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A Life of Meaning; Yom Kippur 5778 - Rabbi Bruce Dollin

Rabbi Bruce Dollin Some of you may have seen the Netflix series called “13 Reasons Why.”  In it,  a teenager took her own life.  Before she died,  she made 13 cassette tapes as to her 13 Reasons Why she was going to do it. Her reasons entailed social alienation; shaming on social media,  friendships gone wrong,  adults not understanding her,  and rape.

The series stirred up a great controversy among educators and life counsellors who thought it unrealistic, kind of glorifying suicide (the girl was very pretty and kind of cool and after she died,  everybody was suddenly paying attention to her and was sad for her).  The show ignored frequent other reasons why some take their lives,  like addiction and depression.  I worry about even bringing up this topic as several Alliance families have struggled with this and some, tragically, have lost loved ones.   I say to any young person who has thought about taking his or her own life, don’t do it, tell someone:  a parent, teacher, counsellor, me.  It won’t always feel this bad and there are people who love you and will help you. 

I must say that the title of the show has haunted me since I saw it a few months ago.   13 Reasons Why.  The character in the show was explaining 13 reasons why she took her life.   I have been thinking since then about not 13 reasons why die but 13 questions why live? . Questions that we at some time or another ask ourselves about our lives. 

There have been poets, artists and philosophers who have asked themselves tough questions about life.  In college, I studied the famous 20th century French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre.  You may have heard of him.  Like the girl in “13 Answers Why,”  he considered the question why live at all; and concluded that life was absurd Sartre said, “It was true,  I had always realized it –I hadn’t any right to exist at all.  I had appeared by a chance,  I existed like a stone, a plant,  a microbe. I could feel nothing… but an inconsequential buzzing.  … there’s nothing, nothing , absolutely no reason for existing.”  He did not take his own life, by the way;  he died of pulmonary edema at age 75. 

The young girl in the t.v. series struggled with the 13 reasons to die.   I have been thinking about  13 Questions why live?

Who am I?  Why am I here? Where do I fit in?  Is the world better off because I am here?  What kind of person am I?  What kind of person do I hope to be?  How should I spend my time?  Who do I love?  Who loves me?  What values should I live by?  Have I lived my life well?  Do I have a path in life?  Am I being true to myself in my life?

To my mind,  all of these common questions can really be summed up in one fundamental question:   does my  life have meaning?

Judaism would have you ask these questions often.  Judaism deals with the “why live” question throughout its sacred sources.   And Judaism is honest;   we have sources that doubt the value of life.  Job in the Bible “My days are swifter than a weavers shuttle; [and] are spent without hope” (Job 7:6).  And here is the Prophet Isaiah, “then I said,  I have labored in vain,  I have spent my strength for nothing, and in vain…”(Isaiah 49:4).   Ecclesiastes says:  “vanity of vanity,  all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2).   Judaism knows life isn’t easy.   We see Biblical figures struggling with their lives as we all struggle with our lives.  But listen to Isaiah in another place:  ““ Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).  And his vision for the future,  “the wolf shall lie down with the lamb…they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord.” (Isaiah 11:6,9).  The same prophet who questions life at one point,  turns around to give us a vision of the good life at another. 

The Biblical characters are at one time feeling hopeless and at the next,  asserting a path upon which to move forward and live.  Life sometimes feels hopeless but our tradition tells us it is anything but.

So what are we looking for in our lives?  The Greeks have two words that describe our quests in life.   One is hedonia which essentially mean happiness that is superficial. For the Greeks,  happiness alone is not the goal.   Then there is Eudaimonia.  This means flourishing, living up to your potential,  building a good character, having significance, being inspired. In short,  living with meaning;  a life that is important. That is how we should live.

Our goal in life is to live a life that is filled with meaning and to my mind, Judaism helps us.   Judaism can give us the tools;  a blueprint,  a roadmap.  We are not Jewish for the sake of Judaism,  nor do we attend the shul to help the shul. We live Jewish lives to live better lives;  pure and simple.  We live Judaism to answer these thirteen questions we have about life;  Judaism gives us a “why” to live and live well.  There are examples of this everywhere in Judaism.  Let me now take three significant examples of this,  among many. 

I believe there are three important attributes of living that give meaning to life and make your life worth living.  They are a “loving and forgiving heart,”  a “purposeful life,”  and a “belief in something greater.”  I think that if you have these three things,  you have what you need to answer these difficult “why” questions.   If you don’t have these:  you are missing something and I suspect you feel it:  a certain emptiness within.  We need to live a life that is full;  living a life that seeks more life,  a life that is filled with meaning.  Let’s go through them one by one.
A loving and forgiving heart.  We read in Ezekial (36:26):  God speaking now, “ A new heart also will I give you and a new spirit will I put inside of you.  And I will take away the heart of stone from your flesh and I will give you a heart of flesh.”  A heart of flesh or a heart of stone.  How many of us have a heart of stone?  We are born with a heart of flesh; as babies and young children, we love easily and freely and all the time.  To love is the most natural act we do.  And then life happens causing us pain.  Our lover leaves us, our lives go wrong; we get fired; we lose a friend, we get divorced.  Rabbi Naomi Levy writes, “we all start life off with an open, curious, loving heart and then inevitably, we get hurt.  Life can be cruel. Someone lets you down, someone shames you, betrays you, someone breaks your heart, someone abandons you...  So we start making vows. We all know the vows, ‘I’ll never be fooled again.  I’ll never talk to him again.  I’ll never forgive her for what she did to me.  I’ll never put myself on the line like that again’…” (Einstein and the Rabbi p.153 ). Our hearts that are flesh; open and loving; with these vows turn slowly to stone.  You can’t hurt a stone; it’s invulnerable; strong, safe.  We vow,  we will never let it happen again.  A heart of stone:  we can’t be hurt but we can’t feel anything either:  with a heart of stone, we can’t really live and we can’t thrive.  We don’t let anyone hurt us again, but neither do we let anyone love us.   Levy again, “The heart of stone prevent all goodness inside our souls—all the love and forgiveness and joy and spontaneity and romance from ever getting out” (p.153)...  “We become cautious, controlling, judgmental, cynical and rigid. ” (p.154).  Basically, with a heart of stone, you can’t feel a thing.
That is why we ask God to absolve our vows tonight (last night) in the Kol Nidre prayer.  It is song with great drama but it’s actually very technical and legal.   It reads: “All vows…we retract, undo, repeal, cancel, void, annul.”  That’s it: Vows we make; I will not be hurt again!  At Kol Nidre, we let that go. Rabbi Levy writes: “Let [go] of ‘I’ll never forgive him.’  Let go of “I am not going to apologize first’…  Forgive, forgive life.  Forgive her.  Forgive him.  Forgive yourself.  May our vows not be vows.  Break down your defenses to get a heart of flesh.  …It takes a lot of energy to carry that boulder around … resentment, a jealousy, a guilt, an anger…”   We work the whole month of Elul and now Tishrei, to repair our relationships.  We need to let it all go.    When we annul our vows, our heart can open and soften and the heart of stone is replaced with a heart of flesh.  And suddenly, love is possible again as it once was when we were young.  In a sense, replacing our heart of stone with a heart of flesh is saying, “time to get over it.” Repair relationships in your life starting with your family, moving on to friends and reconnecting to your community; us, here.   If there is something not right,  now is the time to right it. There isn’t much point in praying here today if you have unfinished business with those whom you could love in your life and who could love you.  Acquire for yourself a heart of flesh and be able to feel; to love and be loved.  Judaism implores us: forgive and love once again.  Regain your heart of flesh. Having a purpose.

One’s purpose in life is expressed in many possible ways but it all boils down to one thing:  doing good for someone other than yourself.    The Torah says, “v’ahavta, le reecha kamocha.”  Love another as you love yourself.  As you carefully care for yourself:  get educated, get healthy,  have fun,  treat yourself,  live large, your worth it;:  all the things we tell ourselves that we deserve:  turn it around and provide it for others.  Purpose means it is not all about you.  Rabbi Levy says, “you are hardwired for empathy, hardwired for love and compassion, you are hardwired for forgiveness, you are hardwired for generosity and humility, hardwired for giving…” (p.279).

We say in the prayer book:  “These are the things that yield fruit in this world and the world to come   “And here they are:  “honoring parents, doing deeds of loving kindness…providing hospitality, visiting the sick,  attending to the dead, …making peace between one person and another and between husband and wife...”  Doing for others.   The Talmud says the following:

In the name of R. Hama son of R. Hanina:  What does the Torah mean when it says in the Torah:  You shall walk after the Lord your God? … Is it, then, possible for a human being to walk after God?   But [the meaning is] to walk after the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He. As He clothes the naked…  so do you also clothe the naked. The Holy One, blessed be He, visits the sick, … so do you also visit the sick. The Holy One, blessed be He, comforts mourners, so do you also comfort mourners. The Holy one, blessed be He, buries the dead … so do you also bury the dead (Sotah 14a).  This means; be like God,  the source of infinite goodness.
Your purpose in this life is to be kind.  To show compassion.  Put the needs of others before your own.
Why am I here? What kind of person am I?  Is the world better because I am in it?  What kind of person do I hope to be?   What is the purpose of my life?  What is my path?  How do I live well?    The answer to these questions is always the same:  other people.  There is no better answer.   Ponder this on Yom Kippur:   it is not about me;  it’s not about you,  it’s about others.

Belief.  Awareness of something bigger in my life.  I know how hard this one is.  I am not here to make you a believer;  I am here to have you, perhaps,  open yourself to belief, maybe even a little.  The Midrash on Song of Songs (5:2) says,  God speaking: “Open up for me an opening like the eye of a needle and I will make an opening for you through which wagons can enter.”  Open to it even just a little. 

I think about God a lot.  It’s the hardest thing I do as a rabbi.  Shai is in his first year of medical school and his first block of classes is anatomy.  He has a box of 300 printed flash cards with a part of the body pictured on each;   with a description of what it does and what it is named.  He’s concerned about memorizing each card,  but I am thinking about the whole box. Astounding.  How complex.  How amazing.  How impossible it is that every one of these structures is created,  grows, and works,  in the body more or less correctly.  The human body and the human being cannot have come about by accident.  We praise God for the body,  after going to the bathroom,  of all things.  Because our bodies are miracles when they work: 
“Blessed are You, God, our God, sovereign of the universe, who formed humans with wisdom and created within him many openings and vessels.  It is obvious in the presence of your glorious throne that if one of them were ruptured, or if one of them were blocked, it would be impossible to exist and stand in your presence.  Blessed are You, God, who heals all flesh and performs wonders”.

Listen to Francis Collins, physician, geneticist,  Director of the National Institute of Health,  in his book,  The Language of God:  He says: “We have the very solid conclusion that the universe had an origin,  the Big Bang.  Fifteen billion years ago, the universe began with an unimaginably bright flash of energy from an infinitesimally small point.  This implies that before that, there was nothing.  I can’t imagine how nature, in this case, the universe could have created itself. And the very fact that the universe had a beginning implies that someone was able to begin it.  And it seems to me that had to be outside of nature.” And that I, Rabbi Dollin, call God.
And Collins wrote:  “when you look from the perspective of a scientist at the universe, it looks as if it knew we were coming…there are fifteen constants  --the gravitational constant, various constants about the strong and weak nuclear forces [and so on]….If any one of these constants were off by even one part of a million, or in some cases, by one part in a million million, the universe could not have actually come to the point where we see it.  Matter would not be able to coalesce; there would have been no galaxy, starts, planets, or people.”  God again.  An intelligence that created the world.
So here is my leap of faith.  If a God created the universe, I use my faith,  my Judaism,  our sacred texts,  to understand the nature of this God and thus the nature of human beings.   We read in Genesis: “And God said, Let us make man in our image: b’tzelem Elohim; in the image of God created him; male and female.”

We read the Bible and learn something about God and about ourselves.  If God is infinite (creator of the world) and God created human beings in God’s image, then all human beings are of infinite value like God’s infinite value.   Treating others as if their life is of infinite value.  This will change how you treat people.  All people.  And don’t think this is obvious.  Look around the world today and in the past at how this hasn’t been many peoples’ understanding of human life.  There are people treating others as if they had no value.  500,000 people killed in Syria.  One million refugees who have nothing.  Terrorism, Holocaust, massacres, murder, all around the world and all through history.  Jews have seen this kind of horror and have been its victims for millennia yet Jews still insist on this simple and powerful principle, all people are of infinite value as they are made in God’s image.  So be kind even to people you don’t like.  Be compassionate, even to people who are different from you.  Be understanding, even to people who disagree with you.  Treat all people, Jew and non-Jew as people made in the image of God; worthy of life, deserving of compassion and of ultimate concern to us.     I don’t know about you, but I want to live my life this way.  There is something more than just our lives; a higher, intelligent power and that power demands a lot from us;  compassion above all else.  What kind of person am I?  How should I spend my time?  Have I lived my life well?  How do I know my true path?  Live as though you were commanded to see all human life of infinite value, made in the image of God who creates us.  Just that concept alone will answer most of your 13 Questions.  Judaism is a culture of meaning.  It provides a vision of the good life.  And it demands of us to be good.

The final question which was our first question and the hardest:  who am I?  It is not unusual today to have multiple identities:  I am a son, a friend,  a worker, an artist, a worker; doctor, engineer,  businessman;   But for me,  all of these identities are subsumed under one identity:  Jew.    Who am I, a Jew.  I approach life, my work, my marriage, my kids,  my friends,  the community,  indeed the whole world through the lens of Jewish values.  It is my place in the world;  it teaches me how to act and it teaches me how not to act.    It’s about meaning. It’s about how we comport ourselves in this complex world.   Judaism inspires people to live a meaningful life;  not focused on how life affects me,   but by how my life impacts others.  

Who am I; a Jew who loves,  forgives, does for others,  treats others as if they are the most important thing in the world and believes in something.  The “why live” questions have a Jewish answer.  Judaism inspires a life of meaning. May we be blessed with a new year of good health, prosperity and meaning.

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