was clearly necessary, though he wasn’t totally sure what he would find – was it a congenital problem that the accident exacerbated? Or was it a now three-year-old injury?

Spinal fusion surgery was scheduled for December 2007. According to the surgery notes, and from what he told me in the recovery room, when he opened me up – he did a double take. It turned out that my spine was fractured in multiple places – Multiple facet joints had been shattered – something which hadn’t shown up on any of the x-rays or MRIs. During the surgery, he fused the relevant vertebrae, cleaned it all up, and put me back together.

And now, twelve years after my surgery – it feels like it was all a lifetime ago. I can bounce around, run, dance, and be-bop throughout my life. It’s because I trusted my body’s signals, and took a chance on major surgery, that I experienced a re-birth in the first degree. I experienced a resurrection. I became a new person, and I came back from that land of horrific pain and unanswered questions. Yes, ultimately, I am speaking metaphorically, yet I feel as if I was given the gift of a new life as I slowly recovered and regained my strength and mobility. I am not the same nimble and kinesthetic person that I was before my accident, nor am I the same person I was before my surgery. I will never, ever be grateful for the injury, but I learned much from my suffering, and even more from the profound healing that took place.

I learned about resilience, I learned about trusting myself, I learned about survival, and I learned about gratitude for each and every day of life (even those spent in pain). I am sure that there are many of you here in this sanctuary who have also experienced something similar – something physical, something emotional, something in a relationship, or something at work. It may be a similar feeling of hopelessness, a terrible illness or injury, the death of someone which forever changed you, a split-second event which changed everything in your life, or maybe even a comparable understanding of healing or sense of re-birth.

The event may have been something positive: a person who entered your life, a career opportunity, a teaching which changed your life, or a perspective which provided you with a different approach to the world.

Yom Kippur is the perfect day to ponder the cycles of our lives and the moments which alter the directions of our stories or journeys. We speak throughout the Days of Awe about Sefer Chayim, the Book of Life, and I wonder about the ways in which our individual Books of Life transform from chapter to chapter. In a way, these events are mini-deaths, or even evolutions into a new self which didn’t exist before. As a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, we often emerge completely changed following a major life event, and our old self can sometimes seem unrecognizable. We go through moments of darkness and challenges we would have never imagined, and, more often than not, we come through them. We may not know exactly how long the transformation will take place, or where exactly the journey will take us, but all of us endure events and struggles that we never thought possible.

In fact, a major theme of Yom Kippur, which we rarely highlight due to discomfort or morbidity, is that Yom Kippur is a rehearsal for our day of death. One may even call it our “dress rehearsal” as we ponder the tradition of wearing a Kittel to Yom Kippur[1] services. A Kittel[2] is a simple, white cotton or linen robe typically worn by a someone at a few designated lifecycle events: at their wedding, while leading a Passover Seder, during Yom Kippur, and as their shroud upon burial.

What links these events?

Each signifies a major transition – each a moment which alters the course of our story, which turns a page in our Book of Life to a new chapter. A Passover Seder celebrates the ways in which the Jewish community escaped slavery and entered a new chapter as it was essentially reborn as the people of Israel. A wedding marks the beginning of one’s life in a new family unit. The moment of our death, of course, closes our Book of Life. And Yom Kippur allows us to annually reflect on each chapter we’ve lived and rethink the manner in which we would like to continue our story into the New Year. Each of our Books of Life includes cliffhangers, twist-endings, guest characters and surprise reveals, but each chapter shapes who we are and how our souls evolve.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, otherwise known as the Velveteen Rabbi, points out[3] four other ways in which Yom Kippur is our dress rehearsal for death:

  1. The most obvious is that of fasting, of not eating. “Today those of us who are physically capable of fasting will forego food and drink — maybe because when you know you’re dying, there are more important things than mindlessly ingesting calories.”
  2. “Some have the custom of immersing in a mikvah, a gathering of living waters, before Yom Kippur — as the dead are immersed in a mikvah before burial. In the mikvah before burial, we wash away the psycho-spiritual schmutz of a lifetime and declare the soul to be tahor, pure and clear.”
  3. “Today we say the vidui prayer, confessing our mis-steps before God. Some have the custom of doing this daily. Of course, the other time when our tradition invites us to recite a vidui is on our deathbed. Before death, we confess where we’ve missed the mark… just as we do on this holiest of days. And as we recite the vidui, we look back on our actions and our choices. We wonder: did we do the best we could with what we were given?”
  4. And many of us follow the custom of avoiding leather on Yom Kippur. We wear shoes made from canvas or rubber because we don’t want to profit from the death of any living being on this day when we open ourselves to God’s judgment. Another interpretation: soft shoes remind us to maintain tender hearts. Stiff leather protects us from the world, as stiff habits protect us from our own feelings, but today we seek to wholly feel.

This is a custom also during shiva, the first week of mourning. During shiva we avoid leather because as we mourn, we don’t want to benefit from the death of other living beings, like the cow or goat or alligator that gave its life so that we could have belts and shoes and handbags. So if you don’t resonate with the idea of today as a rehearsal for death, you could think of it instead as a shiva minyan, in which the person being eulogized is — you.”

We emerge at the end of the long day of prayer, fasting, and reflection, and we hope to discover that we are something new. In a sense, yes, we are resurrected after this contemplation of our own mortality. As Dr. Erica Brown writes, [4] 

Teshuvah is the elixir of life— when people commit to change, they give themselves a new life and find possibilities that they formerly believed were closed to them.”

Now, why would I use the word resurrection in this Jewish setting? You may be surprised to learn that resurrection is a very old, very fundamental belief in Jewish tradition. Mentions of it date back to the Bible. There are even three explicit examples in the Hebrew Bible of people literally being resuscitated from death:

  • The prophet Elijah raises a young boy from death (1 Kings 17:17-24)
  • The prophet Elisha raises the son of the Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4:32-37); this was the very same child whose birth he previously foretold (2 Kings 4:8-16)
  • A dead man’s body that was thrown into the dead Elisha’s tomb is resurrected when the body touches Elisha’s bones (2 Kings 13:21)

At the start of the Common Era, around the year Zero, Resurrection was a belief that distinguished the Pharisees  (intellectual ancestors of Rabbinical Judaism) from the Sadducees, a group that focused nearly exclusively on the Torah text. The Sadducees rejected the concept of resurrection because it is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah. The Pharisees found the concept implied in certain verses,[5]  such as those that discuss our forefathers being gathered unto their ancestors upon death. The belief in resurrection became an integral part of rabbinic tradition, so much so that the Mishnah states that “those who do not believe in the resurrection have no place in the World to Come.”[6]

The basic belief was that when the Messianic Era arrives, all the dead will be brought back to life in Israel. According to the Talmud, any bodies not already buried in Israel will roll underground through tunnels until they arrive at the Holy Land.[7] Resurrection appears in a number of mentions throughout the Talmud and through midrashic legends. Saadia Gaon, 10th century Jewish philosopher, in his “Emunot v’De’ot,” declared the belief in resurrection to be fundamental.[8] Maimonides, our great 12th century doctor, philosopher, and scholar, made it the last of his thirteen articles of belief: “I believe with complete faith that there will take place a revival of the dead at a time which will please the Creator, blessed be God’s name.”

As you might guess, the belief in resurrection, as central as it was to rabbinical Judaism for centuries, and though it is still believed quite literally by most Orthodox Jews of today, became controversial once more at the outset of modernity, running up against scientific materialism on the one hand, and the enlightened Christian belief only in the immortality of the soul on the other (in Christianity, of course, the resurrection of one particular person was considered most important).  Though there had been a number of references to resurrection in traditional weekday and Shabbat liturgy, enlightened, Reform Jewish thinkers in the mid- to late- 1800s chose to remove all references to resurrection from our prayer book.

This meant that the central prayer of our worship service, the Tefilah, was going to undergo significant changes. Most notably, the final blessing of the Gevurot section, which traditionally concluded with the words, “Baruch Atah Adonai, m’chayeh hameitim,”  Blessed are You, Adonai, who gives life to the dead.  This blessing became, as we are all aware, “Baruch Atah Adonai, M’chayeh Hakol” Blessed are You, Adonai, who gives life to all.

This more inclusive formula could be interpreted in many ways, and was consonant with reform’s rational view of prayer and theology. This change took place primarily in North America; In Europe, the original phrase was often retained in the Hebrew but paraphrased in the translation. The substitute formula m’chayeih hakol (“who gives life to all”) first appears in Samuel Adler’s 1860 siddur[9] for Temple Emanuel in New York.

Over the past few decades, however, more and more Jews in Reform synagogues began to break from the crowd and to pray the original words on their own. As liturgical scholars and rabbis joined together to create our current prayerbook, Mishkan T’filah, an important question was raised – how should the prayer be published in this latest reflection of the reform movement’s theology? Impassioned discussions and debates followed – on one side, you had those who stood by the classical reform idea which dismissed any notion of resurrection as trivial and unnecessary. On the other side, you had many Jews who were profoundly moved by mention of resurrection, particularly as it could be understood either metaphorically or affirmed in a trans-rational, transcendent fashion.

Mishkan T’filah, in its final iteration, and Mishkan HaNefesh, our High Holy Day machzor, include both[10] the traditional and the revised formulas, allowing worshippers to make their own choices.[11]

During our Neilah service later this afternoon, we will collectively use the more traditional word, “Meitim,” during the T’filah prayer. We will praise God who brings the Dead back to Life. The symbolism of resurrection in regards to the entire congregation seems so fitting at the conclusion of our ten-day period of repentance and returning. We’ve taken part in this dress rehearsal of death during this Day of Atonement, and, as the gates of repentance begin to close, and as sunset comes closer, we are approaching re-birth. We have done our best to let go of past hurts, past offenses, and past transgressions, and we are striving for a new year which we’ll start off fresh, purified, and cleansed. We celebrate the gift of life, and we commemorate all that we’ve experienced, accomplished or endured. Entering the New Year, having recommitted ourselves to being the best version of ourselves, enables us all to feel renewed, healed, and transformed.

How will you take advantage of this promise of new life? If you are feeling hopeless, from where or from whom will you seek hope? If you are in pain, how you will find healing? If you seek forgiveness, how will you authentically apologize? What are all the ways in which you can care for yourself and others using all the knowledge you’ve gained so far?

How will you maximize your opportunities to write a new chapter in your Book of Life, a chapter which makes you proud?

With any process of transformation, or anytime we use a muscle for the first time, we have to proceed slowly. We need to allow the process time. Here and there, the muscle might give out. We might fall down. We might take a few steps back. And this can be terrifying – “Oh no, are we back there again?” There will be mistakes or choices that could’ve been made differently… AND there will also be miracles, glimpses of the true potential of this special place, and times of true celebration and achievement.

God is with us all in this new chapter. Our sacred heritage provides us all with this gift of renewed life. What we do now with this gift is up to us.

Baruch Atah Adonai, Mechayeh HaKol.

Blessed are You, Adonai, giver of life to all.

Amen.

 

[1] http://www.askmoses.com/en/article/561,2080037/Why-is-a-kittel-worn-on-Yom-Kippur.html

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kittel

[3] https://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2017/09/a-rehearsal-for-the-day-of-our-death-a-sermon-for-kol-nidre.html

[4] Erica Brown, Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe, page 146.

[5] http://www.jewfaq.org/olamhaba.htm

[6] Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1

[7] https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-resurrection-of-the-dead/

[8] Read more: http://jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=233&letter=R&search=resurrection#ixzz0SGbD19Qm

[9] A revision of Leo Merzbacher’s 1854 Reform prayerbook

[10] https://www.jta.org/2007/09/19/united-states/reform-siddur-revives-resurrection-prayer?_ga=2.184172774.1947943426.1570217840-1638688437.1501437124

[11] http://tmt.urj.net/archives/4jewishethics/081309.html

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