Friday, September 17, 2010

Yom Kippur Sermon 5771: Minding Our Mortality

There’s the story of the man who remarks to his friend: “I’ve sure gotten old. I’ve had two bypass surgeries, a hip replacement, new knees. I’m half blind, can’t hear anything quieter than a jet engine, take 40 different medications that make me dizzy, winded, and susceptible to blackouts. I have bouts with dementia: Sheesh, I can’t even remember if I’m 26 or 86! Plus, I’ve lost all my friends….But thank God, I still have my driver’s license!”

Aging: it’s a subject that makes all of us a little uncomfortable. The word itself conjures up anxieties of potential loss: of our good looks and sharp minds, of our independence, and – eventually – of our very own lives.

In an attempt to ignore the ticking of our own internal clocks, we deny our mortality; using every trick in the book (and sometimes going to great expense as well) we hide our true age from our friends, and from ourselves.

For proof of this, one need only look as far as the August edition of Vogue, the publication’s annual issue on aging.

At first glance, I found much worthy content in the magazine. There was an impressive list of essays written by diverse contributors, all considering the different challenges of aging that women face in each decade of their lives.

What was less than impressive to me were the advertisements that appeared on the pages in between the essays. They carried with them a decidedly different message. Within the first 90 pages of the magazine, there were no fewer than eight full pages ads, along the lines of the one touting Estee Lauder’s Advanced Night Repair Cream. The copy for that ad promised “a dramatic reduction in the visible signs of aging.” And, just in case I missed the message the first time, the cream also delivers “comprehensive anti-aging like no other formula.”

Our own Jewish tradition offers a markedly different response to the question of how we are supposed to come to terms with our aging and ultimate mortality.

The Midrash tells us that Abraham was not only the first Jew of all time. He was also, according to the rabbis, the first person to ever show signs of aging. In the beginning, according to the story, human beings never aged physically. How did that come to change?

It seems that Abraham and Isaac looked remarkably alike. And as Isaac aged, he was increasingly mistaken for Abraham as they went out and about. And it got to be so confusing that Abraham got fed up. Finally he prayed that God would alter his appearance. Abraham wanted people to know which of the two of them was deserving of the respect befitting such an important communal leader and elder. God heard Abraham’s plea, and ever since – we have all been fated to physically age as we get older.

Amazing: Abraham wanted to age.

Perhaps it is not realistic for us to ever want to age, but we can’t avoid it either. We are commanded to accept it.

Today is Yom Kippur. It is the day we stand before God in judgment, unadorned by the tools that we use to hide our true age. We wait, on this day, to learn if we will be inscribed for life, or for death, in the coming year. Today is the day – the only day on the Jewish calendar, when we come face to face with our own mortality.

And so we wonder: what will the coming year have in store for us? Will it be another year of our denying the passage of time and the ticking of our own clocks? Or will we have the strength to acknowledge: that our clocks are always ticking? And that all we can do is embrace each day with gratitude, with awe, and with the commitment to improve ourselves; thankful for the gift we have been given, and charged by God to make the most of it.

On the subject of gratitude, the German writer Thomas Mann wrote: “Hold fast the time! […] Disregarded, it slips away. […] Hold every moment sacred. Give each day clarity and meaning, each the weight of thine awareness, each its true and due fulfillment.”

Mann teaches us that our time on earth is finite and precious: that every day is a gift. And the only way we will ever be able to appreciate that gift, and be grateful for it, is if we pause long enough to examine our lives and marvel: how wonderful it is that I am blessed to live.

Our prayerbook expresses this sentiment in seemingly mundane fashion. Daily, upon arising, we are taught to recite the blessing asher yatzar. In contemporary practice, we recite the blessing in the synagogue, where it has come to express gratitude for the health of our bodies in general.

But the passage was originally written with a different intention. The text was to be recited immediately upon using the bathroom for the first time every day. It was, and is, a vehicle for us to express gratitude to God: that all of the intricate organs, and passageways in our bodies function as they are meant to, enabling us to live in good health.

If we think about our bodies – and more broadly our lives - in these terms, it truly is a miracle that we are able to get up in the morning. And the only reasonable Jewish response to this miracle is to answer with blessing.

But reciting a simple blessing is not enough. We also have the opportunity, in expressing gratitude, to live our lives as a blessing. To realize that life each day is a gift, and to make the most of that gift by living it to the fullest, in contributing to our world, and by seeking out meaningful and enriching relationships with others.

A number of my own friends and peers in their 20s and 30s are having a hard time following this advice.

According to social scientists, my generation is caught in suspended animation somewhere in between adolescence and adulthood.

Frank Furstenberg, who studies these issues for the MacArthur Foundation, calls the notion of the onset of adulthood occurring at 18 or even 21 as positively “archaic.” Friends: we are, witnessing a massive change in American demographics.

Did you know that a quarter of all 25 year old white men are living with their parents? To be sure, some of those numbers are caused by the recession…It’s only natural in tough times for children to want to return to the safety of the nest for parental support, financial and otherwise.

But there is a larger shift at play within these numbers. By choice, my generation is increasingly delaying the start of their first “real” jobs. We are putting off saving for the future. And we are less interested in pursuing long term romantic relationships.

On one level, this is happening because my generation is being told that living to 100 is practically a sure thing. Maybe there is no real urgency to start living a “normal” adulthood. Who cares if we bum off our parents for another five years, or couch surf our way through a friend’s apartment. We have our whole lives in front of us. What’s the rush?

But on this Yom Kippur, I would respond by suggesting that my generation seems, frankly, ungrateful. Ungrateful for the gift of life it has been blessed with (which we all know might change at any time), and ungrateful for the opportunities that we have been given.

The clock is ticking for all of us. Perhaps the ticking means something different for someone who is 25, compared to one who is 75, but the clock is ticking for all of us nonetheless. Our time – our lives – are not meant to be wasted. We have the potential to live so richly: by helping others, raising families, and contributing to the health and vitality of our world. And the first step toward living that kind of meaningful life is by fostering a sense of gratitude: by finding a way to say thank you for the gift of life. Not by delaying our aging, but by embracing it.

Fostering a sense of gratitude is only one key ingredient when it comes to a compelling vision of Jewish aging. Our tradition insists that gratitude be accompanied by a profound sense of awe.

Awe is an emotion and mindset that affects the way we judge: ourselves, others, even the natural world around us. Thus Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that: “Just as the grandeur of the sun or an oak tree is not reducible to the function it fulfills…so a human being must be regarded as significant and valuable in himself or herself.”

Heschel was chiding all of those who might try to describe Mt. Everest as simply being the world’s tallest mountain. To behold Everest in all its mystery and beauty is to experience something that is far greater than any measurement.

Similarly: we transcend our statistics. We are more than a B.A. from Berkeley, or the CEO of a major company. There is nothing wrong, of course, with being proud of these personal accomplishments. But to live with a sense of awe is to be mindful of the majesty of creation: of the fact that we are far more than the summary of our resumes.

This is an important message to keep in mind as we retire. As we transition out of regular working life, we are counseled to practice a sense of awe regarding ourselves and others. We are never just the retired Vice President of So-and-so. We are individuals who can contribute in so many other unique ways - ways that transcend the outdated structure of an employer-employee relationship.

Fostering a sense of awe isn’t just about how we think of ourselves, it’s also about how we treat our bodies as we age.

There is an unfortunate tendency in our society that rewards youthfulness. We already saw how the cosmetics industry plays on this theme in its marketing. We can also see it in the disturbing trend toward the increased use, and abuse, of steroids in athletes. Older athletes abuse steroids because they are convinced that they’ll only be able to win if they trick their bodies into turning back the clock, by synthetically manipulating themselves to behave as if they were five or ten years younger.

Beyond all of the other risks associated with this kind of drug use – this behavior is a violation of the Jewish imperative to live with a sense of awe…a sense of deep and profound respect for our bodies, and the way that God created them.

We are more than our resumes at the end of our careers, and we are more than the speed of the fastball we can throw. When we forget to foster awe, we are not just misjudging others and ourselves, we are also ignoring our tradition’s teachings about how we are to age, and live, in the world.

Jewish aging begins with gratitude and with awe. But as we age, we are also commanded to turn inward – to reflect on how we have lived – so that we might repent and improve.

On this Yom Kippur, devoted so centrally to teshuvah, it is fitting to recall the words of our rabbis, who wrote that: “People act wickedly in their youth, but as they age they have the ability to perform good deeds.”

We have the ability to change. This is a central tenet of our tradition and it applies as much to the young adult as it does to the senior citizen. It is never too early, or too late, to change for the better.

Lillian Hellman, the American Jewish author, used the metaphor of a painting to describe the possibility of repentance as we age. She wrote that: “Paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens, it is possible in some pictures to see the artist’s original lines: [for example] a tree will show through a woman’s dress […] That is called pentimento because the painter repented, and changed his mind.”

On this Yom Kippur, let us strive to embody both artist and canvas: that we might be blessed with the ability to consider our pasts…and then be empowered to change for the better. No matter how young, or how old: to age Jewishly means always being committed to repenting and re-painting the brush strokes of our lives.

A few years ago, the US Postal Service issued instructions to post offices around the country to improve customer service. A recent poll had indicated that Americans were frustrated because they spent too much time waiting in line to mail their packages. The centerpiece of the ensuing customer service campaign was a directive to 37,000 local post offices to remove any clocks from public view, thereby hoping that customers would be less conscious of how much time was passing while they were waiting in line.

With all due respect to those devoted civil servants in Washington, we know that that strategy doesn’t work. Hiding the clocks from our view can’t change the fact that the clocks are still ticking.

Of course the clocks don’t just tick while we wait. They tick – every second of every day – for all of us, marking out the moments and seasons of our lives, and ticking – one second closer – to our fated end.

All we can do is make a choice: we can either deny that inevitability, or accept it. On this Yom Kippur, the one day on our calendar devoted specifically to contemplating our eventual death: the choice is clear. Our age-old tradition teaches us that we should accept our mortality.

On this day, let us foster gratitude, awe, and a commitment to constantly improve ourselves. Then we shall surely be blessed: to make the most of the gifts we’ve been given, by living our lives to the fullest.

Shanah Tovah


To access a collection of archived Temple Solel High Holy Day sermons, click here.

In addition to the links above, you might enjoy the following:

John Glenn's return to space in 1998 was a watershed moment, in terms of the scientific study of aging (in space); and, more specifically, it was a remarkable celebration for our society of the limitless possibilities that older Americans might pursue even as they age. For more, click here.

There are a number of excellent books written about Judaism and aging. I recommend: A Heart of Wisdom by Susan Berrin and The Price and Privilege of Growing Old by Gunther Plaut. There are also many fine online resources, like this one from the Reconstructionist Movement.

There is no better example of our society's denial of death than the movement in favor of cryonics. Robert Ettinger's landmark 1964 book introduced the possibility to the world.

Check out The Death of Death by Neil Gillman for a comprehensive introduction to the question of Judaism and the Afterlife.

The September 2003 issue of the Jewish newsletter Sh'ma explored the connection between Yom Kippur, Death, and Meaning.

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