What would you do if you learned you had just one week left
to live? How would you spend that fleeting,
If life played out like the movies, you
would quickly compile a “bucket list” and spend your remaining days crossing
You would trek to the base of
Mount Everest, jet over to Africa for a big game safari, picnic at the
pyramids, catch a helicopter to the North Pole, and sky dive over the Taj
But palliative care physician Ira Byock knows better.
In over forty years of working with the
terminally ill, he has learned that at life’s end, our actual “bucket lists” rarely
involve high-risk activities in exotic locales. In his book, The Four Things that Matter Most,
Byock tells us that in their final days, his patients mainly long to share four
simple statements with their friends and family:
I’m sorry. I forgive you. Thank you.
I love you.
These four utterances of Dr. Byock’s dying patients also
stand at the center of our liturgy today.
This is no coincidence.
Kippur is designed to remind us that we are all living on borrowed time.
That’s the terrifying truth at the heart of
We come to shul to acknowledge
that life really is fleeting and precious; that—to paraphrase the words of
British psychiatrist R.D. Laing—life is a sexually transmitted condition with a
this day recalls that we are all, at every moment, just a heartbeat away from
As Rabbi Alan Lew writes in his
wonderful book, This is Real and You are
Yom Kippur are the only times in our lives when we recite the vidui
, [the confession of sin]. Yom
Kippur is the day we all get to read our own obituary. It’s a dress rehearsal
for our death.
That’s why we wear a
kittle, a shroud-like garment; why we refrain from life-affirming activities
such as eating, drinking and procreating.
We are rehearsing the day of our death.”
These strong words point to Yom Kippur’s enduring, primal
power. The Day of Atonement provides a
potent dose of our own mortality. But Yom
Kippur is not Tisha B’Av; it is somber
but not sad—and it is decidedly not a
day of mourning. The whole point of this
dress rehearsal for our death not to plunge us into grief; it is to teach us
how to live. Listening to his patients, Dr. Byock learned the importance of
forgiveness, gratitude and love. This
sacred day moves us closer to these same truths, as it calls us to wrestle with
and ultimately accept our fragility.
Over the course of 25 hours of fasting and introspection, we acknowledge
that we are, paradoxically, both dust and ashes, and just a little lower than
the angels. Today, and every day that
follows, our challenge is to embrace this complex fullness of our humanity by
speaking and living those four things that matter most: I’m sorry. I forgive you. Thank you.
I love you.
“I’m sorry” is the most recurrent theme of the Yom Kippur
In fact, the Talmud teaches
that we should ask forgiveness of those we have wronged before
we even reach this day: For
transgressions against God, Yom Kippur atones; but for transgressions of one
human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until we make amends
with those we have wronged.
through the month of Elul, and then with renewed intensity from Rosh Hashanah
until now, we try to reach out and apologize and make peace with the people we
have hurt in the past year.
Then we come
here and confess our failings, again and again and again, aloud in community,
and individually in silence. Ashamnu.
, from A to Z, we recite our
alphabet of failures, beating our chests as if to knock on the door to our
hearts, calling them to open, to waken, to move us from regret to repair and
And yet, those two short words, “I’m sorry”, do not come
easily to our lips.
As the prominent
English rabbi, Jonathan Sacks notes: “We find it hard to apologize because we
are our own best counsel for the defense. We rationalize, justify, make
excuses, and are generally willing to blame anyone but ourselves. It wasn’t me,
or, if it was, I couldn’t help it or I didn’t mean it.”
The challenge of saying “I’m sorry” is to swallow our pride
and face our limitations. A good
apology is concise and straightforward, without excuses and equivocations. When we truly ask forgiveness, we acknowledge
and accept full responsibility for the offense, in a timely and concrete manner. We express regret, make amends, and then,
when we are done apologizing, we stop talking and listen carefully if the
person that we hurt wishes to respond.
This is very difficult. We
don’t like to admit that we are wrong—it makes us feel weak and
inadequate. But as Dr. Robi Ludwig
reminds us: Apologies are not supposed to
be easy. They are supposed to be soul-baring. That's why, when done right,
they are so powerful and rehabilitative. It requires taking off the blinders we
wear and facing our flaws. Saying sorry
is meant to make us feel vulnerable. How could it not? But here's the thing:
Saying you are sorry shows those [who you have hurt] that you care enough about
them to be aware of your shortcomings and take responsibility for your hurtful
actions. Making things right is way more important than being right. To apologize is not a show of weakness. It is a sign of maturity and strength, which
opens the portal to true teshuvah, to
the profound and lasting transformation that we pray and work for on this
It is hard to ask
forgiveness; it is also difficult to forgive.
On Yom Kippur, we constantly reassure ourselves of God’s abundant
mercy. After each communal confession of
our sins, we recite selichot prayers,
in which we appeal to the Holy One’s endless compassion. We conclude with the reassuring promise: Va-yomer Adonai salachti ki-d’var-echah—And
God said, “I have pardoned in response to your plea.”
But while God’s forgiveness
may be limitless, ours is not.
As Lyle Lovett puts
it in his initimitable, tongue-in-cheek fashion:
Who says he’ll forgive you
And says that he’ll miss you
And dream of your sweet memory
And that’s the difference
We are not
God. Forgiveness does not come naturally
for most of us. It goes against our self-centered
notion of fairness, our desire to see others pay the price for their
transgressions. This is the story of
Jonah, which we will read tomorrow afternoon.
When God forgives Nineveh, Jonah is grieved and displeased. He wants those sinful Ninevites to get what
they deserve. That, in short, is the problem:
we wish for mercy for ourselves, while seeking unrelenting justice for others.
withholding forgiveness exacts a terrible cost.
When we refuse to pardon, we harden our hearts and cut ourselves off
from all that we hold dear. Forgiveness
is the fabric that makes relationships possible; to deny it is to choose solitude
and spiritual death over communal life.
In his book,
Living a Life that Matters, Rabbi
Harold Kushner describes an encounter after he delivered a Yom Kippur sermon on
forgiveness. The next day, a woman came
to his office, enraged: “My husband walked out on me for a younger woman, and
since then I have had to work two jobs, raise the kids. . . and you want me to
forgive that bum for what he did to me?”
responded with a story: Two children were
playing in a park when they got into a fierce argument. Suddenly, one says to the other, “I hate
you! I’m never going to play with you
again!” They scowl and separate—and
then, three minutes later, they are back to sharing their toys with one
another. Two mothers observe this whole
amazing interaction, and one asks: “How do children do that? How do they manage to be so angry one minute
and the best of friends the next?” The
other mother answers: “It’s easy. They
choose happiness over righteousness.”
They choose happiness over righteousness.
Byock’s terminally-ill patients and our Yom Kippur liturgy both remind us: we too, have the power to forgive—to choose
happiness over righteousness. This does
not mean forgetting or excusing what has been done. We may have every reason to withhold
forgiveness; God knows the other party may not deserve it. We may well be in the right. But when we
refuse to forgive, we embitter ourselves. Granting forgiveness is an outward
expression of inner strength, security, and peace. As Rabbi Kushner concludes: “Forgiveness is a favor that you do
yourself, not a favor you do the other person.
Bearing a grudge is like drinking poison in the hope that it will make
the guy across the street sick.”
forgiveness, gratitude is a gift. It is
an attitude toward the world around us, a way of seeing and being in
relationship with ourselves, our neighbors, and God’s continuing creation. It is, in the words of Stephen Levine, “the
luminous ground on which we plant our temporary feet.”
of our prayers, on Yom Kippur and every other day, in the end come down to
Avinu Malkeinu: Thank You,
our Source and Ruler, for your abundant compassion.
Modim anachnu lach: We thank
You and sing Your praises, for your miracles that we experience daily--morning,
noon, and night.
Barchu et Adonai: We thank
You, the Eternal One, to whom our praise is due. . .
And over and
over, in the synagogue and the Jewish home, that essential Jewish formula for consecrating
almost everything—Baruch Atah Adonai:
Praised are You, Holy One of blessing. . .
encourage us to recite these words of thanksgiving one hundred times each day. To be a Jew is to cultivate gratitude, across
the whole array of time and circumstance.
We have blessings for receiving bad news as well as good, for trauma and
triumph. The Rabbis recognized that our
capacity for thankfulness has little to do with our level of physical and
material comfort. They knew that some
are born into great privilege yet show no appreciation for their obvious
advantages, while others, who struggle for their daily bread, can exemplify remarkable
gratitude. Gratitude is not about what
is given to us, by God or fate or even our fellow men and women; it is all
about how we receive what we are given.
Our challenge is to live the teaching of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel,
who reminds us, “Just to be is a blessing.”
There is a
piercing scene in the movie, Titanic,
that might have come straight out of the Yom Kippur liturgy. As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner recalls it: All the
lifeboats are either gone or full. The
ship has begun to list. Deck chairs start
to slide. Passengers are running this
way and that, screaming in terror, and the band members agree that it’s time to
stop playing. They start to put away
their instruments, but then it dawns on the violist that there is nowhere to
go. In such a situation, the only thing
to do is the only thing you know how to do.
And if you happen to be a musician, that means to go on making music as
best you can. So the violist turns back to
the ensemble and offers one of the greatest lines of all time. Through tears, picking up his instrument,
with all humility, dignity, and piety, he says, “Gentlemen, it’s been a
privilege playing with you tonight.”
On this Yom
Kippur eve, we are sobered by the awareness that we are all like the musicians
in that doomed ship’s band. From the
moment we are born, we are dying. Our
choice is between succumbing to the terror or, as with that courageous
ensemble, playing through the terror with grace and beauty and abiding
thankfulness for the fleeting time that we have been given. Our challenge is to stand before God and
humanity and say, through grateful words and deeds: “It’s been a privilege
playing with you.”
there is thankfulness, love follows.
The last of
Dr. Byock’s four simple statements is: “I love you.”
In the imagery of our
tradition, Torah is the ketubah, the
wedding document between God and the Jewish people. Whenever we chant Torah, we sing a love
song. We remember: Ahavat olam beit Yisrael ahavta—You have showered, us, Eternal One,
with a limitless love. And we
respond: V’ahavta et Adonai Elohechah—We
will love you, Eternal One, with all of our hearts and all of our souls and all
of our being.
But how can we, mere
mortals, even begin to express our love for the Infinite One, the Creator of
All Things? The Rabbis teach us: by
loving one another and caring for the creation. To love is to see the best in the beloved, in
one’s community, in humanity and in the ever-unfolding world. It is to acknowledge the flawed nature of
everyone and everything and—through forgiveness and gratitude, to love all the
more for the flaws. We Jews are
commanded to love, for as the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig reminds us: “Love
brings to life whatever is dead around us.”
sure knowledge that we will die, as we remember throughout this Yom Kippur day,
only heightens the urgency of love. Hear
the words of the late Rev. Forest Church, born and raised here in Boise, and
for thirty years the senior minister at New York’s flagship Unitarian congregation. When he was dying of cancer, at the too young
age of 59, Rev. Church ascended to his pulpit and delivered a sermon entitled
“Death Sentence”. His heroic words,
recorded in his book, Love and Death,
embody the power of love in the face of mortality:
My love has been
far from perfect. To all I have hurt, I
here beg forgiveness, even as I freely offer my forgiveness to the handful of
people who have hurt me along life’s way.
Will my love live
on forever? I believe so. And your love, too. It will certainly live on after your death,
continuing to touch from heart to heart long after you are gone.
The world quickly
sloughs off our complaints against it.
But love it, and someone, somewhere, will remember. Maybe even the taxicab driver to whom you
gave, for no apparent reason, an outrageously large tip. I do that more and more often these days.
Look. Morning has broken and we are here, you and
I, breathing the air, admiring the slant sun as it refracts through these
magnificent, pellucid windows and dances in motes of dust above the pews,
calling us to attention, calling us homeward.
Dust to dust. Heart to heart.
I’m sorry. I forgive you. Thank you.
I love you.
Ira Byock’s dying patients and this Yom Kippur day both cut
to the core of what matters most: forgiveness, gratitude, and love.
In the Torah portion that we will read
tomorrow morning, God tells us: “I set before you life and death, the blessing
and the curse. U-vacharta ba-chayyim.
life, so that you may truly live.”
world seething with vengeance, callousness and hatred, to choose life is to pursue
the way of forgiveness, gratitude, and love.
The solemn lens of our mortality brings this choice into
clear and obvious focus.
But even though
we are all dying, thankfully most of us are not yet terminally ill, and
rehearsing our death once a year on Yom Kippur does not suffice to keep us on
this life- affirming path.
We need frequent
milestones to guide us along the way—regular reminders of what matters
This is why our tradition offers an extraordinary
opportunity to say I’m sorry, I forgive
you, thank you
and I love you—
night before we go to bed.
teaches that sleep is 1/60th
But we all know this.
We experience it instinctively as children,
when we are afraid to close our eyes at night, in fear that something bad will
befall us in the dark of night, that we might die before we wake.
And we feel it again as adults when nightfall
finds us vulnerable—sick or anxious or alone.
In Judaism, therefore, bedtime is a daily dose of Yom
Kippur, an intimation of mortality that can remind us how to live fully and
As you came into the sanctuary this evening, you should have
received a lilac card-stock copy of some prayers that our tradition prescribes
reciting before going to bed.
brief nighttime benedictions, we ask for, and grant forgiveness.
We give thanks for our blessings.
And we renew our pledge to love.
I encourage each of you, in this new year, to keep the card
by your bedside.
Try to say the prayer before
you go to sleep—it will only take a minute or two.
Hear the words—and use the silences between
them to reflect on forgiveness, gratitude and love.
Consider: Who should I ask—and to whom should I
grant—forgiveness? What am I thankful for?
How can I love more deeply?
The prayer can be a path, for a just a few mnutes, nightly, to
cut through life’s distractions and return us to the things that matter most.
The bedtime benediction ends with a beautiful passage that
will always have a special place in my heart, for I have sung my children to
sleep with it for nearly twenty years now.
It is known as the “Angel Prayer” in which we invoke the protection of
four guardian angels. They symbolize the
promise of forgiveness, gratitude, and love.
I’d like to conclude with this prayer; I will share the words and then
Cantor Winston will sing them for us.
May this Yom Kippur day, this dress rehearsal for our death,
bring renewed life and blessing to us all.
אל שכינת ראשי ועל רפאל ומאחורי אוריאל ומלפני גבריאל ומשמאלי מיכאל מימיני ישראל
אלהי יי בשם
Adonai Elohei Yisrael mi-y’mini Michael u-mi-s’moli Gavriel u-milfanai Uriel
u-may-achorai Refael v’al roshi
In the name
of the God of Israel
Michael is at my right—bringing
wonder and the promise of new adventures
Gavriel is at my left—bringing me
strength, when I sleep and when I wake
Uriel is behind me—bringing me light
in the darkness
Refael is in front of me—bringing me
comfort and healing
And all around me—the loving
presence of the Holy One