Congregation Etz Chaim of DuPage County

Yom Kippur 5778 - “Preparing for Life and Death”

Mon, 10/02/2017 - 11:32am -- Rabbi Cosnowsky

       In Pirke Avot it says, “Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin. Know from where you came and where you are going and before whom you are destined to give account and reckoning. One who is wise sees the outcome of his actions.” (Pirke Avot 3:1) Maybe it’s because I’m on the precipice of a large number that ends in “0” on my next birthday. Or maybe it’s because - I lost a few good friends this past month - a reminder of the fragility of life. Needless to say, their deaths gave me permission to rip up the sermon I had, and to give this one instead.

         Tonight on the holiest night of the Jewish New Year, I want to speak about planning. Planning to live and planning to die. In general, humans are good at planning future events. We plan for family vacations in the short term, we plan for retirement in the long term. I ask you to consider creating a plan for now. For today and every day going forward. A plan that incorporates daily loving acts we can include in each day to acknowledge those we love: A hug, a kiss, holding a hand, taking a walk together or a daily text or phone call to those far away. But plan into your day, to truly connect with those we love in some small way. A plan to live differently going forward. Just as we plan to live, we also must plan to die.

         I recently read the New York Times best selling book “Being Mortal” by Atul Gewande. It changed my willingness to have hard conversations with loved ones about death and dying. Like most of us, we are not willing to confront our own mortality. And yet, that is what Yom Kippur is designed to do. We emulate the dead on Yom Kippur - denying our instinct to eat, to drink, to procreate and instead, we focus on our souls and that which we value and hold dear. We recite the prayers and sing the familiar melodies, but how many of us really use this as an opportunity to change our perspectives and live differently? To love more fully and more vulnerably and to do that which we’ve been putting off for years?

         Gewande’s book challenged me to have the conversations I’ve been putting off. Jane and I are making final arrangements for our burials. I figure, if I buy at today’s prices and don’t die for many years, I’ll have a metzia - a bargain - an investment and some peace of mind. By making arrangements now, if God forbid I die anytime soon, as hard as that would be on my family - at least the burial process would be spelled out for them. They’d only have to make one phone call and that rest would be carried out for them and all they’d have to do is mourn. And on my end, my wishes would be carried out. I have control over where I will be buried, the kind of casket I desire - and what kind of ritual I wish my loved ones to do around my burial.

         On Kol Nidre, we become painfully aware that we cannot predict what will happen to us in life. We have to expect the unexpected and deal with the implications. There is a prayer - Unatna Tokef - that is central to High Holiday worship which we recite as a reminder that God is measuring us and our actions. It is a liturgical poem that Ashkenazic Jews say on Rosh Hashanahh and also on Yom Kippur that is both dramatic and chilling - It says that ‘We pass before God like sheep - and God writes and seals our fate in His book.’ On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die: Who by fire and who by water. We struggle with these words and contemplate the heaviness of the reality that not all of us will be sitting here together next year. But as dark as that sounds - there is good news in the prayer. It says “U’teshuvah, u’tefillah, ut’zedakah maaveereen et royee ha gazerah. But repentance, prayer and tzedakah temper judgments severe decree.” Basically, this prayer is designed to wake us up from our slumber and remember that we don’t know how much time we have, and need to make every minute count. The word tzedakah is usually translated as charity, which in our culture is something we do because we want to help others and because it feels good to do so. But the word Tzedakah in Hebrew does not mean charity. The word Tzedek means justice. When we do a charitable act, it is justice and it is an obligation. Tzedakah is not something we do to feel good. Philosopher Immanuel Kant would say that if something makes me feel good, it is not ethical.  It is only ethical if we act out of a sense of duty. And just as Judaism teaches that giving tzedakah is not just for the rich, but for everyone - so too is preparing to live and to die, an ethical act, for all of us to undertake. We all can get busy examining our lives and making known our end of life wishes so that if it does happen, we are prepared.

         Kol Nidre reminds us that as much as we deny the reality, there are things that will happen in the coming year that are beyond our control. Years ago, I gave a sermon beseeching our congregation to live life to the fullest. That we don’t know what will happen to us, so we must live today. That sermon, based on the song by Tim McGraw, “Live like you were dying” inspired my old friend Nancy Kramer to start to live differently. She went to Israel on a trip she had been putting off. She signed up for an Adult B’nai Mitzvah class she had always wanted to take. And then after she started living and doing all the things she had been putting off, she got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given 6 months to live. She lived each day more alive than she ever had been. She had that Adult B’nai Mitzvah, she lived to see her grandchild have his Bar Mitzvah. She even lived to see my twins come into the world. She outlived her diagnosis by 2 1/2 years - always striving to reach that next goal in life and living each day as if it was her last. She taught me more about living and dying with dignity. I think of her as this week is her Yahrzeit.

         The events of losing my friends within the past few months, and Gewande’s book, encouraged me to have those difficult, uncomfortable conversations with my parents, my spouse, and my family about how I want to live, how I want to age and how I want to spend my later years if I have a choice. I want to talk today about these subjects before they happen. For instance, I want my family to know what my wishes are for my end of life care. End of life care is often a source of great stress to loved ones. There are no right or wrong answers to the question of what is the right time to end care, or if it’s okay to even refuse care. The only right or wrong answer is up to each individual and their families to decide.

         Therefore, questions of treatment and end of life desires should be discussed now, while we still have our health. We need our loved ones to know what we want if the time comes that we have to make a choice between quality of life or choosing to try to have more time. We can all be given the dignity of choice in terms of choosing our desired treatment plan or lack thereof.

         I read the story of Driving Miss Norma - a 91 year old woman who was diagnosed with inoperable cancer two days after her husband of 67 years died. Her doctor recommended surgery and chemotherapy, but she declined. Instead, she went to live with her son who lived in an RV and traveled around the country with his wife and dog. For a year, they traveled and trekked across the United States doing things Norma had never done before, including taking a hot air balloon ride and getting a pedicure. When she finally passed away, she was across the country from where they started out, and she was an internet sensation. People around the world followed her adventures as she lived differently, the last year of her life. She got to choose what was best for her in the end. Both life and death deserve to be lived with dignity – to the very end. But how will our loved ones know if we don’t have these conversations with them to let them know what our wishes about life and death?

         On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall live and who shall die, But prayer, charity and repentance ease heaven’s severe decree. And in today’s world of modern medicine and choices - conversations with loved ones about who will be there to carry out your wishes, will also ease heaven’s severe decree.

         There was once a family of a father, mother and daughter living in Russia who wanted to emigrate to the United States for a better life. They all worked hard and scrimped and saved to finally put together enough money to buy three, third class, one-way tickets on an ocean liner. They brought one suitcase filled with all of their possessions and boarded the ship. The ship set sail, and for the first few days, they ate the food they brought with them, some old hard cheese and stale crackers. That would be their food for the three week journey. It was all they could afford. By the third day, the young daughter had had enough. She was tired of the cramped room, the fumes from the furnace and the stale crackers and moldy cheese. She begged her parents to let her out of their cramped quarters to go and see if she could bring back some food. Her parents were frightened, what if she didn’t return? But they agreed she was brave and could go get some food if she could find it. The father handed her his last two rubles and off she went. A few hours later, she returned, elated and well fed. Her face was aglow with the satisfaction of having had a full meal and a nice walk outside. She told her parents about the dining rooms full of banquet style food, rich meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, ice sculptures and tables full of desserts.

         But her parents were puzzled, how could she afford to have such a succulent meal on only two rubles? She handed her parents back their money. She told them that all of the food was free and available for them to go and enjoy. All of the food was already included in the price of the ticket.

         On this night of great holiness and awe, let us consider creating a plan to live and a plan to die.May this year be a year of openness and brave conversations about wishes and values and what really matters to you in life, and in death. That is the ticket on this great journey of life. May we live our remaining days with holiness. Gmar chatimah tovah - may you be sealed in the book of life.