Yom Kippur Day 2017 – Control Your Behavior, Not Life
Boker Tov, good morning, G’mar Hatimah tovah, and tzom kal to those who are fasting. Though we are fasting today, I want to tell you about an epiphany I had while standing in front of my open pantry last week. In order to understand the epiphany I first must describe the pantry. Inside is one shelf filled with cereals, protein & meal bars. Another is organized into sections, with a spot for regular baking items, another for gluten free baking items, regular pasta, gluten free pasta, etc. A third shelf contains all the canned vegetables, fruits, and beans one could want, etc. Yet another is overflowing with dried lentils, rice, and nuts. I admit it is jam packed and looks fairly chaotic. Somehow though we all manage to find what we want – even if it takes some effort and occasionally I have to refer someone to the proper shelf. A giant spice rack hangs on the left door of the pantry, which is where the spices several members of the family prefer are kept. It also appears somewhat disorganized. On the other hand, if you look at the right-hand door of the pantry you’ll find a second giant spice rack with the spices I use, that is easy to navigate since the first four shelves of spices are completely alphabetized. If I ever find anything out of place I move things around until it is organized alphabetically once again.
So now that you know about the organization of my pantry, I can share my epiphany. And what is it? That the way I approach my pantry is also the way that I approach life, and that approach is a way I believe is spiritually and emotionally beneficial. What is the approach? Quite simply, I acknowledge daily, that while I can control some things in my life – like the right side spice rack, how long I exercise each day, what I choose to eat, read, or watch on TV – there are other things that seemingly are beyond my abilities to control, and so rather than pretend I have absolute control over everything, I arrange what I can and then focus on managing and navigating the left-over chaos.
It didn’t used to be this way. There was a time in my life when I truly believed that I could control nearly everything. I woke and went to sleep at the same time, my schedule was perfectly organized, each knick-knack, book, and napkin had its proper place. It all changed on January 17, 1994 at 4:30am, when the 6.7 Northridge earthquake struck as we slept in our apartment in Van Nuys. As the earth was shaking and we heard glass shattering, things in our apartment falling, and people in other apartments screaming, my mind was opened. I was completely calm. I put on my tennis shoes, which I always kept near the bed in case of emergency, and dialed my parents’ home in Las Vegas. I said, “You’re going to hear about an earthquake when you turn on the news, please know we’re fine.” Only then did I walk out of the bedroom, and with Jeff, navigate through all the items that had fallen and walk out of the apartment. After the sun came we were able to go into the apartment to begin cleaning up. I looked around the mess and nearly started laughing. I had tried to “prepare” for the earthquake. I had all the recommended number of bottles of water as well as a flashlight. Except that the water had been on the top shelves in the kitchen. The earthquake had knocked them out of the cabinet, where they fell onto my grandmother’s china that had also fallen and shattered all over the floor. So the floor of the kitchen had many gallons of water spilled on the floor. The flashlight had been on top of the refrigerator and when the fridge fell the flashlight also fell and the glass broke. But in the chaos was a ray of light. When the fish tank had fallen over and broken, somehow our giant algae eater managed to stay alive in the wet carpet until we picked it up and put it in a bowl.
That was the day, the moment, I learned that while indeed there were some things I could control there were other things I couldn’t, I can’t control.
I share this with you this morning because one of the most complicated, difficult passages in the machzor causes us to think about what we can and cannot control in life. In the U’netaneh Tokef prayer that Cantor Nathanson will chant during the Musaf service, we read: “U’netaneh tokef k’dushat ha’yom ki hu nora v’ayom – Let us speak of the sacred power of this day – profound and awe-inspiring….As a shepherd examines the flock, making each sheep pass under the staff, so You will review and number and count, judging each living being, determining the fate of everything in creation, inscribing their destiny. B’Rosh Hashanah yikatevun u’v’Yom Tzom Kippur y’hatemun – On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed – How many will pass on, and how many will be born, who will live, and who will die, who at his time and who at an untimely end, who will perish by fire and who by water, …who will be tranquil and who will be tormented. U’teshuvah u’tefillah u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a ha’g’zerah – but teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah have the power to transform the harshness of our destiny.
This is one of THE most difficult passages in all of Jewish liturgy. Part of its difficulty is the fact that the prayer confronts us with two things we don’t like to contemplate or admit. First is the acknowledgement that no matter what we do, how pious we are, how much we volunteer or give to charity, how well we take care of ourselves, eat properly, exercise regularly, etc., we are all going to die at some point. It has nothing to do with being a “sinner” or not. It is simply the truth of human life. Our physical bodies, unlike our souls, are simply not immortal. And second, we have little control over how and when that inevitability will transpire. For any one of us it could be 80 years or more from now or it could be far sooner.
As a rabbi I have learned this lesson over and over again. There was the congregant who died from an allergic reaction to an anti-biotic she took before oral surgery. I had another congregant who, while leaving the doctor’s office after having just been declared cancer free, tripped, hit her head, and died from the blow. I had a student who, standing on a curb, died after pushing a friend out of the way of a car with a distracted driver that jumped the curb. This week I read the news of Rabbi Haim Ashkenazi, who died at his office in the earthquake in Mexico City last week, whose body was pulled out of the rubble an hour after the start of Rosh Hashanah. This week too I learned of border policeman Solomon Gavriyah, 20, civilian security guards Youssef Ottman, 25, from Abu Ghosh and Or Arish, 25, who were killed stopping a terrorist attack in Har Adar, near Jerusalem. We never know when or how our time will come, but come it will.
Rabbi Karyn Kedar once wrote about the power of the U’netaneh Tokef. She wrote: “The force of this day demands that we lift the veil of illusion and see fate and destiny like ministering angels dancing between this world and the next. Fate is the ordained path of our lives, the stuff that happens beyond our power to know and to control. Destiny, however, is how we respond to fate by the choices we make. We can choose to live with intention, choose the company we keep, choose to make our lives a great learning of the mind and spirit through consideration, introspection, dialogue, perseverance. We cannot control what happens to us. We absolutely can control our reaction to what happens. This is the dance of fate and destiny, the very essence of the human condition. Our life is not judged by events but by our reaction to them; our character and good name are formed from the fortitude, tenacity, and courage that it takes to live an elevated life….And so, we declare that on these High Holy Days the universe spins, fate and destiny dance, and some will live and so will die and some will be tranquil and some will be troubled. Through song and word, hunger and exhaustion, we are brought to a ledge: fly or fall – we choose.”
Rabbi David Stern picked up this theme when he wrote: “Life is glorious – but it is also fragile, tenuous, and contingent….In the scales of secular society, human limitation is measured as defeat. Out there, our finitude seems to diminish us, and being humbled suggests humiliation. But Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur allow us to see our human limitations as a source of wisdom, not of weakness. Like Yom Kippur itself, with all of its evocations of death and mourning, the U’netaneh Tokef confrontation with mortality is a gift… Even as U’netaneh Tokef reminds us of what we cannot control, it beckons us toward the human responsibility for all that we can… In a great and saving act of liturgical chutzpah, having tattooed us with the reality of events beyond our control, U’netaneh Tokef summons us to agency”: “Repentance, prayer, and tz’dakah transform the hashness of our destiny.”
He continues by saying, “T’shuvah, our ability to repent and effect change in our own lives; t’fillah, our capacity to reach out to God; tz’dakah, our facility for reaching out to others – none of these makes us immune to life’s harsh blows. They are not acts of magic that constrain or control the deity, and they do not wish or whisk away the profound challenges of our lives… [they] do not prevent misfortune …. But they temper the harshness of life’s circumstances by asserting our redemptive capacity for response.”
Over the last month we have seen image after image of death and destruction due to hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, fire, and terrorist activities. Life is indeed fragile. But we have also seen images of neighbor helping neighbor, strangers helping strangers, and the incredible capacity for human beings to overcome. We have seen in real terms how people helping people have the capacity to temper the harshness of life. As much as we have seen though, there is always so much more to do, so much that can be done. And what we do now is something we CAN control. We can improve the world through acts of gemilut hasadim, loving-kindness. And so I pray that through the acts of t’shuvah, repenting and changing our own lives; t’fillah, reaching out to God, and finally, perhaps most importantly, tz’dakah, reaching out to others, we transform our lives and the lives of others for better. In the Hebrew all we have to do is change one vowel to transform ro’a – evil – into re’ah friend. When we change just a little & reach out to others as the holiday urges, we can transform pain into friendship, shared humanity, and love. Let’s do it. G’mar Hatimah Tovah.