What would you do if you learned you had just one week left to live? How would you spend that fleeting, precious time?
If life played out like the movies, you would quickly compile a “bucket list” and spend your remaining days crossing off items. 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 Mahal.
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, Dr. Byock tells us that in their final days, his patients mainly long to share four simple statements with their friends and family:
I forgive you.
I love you.
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. Yom Kippur is designed to remind us that we are all living on borrowed time. That’s the terrifying truth at the heart of this holiday. 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 terminal prognosis. Everything about this day recalls that we are all, at every moment, just a heartbeat away from death. As Rabbi Alan Lew writes in his wonderful book, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: “Death and 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 liturgy. 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. All 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. Bagadnu. Gazalnu. From aleph to taf, 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 renewal.
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 sacred day.
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
But I don’t
But I won’t
And that’s the difference
Between God and me.
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.
But 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?”
Rabbi Kushner 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.
As Ira 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.”
Like 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.”
Almost all of our prayers, on Yom Kippur and every other day, in the end come down to “thank you”:
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. . .
Our Sages 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.”
And where 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.”
And the 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. Choose life, so that you may truly live.” In a 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 most.
This is why our tradition offers an extraordinary opportunity to say I’m sorry, I forgive you, thank you and I love you—every night before we go to bed. The Talmud teaches that sleep is 1/60th of death. 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 well.
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. In these 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
B’shem Adonai Elohei Yisrael mi-y’mini Michael u-mi-s’moli Gavriel u-milfanai Uriel
u-may-achorai Refael v’al roshi Shechinat El
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