Yom Kippur 2015 / 5776: “Who Would You Be if You Lost it All?”

By Rabbi David

G’mar chatimah tovah.  For every worthy hope and every healing you seek this year, may it be sealed for good.

I want to share a true story about David Gregory, former host of NBC’s Meet the Press, the television forum for national and world leaders.  This story came to me in two parts.  The first part came from one of my teachers, Dr. Erica Brown, a leading Jewish educator; the second part came from David Gregory himself.

Part One: In 2010, Erica invited me for dinner.  A pleasant chat revealed that David Gregory was studying privately with her.  We swapped stories about political life – mine from public service in New York, Erica’s from life in the nation’s capital.  We observed that some elected officials seem well-adjusted to the idea that they can lose an election – their identity doesn’t rely on holding public office – but others, we felt, risk emotional and spiritual free fall if they lose power.  We sensed a challenging question hiding in plain sight: “Who would they be if they lost it all?”

Part Two: This month, David Gregory published an autobiography excerpted in The Wall Street Journal. In it, David described that in 2010, his teacher, Erica Brown, asked him a question: “Who would you be if you lost it all?”  Erica’s question threw David for a loop.  He was moderator of Meet the Press, sitting atop world journalism, rubbing elbows with presidents and kings.  David couldn’t imagine any reality to Erica’s inquiry.  But four years later, in 2014, NBC fired David from Meet the Press.  He went into emotional and spiritual free fall.  David still had his family and health – but he felt lost, like part of him died.

Part of David would die after he lost Meet the Press – but he was in for a surprise.  As David wrote, the hardest wasn’t losing Meet the Press, but suffering the part of himself that craved power and prestige, a part of him that was insatiably hungry, at risk of starving if ever the gravy train of fame and glory stopped.  After mourning Meet the Press, next David had to mourn the part of him that needed Meet the Press.  Only after mourning this second death did David learn how much more he was than Meet the Press.  David had lived Erica’s question: to find what more he was, he had to lose.  Today David is happy – not that he lost a big job, but that he stopped being small.

“Who would you be if you lost it all?”  Erica’s question is the core of Yom Kippur. Today, on Yom Kippur, we ask that question because it’s the ultimate question of life. Who are we, really? Are we our bodies, our ideas, our jobs, our finances, our relationships? All are important, and all impermanent. The deep truth – which most of us try to avoid most of the year – is that all of them, and all of us, will die.

Today Erica’s question has special resonance. “Who would you be if you lost it all” is a way of stripping us to our essence: “What part of us transcends all that we ever could lose?” It’s through that lens that Yom Kippur knocks on our hearts to rouse us, to show us what in our lives seems stale or stuck, so that we can resolve to shift it – not next month, but now. Yom Kippur calls us to live each day as if it’s our last, for someday it will be: someday we will lose this life.

“Who would we be if we lost it all?” The reminder that we are mortal, that all things pass, offers us a precious gift. In the words of Psalm 90, our mortality prods us to treasure each day, to take nothing for granted, to seek what’s most important in life, and in those ways seek a heart of wisdom. That’s why Yom Kippur rehearses our mortality: food is for the living, not the dead. Simple clothes, like burial shrouds. The dead need no jewelry or perfume. Yom Kippur reminds us that each of us will die, intending the reminder to lift us up toward more truly living.

So Yom Kippur is a paradox: even as we rehearse our death, it’s on Yom Kippur that we can seem most alive. We dare to imagine on Yom Kippur that we can rise to the spiritual heights, what we call the angelic realm, to see past the limits of what in our lives seems small. We dare to imagine on Yom Kippur that if we really seek change, courageously, with a fully open heart, then we can earn forgiveness and renewal that transform our lives.

Sometimes it takes only a moment to gain new spiritual life, to see core truths in new ways, to heed the highest callings of conscience, to forgive, to touch what lives on. Sometimes it happens with ease and grace. Sometimes it can take longer, or take loss, to show us how much more we are than what we have or what we do. For David Gregory, it took a very public loss, and time to shed an inner identity that had become stale and small. For some it happens just that way.

“Who would you be if you lost it all?” Nobody should lose it all like the Biblical character Job, who lost health, wealth, family and dignity. Would that we could live without suffering, loss or grief. We all want ease and grace, health and wealth. But we know that human reality is more complex. It was for David Gregory. It is for David Markus. It is for us all.

Today we pray for a good and sweet year, the fulfillment of every worthy hope and every healing we seek in body, heart, mind and soul. And today we acknowledge that we can’t know all that our futures will be. Our Unetaneh Tokef liturgy says so poignantly: some will gain and some will lose, some will live and some will die – and all, sooner or later, will change.

Today change is in the air. Today is the autumnal equinox. Today we balance between summer and winter, light and dark, past and future, life and death. Today our deeds hang in the balance. Today our lives hang in the balance. Today Yom Kippur says, seek the spiritual.  Do it today. Don’t wait for an imagined more convenient time: it may never come. Don’t want until it’s too late: too late may come sooner than you think.

But Yom Kippur isn’t so much to dwell on loss or death, as to embrace life – to seek our fullest potential in all worlds. Jews say l’chaim (to life!) because our first focus isn’t on an afterlife but on this life.  Today the Torah reading calls to us, u’vacharta bachayim (choose life): take spiritual life seriously here and now – in the words of today’s Torah reading, not in some faraway place across the sea, or some distant time in the future, but right here and today.

Today comes to rouse us from routine pace and ways of being, which can lull us into the false sense that our bodies, ideas, jobs, relationships and finances are the sum total of who and what we are. Erica’s question is Yom Kippur’s question: “who would we be if we lost it all?”  And Yom Kippur answers that we’re so much more than anything we most fear to lose.

So why do we keep forgetting? Why do we retreat into fear? Why do we unlearn, year by year?  Why does a specific actual loss tend to impact us more than this timeless wisdom?

Tradition offers an answer, and it explains David Gregory’s experience. Menachem Twersky, of Chernobyl, Russia, in the 1700s, wrote in his book Me’or Eynayim (“Light of the Eyes”):

האמת שהאדם הוא אינו יכול לעמוד תמיד על מדריגה אחת. … למה צריך ליפול ממדריגתו? וטעם אחד הוא כדי שיבוא אחר כך למדריגה יותר גדולה. שבכל דבר צריך להיות העדר קודם להויה וכשרוצים להגביה למדריגה יותר גדולה צריך להיות העדר קודם לכן צריך ליפול ממדריגה שהוא עכשיו.

The truth is that one can’t stay always at one spiritual level…. Why must one fall from one’s spiritual level?  One reason is to come afterwards to an even higher spiritual level. In all things, one first needs the lack, so as to crave lifting oneself to a higher spiritual level.  And so, one first must lack, and so fall from one’s current spiritual level.

Loss, Twersky said, fuels change because loss impels us to seek. Seeking is our spiritual fuel.  We tend to seek what we most value; and after a loss, we tend to most value what we lost so we can re-establish equilibrium and stop pain. But in the process of seeking, if we learn that we’re more than what we lose or ever could lose, we can find even more.

In Jewish spiritual tradition we call this dynamic yeridah tzorech aliyah, descent for the sake of ascent – going down to come up even higher. It’s why on Yom Kippur we rehearse our death, so we can arouse to live even more fully. It’s how David Gregory could zoom up spiritually after losing Meet the Press

But it’s not automatic, and it’s not magic: it takes taking our seeking seriously. It takes effort, not inertia. And it means something else that maybe you never heard a rabbi say in shul. It means that whatever your belief, whatever your faith – maybe you have daily chats with God, or maybe you call yourself agnostic or atheist – it doesn’t matter. The next step in your spiritual journey starts exactly where you are now. Faith becomes brittle if we ban doubt, so we must allow doubt in order to invite real belief. We must lose to find. We must fall to rise.  The issue isn’t whether we doubt, lose and fall – but what we do next. Will we seek ascent after our inevitable descent, or not?

Here’s another implication: we must sin (a word I dislike), or make mistakes, or stray from our ideal selves. Against an imagined standard of perfection, we all come up short. The issue isn’t whether we’re imperfect, but what we do next.  Will we seek forgiveness and try to be better, or will we so accept our flaws – and our fears of loss – that we won’t use them as springboards to rise higher? That’s why Talmud teaches, “In the place where penitents stand, not even the purely righteous can stand.” One who “sins” and repents, who becomes a better person after the mistake, is spiritually higher than the mythic person who never acted imperfectly.  Yom Kippur isn’t about being perfect, but about seeking an ever richer spiritual life precisely amidst our human foibles and flaws.

So for all who ever felt loss, or doubt, or hurt, or anger, or guilt, or shame – for something we did or something we didn’t do, or something someone else did or didn’t do – Yom Kippur says to us, Yeridah tzorech aliyah. Descent can be for the sake of ascent. If we take our seeking seriously, we can find after we lose. We can heal after we hurt. We can rise after we fall: we can even rise higher than before. And if we don’t sense it in ourselves now, Yom Kippur says, “All things change. Don’t wait.”

“Who would you be if you lost it all?,” Erica Brown asked David Gregory, and here’s his answer. He wrote, “The humbling loss of Meet the Press turned out to be a gift, for I saw how many fresh opportunities for growth and happiness await – even if not according to plan. Most plainly, I understand [that in] joy, pain and even in personal failure, God is close.”

On David Gregory’s last day at Meet the Press, Erica sent David a note reminding him to trust the unseen force guiding his steps into the unknown. Erica’s note quoted Isaiah 46 with God’s words of comfort: “I am the Eternal One. I made you. I carry you. I sustain you, and I will deliver you.”

As for Erica and David, so for us. May the call of this Yom Kippur rouse us to take our spiritual seeking seriously. May we seek today, without delay. May we seek truly what’s most alive in us and each other. May we seek a forgiveness and healing to renew our hearts and help us shine even as the face of God. In the words of our anthem for this year (Psalm 27):

You called to my heart:
Come seek My face / Come seek My grace.
For Your love, Source of all, I will seek.

לך אמר לבי
בקשו פני, בקשו פני.
את פניך הוי”ה אבקש.

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