This is My Very Last Sermon

Rabbi Sydney

Mintz Yom Kippur 5772

Congregation Emanu-El

This is my very last sermon. It could be. I don’t know. This is your last Yom Kippur. It might be. You don’t know. It is possible that we will not be here next year. Are you ready? Is your house in order?
Yom Kippur is the most awesome day of the entire year because it is the dress rehearsal for your own death. Yom Kippur is Yom Ha-mitah-the day of death. We are emptied, without our creature comforts to remind us of life: no food, no drink, no sex, no perfume, no comfortable leather shoes. We even wear white, a kittel, a shroud, which says: This is what I will wear when I die.

So, what about death? Most of us deal with death through either denial or fear! Even when Rav Nahman was dying, the Talmud teaches that he begged Rava to implore the angel of death not to torment him. Rava replied, “But, Master, are you not esteemed enough to ask him yourself?” Rav Nahman considered this for a moment, and then pondered aloud, “Who is esteemed, who is regarded, who is distinguished in the face of Death Himself?” Then, after he died, Rav Nahman appeared to Rava in a dream. “Master, did you suffer any pain?” Rava asked. Rav Nahman replied, “Almost none. Still, if the Holy One were to say to me, ‘Go back to that world,’ I would not consent, the fear of death being so great.”
The fear of death.

In 2005, Steve Jobs spoke to the graduating class at Stanford University. He said: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in Life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday, not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.”

Steve Jobs was right. No one wants to die and in reality no one wants to talk about his or her own death. Yet, we think about death all of the time. Both life and death are a part of our daily lives. So, how can Yom Kippur help us to prepare for death? Just think about the wisdom in taking a day every year to confront death, to contemplate it, to face it, so that when we arrive there it is not as scary, unfamiliar or shocking.

The central prayer of these Awesome days, the U’Netaneh Tokef is blatant in its theology. The great shofar is sounded and whether it is in a blast or a still small voice, we all hear the same thing-we are here to reckon with the end. Whether it is in our face as we read through the obituaries-Who in old age? Or, when we see an ambulance at the scene of a car crash-who by accident? Or, watching a documentary about the drought in the horn of Africa-who by thirst? Or, waiting for the results of a blood test or a biopsy-who by sickness?

The U’Netaneh Tokef teaches us that God writes us in either the Book of Life or the Book of Death. But, three things can temper, mitigate or even change this severe decree. They are Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakah. Teshuvah-the act of reflection and repentance, Tefillah-the prayers of your heart and Tzedakah-the act of creating justice in our world. Doing these three things can transform your death into life everlasting for those who come after you.

The U’Netaneh Tokef makes it clear that we have no control over when or why or how we will die. That is truly only in God’s hands. But, doing these things doesn’t change death. The severe decree is not death, but what of you lives on after you are gone. You have the choice: your death can be a blessing or it can be a curse. In the Yom Kippur Torah portion, God says: “I set before you life and death, blessing and curse, therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your descendants.” Choosing how we live now will affect how we will live on after we die.

Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “If life is a pilgrimage, death is an arrival, a celebration. The last words should be neither craving nor bitterness, but peace and gratitude. We have been given so much. Whatever we give away is so much less than what we receive. Perhaps this is the meaning of dying: to give one’s whole self away. For the pious person, it is a privilege to die.”

Jewish traditions around death and burial and mourning are so wise. If you have the opportunity to partake in them, to engage in them, to let them be your guide, going through the inevitability of loss is a much different experience. As your Rabbi, I have buried many, many people. I have stood with you to bury your parents, your spouses, your siblings and even your children. I am there in the hospital room when death arrives, I am there at the cemetery as you say goodbye and shovel earth onto the casket or scatter ashes in the wind. And I am there with you at home for shiva. This year I buried three children under two years old. I have lived in your grief. I have passed through the Valley of the Shadow of Death with you. I have learned a great deal about death from you and I have something to tell you. Death is as natural as birth. If we can understand death not as a terrible negating disappearance or abandonment, but as a homecoming, we can pass ourselves and our legacies on in a healthy and righteous way. I have seen the profound difference it makes in the grieving process when someone dies and their house is in order and when someone dies and their house is a mess. I have the profound blessing to witness the fabric of your lives and I am there when families are strengthened by our tradition or their life unravels without it.

Consider these two experiences:
Judy was 81 when she died. She was still living in the four-bedroom home on the Peninsula, where she and her husband Paul had raised their children. In the 20 years since Paul had died, she had not revisited their will, nor had she discussed her end of life plans with anyone. Her children assumed she wanted to be buried next to their Dad, but her daughter was insisting on cremation. Her children had turned the house upside down looking for her documents, bank statements and bills. Anger seeped out of wounds from the past. Her daughter could only talk of the number of boxes it would take to pack everything and where they would donate it before they sold the house. Her grandson Jake took me aside and cried because he felt that no one was honoring her memory-they could only fight because no one knew what else to do. Judy’s shiva was cold, short and lifeless. People stayed for only a brief amount of time. I asked her son why he had never talked to his mom about what she wanted. He told me that she never brought it up and that he never had the time.

Jeremy had been diagnosed with Lymphoma when he was 68 years old. After his diagnosis, he and his wife Susan sold their home, donating most of their belongings to Jewish Family and Children’s Services. They moved into a two-bedroom apartment very close to their son Sam. In the year after his diagnosis, Jeremy walked Sam and his sister Rachel through all of his files. He had a living will, an advanced care directive, and had taken care of all of his arrangements before he began to
deteriorate. He spoke honestly and openly with his family, even through his tears. Sam told me that one of the best and worst days was when he and his mother went to the Home of Peace Cemetery in Colma to pick out graves for them. When I asked why it was a best moment, Sam told me because he was so relieved that he had the time to have the hard conversations with his parents, while they were still alive. He really said goodbye to his Dad, heard his stories, laughed and cried together. Those conversations were the key to his own ability to truly mourn and to engage in the tradition of shiva.

Jeremy told Sam to serve his mother’s chopped liver at the shiva and Sam showed me the recipe in his grandmother’s handwriting. At Jeremy and Susan’s apartment, people shared stories and laughed and remembered Jeremy with love. The members of the synagogue, who had served Susan and Jeremy meals during the months leading up to his death, arrived with copious amounts of food. We listened to his favorite music, his granddaughter played his piano and we all ate chopped liver.

What is the difference between these two families? One had been given the gift of a peaceful ending. This is the gift of Judaism’s wisdom, to comfort, carry and bring them from death back to life. One had stories and joyful memories and a house in order. One had pain and anguish and no real way to come to any kind of closure in the end. Shiva works. Stop shaving, wear a black ribbon over your heart, show everyone your pictures, share your memories, take a break from life and live in death for seven days and then, slowly make your way back to life. Don’t deny your experience of grief, of loss. Shiva can bring you back to life. It can bring you closer to home and closer to your Judaism.

Just as you are courageous and show up here each year to confront the most awesome and, in many ways, most terrifying day of the Jewish year, be audacious in what you say, what you ask, and how you prepare yourself and others for your own death. The mitzvot that temper the severe decree take courage. Yom Kippur is ultimately telling us that the way we live, is the way we will die. The way that we do our Teshuvah and Tefillah and Tzedakah is the way that we will live on in the hearts and minds and lives of those whom we love. They really do take us with them. On this Yom Kippur I am asking you to do something:

Start the conversation with your parents or your children. Make time to talk face to face about one of the most difficult subjects about life. I have found that many parents don’t talk to their children about their own death, not because they don’t want to, but because they think that their children don’t want to have that conversation. Your parents will thank you, and your children will, too. No one wants to say goodbye to their parents and no one wants to leave this earth, but, just the same, we all do. It’s better to have your conversations while you and they are still here. Don’t let anything go unsaid. There is someone in your life today with whom you need to talk, but you haven’t initiated or finished the conversation. If this is your last Yom Kippur, imagine what you need to say to that person that you won’t be able to say after you are gone. Say it this year. Say it today. Call them, visit them, talk to them. Do your Teshuvah, as Rabbi Eliezar taught, the day before you die.

Let go and get rid of your stuff. I mean it. Go through your clothes, your jewelry, your attic, your boxes and your garage. Your children and our environment will thank you later.
Write a Living Will, an Advanced Care Directive, Power of Attorney. Write an Ethical Will and choose to become an Organ Donor.

Be clear with what you want to have happen to you. Most people I know that are under 50 and that have all of this in order have gone through some sort of health crisis, a heart attack, a cancer diagnosis or have suffered a loss earlier in life that made these decisions seem much more imminent.

Finally, think about where you are sitting right now. Look at this magnificent sanctuary, look down, at your seats. Think about the Jews who created this community 161 years ago. Think about those who labored to build this synagogue. I know they were thinking of you. It is their legacy to us. Now, remember who was here last year and is no longer with you. And think about who will be sitting in these seats when you are no longer here. Think about your spouse, siblings, children and grandchildren. Who will get them through shiva and back to life. Look around you. Really, take a look. The people here will help carry your legacy, too.

I know that this is a lot to ask, but it is Yom Kippur. I have posted resources on the Emanu-El Website including Living and Ethical wills, Power of Attorney and Advanced Care Directives that will help you begin the conversation and help to get your house in order. They are in the Sermons section of the site.

Some people write their own obituaries. I know a few who have written theirs several times. Think about it. Wouldn’t you want the way that you perceive your life to be the way that those around you perceived you and then your legacy? Now, some people do take this idea of being in control over their shiva or their obituary a little too seriously. I am sure that many of you are familiar with the story of the man on his death bed who is roused from his slumber by the wonderful aroma of his most favorite food in the world-his wife’s chocolate chip cookies. He pulls himself out of bed and very slowly makes his way down the hallway to the kitchen. There, he sees his wife and trays and trays of warm, delicious chocolate chip cookies. He reaches behind her to pick up a cookie and she turns around. She smacks him on the back of the hand with a spatula and says: “Don’t you dare, those are for the shiva.”

The author, Mitch Albom, writes in his book Have a Little Faith: “A man seeks employment on a farm. He hands his letter of recommendation to his new employer. It reads simply, `He sleeps in a storm.’ The owner is desperate for help, so he hires the man. Several week pass, and suddenly, in the middle of the night, a powerful storm rips through the valley. Awakened by the swirling rain and howling wind, the owner leaps out of bed. He calls for his new hired hand, but the man is sleeping soundly. So he dashes off to the barn. He sees, to his amazement, that the animals are secure with plenty of feed. He runs out to the field. He sees the bales of wheat have been bound and are wrapped in tarpaulins. He races to the silo. The doors are latched, and the grain is dry. And then he understands. `He sleeps in a storm.’ My friends, if we tend to the things that are important in life, if we are right with those we love and behave in line with our beliefs, our lives will not be cursed with the aching throb of unfulfilled business. Our words will always be sincere, our embraces will be tight. We will never wallow in the agony of `I could have, I should have.’ We can sleep in a storm. And when it’s time, our good-byes will be complete.”

Don’t worry. This is only a dress rehearsal for death. Or, this may really be your last Yom Kippur. Get your house in order. You aren’t taking anything with you.
But, they are taking you with them. Ken Yehi Ratzon-May this be G-d’s will.

Rabbi Sydney Mintz’e Resources and Suggestions for planning for End of Life Issues:

1. The Union of Reform Judaism’s resources on aging and end of life:
2. The Five Wishes is a resource for those who are planning ahead and includes books and guides to planning for illness and end of life issues:
3. Home of Peace in Colma is Congregation Emanu-El’s own historic cemetery:
4. This site gives resources to Interfaith Families who are in need of support around death and mourning: nterfaith_Families.shtml
5. Rabbi Jack Reimer gives the History and Practice of Writing Ethical Wills:

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