Much More Than Atonement, Yom Kippur Calls Us to Courageous Self-Disclosure

A decade ago I walked into my parent's living room to discover my beloved grandfather, hunched over his walker and weeping while cranking nineteenth century romantic Russian orchestral music.
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A decade ago I walked into my parent's living room to discover my beloved grandfather, hunched over his walker and weeping while cranking 19th century romantic Russian orchestral music. No one ever accused my grandfather of emotional opacity -- but I had never seen him crying like this before. When I asked what was going on, he said: "The title of my thoughts is: 'I Never Got to Say Goodbye.' Everyone -- my father, mother, sisters, and brothers -- all died without knowing how much I loved them."

My grandfather was likely the most effusive and schmaltzy person I've ever known. This is a man who, after 66 years of marriage, still searched for scraps of paper to fill shoeboxes of love letters for my Bubbie, and rhapsodized about her beautiful face in the moonlight.

I was floored that even he was coming to the end of his life wondering if he had managed to love fully and demonstratively enough.

It made me think about how all of us live, really, without knowing how deeply we're loved, and how our loved ones live without knowing how deeply they are loved by us. How we long for expression and reassurance -- to know that our lives matter to each other. But our love often takes on unknown intensity only when we're confronted with its loss. Lost opportunities fixate us. Why didn't I tell them what they meant to me -- or even know what they meant to me until it was too late?

This sense of life-and-death stakes and last chances is perhaps the heart of Jewish liturgy during the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe). Our liturgy brings us to the edge of the precipice between life and death in order to create the emotional conditions for urgent expression. The Yamim Noraim summon us to rehearse the end of our lives -- to lean over our walkers in advance. To say what we need to say before it is too late.

The Yamim Noraim are a kind of high-speed enactment of our life's journey from birth to death. The rabbis taught that Rosh Hashanah is Yom Harat Haolam, the day the world was born, and Yom Kippur is the day we simulate our death by abstaining from eating and sexuality, and wearing a kitel, similar to the shroud we will wear to our graves. We recite the vidui, the final confession, on both Yom Kippor and on the day of our death. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah our Torah reading begins 'v'adonai pakad et sarah,' and God remembered Sarah by giving her a newborn son. And on Yom Kippur, the portion begins ahrei mot, after the death of Aaron's two sons.

The u'nakaneh tokef -- including the famous lines, 'who by fire and who by water,' immortalized by Leonard Cohen -- is a difficult prayer for many of us. It is, to say the least, unsettling to utter words about a providential deity whose decrees determine mi y'hyeh u'mi yamut, who will live and who will die. But if we read these lines within the larger context of the liturgy, a different implication emerges. Not that death is a punishment, nor even a reflection of God's inscrutable will. But rather that death is our shared destiny, and the Yamim Noraim our time to begin living and loving with the intensity of our last day.

The New Yorker shares a moving account of actor and comedian Steve Martin's final meeting with his father, with whom he held a lifelong antagonistic relationship. Martin recalls that after he won his first Emmy award, his father growled in response, 'Well, he's no Charlie Chaplin.' But he goes on to describe a watershed moment of reconciliation as his father lay on his deathbed:

I walked into the house they had lived in for 35 years, and my weeping sister said, 'He's saying goodbye to everyone.' A hospice nurse said to me, 'This is when it all happens.' I didn't know what she meant, but I soon would.

I walked into the bedroom where he lay, his mind alert but his body failing. He said, almost buoyantly, 'I'm ready now.' I understood that his intensifying rage of the last few years had been against death, and now his resistance was abating. I stood at the end of the bed, and we looked into each other's eyes for a long, unbroken time. At last he said, 'You did everything I wanted to do.'

I said, 'I did it because of you.' It was the truth...

I sat on the edge of the bed. Another silence fell over us. Then he said, 'I wish I could cry, I wish I could cry.'

At first, I took this as a comment on his plight, but I am forever thankful that I pushed on. 'What do you want to cry about?' I finally said.

'For all the love I received and couldn't return.'"

He had kept this secret, his desire to love his family, from me and from my mother his whole life. It was as though an early misstep had kept us forever out of stride. Now, two days from his death, our pace was aligning, and we were able to speak.

I sometimes think of our relationship graphically, as a bell curve. In my infancy, we were perfectly close. Then the gap widened to accommodate our differences and indifference. In the final days of his life, we again became perfectly close.

Yehuda Amichai captures Martin's bell curve imagery with a single simple verse.

Patuah, sagor, patuah.

Lifnei sh'adam nolad, hakol patuach b'yakum biladav

V'keshay hu hai, hakol sagur bo b'chayav,

V'keshay hu met, hakol shuv patuach

Patuah sagur patuach

Zeh kol ha-adam.

Open closed open. Before we are born, everything is open in the universe without us. For as long as we live, everything is closed within us. And when we die, everything is open again. Open closed open. That's all we are.

The Yamim Noraim are our time to refuse that everything be closed within us for as long as we live -- to open ourselves with the trust of the newborn and the gravity of the dying. To speak courageously and vulnerably, let nothing go unspoken, offer ourselves without reserve.

May our imagined crossing of the bridge between life and death help us liberate whatever is closed in us, and say it all as if the moment will never come again.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.

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