By Rabbi David
Gut yontif. From my soul to yours, may this year’s next turning of soul be for a year of true goodness and deep meaning for us all.
As some of you know, I spent Independence Day weekend in the hospital. It turned out to be mostly needless drama: thankfully, I’m fine.
When I woke up in the hospital, I was in that dazed state in which we mostly know where we are but we’re not altogether there. At least I could get out of my exquisitely comfortable hospital bed. A nurse let me and my IV pole take a slow sunrise stroll around the hospital ward.
You probably know that hospital feeling – no shower for days, IV tugging at the arm, plastic foam slippers that fit nobody, stylish over-big hospital gown threatening to open in all the wrong places.
Nowadays many hospitals have plaques commemorating donors: “This room is dedicated to the generosity of…”; “This room is dedicated to the memory of….” So too for my hospital. So as I strolled, I began reading the plaque outside each room, and I noticed two things. First, many names “sounded Jewish.” Second, all of the donor plaques had precise language: “This hospice room is dedicated to the memory of….”
I was in the hospital’s hospice wing. I had woken up in hospice. Apparently the hospital was full when I was admitted, and the only available room was in the hospice wing – so that’s where I landed.
Hospice is a special place. It’s one of society’s few places that doesn’t rebel against the truth that all of us, inevitably, must die. Hospice knows that death is not defeat – not in hospice, not anywhere. Hospice also knows that most of us live our lives trying to pretend otherwise.
I didn’t want to think about it, so my IV pole and I shuffled back to my hospital room. I reached for my iPhone to distract myself. It wasn’t 30 seconds before I saw the following Facebook post:
“Working in a hospice, I asked someone, ‘What’s it like to know that you are dying?’
“The person responded, ‘What’s it like pretending that you aren’t?'”
Every Yom Kippur focuses us on mortality, our built-in horizon of Earthly life. Today we liken ourselves to angels. Today some of us wear white, evoking burial shrouds. Today some of us turn away from food and bodily comfort. Today we confess, we take stock, we seek closure.
Today we are keenly aware that all of us alive today woke up in hospice, that all of us wake up in hospice every single day of our lives.
This core truth was no different for me, on the morning I woke up in hospice, than any other day of my life – than any day of every life. It was only circumstance, a quirk of hospital admission, that focused me on it. It’s not to diminish the reality that, statistically or medically, some might be closer than others – though none of us truly knows when.
What we do know is that this morning, we all woke up in hospice.
We say so not to be morbid or insensitive, not for shock value or drama, but for a spiritual reason. And this reason is our purpose here today.
This year’s High Holy Day theme, Journeys of the Soul, is uplifting lessons from Judaism’s five soul spheres. The practical soul sphere of action we call nefesh teaches that because our lives do not belong only to us, we can dare to take risks – to act boldly, to heal what is broken in our lives and in the world (Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon). The flowing soul sphere of emotion we call ruach teaches that by harnessing emotion we can most deeply heal our relationships with ourselves, each other and the holy (Rosh Hashanah 1 sermon). The mind-soul we call neshamah teaches that our identity, how we know ourselves, reflects not just who we are but also what we love – and by purifying what and how we love, we can purify ourselves (Rosh Hashanah 2 sermon) The spirit sphere we call chayah, the lifespark of all life, is a holiness we can harness to forgive and heal (Kol Nidre sermon).
Nefesh, ruach, neshamah, chayah – action, emotion, identity and lifespark – body, heart, mind and spirit. We humans live in and by all four soul spheres together, for as long as we live.
Our fifth soul sphere, today’s subject, unites the other four and transcends them. Jewish mysticism calls this fifth soul sphere yechida, from the Hebrew echad – one, as in שמע ישראל יהו”ה אלהינו יהו”ה אחד / “Hear, Israel, YHVH our God, YHVH is One.” Yechida is the ultimate unity we call God. Yechida is the unification of all soul levels, all souls, time and space, here and hereafter. Yechida is beyond words. Yechida is the singularity, the moment before the Big Bang. Yechida is the Light, capital ‘L.’ Yechida is the One, capital ‘O.’ Yechida is the Soul, capital ‘S,’ that ultimately all things are. Yechida is the Truth, capital ‘T,’ that all things are Light, One, Soul.
If these words feel distant, you’re not alone. Most of our lives, we hold our intuition of yechida at bay, for good reason. In yechida, there is no us. Wondrous and comfortingly spiritual as a word like Oneness may be, true Oneness isn’t just connecting ourselves to the web of life. True Oneness is the web itself. True Oneness is releasing our own so-called “Number One” – our very own selves – into that web. That’s the real transcendence we call yechida.
On Erev Rosh Hashanah, we offered that a spiritual life that risks nothing is nothing. Real spirituality not only comforts and lifts us but also strengthens and challenges us sometimes to risk our very selves that we hold so dear inside, because some things are worth the risk. Seeking and giving forgiveness is worth the risk. Putting ourselves on the line to heal repairable relationships is worth the risk. Changing our carbon economy to save the planet is worth it. Standing up to hate is worth it.
After the “Tree of Life” synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, which punctuated the Jewish year that just ended, we gathered here for a candlelight unity vigil. The synagogue was overfull, just as it is now. I stood at this exact spot, pointed at the mezuzah on the Sanctuary door containing the words of our Shema and V’ahavta, and I said that I would risk my life for the love and unity that the mezuzah represents. I said that I would risk my life because a life untrue to love and unity isn’t a full life. That’s our soul sphere of nefesh talking: our lives so centrally seek meaning because they do not belong only to us.
Our soul sphere of yechida says something more. Ultimately, our lives don’t belong to us at all. Someday, each of us will cease to be individuals in the ways we now know ourselves. Our bodies, our hearts, our minds, our memories, our personalities, our accomplishments, our grudges, our fears, our inhibitions, our hopes, our suffering, our bucket lists, our unfinished business – they, and we ourselves, will upload into the universe, the web of life itself. The sum total of it all, for all of us, for everyone and everything ever, is yechida.
What happens next is a subject of spiritual speculation over the centuries. Jewish tradition offers so many answers to that question that the book Jewish Views of the Afterlife is a thick tome. How Jewish! Many believe that we can tap into the universal upload we call yechida and retrieve some of what our loved ones were in their lives, that they are still with us in these and other ways that we know deeply but can’t always express easily.
Whatever our beliefs, today is less about answering that question than about asking it, and with it asking about the reality that often we live our lives by pushing this stuff far away, experiencing it as little as possible. But into our lives come moments that lift the veil. We catch a glimpse of the Light, capital ‘L’; the One, capital ‘O’; the Soul, capital ‘S’; the Truth, capital ‘T.’ Yom Kippur is one of those moments. Waking up in hospice is one of those moments. You in your life have your own yechida moments – and those moments, often brief and fleeting, nevertheless imprint on us in our very core.
Most of us respond with a mix of emotions. Hearing these words, our feelings may include discomfort, fear or avoidance. It’s natural: we don’t want to let go. We don’t want to let go of ourselves. We don’t want to let go of our loved ones, or let them let go of us. We clutch our lives in longing and fear of loss. That impulse is our soul sphere of chayah (the animating life force inspiring all things into life) reflecting into our soul sphere of nefesh (our embodied selves driven to act in the world).
But Yom Kippur, and people who work in hospice every day, both teach that we’re not stuck with desperate fear. The Psalmist wrote that we humans, conscious of our mortality, also are made just a bit lower than the angels we invoke on this Yom Kippur day. Whatever our beliefs or theologies, whether we have any theology at all, in our core of cores we sense – sometimes despite ourselves – that there’s something more.
Today is about that something more. Today is a clarion call to tap that something more – and not when we die, but while we live.
Maybe never before has anyone sang Country Western from this pulpit, but today’s the day. This song, by the aptly named lead lyricist Craig Wiseman, won the 2004 Grammy Award for Best Country song. It begins with someone receiving rough medical news, and while seeking treatment, this person received a question: “How’s it hit you when you get that kind of news? What’d you do?” Here was the answer:
I went skydiving. I went Rocky Mountain climbing.
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fumanchu.
And I loved deeper. And I spoke sweeter.
And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying.
Someday I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dying.
The transcendent soul we call yechida gets this song’s message because it is this song’s message. Our fear – and with it the lie we tell ourselves that we have all the time in the world – can so inhibit us that it will warp our love, our words, our choices, our relationships and our lives. More than anything else, that’s why we don’t fully live our fullest lives – and I don’t mean skydiving and riding mechanical bulls.
When I woke up in hospice by accident, I thought of people who wake up in physical hospice for real, and the staff who work there. More than most people, they tend to develop a startling clarity about life. They tend to display the chutzpah of the social media post by which I had tried to distract myself: ‘What’s it like to know that you are dying?’ ‘What’s it like pretending that you aren’t?'”
But it’s not just chutzpah. It’s a love expressed without inhibition. It’s a forgiveness given and sought with no holds barred. Whatever seemingly big thing had restrained us, in hospice it can fade and even disappear. And incredibly, miraculously, even fear of death can melt away. It’s not that loss and grief don’t exist: they do. Rather, it’s the deep knowing of something more: Light, Oneness, Soul, Truth, yechida.
But why wait? Why wait until then? Yom Kippur says that we all woke up in hospice this morning. Yom Kippur sings, “Someday I hope you get the chance / To live like you were dying.“
If that’s not the Yom Kippur you’ve known, it’s probably because of tradition’s approach to Leviticus 16, Torah’s foundation for Yom Kippur. From this approach came whatever “fire and brimstone” Western religion taught us. It’s the source of two familiar Yom Kippur impulses: to “afflict” our souls for the sake of purification, and to “rehearse” a felt urgency of mortality, that we have limited time to make repairs before it’s too late.
But this fear, we just said, is not complete spiritual reality: it’s more an earthbound straitjacket, inhibiting our love and the giving and seeking of forgiveness. “Ours isn’t a caravan of despair.” So what if there’s a different, textually authentic, way to read the Leviticus 16 anchor text for Yom Kippur? What if history got the austerity approach to Yom Kippur astoundingly wrong? Maybe it did:
וְהָיְתָה לָכֶם לְחֻקַּת עוֹלָם בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בֶּעָשׂוֹר לַחֹדֶשׁ תְּעַנּוּ אֶת־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם …
“It will be an eternal statute that on [this] day,
שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן הִיא לָכֶם וְעִנִּיתֶם אֶת־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם חֻקַּת עוֹלָם:
“It is a total Shabbat for you, so afflict (v’initem) your souls as an eternal statute.”
From “afflict your souls” evolved fasting, abstinence and other Yom Kippur self-denial rituals (B.T. Yoma 73b). From there, it was just a short hop to austerity and fear. Back then, Israelites were an Iron Age clan for whom austerity, exile and suffering were built-in realities. Of course they read themselves and their experience into their sacred text.
But Torah’s Hebrew for “afflict” (t’anu and v’initem) also can read as “answer” (ta’anu and va’anitem): in Torah, it’s the exact same spelling. So, what if Torah’s foundation text for Yom Kippur proclaims that on this holy day, we are not to “afflict” our souls but rather “answer” our souls? And if so, then what question is the soul asking?
If this approach feels far-fetched, let’s remember that in Talmudic days, Yom Kippur was a pinnacle of joy – a day for wearing white and dancing in the vineyards for love (B.T. Ta’anit 26b). Yes, dancing and intimacy on Yom Kippur. The austerity and stripped-down simplicity of modern Yom Kippur now can make sense in a new way: to strip away whatever inhibits our soul’s journey of love and truth, whatever restrains us from most deeply hearing and answering the question of our soul.
What question is that? That’s above my pay grade: that’s between you and your soul. That’s your journey of the soul. But I’ll make a bet: I’ll bet that whatever your soul is asking, part of the answer is likely to be that you woke up in hospice this morning. This life is no “rehearsal”: it’s by living as if we woke up in hospice that we start to answer our soul.
How do we live like that? One way is by aligning our lives, our whole lives, with the ultimate truth that our world is full of holy potential. That’s the hidden meaning of the מצנפת (head dress) that the ancient High Priest wore purifying the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. It read: קודש ליהו”ה / “Holy to God.” It wasn’t just to remind that the High Priest was holy to God, but also it was like a billboard reminding us that so are all of us – that we all are part of this holy flow, hidden in plain sight. And inside the word מצנפת (head dress) is the word צפון (hidden).
Holiness hides in our world, waiting for our lives to reveal it. As we live that way, we generate resilience and power for which hospice can shine especially brightly. In this core truth is joy, a certainty that beyond our fear is Light, Oneness, Soul and Truth; that beyond this life is more Life, capital ‘L’ – and we needn’t wait to die before we start to live it:
Love deeper. And speak sweeter.
And give forgiveness we’re denying.
Now let’s take the chance
To live like we are dying.
For all of us here on this holy Yom Kippur day; for our loved ones elsewhere today; for all who have passed into Light, Oneness, Soul and Truth that we can harness as we remember; for the Jewish people who have been doing the impossible for centuries – may we live in just that way. May we live like we woke up in hospice this morning. With this soul-clarifying uplift beyond fear, may we hear and “answer” the call of our souls.
And in that merit, may our lives, at long last, become the answer that we, and our souls, and our loved ones, and the world have been waiting for.