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Erev Rosh HaShanah 5782: A time to be born, a time to die

September 7, 2021

In the 1960s, Pete Seeger looked to the Hebrew Bible for his newest protest song and found, in his words, “verses by a bearded fellow with sandals, a tough-minded fellow called Ecclesiastes.” In December of 1965, when The Byrds brought Turn, Turn, Turn to the top of the charts, US troops had just landed in Vietnam, and the news displayed pictures of violent response to the burgeoning civil rights movement. Today, in 2021, our news is dominated by a similar focus on mortality - COVID-19 is on the rise yet again, Hurricane Ida has just decimated areas of both the Southern and the Northeastern United States, wildfires are racing through the Northwest, and our military has seen some of the deadliest weeks in Afghanistan since we entered two decades ago. It is time, again, for us to revisit Ecclesiastes (Kohelet), the Biblical sage who reminds us that there is a time for everything - for war and for peace, for silence and for speech, and of course, for life and for death. While our world may look bleak today, sunlight is on the horizon tomorrow. During times of joy, Kohelet’s words compel us to hold on tight, since we know that that joy may disappear tomorrow.

During this High Holy Day season, we will reflect on different verses of the third chapter of Kohelet, the chapter quoted almost verbatim in “Turn, Turn Turn.” Tonight, we begin with the statement that sums up the entire book of Kohelet best - a time to be born and a time to die - eit laledet v’eit lamut. Over the past year and a half of COVID-19 and the natural and military phenomena that have occurred alongside it, we have come face to face with mortality time and time again. And yet, in the past year, we in this room have also continued to live. Many of us have even continued to thrive. As we continue to live with COVID-19 in our periphery, I invite us to learn from the wisdom of Kohelet, to incorporate our recognition of our own mortality and that of our loved ones into our every-day lives.

Throughout his book, Kohelet instructs the reader to grasp onto this moment, as we cannot know what comes next:

“I realize that the only worthwhile thing for them,” Kohelet preaches, “is to enjoy themselves and to do what is good in their lifetime; also, that whenever a person eats and drinks and gets enjoyment out of all her wealth, it is a gift from God” (3:12). 

Elsewhere, he teaches, “I saw that there is nothing better than that a person should be happy with her deeds, because that is her portion, for who will allow her to see what will be afterwards?” (3:22).

And my favorite, “Everything that you find in your power to do, do it! For there is no action, no accounting, and no wisdom in Sheol, where you are going” (9:10).

As Kohelet teaches, we cannot know what will come next. The Jewish tradition has various amalgamous ideas about what comes after death, and yet, what is certain is that we are alive right here and right now. Right here and right now, we can go out of our way to embrace what and who makes us happy. While thinking in the long term can be wise, we must also make sure that we are fulfilled by the journey to get to our goals, knowing that circumstances may change before we get there. We dive into the work we love, the work we know we are meant to do right now, just in case there is no one to do it next year. 

Right here and right now, we can embrace gratitude, holding onto the good we have, knowing that it may not always be there. We say thank you to God, but also, we say thank you to our favorite barista, who may take a different job next week, or to our yoga teacher, who may be absent the next time we come to class. We say, “I love you,” more times than we might otherwise think is necessary, to let our loved ones know what they mean to us, before it is too late.

What is also certain is that our deeds in this world affect both those here and now and those beyond our time. We do the good now just in case we are unable tomorrow. We bring our own bags to the grocery store, we reduce our use of disposable dishes, and we reduce our meat consumption, in order to do the most we can while we are here, to preserve this world for those who will live after us. And we donate to and volunteer for those organizations that we know should stay, just in case we are not in a financial situation to donate or in a physical or mental state to volunteer tomorrow. Knowing that none of us can do everything at all times, we embrace what we can do; we keep aware of what tasks our particular, mortal bodies can perform, and we make the most of our unique abilities.

As we have spoken about previously in this space, part of recognizing our own mortality must include preparing for illness or death in advance. To help with that preparation, I have placed copies of the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Medical Directives for Health Care in the foyer. It is a document that outlines choices you can make about your future care, and it guides you in choosing a medical proxy to advocate for you if you ever have that need. And if you have not yet purchased a funeral plot or discussed with your family which Jewish rituals you expect to be performed for you after your death, now is the time. You may live to 120, but you will not live forever; now is also the time to make any financial arrangements. As Rabbi Elliot Dorff once told our rabbinical school class, “The reason to start planning early is that you want your family members to still be speaking with one another after you’re gone.” As you are planning, remind your family members to prepare their needs, as well; just like you, they came from dust, and from dust, they will return. Preparing now allows them the peace of mind to know that they will receive one final act of loving-kindness and that those who care for them will not be burdened in the end.

And yet, accepting our mortality must not mean simply accepting that we may die tomorrow. After all, this past weekend’s Torah portion, Parshat Nitzavim, instructs us to “choose life.” “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day,” Moses says, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life…” (Deut. 30:19). Baharta b’hayim. If nothing else, the past year-and-a-half has taught us that we do have some control over when we and those who surround us will ultimately perish. We can choose to get vaccinated, to wear a mask, and to socially distance. We can choose to rebuke our friends and family who refuse to take the path of safety. We have seen the hospital numbers indicating the great risk to those who have not taken the precaution of vaccination and their great risk to those who cannot or cannot yet take the precaution of vaccination. 

Thank you to those who have called over the past few weeks to let us know that you are staying home and streaming High Holy Day services. Whether because you are heeding the advice of your doctors, you have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, or you are just uncomfortable with being around others right now, you are choosing life by refusing to risk death for yourself and others. For those of us here, thank you for wearing your mask and for your patience in the choices we have made about food and distance here. We certainly cannot prevent all death through COVID precautions - we are not invincible - and yet, when we actively engage in pikuah nefesh, the preservation of life, we show our appreciation for the life we have right now. 

Oftentimes, I hear the book of Kohelet described as cynical, as it focuses so much on death and uncertainty. And yet, I see Kohelet as positive and energizing. By reminding us that there is “nothing new under the sun,” that only God knows what will happen next, Kohelet encourages us to be the best we can, to live life to the fullest, and to be prepared for any situation right now. 

I see the same encouragement in tomorrow’s piyut, Un’tane Tokef. Our liturgical poem gives us a ten-day timeline during which to scrutinize our lives - B’rosh HaShanah yikateivun, u’V’yom Tzom Kippur Yehateimun. “On Rosh HaShanah it is written, and on the fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed.” During these Ten days of Repentance, we give ourselves one last chance to practice saying sorry to those we have hurt, to spend extra time with our loved ones, to improve ourselves, and to revel in all the enjoyment we can before whatever occurs in the next year will be set. No matter what we do, some will pass on, and some will be born; some will perish by fire or water; some will be at peace and some will be troubled; some will be brought low, and some will be raised up. But t’shuvah, t’filah, and tz’dakah, repentance, prayer, and righteous deeds, “have the power to transform the harshness of our destiny.” (Mahzor Lev Shalem). When we say sorry before it is too late, when we ask for what we want and say thank you for what we have before our chance has passed, and when we do what we know is just before our time runs out, we can kindle a light in the darkness that is bound to come someday. There is a time to be born and a time to die, but today is not that time to die. In every moment, in every circumstance, we must choose life, actively, readily, and enthusiastically. L’shanah tovah u’m’tukah - may you enjoy a good, sweet New Year.

Mon, January 17 2022 15 Shevat 5782