By Rabbi David Evan Markus
Gmar chatimah tovah. May you be sealed in the Book of Life for joy, creativity, belonging and love – for the shalom (peace) and shleimut (wholeness) you need most.
Fittingly for Yom Kippur, I have a confession. Judaism’s “Book of Life” metaphor – “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed” – once drove me from Judaism. When I was a child, but old enough to think deeply about words, the “Book of Life” evoked in me a sense of God more fear than love, more judgment than encouragement, more reward and punishment than learning and becoming, more reproach than redemption. So I ran from God and Judaism; it’d be years until I returned.
I was among the avaryonim, who leave and are welcomed back, typically for Yom Kippur. We’re all like that in some way – all ebbing and flowing, all welcomers and welcomed. Easy for me to say now, but a younger me heard “Book of Life” and imagined God as a sharp-penciled auditor from the IRS (“Israelite Retribution Service”) – not exactly a Source of Blessing. So I dropped out.
Years later, I returned. But even then, even now, it’s not always clear what I return to, what I say “yes” to – and I’m a rabbi! We all live in this paradox. Here we are, but where are we really? What are we doing here? What do we return to? What does Yom Kippur ask us to say “yes” to? What does “yes” mean? What does “yes” mean to a Book of Life? And what does it have to do with our High Holy Day theme of shalom (peace) and shleimut (wholeness)?
I bet you’re waiting for me to tell you. I wish I had the right words, but there are no right words. What words can depict the wholeness of who we are, who we can be, what real spirituality is, what we return to, what we say “yes” to? Words are finite, and what’s finite can’t depict the infinite any more than a hand can hold a sunbeam. We’re a People of the Book not because words are effective but despite words never being fully effective.
But still we try. Our machzor is full of words. Our Torah, our liturgy, our confessions, this sermon – all words. It’s good that we try: God created with words (“Let there be, and there was”), and we are b’tzelem Elohim (made in the divine image), so of course we use words as best we can. Same with our acts: a hundred lifetimes of selfless service couldn’t fully heal an infinitely needy world, but still we can reach as far as we can to heal all that we can.
No, it’s never enough – and that’s Yom Kippur’s paradox. We say, Avinu malkeinu, chaneinu va’aneinu ki ein banu ma’asim: “Our sovereign source, grace us and answer us, for we have no deeds.” For all our words and deeds, Yom Kippur reminds that, in the end, all our words and deeds ultimately end up like dust. That’s why forgiveness, feeling renewed and whole, must depend on divine grace we can’t fully earn, gifted to us in love.
Richard Rohr’s book, Falling Upward, puts it this way:
“God doesn’t love us if we change; God loves us so we can change. Only love – not duress, guilt, shunning or social pressure – can effect true inner transformation.”
It’s a miracle that we can be spiritually renewed, even if we can’t totally earn it. Our Christian cousins tell the parable of the Prodigal Son, who goes as far as he can and his parents come the rest of the way. Maybe it’s that way for us: if we come as far as we can, divine grace will meet us. But skeptical minds, hurt hearts and creaky bodies push it away. We cling to our lives, forgetting that there’s much more than skeptical, wounded, creaky finitude.
That’s why Yom Kippur rehearses the ultimate limit of life: our mortality. Today some of us wear white like burial shrouds; we fast; we shun bodily comfort; we liken ourselves to angels – all to remind us that we’re more than our earthly limits. Yom Kippur lifts the veil over our awareness by lifting us above this life. The reality that we all are mortal is among the most life-affirming truths of spiritual life.
And for all our words, this truth is beyond words. We’re more than our bodies, our emotions, our ideas, and all we ever can do – but can we say what? Our essence is unalterably whole and pure, but daily life infects us with spiritual amnesia. We forget. We even forget that we forget – until something reminds us.
I want to share something that reminded me, knowing words will be no more effective to describe it than to describe a sunset that takes our breath away, or falling in love, or the awe of birth, or the sixth sense that a beloved no longer in body is still with us. It’s beyond words, but I’ll hope you hear what’s beyond these words.
It was late 2014. I was finishing chaplaincy in a hospital. A woman lay in bed, unconscious from a long illness, tubes and wires everywhere. The room filled with a cacophony of machine noises, her labored breathing that sounded like a rattle, and the awkward chitchat of worried relatives and friends. While I focused on her visitors, I didn’t notice her breathing becoming shallower and less frequent. I turned to her and saw what would be her last breath: one more in-breath, one more out-breath, then no more.
I panicked: I’d never seen death. Her relatives noticed my agitation and began screaming in grief. Suddenly they stopped. We all held our breath. An eerie, other-worldly light filled the room, but not a light visible to the eye. The air felt thick, like July humidity without heat. A peace unlike anything I ever knew enveloped us. It lasted seconds, but felt like an eternity, then it faded. The woman’s body, physically no different than moments earlier, now seemed just a shriveled shroud, like an empty envelope with no letter inside.
It was so gentle. It was as Talmud says, like lifting a hair from milk (B.T. Berakhot 8b), like passing through the thinnest veil. It was like Psalm 23: literally in the valley of the shadow of death, there was nothing to fear – only total shalom and shleimut, peace and wholeness, light and love. In that moment, it all made sense: the path to peace and wholeness, the meaning of life, leads through our future death.
And it wasn’t a figment of my imagination, or because I was a rabbi looking for it. We all saw it – Jews and Christians, clergy and not, agnostics and atheists. We all felt it. We all lacked for words. It took our breath away. We felt total awe, peace and wholeness.
After that, I felt like I was saying “yes” to life in a whole new way. At last, I knew what’s important – not the autopilot habits, annoyances, negative self-talk and schmutz that fill so much of my day. What I experienced cleared it all away, like the sun outshining a candle. Instead what’s important is the total love, wholeness and peace when we lift the veil of routine that hides them in plain sight.
I was a new man: I’d seen the light. How long do you think it lasted? One day.
Spiritual life and especially Yom Kippur offer us reminders: we need them. The autopilot of life lulls us to spiritual sleep. Even if we experience an incredible beyond-words reality that awakens us, we fall back asleep. If we remember at all, its felt-sense fades in memory: it seems a mirage of the mind. That’s our Jewish “master story”: miraculously the Reed Sea parted, our enslaved ancestors reached the other side free of Pharaoh’s clutches forever, and the next day they whined, “What have You done for me lately?”
That’s life. It’s why we need reminders, which often come in forms that disrupt our anesthetizing routines. Some disruptions are ones we don’t want. Some hurt: we know those disruptions well. Others are more gentle and graceful. Yom Kippur – when we reach for our highest and best selves, our most meaningful truths – offers a loving but stark kind of disruption. Whether it works depends on our choice: we can say “yes” and allow, or we can resist.
Yom Kippur’s question, then, is this choice, our choice. It’s whether we try for this kind of “yes” – whether we allow reminders of our impermanence to disrupt our autopilot ways so that we really take stock, stop clutching what’s unimportant, and take the leap into the infinite love hiding in plain sight. For a different metaphor, as all our words are mere metaphor, how do we shed our protective skin?
It turns out that getting to “yes” depends on our choice to be vulnerable – and this idea bridges spirituality and science. I want to share an amazing TED Talk by Dr. Brené Brown, scholar of human connectivity.
Why vulnerability? Brown examined thousands of life stories, and discovered that vulnerability is the core of all fear and shame. Courage, from the Latin coeur (heart), means to be whole hearted even in our imperfection. Courage to be vulnerable means being open in our hearts even if things are uncertain – as all life is, and the ultimate symbol of our uncertainty is our mortality. Brown’s research found that courage to be vulnerable is the true source of joy, creativity, belonging and love. She also found that this kind of courage is contagious: it’s the best virus we can give each other.
But instead, often we numb our vulnerability. Think about how you do this – how you distract yourself, how you build walls around your heart to feel less vulnerable. Yet Brown’s research shows what some know from experience: it’s not possible to numb emotion selectively. By numbing fear and hurt, we also numb joy, creativity, belonging and love. We act out in self-defense; we fill our Book of Life with all kinds of autopilot numbing. After all, it hurts to feel a lack of joy, creativity, belonging and love. When we feel lacking, we feel vulnerable, so we numb ourselves more – and around we go.
For us to get to spiritual “yes,” real shalom and shleimut, we must disrupt the autopilot ways that we numb our vulnerability. To Brown, it means letting ourselves “be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen – and love with the whole heart even though there’s no guarantee. To be this vulnerable… is what it means to be alive.”
That’s why Yom Kippur rehearses our death, why today we invoke loved ones no longer in body, why we open ourselves to be vulnerable – ki ein banu ma’asim, for we have no deeds, no real defenses. But if we let our hearts open, we may find that we don’t need defenses. We are the Prodigal Ones: we go as far as we can, and the light and love we call the sacred will meet us right there.
That’s how we can get to “yes.” That’s how we can achieve what liturgy calls “immortality” in a mere hour. That’s how we can forgive and be forgiven. That’s how we can fill our Book of Life with a life truly worth living – not autopilot numbing, but a vulnerable and open heart capable of joy, creativity, belonging and love. That’s our path to shalom and shleimut – not an absence of brokenness, but a life of heart and soul that can be whole precisely as it is.
Gmar chatimah tovah – may you be sealed in the Book of Life for vulnerability, wellspring of joy, creativity, belonging and love – for the shalom (peace) and shleimut (wholeness) you need most. May the loved ones we remember today inspire us and awaken us to truly live. In the words of John O’Donohue:
“Blessed be the longing that brought you here
And quickens your soul with wonder.
May you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
That disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.
May you have wisdom to enter generously into your unease
To discover the new direction your longing wants you to take.
May you come to accept your longing as divine urgency.
May you know the urgency with which God longs for you.”