Rabbi Steve Leder’s Yom Kippur sermon: What Have I Learned About Death?
The letter came from Hillside cemetery in June…the kind of letter that always gets my attention: “Buy now, price increases on July 1st.” I’ve been to Hillside 500, 600 times, maybe more. But this time was different. This time it was for me. It was for Betsy. I was buying the last piece of real estate we will ever inhabit.
I looked at a few different Leder Plot possibilities. Which should it be? Fountain, bench, path or tree adjacent? “This one,” I said to the sales woman, after wandering and pondering for a few minutes. A double plot between the fountain and the bench. Section 5, row 11, plot 8— my eternal coordinates.
I stood on my little rectangle for a good long while. I felt the breeze. I imagined Betsy bereft, Aaron and his future wife, Hannah and her future husband, their children, my grandchildren, sitting beneath a green awning on white folding chairs while some other rabbi helps them tear the black ribbon, utter the words, and turn a spade of dirt upon my plain pine casket. They will be sad, they will get back into a dark limousine, loosen their ties, kick off their shoes and journey home to bagels and stories, a flickering candle and Kaddish. They will cry and they will laugh and I, will be gone….
It is a strange thing, it is a sobering thing, to stand upon one’s own grave.
Tonight is supposed to make us feel the very same way. Yom Kippur was designed by the sages as an annual rehearsal for our death. We neither eat nor drink because the dead neither eat nor drink. We wear white to remind us of the white burial shroud into which a traditional Jew is sewn upon death. We begin with an empty ark, the word for which in Hebrew is aron—which is also the word for casket. The three Torahs we hold represent the bet din, the three judges in the heavenly court above.
We begin Kol Nidre staring into an empty casket, standing before the court of eternity. We end Yom Kippur afternoon with the very same words that are recited when a person dies “Adonai Hu HaElohim—Adonai, is God.” When the Yom Kippur prayer book asks, “Who shall live and who shall die?” The answer for each of us is, “I will.”
Unlike most people, Rabbis don’t have the luxury of thinking about death only once a year on Yom Kippur or a handful of times over decades of life. On July 15th I completed my 30th year as your rabbi. This means many wonderful things, but it also means thirty years of seeing death up close. So what have I learned from 30 years of death that I can share with you on this evening when we are commanded to consider our own deaths in order that we might change our lives?
The first thing I have learned about death might surprise you, which is, there are many things worse than dying. I have held the hands of hundreds of dying people. It might amaze you to know that not once, not one time has any of them been afraid. There are rare exceptions but most people die at the end of a very long life or if young, after a long, debilitating illness. Age and disease have their own rhythm and power. They teach us, they carry us along, preparing us and the people we love for death. For most, death comes as a sort of peaceful friend.
Most people are ready to die the way we are all ready to sleep after a very long and terribly exhausting day. We just want to pull the covers up around us and settle in for the peace of it all. We are not anxious about sleeping. We are not depressed. We are not afraid. The rabbis called death minucha n’chonah—perfect sleep. Disease, age, life itself prepares us for death and when it is our time, death is as natural a thing as life.
Here’s some good news. This means if you are afraid of dying it is not your day. Anxiety is for the living. And when it is really your time to die, you will be at peace and welcomed into the arms of God.
If life is good then death must be bad is the way most people think, but it really isn’t so. I am not for a moment trying to make sense of the death of a child or anyone who has not been granted his or her full measure of life. But generally speaking, is more really better or is there something about death that defines the essence of life itself?
Imagine a world without death. Without death to what would we aspire? Could life be serious or meaningful without mortality? Could life be beautiful? “Death,” said Wallace Stevens, “is the mother of beauty.” The beauty of flowers depends on the fact that they soon wither. How deeply could one deathless “human” being really love another? It is the simple fact that we do not have forever that makes our love for each other so profound.
And finally, without death, would there be such a thing as a moral life? To know that we will die means we must stand for something greater than ourselves in life. It is death Wilshire Boulevard Temple Rabbi Steve Leder Kol Nidre 5778 Sermon that makes us human in the best sense of that word. We contemplate death on Kol Nidre in order to become our best, most human selves.
There is a difference between prolonging life and prolonging death. When I am summoned to the hospital by a family that must decide whether or not to allow some procedure, amidst the stress, chaos and confusion I ask a simple question. Is this going to prolong your loved one’s life or prolong your loved one’s death? It is loving to prolong life; a chance to live and love and laugh again. But it is cruel to prolong death.
If you are wondering how you will know whether you are prolonging life or prolonging death. I can tell you only this. You will know. Then you must have the depth of love and courage within your heart to act upon what you know. To truly love someone is sometimes to let them go.
Jews don’t know Shiva. I am not sure when it happened, but most reform Jews have lost touch with what Shiva is really supposed to be. Sitting Shiva is supposed to ease the burden on the mourners. This means we are supposed to take care of them after the funeral. They are not supposed to throw a party to entertain us.
The rabbis knew what they were doing when they mandated seven days and nights of being taken care of by the community, of staying home, staying put, taking the time to remember, to pray, to say Kaddish. When someone you care about becomes a mourner help organize the food, the parking, the chairs, the everything needed for the Shiva at their home.
When you arrive at the Shiva, do not approach the mourners. Just be close by so they can summon you if they wish. If they do, do not distract them by avoiding the subject of their loved one’s death. Talk about their loved one, share your memories. They want to remember. They need to remember, to talk, to let it out, to grieve.
A man whose thirty-year-old daughter died in a car accident said at the Shiva as he looked around the room at the people who came to comfort him, “This changes nothing. But it means everything.” Showing up matters. Hear me reform Jews–Hold a proper Shiva, and I promise Shiva will hold you when you need so badly to be held.
Be you. People who are facing death or mourning do not really want or need us to approach them with drawn faces and whispered sympathies. They need us to be with them in death who we are with them in life. If you are a hugger, hug. If you are a joker, joke. If you are a story teller, tell stories. If you are a feeder, feed them. If you are a Wilshire Boulevard Temple Rabbi Steve Leder Kol Nidre 5778 Sermon doer. Do for them. Just be who you are and have always been for them. That is what people need and want. They are sad enough without your sad face. Tell them the funniest story you know about their loved one. When mourners laugh, it means they will survive. When it comes to death, laughter is a gift.
There is an old joke about the French that says: “The French are like everyone else, just more so.” Death makes everyone more so. If a person was private in life, she will be private when dying. If he was a wise-cracking optimist in life, he will be a wise cracking optimist in death.
If your family was tight, loving, and supportive in life, your family will be thus as you face death. If your family was dysfunctional, distant, and fractured in life, it will pull together briefly to make funeral plans and get through the day, but soon enough, it will be fractured again.
People and families face death exactly the way they face life—this is sometimes times terrible, and sometimes beautiful, but it is almost always true and it is best not to expect otherwise.
Anyone who thinks the shortest distance between two points is a straight line does not understand grief. Grief is not a linear process with sadness diminishing each day until it clears up like some infection. Grief ebbs and flows, ebbs and flows, ebbs and flows. Sometimes we can stand up in it, other times it pulls us under, thrashes and scares us, the world is upside down and we cannot breathe.
When that wave called grief comes, it is best to float with the pain and the emptiness, give in to it, be with it, take your time, and then stand up again.
We lose so much to death. Half our memory is gone with the only person on earth who shared our memories of that incredible trip, pizza from that little place down the alley, the babies’ first stumbles across the room, that old white Ford we took cross country when we were young and had no money.
We lose the only mother, the only father we will ever have. We lose so much love to death and if that love is real, and deep, the grief is real and deep.
Grief is not a race to be won or an ill to be cured. To deny grief its due is to deny the love we have for those we have no longer. Do not fight grief when it comes. Float with it…then, stand again.
The rabbi does not write your eulogy after you die. You write it with the pen of your life.
When my friend Debra’s mother died recently I asked her what she learned from it all. Her answer? “Nobody wants your crap.” We spend so much of our lives working, working, working to buy so much that amounts to—nothing.
I sat next to woman on a plane back to LA from Cincinnati. I don’t usually talk to people on planes because I have to lie about what I do in order to get any peace. In this case I was honest and the woman immediately handed me her card. She owns a nationwide business called Everything But the House. She sells the stuff in people’s homes after they die. Their children don’t want most of it. No one they knew wants it. The business nets over 120 million dollars a year.
We spend our lives acquiring things we think matter—mostly they don’t. Filling ourselves up with things is like trying to eat a picture of food.
A group of American tourists visited one of the most famous Eastern European Rabbis of the last century known as the “Chofetz Chaim,” in his little town of Radun. When they arrived, the Rabbi was in his small study with a rickety desk and a few books.
One of the incredulous tourists said, “Rabbi, where is all your stuff?” The Chofetz Chaim smiled, “Where is all yours?” “But we are just passing through,” the man answered. “So am I,” the rabbi said with a wise nod.
Death is a powerful reminder to buy less, and to do more, live more, travel more, and give more instead. No one wants your crap.
The afterlife might be real. Judaism has a lot to say about the afterlife and much of it is contradictory. Views range from Ezekiel’s resurrection vision in the Valley of Dry Bones that take on flesh, to the transmigration of souls, which is Judaism’s version of reincarnation, to heaven and hell scenarios in the Talmud, to the rationalist and humanists who say there is no afterlife. It is easy to say we live on in memory—but the truth is, at some point there will not be a single person left alive who remembers us.
So what can we credibly say about the other side?
I have seen about 800 dead bodies. A body is not a person. It is a vessel. There is so much more to us than our bodies. But where does the soul go? I do not know. But I have heard too many stories, real stories, to dismiss the possibility of an afterlife.
My wife’s best died fifteen years ago. Every year, every year on her friend’s birthday Betsy sees a lady bug. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence. Perhaps not.
Lorin told me this story. “At one of my grief group meetings, we had to go around and answer ‘If you could say one thing to your spouse right now what would it be?’ I said ‘Please, keep showing me signs you are here with me.’ I returned to my car. Out of the 100s of songs in my iTunes library, Springsteen’s Promised Land started playing – the one song Eddie told me he wanted played at his funeral.”
These stories and the hundreds of others I have heard bring me great warmth and hope and strength.
Dreams, butterflies, lady bugs, a smell, a vision, a song, a soft breeze in a hard moment– -these reminders may or may not be a presence, but they are real and they are to be treasured…they are their own afterlife. More we cannot know….
Headstones. Kafka was right when he said “The meaning of life is that it ends.” It’s true. Death is a great teacher because it informs the living about what really matters. We are here tonight to think about what really matters.
When I walk through cemeteries I am always struck by the uniformity of the inscriptions on headstones. Sure, there are a few funny ones—like Rodney Dangerfield’s which says: “There goes the neighborhood.” Or Mel Blank’s that says “That’s all folks.” But mostly, headstones mention the same few things about people.
When you only have 15 characters per line to sum up a person’s life, you have to distill that life down to its most essential elements. You want to know what really matters? Walk through the cemetery and read the headstones.
It almost always comes down to a few, simple words: Loving husband, father and grandfather. Loving wife, mother and grandmother. Loyal friend. Loving Sister. Loving Brother.
That’s it. No resume, no net worth. We matter when we love our family and our friends. It sometimes takes death to remind us that life really is that simple.
And so, this simple prayer:
God, we stand tonight before our open grave, before an open book, before You. Help us, as we imagine our deaths, to make the most of our lives.