Rabbi Deena’s sermon from Erev Rosh Hashanah 5782

In her book “The Art of Dying Well”, journalist and motivational speaker Katy Butler writes that Western medicine has become focused on one, single metric: “not dying”. The medical system, propelled by mostly well meaning doctors, will throw every possible intervention at our problems for the sake of meeting this metric, and preventing us from dying. But Butler argues, and I think Judaism agrees, that this isn’t the right goal to pursue. For one thing, it’s pretty much the one goal a human can set and know, FOR SURE, that they will never achieve. Which, as a goal oriented person, is pretty depressing. So instead of expending our emotional, physical and spiritual energy in pursuit of a goal we can’t meet, let’s just define a new goal. This year, let’s live. Like, really, big, bubbly, give it your all, LIVE. 

We will say again and again over the next few weeks: zochreinu l’chayim melech chaftetz b’chayim v’chotveinu b’sefer ha’chayim l’maancha elohim chayim. Remember us for life, you royal lover of life, and write our stories in the book of life, for the sake of the holiness of all life. For life, in life, to life, l’chayim: It’s one of the most core lines in the high holiday prayers, and also a pretty great song lyric in a certain Broadway musical… The Zochreinu line is inserted in the beginning of every single Amidah from the beginning of Rosh Hashanah through the end of Yom Kippur, making it one of the most repeated lines in the high holiday prayers.

Saying zochreinu l’chayim, remember us for life, applies no matter what kind of year you’ve just had. Maybe this has been a life affirming year for you: a year in which you started a new job, or welcomed a child into your family, or celebrated a wedding or BMitzvah, or, like me, binge watched all of Ted Lasso several times through. Maybe, it wasn’t. Maybe you had to postpone a wedding (raise hand) or major celebration, or you lost a job, or a loved one. Or maybe the loss you’re grieving is the loss of daily joys- smiling at strangers on the El, chatting with your barista or luxuriously wandering the aisles of a grocery store. 

Regardless of the kind of year you just had, chances are you have been missing a core element of human life: the experience of collective effervescence. Coined more than 100 years ago by sociologist Emile Durkheim, collective effervescence is the feeling of shared energy, harmony and purpose we feel in moments of connection with others. In the words of psychologist Adam Grant, “Collective effervescence is the synchrony you feel when you slide into rhythm with strangers on a dance floor, colleagues in a brainstorming session, cousins at a religious service or teammates on a soccer field…Collective effervescence happens when joie de vivre spreads through a group.”

Our emotions are contagious, Dr. Grant explains, and they’re really hard to catch through a screen. Which means that, over the last 18 months, most of us have gone from feeling collective effervescence several times a week, sometimes even daily, to feeling it maybe a handful of times, total, in a year and a half. Which is tragic, because collective effervescence is one of the core experiences that push us to keep seeking out life affirming joy. 

I ran my first ever marathon in Tel Aviv, in February of 2018. About 17 miles into the race, just when every single inch of my body was starting to hurt like hell and running was looking more like speedy limping, I ran into a group of middle-aged Israeli men who were singing Dayenu. Yes, the Passover song. The race happened to be just a few days before the holiday of Purim, and all these spectators were shouting at the men, “You crazies! It’s PURIM time!”

I started cracking up, and one of the men beckoned me over as I limp-ran past him. “First time marathon? Here, run with us!”

So though they were running a bit slower than the pace I needed to keep to hit my arbitrary goal time, I slowed down to run with them. And for the next 6 miles or so, we sang every Jewish holiday song we could think of. I learned that they had gone to high school together, and that for nearly a decade, they have been reuniting on the weekends to go for a long run together, running an annual marathon together. The man who welcomed me into the group, Oded, told me about his job in a high tech firm, and every time my limp-run slowed into a walk, he cajoled me to keep running with another rousing chorus of Dayenu. I lost the group somehow about 3 miles from the finish line, yet when I stumbled across it nearly half an hour later, the first person I saw was… Oded! And we screamed with joy and embraced like he was my long lost uncle. 

Oded and his friends created with me, and for me, an experience of collective effervescence out of what could have been a completely miserable experience. I nearly dropped out of the race before I met Oded, but instead, that 4 hours I spent sweating and limping and singing my way around Tel Aviv became an unforgettable day that shaped who I am and how I spend my free time. The same can be true of prayer: the potentially intolerable experience of hours of personal prayer is made tolerable, even enjoyable, by the presence of others. This High Holidays might be, for those of you coming in person, your first chance to feel the thrill of collective effervescence in a very long time, which might be very overwhelming. Give yourself some grace – we’ve forgotten what it’s like to not be alone, and it might take some time to get used to that intensity of connection. If you’re not joining us in person, and even if you are, I hope the near future brings you a chance to remember what it feels like to be alive: to experience the kind of joyful, life affirming connection that singing Dayenu around the streets of Tel Aviv brought me.

When we say V’chotveinu b’sefer ha’chayim- let our lives be written in the book of life- this is what we are asking for. Yes, more years of life. But we are also expressing the deep human desire for our lives to be worth living, the kind of life we want to remember, and be remembered. There’s an expression, “It’s not about the years of your life, it’s the life in your years,” or something like that, which is only partly true. The years of our life do matter, at least to a certain extent. We all deserve to live enough years to feel like we have experienced all life has to offer us. But that exact number will vary from person to person, which is where the expression comes in. We all also deserve to live a life full of delicious meals, and a meaningful career, moments of spontaneous song and dance, transcendent moments of connection with strangers, and safe and loving relationships. 

One of my favorite Peloton instructors, Jess Sims, says at the beginning of almost every class, “The hardest part of the workout is check, done. You showed up.”

I have to say, this line makes me nervous, because it almost always means the workout is going to leave me gasping for breath and drenched in sweat. But it’s often exactly the affirmation I need, that just showing up for my daily life is cause for celebration, because it makes everything else that happens that day possible. Sometimes, getting out of bed, choosing to live another day, is the hardest part, and the most important. It’s the one action that makes it possible for the rest of the juicy life stuff to happen. 

Towards the end of every class, Jess usually comes back with another nugget of life affirming wisdom. “Clap it up”, she says. “I don’t care if you’re home alone or have people with you, you are not alone. We are a team, so clap it up for your team.”

So I stand there, in a pool of my own sweat, clapping for myself and a couple thousand people I don’t know. If just showing up is the first key to living a full life, doing it with others, as much as possible, is the necessary second. 

There is a tradition in Judaism that the body of a person who has died should not be left alone, from the moment the person takes their last breath until the moment they are laid in the ground. They are carefully guarded, often by loved ones, who sing psalms, read poetry, and carefully prepare the body for burial. The tradition holds that the soul of the deceased hovers near their body immediately after death, waiting to see if they will be well cared for, so we want to make sure the person feels lovingly escorted in death. This practice of caring for the body of someone who has passed, of tucking it back into the earth at the graveside, is known as a chesed shel emet, a capital T true act of loving kindness. 

We will all die. Hopefully not before we’re ready, but the inescapable fact is that not one of us is going to avoid that fate. The High Holidays are sort of our annual Jewish reminder of that fact, and our annual opportunity to get comfortable with the idea of death. On Rosh Hashanah, we blow the shofar 100 times to wake up our souls, which might have been sliding away from life. And on Yom Kippur, we stage a little dress rehearsal for death: we deny ourselves all the pleasures of living, and dress in white like the burial shrouds we will eventually wear as our final outfit. We do these things not because Judaism is obsessed with death, or because we really should be concerned with the prospect of death- quite the opposite. We do them for the sake of life. When we allow ourselves to get comfortable with the prospect of dying, when we spend less of our energy focused on how to not die, we can actually increase our commitment to life, to the things we do, see, say, hear, taste, and feel, in whatever moments we are given. 

These rituals of the High Holiday season, the rehearsal for death and the endless chanting about life, remind us that we are capable of true acts of lovingkindness, and that we deserve them ourselves. Just as Judaism teaches us to accompany our loved ones towards death, it reminds us that we are accompanied by them in life, by the ways they taught us to live and shaped our own lives. We remember those we’ve lost with the phrase zichrono li’vracha, may their memory be a blessing- to you, the living, the person who carries their memory. We say Zochreinu l’chayim while we can: may we be remembered for life while we have it in front of us. And zochreinu li’vracha, may the life we lived be a blessing, when it is taken from us. Which takes us right back to zochreinu l’chayim: may we keep living out the blessings of those who have shaped our lives.

I love the High Holidays, with the chance to connect to ourselves and others through music and reflection. I love the annual reminder to review my life, to take stock of what keeps me going and where I have room to grow. But the thing that most inspires me about the High Holidays is our continual, improbable belief in change. That every year, we show up to acknowledge where we could have done better, and walk out believing that better is possible. It is the definition of a life affirming experience, to come back to the same thing you did a year ago, recognize that you made it, and believe there is still more living to be done, more life to build around you.

Nearly two months ago, we observed the holiday of Tisha b’Av, where we mourned the destructions and losses we as a people, and we individually, have sustained. We close our ritual reading of the book of Eicha by repeating its penultimate line, “Chadesh yameinu k’kedem” meaning “renew our days as they once were”. 

I know so many people are yearning for this to be a year in which the prophetic idea is fulfilled: chadesh yameinu ke’kedem, to go back to living life without fear of a virus, able to connect with others and fill our stories with moments of purpose, inspiration and connection. But if this year, we are going to choose life, we should turn our focus not to the good old days, but to making these days good. Living, really living, means focusing not on what was, but what IS, perhaps even flirting with the expansive possibilities of what might be.

So I want to suggest a change to the line from Eicha. Instead of praying that this year will be one of restoration to the way things were, I pray that the unknowable force of life will chadesh yameinu kadima: renew us onward. Forward. 

  1. Renew us onward with our increased awareness of the fragility of life, so that we don’t take it for granted.
  2. Renew us onward with more chances to experience collective effervescence, that reminder that we are not alone, that joy and connection can always return.
  3. Renew us onward with agency over our story, our strength and our resilience.
  4. Renew us onward with thick, rich relationships- with our ancestors, family, friends, teachers, mentors and loved ones

For all these things and more, I pray: though we are a little closer to death now than we were when I began this drash, may we all be written in the book of life with sweetness, and may that life carry us forward to new joy, to connection.. To life, to life, l’chayim.