Somewhere Towards the End
Kol Nidrei 5779
September 18, 2018
Rabbi Joseph M. Forman
Shana Tova, Good Yontif.
Tonight begins Yom Kippur. Our tradition tells us it is the holiest night of the year. And to jar us into imagining what that can mean for us — we who are a generation which largely does not entertain notions of holiness — to jar us unto understanding, our service opens with words reminding us that we “…stand on holy ground, between the day that was and the one that must be.”
Tonight, we stand between what we have been and what or who we might become.
Yom Kippur is called Yom Ha Din, the Day of Judgment. And in keeping with the theme of Judgment, we are asked to prepare for the Final Judgment at our death. To remind us of this, we traditionally wear white, a symbol of purity — the purity of death. We show up in white burial shrouds. Yom Kippur is a dress rehearsal for us. It is a day on which we turn from our ordinary activities to reflect, to assess, to atone and then turn our lives toward the best we can be. We abstain from eating or drinking and other pleasures. Instead, we turn inward, and we consider our Final Judgment and begin to work on improving ourselves.
We are asked:
At what did we aim?
How did we stumble?
What did we take?
To what were we blind?
What did we give?
Each year Yom Kippur calls on us to reconsider our answers; it calls on us to reflect on our behavior, but more: it reminds us that our lives are not infinite — we have limited time not only to enjoy and achieve and experience, but limited time to learn and grow and give. We haven’t got forever to become wise. We haven’t got forever to figure out how and who we wish to be. In essence, Yom Kippur is a day to shake us into confronting our finite existence and get us to get going on living life.
We are brought to the edge of the abyss, then given the rare and precious ability to imagine, with newfound perspective: if I were to die today, what would I have to show for my days and years? Once a year Yom Kippur challenges us to consider our life – and our death. And then we are given another chance.
There is a story from the Torah – a story about the end of a great life.
“It came to pass after all these things that word was sent to Joseph: “Behold, your father is ill” [Gen.48:1].
The Midrash says that Joseph was shocked to hear that his father, Jacob, was ill. He hadn’t been in very close touch with him lately; he had been busy with his own life, his work, his family, his wife and their two sons. Jacob understands his illness, says the Midrash, as a gift from God. But what kind of a gift is an illness? Surely God or the Biblical writers could have come up with a better gift than that.
It was a gift, our Sages said, because his illness was a reminder that his death was near. Jacob knew it was coming. He knew that no matter how good and faithful a man he was, he could not live forever. He knew that his life would end – and so he was able to prepare for death.
To both live and depart from life in a conscientious and thoughtful way, our Sages said, is a blessing. To live each day as if it were your last – that is a gift we give to those with whom we share our lives.
Yom Kippur gives us an opportunity to make that gift…to say to ourselves:
I may not be here next year or even tomorrow.
This might be the end of me.
And if it is – and every day we are closer to that moment – what will I make of the time I have left?
In the Talmud we are asked to consider this possibility daily. Rabbi Eliezer who lived in the 1 st and 2 nd centuries said: “Repent one day before your death.”
His students asked: “How can you possibly know on which day you will die?” “You cannot.” the sage replied, “Therefore everyday you must consider every one of your deeds – that your life will be a blessing.”
But such a task is enormous. Exhausting even. Would that we were wise enough to know NOW the lessons that often only come at life’s end.
Diana Athill, now over 100 years old, is a British literary editor, novelist and memoirist who worked with some of the greatest writers of the 20th century at the London-based publishing company Andre Deutsch.
At the age of 90 she decided to write a book herself — about living and old age. She gave her book the title: Somewhere Towards the End.
90 is a full life, for sure. It is an age when you ought to know a few lessons about living. And in her book she details a few of these: her achievements, her loves, her regrets and her struggles — which, she concedes, were not so many — and she concludes with this advice:
“There are no lessons to be learnt, no discoveries to be made, no solutions to offer….Although a human life is less than the blink of an eyelid in terms of the universe, within its own framework it is amazingly capacious so that it can contain many opposites. One life can contain serenity and tumult, heartbreak and happiness, coldness and warmth, grabbing and giving — and also more particular opposites such a neurotic conviction that one is a flop and consciousness of success amounting to smugness.” (Somewhere Towards the End, p. 177.)
Despite her hesitation to offer any moral advice, Athill provides this:
“…Miniscule though every individual…is, he/she/it is an object through which life is being expressed, and leaves some sort of contribution to the world…. To think our existence pointless…would therefore be absurd; instead we should remember that it does make its almost invisible but real contribution, either to usefulness or harm, which is why we should try to conduct it properly.”
Everyone of us does make a contribution, either to usefulness or to harm. And, without a doubt, we should try to conduct ourselves properly.
The rabbis could not have agreed more. Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pekuda, the author of the first Jewish system of ethics, written in Arabic in the 11 th century, said: “Our days are like scrolls: Write on them only how you want to be remembered.”
And so, here we are on Kol Nidrei, a night of introspection. The High Holy Days ask us to consider just what Diana Athill did — a measure of our lives. Tonight we are given an opportunity to reflect — not just somewhere towards the end, but at whatever stage we are now living.
Herbert Samuel – a British statesman, philosopher and one of the first Jewish members of the British cabinet – advised the following:
“Let us treasure the time we have, and resolve to use it well, counting each moment precious — a chance to apprehend some truth, to experience some beauty, to conquer some evil, to ease some suffering, to love and be loved, to achieve something of lasting worth. There is promise within each of us that only we can fulfill. Let us live our lives so that someday it will be true to say of us: the world is a little better because, for just one moment, we lived in it.”
May this Yom Kippur be for us a reminder that life is fleeting, our time here precious, and every hour is perhaps our last. May we use our days wisely. And may the world be better because we lived.