This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is adapted from the sermon shared by Rabbi Jordana Chernow-Reader at Yom Kippur morning contemporary services at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood, OH, on Oct. 12, 2016. We encourage you to share comments and questions below and to share by email or post to Facebook or Twitter to continue to engender conversation on the topics raised in this sermon.
When you think about someone you know with a meaningful life, who is the person you think of? What is it about their approach to life makes it so meaningful? Take a moment to think about them. Close your eyes, take a deep breath. Imagine that person is with you now. What do they have in their hands – is a Torah stroll, a match to light Shabbat candles, an apron, a baseball glove? What do you learn about living life from them?
Open up your eyes again, but keep that person in your mind. In the Torah portion we read on Yom Kippur we find one of the most loved phrases in the whole Torah. U’Vacharta B Chayim – choose life. We are being encouraged not only to choose life over death, but to live a meaningful and well lived life.
The person who modeled this for me, is my grandfather, Joseph. He died when I only two years old. Although I was never able to have an adult conversation with him, I strive to emulate his approach to choosing life. It guides me in all aspects of my life – as a person, as mom, as a wife, a sister, a friend, an educator, a rabbi. And why? Because, my grandpa Joe was an optimistic and upbeat person. He was so full of life that a few months before he died, when he was already ailing from cancer, he bought himself a new gold watch. My mother says this summed up his attitude towards life. Even though he was very sick, there were still tasks he wanted to accomplish and places he wanted to go. He had a quiet, thoughtful demeanor and a witty sense of humor. He was creative, kind and intellectual. Based on his approach to life, it would have been easy to miss all of his struggles and heartache.
My grandpa Joe was born in England. He was from a big family-one of ten siblings. When he came to this country as a young man, he knew it would be years, if ever, before he would see his siblings again. He missed his family terribly but did his best to remain connected with them through letters. As an artist employment was hard to come by for him, but he worked hard to make ends meet. In the US he met my grandmother (an immigrant from Germany) and late in life they had my mother. Like so many of us, this awakened a new part of him choosing life as a father and role model teaching my mother about his life in England.
Besides his family, the thing my grandfather loved most in this world was reading. A love of reading is always admirable, but it was even more impressive for my grandfather because he was completely blind in one eye and almost blind in the other. Can imagine how difficult that was? But, if my grandfather held his book in a specific way, despite his vision difficulties he could read. My mother tells stories of my grandfather holding his book like this reading for hours on end. He found a way to do what he loved even with a failing eyesight. I was only two when Grandpa Joe died but his approach to life was part of my upbringing, his lessons are part of the Jewish heritage I share with our congregation.
U’Vacharta B chayim choose to live a meaningful life despite the obstacles in your way. At every opportunity chose life.
U’Vacharta B Chayim. Two simple, perhaps obvious words – yet, if it was so easy, why would we need to be commanded to choose life? Are we holding ourselves back from truly choosing life? Is there something we are afraid of? Will we make ourselves too vulnerable if we do? Do we even know how to ask ourselves if we are choosing life?
U’Vacharta B Chayim – this command from Jewish tradition is not only instructing us to choose life and not death but to choose a meaningful life. Throughout the High Holy Days we petition God in the Avinu Malkeinu. We say Avinu Malkeinu- hear our prayer, Avinu Malkeinu have compassion on us and our families, Avinu Malkeinu make an end to sickness, war and famine.
We also ask Avinu Malkeinu kotveinu b’sefer chayim tovim. This is usually translated as inscribe us for a blessing in the book of life. But I prefer another translation, the one I like is Avinu Malkeinu inscribe our names in the Book of Lives Well Lived.
Avinu Malkeinu kotveinu b’sefer chayim tovim. This is heart of what the High Holy Days are about. If we hold our prayer book, our texts, our passions, our loved ones, our community, in a certain way we can examine our lives to ensure that not only do we choose life, but we are write ourselves into the book of the life well lived. If we hold the High Holy Days in right spot, it can help us ask the questions to fully choose life. The way we choose a meaningful life is different for everyone. Each person has his or her own definition, priorities and ways to achieve this.
Rabbi Edward Feinstein said “if you do not live on purpose, you are living accidentally.” Rabbi Feinstein was noticing that much of our lives are shaped by our routines – routines that develop based on demands, expectations and necessities. He was not being disparaging in his comments, but reflecting on how most people spend their time. He was encouraging people to take the High Holy Days as the opportunity to break from the routines to check in with themselves to ensure they are living life in a meaningful way. To illustrate his point, Rabbi Feinstein used fish, he said that fish are not aware of the water around them because they are surrounded by it all the time. His point is that people are not like the fish, that we can and should be aware of our days. The High Holy Days are encourages us to reflect, to think, to consider our lives to ensure that we are truly choosing life.
The question is how, how do we make changes to make sure we are choosing a meaningful life? There are many answers to that question but one comes from an increased self-awareness in our daily life. Inspired by the recent visit to our congregation from composer Noah Aronson. Aronson’s song, “Am I awake” promotes self-reflection. Using this idea, we can begin our reflection by ourselves questions: Am I awake to the love in my life and the needs of my family? Am I alert to the social justice issues around me and am I attentive to injustice? Am I present for the moments in my life when I should be? Do I recognize the daily miracles in my life or am I caught up in the daily grind? How can I be more fully awake everyday?
Rabbi Feinstein answers come as a parable. It says that when a soul goes up the gates of heaven, the angels say: “What did you do in the world?” If the person answers with their profession the angels are not impressed. The angels were not interested in only hearing about a person’s job. But if the soul answers saying something about their life – I loved, I found my mission in life, I smiled everyday, I took care of others- the gates of heaven opened. While I do not believe this literally, I do agree with the message about valuing a meaningful – living a life well lived.
Avinu Malkeinu kotveinu b’sefer chayim tovim. Inscribe our names in the Book of Lives Well Lived.
I recently heard about someone who agree with me. Roy Lester, who was the subject of a story on “This American Life” is a 66 year-old lifeguard –did anyone else hear this story? A 66 years old lifeguard – pretty impressive. Roy found so much meaning in his work that even thought he was a married lawyer, he still spent this weekends lifeguarding. Roy was so passionate about being a lifeguard that it he did not understand the question why was he still at lifeguard at 66. When the state of New York was trying to make Roy wear a speedo to take the annual fitness test, he sued them for age discrimination. He was still physically fit and able to fulfill the role as lifeguard but did not want to wear the required baiting suit. He had been a lifeguard at Jones Beach on Long Island for 40 years and rescued over 1,000 people. When describing rescues he said: “A good rescue is unlike anything else you have ever accomplished. The rest of the world is behind you. The rescue is the only thing there is. It is a great feeling.”
To me Roy stands out not only for rescuing lives, but also for rescuing this very difficult holiday of judgment and atonement. He is 66 and still fighting to for a life well lived.
U’Vacharta B Chayim – choose life
Do it for Roy and his fight to keep his life meaningful through lifeguarding.
U’Vacharta B Chayim. Do it for grandpa Joe, his love of life and his passion for reading
U’Vacharta B Chayim. Do it for the person you thought of at the beginning of the sermon
U’Vacharta B Chayim. Do it for your loved ones.
U’Vacharta B Chayim. Do it for you
U’Vacharta B Chayim –Choose a meaningful and well lived life