It was the most profound Yom Kippur experience I’ve ever had in my life; more than that, it was certainly the deepest spiritual experience I’ve ever had on the High Holidays. No minyan; no Torah; no hazzan and no choir. Just me and God, and for part of the time a handful of other people.
On reflection, I realized it was an incredibly appropriate place to be on Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is, in many ways, a rehearsal for our death. We don’t eat – a commandment all the more difficult to follow on a cruise ship with awesome food all around – we don’t have marital relations, we forgo physical comforts. It is traditional to wear a white kittel, similar to the shrouds in which we are traditionally buried.
On this holiday we plead with God to inscribe us in the “Book of Life,” and nowhere do you hear that plea more urgently – and alas, perhaps more fruitlessly – than in a hospice. I was moved to tears.
If Yom Kippur is a rehearsal for our death, how is it that we prepare for that inevitable moment?
It can help to picture it. It can help to imagine, “what if?”
On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger was destroyed. All seven astronauts on board were killed. However, contrary to what many people think, the shuttle did not “blow up.” One of the booster rockets blew up, but the crew compartment of the shuttle remained intact. The crew cabin was found in one piece, with the seven astronauts still strapped into their seats. Three of the four emergency air packs found had been deployed, which is a manual operation. At least some of the astronauts were therefore very likely conscious for the three minutes or so it took for the crew compartment to fall out the sky. They all were definitely killed by the impact with the water.
What were they thinking for those three minutes?
In a Yom Kippur sermon he gave on the subject, Rabbi Ken Berger said they probably thought of three things, each a sentence beginning with “if only…”
“If only I’d known the last time I said goodbye was going to be the last time I said goodbye to the people I love.” How much more intensity would I have put into that goodbye. How much more clearly I would have made sure they know how much I love them. One of the 9/11 stories that always chokes me up is the story of a man, about my age, trapped on one of the floors above where the plane hit. He called home and said to his wife, “Honey, something terrible is happening, I don’t think I’m going to make it. I love you. Take care of the kids.” Can you imagine the love and feelings that were poured into that one short phone call?
Rabbi Berger speculated that the second “if only” would be “If only I realized what I’d had, the blessings I’d had while I had them.” Rabbi Berger told about his son Jonathan, who at age five experimented by dropping his mother’s ring down the drain of the bathroom sink. His father was furious; but Jonathan said, “Don’t be so mad—you’re lucky to have me!” How often do we forget to be grateful for the many blessings in our lives?
And the third “if only:” ”If only I had another chance, I’d do it better, I’d love them more intensely.” I can tell you as a rabbi, no one on their death bed ever says “I wish I’d spent more time at the office.” If people have any regrets as they are leaving this world, it’s generally that they didn’t work hard enough to make the people they love – wife, husband, children – a higher priority.
The Jewish tradition gives us advice for how to prepare for that day. One of the rabbis in the Talmud, R. Eliezer tells us, “Repent one day before your death.” His students challenged him, saying, “but does anyone know the day of their death?” “All the more reason to repent today,” replied R. Eliezer.
The great 12th century rabbi Maimonides (Rambam) tells us the process for repentance. The first step is to recognize that you did something wrong. Nothing can change without an awareness of the need for change. The next step is to attempt to fix any damage you did, after which you can ask the other person for forgiveness, and if the other person forgives you, God forgives you too.
Rambam’s model is fine for sins such as petty theft, which I suppose not many of you are guilty of any way. If you stole something, you can give it back, and then you can ask for forgiveness. But how does that work for other kinds of sins? What are the most common wrongs we do to other people?
We wrong them with words. We say cruel things. We gossip. And sadly, we are even more likely to do this to people we love than to strangers, if for no other reason than we spend more time with our loved ones than we do with anyone else.
The difficulty of repenting for gossip is illustrated by a classic Hasidic story. There was a man who said some mean things about his rabbi, and he came to regret what he had done. So he paid his rabbi a visit, apologized, and asked the rabbi to forgive him. The rabbi said, “Before I can forgive I would like you to do something for me. Go home, take a feather pillow, stand outside on your porch, slice open the pillow, and shake all the feathers out. Then come back to see me.” The Hasid was a little perplexed, but he wanted to get back in his rabbi’s good graces, so he did as he was told, and came back the next day. “Now,” said the rabbi, “go and gather up all the feathers.” “But that’s impossible,” objected the Hasid. “They are scattered all over the region by now.” “Exactly,” said the rabbi. “Similarly, your words are now scattered all over the region by now, and there is no way to gather them back either.”
Repenting for harsh words spoken in anger is just as difficult as repenting for gossiping. There is no easy way to fix the damage that has been done. You can’t go back in time and retract what you said. All you can do is apologize, promise to try hard not to do it again, let the other person know that it was a mistake, and seek their forgiveness.
When we have an argument with a loved one, it leaves us with a sense of unfinished business. In order to die at peace, we don’t want to have unfinished business hanging over our heads. The 16th century Japanese samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, said “the way of the warrior is the resolute acceptance of death.” On Yom Kippur, with its explicit “dress rehearsal” for death, with its vivid imagery, especially in prayers like Unatana Tokef which tell us that it is being decided “who will live and who will die,” the Jewish tradition is telling us that a “resolute acceptance of death” is something incumbent on all of us, not just warriors.
Besides healing our relationships through teshuvah so that we don’t have unfinished business with our loved ones, there are three other things we should do to prepare for that day that we will all eventually need to face – and they all have to do with leaving instructions for others.
The first is to prepare a living will, or advance medical directive. A living will is a document that provides instructions regarding the medical care you want to receive in the event you are no longer capable of expressing decisions yourself. Modern medical technology can often keep people who have no hope of a normal life alive indefinitely. Some of the most difficult decisions a family can make have to do with deciding when to disconnect life support equipment such as ventilators and artificial nutrition. The Jewish tradition has guidelines for how to make such decisions. The Rabbinical Assembly, which is the rabbinical association of the Conservative Movement, has prepared a living will document that presents a few different alternative treatment scenarios and decisions. A few years ago my wife and I filled out this form and while it was a difficult subject to talk about and to contemplate, it’s also very helpful that each of us knows what the other would want – clearly and explicitly, not just “assumed.”
The second is to prepare a financial will. This is also a subject that requires careful thought; I have seen several families torn apart because of disagreements over inheritance. It would be a sad legacy for anyone to think that the financial gifts they were leaving their descendants had the side effect of pitting brothers and sisters against each other. Yet that often happens. If your will is anything other than an equal division to each of your children, it would be a good idea to talk to your children about why you made the decisions you made, whether it’s because one child has greater needs or one child deserves more, as a way to avoid creating unnecessary strife after you are gone.
And the third set of instructions may be the most important one of all – an ethical will. As we go through life, each of us learns many lessons, some of them learnt the hard way. One of the hopes we all have is that our children and other people we care for can learn from our experiences. A great way to record this is an ethical will, which can be as simple as a two page letter or as complex as book.
All of this may seem a somewhat morbid topic of discussion for a group of people enjoying themselves on a cruise, yet that in itself is in keeping with a certain Jewish sensibility that encourages us not to get carried away with frivolity and levity on the one hand, and not to fall prey to depression on the other hand. There is a Chasidic teaching that says everyone should have two pieces of paper in his pocket, each with a different teaching from the Torah; on one should be written “I am nothing but dust and ashes,” to serve as a reminder should you get too full of yourself, and on the other is written “the world was created for my sake,” to be used as a reminder if you feel too down.
If we are prepared in the ways I have described – our relationships with loved ones whole, instructions given for our care and our legacy, we can feel comfortable that at least should that last moment sneak up on us unexpectedly, we won’t spend our last few minutes on earth filled with regrets.
There is another reason I chose to share Rabbi Ken Berger’s teachings about the final moments on board the Challenger, besides the valuable insight he shared with the three “if only’s” the crew might have been thinking about.
Less than a year after he wrote that Yom Kippur sermon, Rabbi Ken Berger, and his Israeli-born wife Aviva were killed in a place crash outside Sioux City, Iowa. What was it like for him during that final moment in his life, as his plane was hurtling toward the ground? Had he managed to follow his own advice? Had he let his three children, then ages 20, 17, and 10, know how much he loved them? Had he appreciated the many blessings in his life? Did he love them as intensely as he was able to?
Today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a day when at least for a moment, all of us do some “teshuvah,” turning to God and turning to our loved ones. Yet let us also remember R. Eliezer’s advice from the Talmud: “Repent a day before your death.”
G’mar chatimah tovah