Sermon – On wearing a Kittel part 2, Yom Kippur 5772

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 7 October 2011

I stand before you today in the garment in which I will be buried.  At some point, hopefully long into the future, this kittel, by then I hope worn and stained, will be dug out from its hiding place in my study, and placed upon me, as I am prepared for my final resting place.

On Erev Rosh Hashanah – just 10 days ago – I put it on for the first time since the last Yom Kippur.  And, as every year, this realisation hit me like a blow.  I am faced with the reality that the language we have just read in the Yizkor service is not hypothetical, not other, but is for me also: my days are short, like grass; I am in blossom like a flower in the field, yet the breeze will pass over me and I too will be gone. In the wearing of this kittel I invite the presence of death to come close, to remind me of my own mortality even in my relative youth.  This day is full of these invitations.  It is there in the question of the liturgy – mi yichyeh u’mi yamut – who shall live and who shall die.  It is there in our fasting – in the symbolic death and rebirth of our self-denial, our withdrawal for 25 hours from the physical world. It is there, so painfully, in the empty seats next to us as we look around.  On this day when we formally remember the dead of our people’s history, and we both formally, and inevitably, remember our own dead and feel again the weight of their loss.

It is a core element of today – this proximity of death.  It is painful.  It is unsettling. And it is also good.

It is a spur for us to use this day properly – to seek oneness with God, with each other and ourselves.  The Babylonian Talmud tells us that Rabbi Eliezer used to say: “Repent one day before your death.” His disciples, being bright fellows, challenged him: “Does one know on what day he will die?” To which Eliezer replied, “All the more reason he should repent today, in case he dies tomorrow”. On most days, such a notion is far from our minds, swallowed up in the reality of our lives.  Today, when we allow the presence of death to come close, we know what Eliezer means.  To steal a phrase from my teacher Rabbi Sheila Shulman, on this day the “daily ordinariness of our lives” is “intensified by the clear light of eternity” It pushes us to reflect on the nature of those lives, to ask painful questions: If this were to be it, what life have I had?  Who have I been? What will others say about me?  Or, if that way inclined: What will my fate be before the seat of divine judgement? And this realisation of mortality might hopefully provoke us into something more – an awareness that on this Day of Atonement only one thing is more important than how we have lived – and this is how we will live.  On Yom Kippur, as the American rabbi Noa Kushner has written, we experience an unusual moment when “we might stretch ourselves over the precipice, knowing that we are not falling”.  And thus, “we might even have the presence of mind to ask: Given that I am going to die, given that my death is a fact, what will I make of my life?”

It is a fundamental tenet of Judaism that we have the ability to affect change in our lives.  We may not always be able to control the events that befall us, but we can control how we respond to them.  We can, ultimately, choose the sorts of lives we will lead.  By confronting us with the possibility of our death, by bringing us close up with the limit of our lives, by shouting at each of us, “You too will die”, this day asks us to make the most of the days we have left.  Not as a spur into hedonism, but to ask what is really important in our lives – to focus us on the true meaning of that which we ask for repeatedly through this day: hayyim tovim – a good life.

And so, when I put on this kittel, it makes a demand of me – that I ask what am I not proud of in the year that has passed?  And also, and more important – what do I need from the year that has just begun?  How am I going to be with my family, my friends, my community?  What are the challenges that I have avoided that now I must face?  What are the conversations I have been too scared to start that now demand my courage?

There are few garments as loquacious. None as terrifying, or as enlightening. No other piece of clothing that shouts out the words of Ben Sira: As a drop of water in the sea, as a grain of sand on the shore – thus are your few days in eternity.

And yet, in the words of our funeral service: “al nifchad b’noch’chut mavet – in the presence of death, let us not fear”.  Let us not fear. But let us resolve, this year, to live together as if each day might be our last