Category Archives: Yom Kippur

Who Shall Live…


By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


At this juncture of our worship, we approach, Unetaneh Tokef, a theologically controversial prayer of the Holy Days. “Who shall live, who shall die, who by fire, who by water…” Many have strong feelings about this prayer. Let’s take a brief poll as to whether or not we should even read it: Raise your hand if you would like us to NOT read the next prayer? Raise your hand if you would like us to read it?

As I participated in recent meetings about a future Mahzor for our Reform movement, there was a great deal of debate regarding this prayer with its traditional theology of: God who determines all; God who is Judge and Shepherd; who reviews our permanent record, rewarding and punishing accordingly. Is that the kind of God in whom we believe? For some the answer will be, “yes,” but for many others, “no.”

Albert Einstein once wrote: “I cannot imagine a god who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation.” Isaac Mayer Wise, the 19th century founder of Reform Judaism, eliminated this prayer from his prayer book and that continued into the small black Union Prayer Book II. Recognizing that this prayer engenders distress, even anger and tears, Dr. Larry Hoffman, Reform Judaism’s most eminent liturgist writes: “I deliberately omit the God of Unetaneh Tokef, the God who seals our fate with death by fire, water and strangulation.” (even though we try and hold onto it and make sense of it)… good classical reformers should simply say.. “it causes unnecessary pain and is therefore wrong. We can willingly believe what we know is not true; we cannot happily abide what we know is hurtful.”

Rabbi Marc Saperstein does not want the 11 year old girl sitting before him on Rosh Hashanah thinking that with teshuvah, tefillah and tsedakah she has the power to remove her mother’s cancer. A simplistic reading could prompt that conclusion.

Still, in discussing this prayer and reading about it, others find it quite meaningful, even essential to their High Holy Day experience. One individual wrote, “I never saw it as a negative, blame the victim poem. To me it was actually comforting.” In our current Mahzor, it is one of the only prayers with an introduction, almost an apology for including it. On Rosh Hashanah it provides historical reference and Yom Kippur, practically a disclaimer. Before we decide if we will read this prayer this morning, I would like to unpack the text, its history, implications and application.

Commonly attributed as Rav Amnon’s poem from the Middle Ages, its roots are much older. In the Mishnah we read that four times a year we are judged, with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur being the time that we pass before God, like troops marching in review or sheep passing muster. It further speaks of Yom Kippur as the Day of Judgment, with the Book being open and God rendering a verdict, accompanied by the great shofar sounding. However, before final sentencing, if you will, you can influence the Judge. The Babylonian Talmud suggests this can be achieved by four acts: tsedakah- charity or righteous deeds and tefillah- prayer, two of the elements we find in our prayer. Additionally, crying out, a form of confession or lament, plus changing one’s name and behavior can impact judgment. That is to say, you have the ability to transform yourself and your actions. These two additional aspects are what we mean by teshuvah- repentance. Thus we appeal to God’s merciful nature as our fate is in God’s hands.

Rabbi Margaret Wenig advocates for its inclusion, but not that it should be read literally. She first points to the figurative language of the poem and believes the message to be that our deeds have repercussions. While many escape consequences of behaviors, (I can think of one octogenarian who proudly proclaims, I’ve been smoking, gambling and drinking for years.) some do not. At the same time, the inverse is not a given. When one suffers from disease, it is ridiculous to ask what sinful behaviors caused the illness.

To this point, one person writes: “A belief in the power of repentance, prayer and charity is at the core of our religion. I don’t take this prayer to be a literal bargaining, but a profession of faith- that my life, which is like a particle of dust, matters; that my acts make a difference. It’s not that they buy me time or health, but that they give me life for the time that I have.”

Rabbi Wenig further argues that liturgy sometimes requires strong imagery.

Powerful language grabs our attention. Good liturgy is an amalgam of traditions and voices. It does not all have to be comforting, telling us how good we are. Sometimes it can smack us on the head. “I know that we are judged, that our deeds have consequences, that some of our fate appears to be in our hands and much of it does not, that some mistakes we can fix, others we simply have to live with.” (p. 57)

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin teaches that repentance, prayer and charity will not avert the evil decree, but will mitigate the bitterness of the decree – After performing these acts, we connect with something bigger and become more accepting of what life decrees for us. We all occasionally experience life as evil, bad, sad, challenging… life and death, reversals and pain. Accept it and deal with it, not asking, “why me?”, but knowing that the world is still better because of us.

One of the phrases in this poem/prayer that confronts us most dramatically is “who shall live and who shall die.” I heard it invoked, during a conference call along with 1000 other rabbis in preparation for the Holy Days, by President Barack Obama. Let me share how surreal it was sitting at my desk, phone in hand, with the President of the United States speaking to me! Talk about a Day of Awe! Regardless of one’s politics, this was the President of the United States, our country. Just as I previously attended a New Orleans gathering when invited by President Bush, I accepted the invitation to hear what our President had to say to me.

As you can well imagine, the issue he addressed with us was the need for Health Care Reform in our country. He was not asking us to support his plan or any of the specifics in the various proposals that have come forth. He outlined broad principles that he and many others believe are essential if we are to improve the plight of our fellow Americans, reiterated in his speech to the joint session of Congress. And then our President asked me to address this issue with my community as I saw fit. I am honored to do that in the context of this prayer.

If you are like me, you are probably disgusted by the way the health care debate has devolved, perhaps even a little frightened. It has become obnoxiously partisan, with each side using scare tactics, advertising, false information, even intimidation to defeat the opposition. I am deeply concerned about the tenor of the attacks. While I do not believe that opposition to the President’s plans is tantamount to racism, any more than opposition to Israeli policies is automatically anti-Semitism. But I do know that many mask their anti-Semitism by opposing Israel. Similarly, I firmly believe that racism does play into the current debate.

We who lived through David Duke should recognize that reality. He too spoke of big government, those who might be taking advantage of the system, immigrants stealing jobs from real Americans. Duke’s heyday was during a time of economic uncertainty and fear for our future, not unlike our own. Otherwise good people linked themselves to his candidacy as he voiced their frustrations. We may be experiencing similar phenomena in America today and must be vigilant.

As happens all too often with serious issues, it is more a battle to see who can defeat whom and not, what is in the best interests of the American people. Yes, this is a political subject, but it is also very much a moral, religious issue, one that is already impacting many of us and deserves our attention this morning.

Without breaking any of the HIPPA confidences, let me ask by a show of hands:

How many here have not been covered with health insurance at some time during the past 2 years?

How many have altered your lives in order to keep coverage?

How many have been denied coverage by your insurance companies for procedures or drugs deemed needed by your physicians?

How many feel you are paying way too much for health insurance?

How many wish to see all Americans covered by health insurance?

As you can see, the Healthcare debate is not simply an intellectual exercise. If we, who are here today, generally a more affluent, advantaged segment of our society are impacted, how much the more so as it effects the poor, the widows and orphans, the disadvantaged of society to whom we as Jews have always felt a deep commitment and religious obligation of concern. Combine that with the economic downturn in our country, where we all know of friends and family who have lost jobs or cannot find jobs, and with it the health insurance concerns. Million of Americans are underinsured or have no health insurance at all.

So what is it that the President asked of me and that I ask of you this morning? In the tradition of the Talmudic rabbis, let us respectfully listen to all sides of the healthcare debate and cease demonizing those with whom we differ. Let us find those areas of greatest concern, upon which most will agree (it is simply not realistic that all will agree on anything), but at least most agree and try to address them. I believe this includes:

First- a plan that enables all people to have access to quality medical care

Second- every American needs to be able to purchase affordable coverage, regardless of illness, age or pre-existing conditions.

Third- it needs to be affordable with Providers receiving a fair income and Recipients paying a fair price.

Fourth- Affordability includes a system of sustainability for the government to perpetuate the program without the periodic scares that by such and such a date, we will run out of money.

These are among the most basic aspects that belong in a Health Care plan and which I believe a large majority would like to see enacted. The details are where the politics and the lobbyists come into play. There are religious voices that are also calling for exemptions for some health professionals to not be compelled to perform any procedures that compromise their faith. I can respect that, as long as those same voices allow those procedures to be freely offered for those whose faith beliefs are not opposed. I am obviously referring to abortion, but also other issues. The loudest shouts do not mean they are a majority, perhaps not even in Louisiana.

Friends, health care reform is not simply a political issue. It is a moral concern and a matter of faith. As Jews we have deep commitment to healing for all. Compassion for the poor, the widows and orphans, the have-nots of society is an essential message of our tradition. Speaking out for those whose voices are weak is part of our prophetic calling. This issue has galvanized groups in our country, as no other in recent years. We need to be educated about it and let our elected officials know our feelings, even if their public stances are opposed to our own. Insist that partisanship and posturing are unacceptable. Demand reasonable, respectful, honest debate.

When it comes to the question of who shall live and who shall die, as raised in our Unetaneh Tokef prayer, we realize that what we do and say, or don’t do or say, can make a difference in our world. Certainly that is the case as our nation debates health care reform.

I will also add, as I have from this pulpit previously, that we personally have the ability to impact our own health. Recently I received generic birthday greetings from my insurance company. Not so gently they suggested that since I am aging, please be sure to receive all the appropriate tests, including annual check ups, blood tests, eye exams, colonoscopy, mammograms for women, chest x-rays, blood pressure and more, along with a battery of shots. There are those in this room with health insurance who fail to do the minimum. I can testify that there are also countless people sitting here, who are healthy because they took the initiative to be examined, catching problems before they became critical. In addition with proper diet, and even moderate exercise we improve our chances for longevity. One of our members, an avid fitness enthusiast, recently shared with me following cardiac bypass surgery, that while his regimen did not prevent the need for surgery, it delayed it to his late 70s, instead of early 60s as was the case with previous generations in his family. Our actions can personally influence how we live and when we die.

Applied to the grand scheme of life, the answer is not as clear. As one of my colleagues has written: “Unetaneh Tokef is an artistic wrestling with impermanence and death, with deeds and their consequences, with power and powerlessness, with fear and reassurance, with mistakes and second chances. Perhaps the ultimate paradox is that life hurts, but is still worth living.” (p. 150)

In a moment we will read and listen to our confusing prayer. I invite you to apply whatever interpretation of its words brings meaning to you. Or perhaps you will choose to simply skip over it theologically as totally irrelevant to what you believe. However, none of us are free to ignore its mandate for action in this world.



* The insights of Rabbi Margaret Moers Winig in her article “The Poetry and the Power of Paradox”- CCAR Journal, Spring 2009 were very influential in shaping my thoughts for this sermon.



The True Judge


Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

            Friends, today is known as Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment. So let me begin my comments this afternoon with the story of a Jewish man appearing before a judge. He was suing for personal damages due to severe injuries sustained in a car accident. It seems he was driving down the highway at a legal rate of speed, when a horse bound onto the road in front of him. It was a horrific accident!

The police officer who arrived immediately on the scene testified that he approached the crash site and quickly evaluated the situation. When the officer asked the Jew if he was injured, at the time the man responded that he was a bit shaken, but otherwise feeling just fine. He indicated no medical problems.

The Judge questioned the man, asking why he initially said he was fine, but now claims that he was profoundly injured, to which the Jew replied: “Your honor, what the officer reports is absolutely true, but he left out some details. He came upon the scene and saw that my car had pummeled the poor horse. He evaluated the horse’s condition, removed his pistol and put the shattered animal out of its misery. Then he came and asked me how I was feeling. Nu? What would you say?”

On this day and in all days, our tradition teaches that we stand before the Judge. It is not so much our words that will be evaluated, but our deeds. During these Days of Awe we metaphorically speak of the Sefer Hachaim- The Book of Life, which bears the imprint of our signature. Our actions do the writing. It is not so much that God decides who will live or die, rendering a verdict, as it is how we conduct our lives that will leave the lasting impression.

So too, at the time of death, we recite a prayer: Baruch Dayan Haemet- Blessed is the Judge of Truth, or the True Judge. Some suggest that this simply refers to God, who launched the hard and fast laws of physical creation: No one lives forever. Bodies break down. Accidents happen. Accept that verdict.

Still others take the approach that when we die, our full body of work, how we filled our days is open to scrutiny and evaluation. Is it by God? Perhaps! Is it by those we leave behind? Most certainly!

Recalling those who have died during Yizkor has an impact upon all of us, beyond the sense of loss that we feel. From the negative perspective it is taught that it will subdue our yester harah- our evil inclination. When we contemplate the deaths of others, reflecting upon their lives, a lingering fear comes into our hearts. If there is eternal reward for the righteous, will we merit it or will our negative, sinful behaviors preclude that possibility? If so, there is no better time than the present to change our ways.

From the more positive position, we look at lives marked by distinction and excellence. They inspire us to walk in those paths.

Have you noticed? There seem to have been a rash of deaths involving prominent individuals in the past few months, even days: Patrick Swayze who thrilled us with his dancing and Mary Travers who delighted us in song, Les Paul, who invented the electric guitar, Football Star, Steve McNair, apparently murdered by a girlfriend, and of course Walter Cronkite, Michael Jackson and Edward “Ted” Kennedy. Some were people who lived long full lives, while others’ days were shortened. Some died of natural causes, others’ at the hands of perpetrators.

I could have gone on, since death is a constant part of life and I will read our list of names shortly. The last three received a barrage of press coverage, their lives scrutinized, analyzed, evaluated and reviewed.

The gift of memory is wonderful. We can select those aspects of lives that are worthy of praise and adulation, rejecting that which is not. All three had strengths and weaknesses. There is a play on words based upon two portions of Torah read together on certain years; one called Acharai Mot, starting with Leviticus 16, describing what happens after the deaths of Aaron’s sons and the other Kedoshim, laws of holiness, beginning with Leviticus 19. Place the two portions together, and you have Acharai Mot- Kedoshim: “after death all are holy.” Indeed that is the compassionate way to look at people’s lives. We emphasize that which is exemplary and admirable. But when rendering a verdict, the full life must be considered.

Television journalist Walter Cronkite was tagged as “the most trusted man in America,” the result of his long career at CBS News. Those who are old enough can vividly remember his solemn, anguished expression reporting the death of President Kennedy, accompanied by one discreet tear, the excitement he communicated while narrating the early days of space exploration, and the power of his editorials on Vietnam. In retirement he became America’s educator. His was a life of accomplishment.

Few, if any of us, really knew him, personally. One friend of 30 years remarked when asked what Cronkite was really like, that “he’s just the way you hope he is.” Co-workers described him as driven, but fair, someone who worked hard, but loved to laugh and be one of the guys. Looking at his life, hearing the eulogies, there is little that one would not want to emulate. As reported, he was a great newsman, sailor, friend and father. Undoubtedly there were some aspects of his person that were not as laudable, but standing before Divine and human Judges, he seems to be worthy.

Michael Jackson presents a more challenging case. The accolades and outpouring of love for him were quite astounding. Without question, he was one of the outstanding, innovative, creative entertainers of our time. I remember his early years, harmonizing with his brothers, followed by his explosion as a singer, dancer and performer. The energy, skill, voice and verve that he brought to his performances, whether live or video will resonate for years to come. Viewing the various broadcast and print tributes, he was depicted as a good friend to those with whom he was close. It should also be pointed out that his impact upon the African American community was particularly poignant.

But there is of course the other Michael, his constantly changing appearances, quirky personal habits, allegations of child abuse, questionable parenting skills and so much more. His death appears to be linked to his lifestyle. We will learn more. Time will determine his worldly legacy and Ultimate Judgment will come as well.

The life of Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy played out on the world stage for all to view. The scion of a wealthy, politically connected family, he was, as we all know, the youngest brother, the light-weight, carefree bon vivant. The brothers were destined for greatness with gifts of intellect and oratorical skill. History would intervene. Ted’s life was marked with highs and lows, triumphs and defeats, great virtues and tragic flaws. On the one hand he was a cheat in college, a lady’s man, an alcoholic and the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquidick will be an indelible black mark on his record.

He faced great personal crises: the death of his brothers, a plane crash that nearly took his life, leaving permanent damage, the failure to win the Presidential nomination and severe illness for his children.

Then as we all heard repeated in the hours of homage following his death, he conquered his personal demons, rose to confront and overcome crises, and made a substantive difference in this world. Within his family he was father and uncle, the bedrock of the clan. A fierce liberal ideologue, a champion of the poor, he was involved in numerous pieces of legislation that continue to shape the landscape of America today, mastering the art of political diplomacy, the arduous intricacies of the legislative process. His constituents loved him as expressed by their votes. In the process he garnered respect and friendship among his colleagues from both sides of the political aisle. He was a man of his word, whose personal charm, warmth, and huge laugh endeared him to many.  I was particularly touched by his anonymous, less public deeds: tutoring a young girl in a DC Public School, sponsoring a teenage intern for college, and bringing a bit of earth from his brothers’ graves to Jerusalem for Yitzchak Rabin’s funeral.

Ted Kennedy’s life was marked by contrasts. Some aspects were reprehensible, while others praiseworthy. It can be argued from a Jewish perspective that he repented, eschewing early flaws and tragic errors to move forward. Looking at the full body of his life the natural tendency is to venerate and forgive. Each individual will reach his/her own conclusion, as will God.

As we review the lives of all three men, we find great talent, dedication, loving relationships and achievement. We also discover grievous mistakes: errors of judgment, immoral and illegal behavior. Before we rush to judgment, let us also think of our loved ones, whose memories we summon at this time, including the full spectrum of their years. Let us also bring to mind the course of our own lives, the days past and those yet to come. Hopefully we can appreciate quality moments and embrace them into our character. Simultaneously we extend compassion and understanding to others, seeking the same for ourselves. May we be humble enough to realize that ours is not the Ultimate Judgment.

Baruch Dayan Ha-emet- Blessed is the True Judge.


Promises To Keep


By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


     Yom Kippur Eve…We make every effort to arrive on time. Latecomers

are few. No one wants to miss Kol Nidre, perhaps the most powerful religious moment in our liturgical calendar. It has been known to impact the course of people’s lives in mystical ways. The choral and instrumental renditions transport our souls. It is all about the music.

Yet, ironically the literal meaning of Kol Nidre is all about words, specifically

promises and vows. We ask that they be annulled, either for the year past or year to come, depending upon which version of the prayer is utilized, Ashkenazic or Sephardic. Does this mean that we are can break our commitments freely?… of course not, we who cherish honesty and integrity. Our petition applies to forced vows, impetuous words, rash comments, unintentional and not carefully thought through, hasty words that can break relationships: “I swear that I will never speak to that person again.”  Words that prevent us from doing teshuvah are the vows that need to be absolved.

Kol Nidre is often associated with the Middle Ages and particularly dark times when the Golden Age of Spain was tarnished. Jews were forced to convert either by communal pressure or the point of a sword. Secretly recited, Kol Nidre would lighten the spirits of these so called Conversos or Marranos. Hence we darken our lights to recall ancestors who prayed in darkness, lest they be discovered.

In truth Kol Nidre predates Spain. The Talmud provides a formula to appear before a Bet Din, a rabbinical court, of three judges for nullification of vows when made either under abnormal circumstances, i.e. impulsively or recklessly, or if sworn when unaware of certain circumstances or consequences. We call this “finding a loophole” to extricate ourselves from the commitment. Our prayer first appears in the 9th century and evolves into a quasi legal/religious ceremony. A preamble to the prayer arrives in the 13th century by Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, as we will read, calling us to stand before both the Yeshiva shel Maalah and the Yeshivah Shel Mattah, the heavenly and human court, along with all other transgressors as we ask that we be released from our vows. Since one can not hold court proceedings during a holy day, the custom is to begin Kol Nidre before sundown, which is the reason that this is the one evening to wear a tallit. The three-fold repetition of Kol Nidre is consistent with court procedures before a minimum of three judges. The Torahs being held by our leaders represent that we testify before God.

So in other words we begin this most holy of days by saying, “O.K. God, just kidding! I didn’t mean it. Do over! Let me off the hook…. Please!” Understanding the literal meaning of this prayer, you can appreciate attempts to eliminate it from our liturgy over the centuries. Conceptually, it is abhorrent to many. Words do matter! Vows should be taken seriously! What will others think of us? They’ll say, “You can’t trust those Jews.”

Regardless, Kol Nidre persevered, perhaps due to the fact that it is in Aramaic. Who knows Aramaic anymore? Along came the early Reformers, who translated everything. Doing so, they were aghast at what they read. Those who prayed from the Old Union Prayer Book might recall that instead of printing the prayer in Aramaic and English, as in our current mahzor, it simply read in bold letters with white space around them: “Kol Nidrei is chanted.” In other words, “just sing the darn prayer. Don’t worry about what it means.” I am not letting you off the hook so easily. We will hear the words intoned in a moment, setting the stage for our 24 hour period of teshuvah. First let us ask how its history and message speaks to us?

Like the Conversos of Spain, perhaps we all lead secret lives in one way or

another, feeling compelled to portray ourselves in one fashion to others, but in our heart of hearts, knowing we are not who we project to be. I think of the brave homosexual men and women who serve our country in the military, who must deny their sexual persuasion due to the ludicrous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. I sincerely hope that this will be reversed soon. In the meantime we can see how Kol Nidre can be helpful.

Beyond the military context, many other gay and lesbian men and women feel they must hide who they are in fear of social stigma, rejection and/or discrimination. Towards those among us who suffer in this way, let us open our arms, minds and hearts, as surely as I believe God does. I look forward to the time when they will have full rights and freedom, including marriage recognition. While I do not see that happening soon in Louisiana, we can be receptive, welcoming and supportive as individuals and as a congregation. For these men and women, we can reflect upon our society and understand why Kol Nidre might be needed, but let us hope and pray for a time when it will not.

Many others lead secret lives. Suffering from drug, alcohol, gambling and other addictions, they pretend as if nothing is wrong, deceiving others, deluding themselves and hiding from God. Often they do not realize that their addiction impacts all with whom they come in contact, co-workers, friends and family. The only one who is not aware of the ramifications, who thinks that the addiction is well disguised, under control, is the addict him/herself. For them, Kol Nidre does not apply. It will not annul commitments and excuse behaviors that one might feel are necessary, but in fact are not. Only the paths of repentance will achieve that goal.

And what of those who act falsely, cognizant they are not who they represent themselves to be: the individual who knows everything, the man who is always right, the woman who insists she understands situations better than anyone else, the person who commands leadership roles …..They have a compulsion to be the masters of certain situations, knowing full well that they are not, masking insecurities and inadequacies. These too are leading secret lives, not covered by Kol Nidre, requiring soul searching confrontation with self, forgiveness seeking teshuvah towards those who are offended, with a commitment not to be that person anymore.

However, self-deception, acting in ways we do not truly feel, is not always negative. Pretending to be who we are not can sometimes be positive, even praiseworthy. When facing great challenges, afraid of what comes next, we can don a mask of bravery, which will assist us in addressing what lies before us. Many of us did just that when dealing with Katrina. In contrast, during moments of triumph, upon achieving great success, when victorious over an opponent, pride and boastfulness are the norm.

Instead, we should consider wearing a cloak of humility, even a false cloak, to rein in unappealing arrogance.

The Talmud emphasized vows made impetuously or without fully appreciating the implications of our commitment. While Kol Nidre might annul those words, our goal should be to avoid uttering them in the first place. The five second rule not only applies to items dropped on floors, but words that issue from our mouths. When angry with someone, hesitate before unleashing a diatribe that you will later regret. Belittling a child for a foolish error, embarrassing a spouse for failing to meet your expectations, castigating a loyal employee for a bungled task, shaming a friend for a miscue will rarely achieve anything positive. Just because you enjoy a close relationship and assume it will blow over, does not make it pleasant for the recipient. Words do hurt! Before volunteering to take on a project or offering to perform a favor, be sure you are ready to fulfill the task. When asking another during their difficult times if there is anything you can do for them, be prepared to accept the task that is requested. Otherwise you have offered empty words and created false expectations.

“But you promised” are famous words commonly connected with the mouths of our children. Sometimes they apply to actual promises made to share time together, to visit a favorite destination or purchase a desired item. Parents have a responsibility to keep those promises as much as is humanly possible. Don’t make them just to placate a child for the moment and then renege. You will have done more harm than good, eroding a fundamental relationship of trust and dependability. And if the circumstances have changed, conditions are altered or complications arise, explain the new reality, asking for forgiveness. You may understand why you cannot fulfill your promise, but do all you can to make sure the one you promised does as well. If true for children, how much the more so this applies to older family members and friends. Kol Nidre does not annul false commitments, only those sincerely made.

Children (and perhaps the child in each of us) will often reshape words into promises, or wishes are so strong they become transformed into promises. “We’ll see,” becomes “You promised.”  While one cannot be responsible for how others understand or react to what we have said, we can be sensitive to their feelings. Often our “we’ll see,” is the hope that we can fulfill a wish and when unable to do so, our own disappointment is expressed harmfully: “You’re nuts! I never said that.” as opposed to “I realize how you concluded that way. I had also hoped to be able to meet your desire, but was unable to do so.” Words will not change reality, but they can either inflame or placate. Implied promises are also part of Kol Nidre.

As we think of promises that have been broken, it is difficult not to examine the current economic crisis. We focus upon crooks like Bernie Madoff, heads of major financial institutions, whose lavish lifestyles and squandering, reckless business practices placed our country and many of us individually into precarious financial predicaments. Kol Nidre does not forgive or annul the promises they made.

The promise of America: work hard and save and you will be secure for the future has been compromised. Jobs have been lost and finding meaningful employment is difficult. Some can’t meet weekly or monthly obligations. Others must renege on pledges to charitable organizations, dependent upon donations for sustenance. Retirement funds have diminished in value. The promise of a secure future which we made to ourselves and our loved ones may be difficult if not impossible to fulfill.

Kol Nidre is a statement of understanding and we hope that this synagogue will be a haven of support and comfort.

Last are the vows we have made to ourselves. Some are broad life goals, visions that we have of where we want to be, perhaps forged in youth, but frustrated along life’s path. Others are more immediate, some life changing, others, life enhancing: weight to lose, habits to kick, activities to experience, behaviors requiring change, relationships to forge, books to read, subjects to explore, individuals and organizations to assist, services to attend more often… Feel free to fill in your own shortfall. Kol Nidre offers temporary clemency, allowing us to forgive ourselves for non-compliance, while reminding us that life is not complete. There are promises to keep.

In a moment we will hear Kol Nidre, a prayer of the ages. Not only does it set a tone for our full day of worship, it moves us to be honest with ourselves as we contemplate our lives. The words of poet Merle Feld could very well be our own:

Kol Nidre

I am so grateful for this,
a moment of truth,
grateful to stand before You
in judgment.

You know me as a liar
and I am flooded with relief
to have my darkest self
exposed at last.

Every day, I break my vows,
to be awake in this moment,
to be a responsible
citizen of the world.

No one sees, no one knows,
how often I become distracted,
lose myself and then lose hope—
every day, every day

On this day, this one day,
I stand before you naked,
without disguise, without embellishment,
naked, shivering, ridiculous.

I implore You—
help me to try again.



The preceding poem by Merle Feld appears in Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality A Sourcebook, edited by Ellen M. Umansky and Diane Ashton (Brandeis).



Greif Is A Great Teacher

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


One of the meditative readings that has been part of our Reform liturgy for decades reads, “grief is a great teacher, when it sends us back to serve and bless the living.” We all have many teachers. When it comes to assisting families facing death and loss, Rabbinical school trained me on the technicalities. Years of practical professional experience enabled me to prepare a booklet that we make available to our members. But as is true for many of us, life continues to be the best teacher. As I near the conclusion of the sheloshim mourning period and in truth what has been four months of intense dealing with the coming of death and then the reality, let me share what I have learned that can perhaps be helpful to you, cognizant that each situation is different.

I recognize that I have been blessed. Both my father and my mother lived into their 10th decades of life. During their earlier years, they were somewhat superstitious, never celebrating a birthday before its date. More recently, Mom shifted her focus and after her 96th birthday described herself as being in her 97th year, realizing that one must accept the clock winding down.

Though my brother, sister and I live hundreds of miles apart, we remained close and united in our concern for our parents and especially for Mom after my father died in 2008. We divided responsibilities. My brother Joe was overseer for all of Mom’s financial matters. Sister Susan was the organizer and focused on health concerns. Being the furthest away, I was the spiritual advisor. Cooperation was a key to coping.

All of us, including Mom, were realistic about what was to come. No one lives forever and making preparations for the realities of life does not hasten death. We knew Mom’s medical wishes and all three of us had medical power of attorney, to put those wishes into effect if needed. We each had a copy of her DNR- “do not resuscitate” form.
And we discussed her funeral wishes, which serve as guidelines, but not as absolutes. I do not believe that one has to wholly follow someone’s last wishes, since the Jewish funeral rites are not only to honor the deceased, but also to comfort the mourners. For example, Mom initially wanted a graveside service. I knew that there would be a large crowd of people who would want to attend and on Long Island cemeteries are not necessarily close. I also know from my experience that during a hot time period, I don’t want to be standing at a graveside for a long period of time. Each family has to balance the needs of the deceased with those of the mourners. I should add that my siblings and I made funeral arrangements months before we thought we would need them, so as not to have to be involved in business when all we would want to do is grieve.

No one ever knows when death will come, so it only makes sense to take advantage of the time that you have with loved ones. In truth this applies to each and every moment of each and every day, since we all know of situations where one dies suddenly. Many often debate the relative preference of dying quickly and the inability to say goodbyes versus experiencing some form of lingering illness, but having time to share. It’s really one of those pointless arguments, since we do not have choice as to what will come.

Our situation worked well for us. Like any 96 year old, Mom was aging and her level of activity diminished in recent years, but overall her health was good. We knew she would not be with us forever, but we enjoyed her presence and activity for as long as we could. In mid June she was hospitalized briefly, and we could see that this might be the beginning of the end. Though her body was failing, her mind was clear. She had been living in her own apartment on Long Island with a full time caregiver for the past two years, maintaining an amazingly active lifestyle, but now it was time for her to live with my sister, who devoted herself to her.

We all knew that these were her final days. As opposed to wallowing in sadness, the entire family seized the time as an opportunity. From the moment that she took ill until her death, she was connected with all of her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, either with personal visits, multiple phone calls and regular skyping.  She was even entrusted with the secret that her 8th great grandchild was on the way, something I only learned later. We shared our “I love yous” many times over, along with stories and review of family history. Mom didn’t have lots of possessions, and she had already given away many of her precious items earlier, but she specifically designated what remained. That was the same day when she made it very clear as to which outfit she wanted to wear for burial, the one she wore to her youngest great grandchild’s baby naming.

Perhaps one of the most significant lessons I can teach is the simple importance and power of being there with a loved one, when you have the opportunity. It was beshert that this was my sabbatical summer, when I had blocked out two months for a variety of activities. Plans changed, but that was fine. I was able to be with Mom, handle some of the care-giving responsibilities with my sister who shouldered the most. I recall one day. Mom was weak, but still enjoyed going out. So we spent a few hours one afternoon just sitting on a bench at a pond watching nature. Just breathing fresh air gave her pleasure.

In truth we did not anticipate that she would decline as rapidly as she did. By the middle of August hospice care began. I have a great deal of respect for what the men and women of hospice programs do. In Jewish tradition when it seems that death is inevitable, we are called upon to remove obstacles. Whatever would make her comfortable was what we wanted and we truly believe that she did not suffer. Consistent with hospice care we continued to let Mom know of our love for her, our pledge to continue to be a strong family, but also our willingness to let go, giving permission for her to do the same when she was ready. They say it makes a difference. Who knows for sure? Medically, people die when organs fail; spiritually when God is ready to be with them in whatever comes next.

On Friday afternoon September 9th I received the call from my siblings that the end was near. I debated whether or not to go. I had services that night, B’nai Mitzvah Club in the morning, the first day of Religious School on Sunday. I had said my goodbyes. I’m so glad that I decided to hop on a plane the next morning. One never knows for sure if she was waiting for us all to be together, but knowing her, we had the sense that she was. If nothing else it made us feel better to be together. When I arrived she was in a constant sleep state, perhaps what one would describe as a coma. She had not been responsive in over 24 hours. Still, I thought I perceived a flicker of an eye when she heard my voice for the first time.

We sat in the room with her surrounded by pictures of the multiple generations of her family. As I have shared, Mom was a spiritual woman. For her sake and my own I recited the traditional prayers that are to be said for the gravely ill. They derive from Yom Kippur worship. First comes a confession of sin, asking forgiveness of those who we have wronged in life, but also expressing hope that we accomplished enough good to be worthy of God’s ultimate protection and care. Then we recite the same words that we will pronounce in a little while at the conclusion of Neilah- the Shma and Adonai Hu haelohim- Adonai is our God. That was a particularly poignant moment for me. Later that day, listening to labored breathing I found myself reciting the El Male Rachamim prayer, which is our request of God to watch over our loved ones who have died. In this case I simply changed the sense to encourage God to take her. Clearly she was ready, but at the time we could imagine that she might linger much longer. We did not want that for her or selfishly for us. It’s OK to be honest with our feelings. Within a few hours of that prayer, early on the morning of September 11, the difficult but sweet moment arrived as she simply breathed her last.

At this hour of Yizkor, I stand before you and with you. Each of us has a story
to tell. I hope that my sharing with you will be helpful. No two situations are precisely the same, yet they are all essentially the same. We live with our grief, hopefully not as a burden. Rather let our treasure trove of memories inspire us. Let us use the lessons learned to serve and bless the living.