Return Again: Yom Kippur Sermon, Rabbi Joshua Caruso – Sep. 23, 2015

This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple are the remarks of Rabbi Joshua Caruso at Yom Kippur Congregational Morning services on Yom Kippur, Wednesday, September 23, 2015. We encourage you to re-post, share with friends and loved ones, respond below, or post to Facebook or Twitter to continue to the dialogue engendered by this meaningful sermon.

A priest, a minister, and a rabbi were speaking at a symposium on death. Each of them was asked to consider the question: if you were lying in a coffin and people were looking at you, what would you like them to say about you?

The priest and minister spoke first. Each talked about how they would like the people looking at them to say that they were good men, men of virtue and that they performed their tasks on earth well, and that they left the world a better place.

Then it was the rabbi’s turn. “Let me get this straight,” he began. “I’m in a coffin and people are looking at me. What would I like them to say about me? I would like them to say – LOOK, HE’S MOVING.”

None of us looks forward to aging. We want to stay in the land of the living, and think about what we can still achieve, rather than believe that we are playing on the “back nine”. Yes, most of us still imagine that there is more of life to pursue. And yet, as we age vulnerability sets in. Our bodies feel the grind of years of use, and while we may feel like the same person on the inside, the gears don’t turn as easily as they once did on the outside. As our physical strength dissipates and we struggle with tasks that once came with ease, we may turn inward to determine what we can recover of value, what wisdom we can glean, from the life we have lived.

These Days of Awe offer us an opportunity to take pause. We hope we have seized upon the moments that mattered, and not squandered them away. And, as we age, we hope that God will be gentle on us. In the High Holy Day liturgy, we even read a passage from the Psalms, “Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone”[1]. At this time of year, on this Day of Atonement, we ask God to grant us another year; keenly aware that our days are numbered. But also important is that we do not cast away the value of what we have learned in days past.

In order to know where we are going we must look back at where we have been. We must make a return…yes, after repentance, we are called to return.

Hashivenu…Hashivenu…Adonai elecha…V’ nashuvah…Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul.

Too often we move from one episode of life to another, without ever taking the time to visit the past to see how we have derived meaning from moments of significance. We move quickly ahead, leaving behind the people and moments that informed who we are today. As we race forward, is there room – or time – to consider the deeds of our life and how they have led to this very moment? And what if we did take pause? What if we slowed down the clock just for a little bit to look back at the steps we have already taken?

I return to a moment over 25 years ago. Before I ever considered being a rabbi, I spent a few months working on a Kibbutz in Israel. There were Jews from all over the diaspora who were part of this special program that trained us in the Hebrew language and about the history of Israel in exchange for working on the kibbutz. One day, I remember a bunch of my cohorts talking about a story in the Bible. In this tale, there was man named Abraham who took his son, Isaac, on a three-day journey to the top of a mountain, and at the end of the journey he nearly sacrificed his son to God, but at the last moment, an angel intervened, and the child was saved. I remember hearing the story and being in awe. Everyone else knew the story of the Binding of Isaac – except me. I was embarrassed. Perhaps I had heard of this story early on in Hebrew school, but if so, it had long left my mind. I was truly affected by the moment, and was ashamed at my lack of training. How could I not know one of the most basic of Jewish stories?

That experience proved to be a pivotal moment in my life. It was that moment that brought me to this moment –when I stand before you today. It was in that moment that I resolved to know who I am as a Jew, and learn what I could to be proud of my heritage and to know the most basic elements of my faith.

For me, this was a moment of return – a time when I could look back at an embarrassing episode, and redeem that moment for the good. Haven’t we all had such moments, never knowing at the time what impact they may have on our futures?

Hashivenu…Hashivenu…Adonai elecha…V’ nashuvah…Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul.

Meet Sitaram Gawande. He was a farmer in a village called, Uti, about 300 miles from Mumbai. He lived a life that most of us cannot imagine. He lived to be more than 100 years old, and maintained his dignity—indeed, was revered– to the very end of his life. Atul Gawande, the grandson of Sitaram, became a physician and author of many books and articles. His book, “Being Mortal”, chronicles the life of the aged, as he sees it both through the eyes of a physician and through the eyes of someone who visited his elderly grandfather in India. In this passage, Gawande recalls what life was like for the aged in a different time. He writes:

In the past, surviving into old age was uncommon, and those who did survive served a special purpose as guardians of tradition, knowledge, and history. They tended to maintain their status and authority as heads of the household until death. In many societies, elders not only commanded respect and obedience but also led sacred rites and wielded political power. So much respect accrued to the elderly that people used to pretend to be older than they were, not younger, when giving their age…The dignity of old age was something to which everyone aspired.[2]

For Atul Gawande, the way he remembered his grandfather forever informed the way he would go about his work as a physician. In his book, Gawande sets out on a journey to expose what we already knew – when the elderly face the ending arc of their lives, many are unable to do so with the dignity they deserve. He proposes that a full life is not necessarily a long life…but a life in which one’s final days are imbued with dignity and meaning.

For Gewande, the trip to visit his grandfather made an indelible mark on his life that informed his path moving forward.

Do we pay enough attention to such experiences, returning to them to find the lessons that will challenge us to be more than we are?

So let’s take a glimpse inside. Was there a moment in your life that defined you, that set you on a path of resistance or challenge? When you look back, what were tools within that you used to emerge from that challenge?

Hashivenu…Hashivenu…Adonai elecha…V’ nashuvah…Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul.

Regardless of how old each of us is today, we have all traveled a path of hills and valleys, of detours along the way, and of surprises that have tested the best of us. We are seasoned and sensitive to the rhythms of the days and years that have sped past. We may look back and see chapters of life, rather than days piled upon days. We may look in the mirror and see laugh lines where tears once lived. We can look back and remember our blind naiveté at times when we would have benefited from experience. And we may recall our callousness when we should have allowed for openness and trust.

Whether you are 20, or 40, or 80, you have lived, and those days are recorded in a sacred space between your head and your heart. Sometimes we take those memories out and burnish them. Sometimes we hide them away from ourselves, wishing that they never happened. But too often we discard the past as ancient history, tossing it away as easily as we toss away those breadcrumbs, a symbol of our sins, at the Tashlich ritual. Yet our experiences remain within us as a resource to draw from. So many days. So many moments. So much potential for learning and growth. It’s truly a Talmudic-like compendium, featuring reams of material representing the curriculum of our lives. Honor those memories, even those that cause you pain or embarrassment. Honor the role they have in creating the person you have become.

As Cheryl Strayed once wrote in a piece for her “Dear Sugar” advice column, “The most terrible and beautiful and interesting things happen in a life…Whatever happens to you belongs to you. Make it yours. Feed it to yourself even if it feels impossible to swallow. Let it nurture you, because it will.”[3]

Let us take this moment to celebrate the grandness of our time here on earth. Let us return for a few moments to a life well-lived, with so much wisdom accumulated and, God-willing, so much more to come.

Few have lived a life of consequence more than Elie Wiesel. In his iconic book, “Night”, Wiesel returns to a time that would forever shape his life. He writes the following:

Three days after the liberation of Buchenwald, I became very ill with food poisoning. I was transferred to the hospital and spent two weeks between life and death. One day I was able to get up, after gathering all my strength. I wanted to see myself in the mirror hanging on the opposite wall. I had not seen myself [since I was deported from the ghetto to the concentration camp]. From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me. The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.[4]

For Elie Wiesel, the return was not a welcome one, but one that formed the basis for his life’s work. It showed his resilience in the face of utter evil and tragedy. It also set him on a path to be a lifelong teacher of the Holocaust and an ambassador of peace. Wiesel’s “return” became a lesson for the world to Never Forget.

But here is the danger: When we do turn inwards to examine our pasts, we can spend too much time looking back at our lives with disappointment. In this regard, we may measure ourselves against an impossible standard.

We ask, “Why have I yet to find my partner in life”, or “Why am I unable to advance in in my career”, or “Why have I not learned to accept myself as I am?” Many of you are currently going through challenges that threaten the foundation upon which you stand. You may have lost a loved one, or a job, or a marriage. You may be dealing with a physical impairment, or painful family relationships. Unfortunately, it is a common hazard of the human condition to judge ourselves harshly, to lose hope; to lay in bed at the end of the day and recount every instance in which you have fallen short. It is devilishly seductive to erect a monument of regret.

Yet, even in the throes of pain and disappointment, we are charged by God–U’vcharta Chayyim, we should choose life. As we recite our list of sins and ask God for forgiveness; as we rebuke ourselves for sometimes missing the mark, perhaps we can leave a little room for self-compassion. A little room to recall how we nimbly manage to overcome challenge and loss. Perhaps, just perhaps, we can leave a little room to look back at our lives acknowledge the triumph of the spirit.

To this, the experience of the renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman can speak. It was 1995, when the world famous Perlman came on stage to give a concert at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City. Stricken by polio as a child with both of his legs in braces, just the walk onto the stage was a struggle. After Perlman painstakingly made his way to his seat, the conductor began. Yet after just the first two bars, one of the strings of Perlman’s violin broke. The snap could be heard across the auditorium.

Those in attendance expected him to painfully make his way off stage to find another violin or new string. Yet he did not. Instead Perlman signaled for the conductor to begin again and he played right where he had left off: modulating, changing, re-composing the piece in his head, so that he could play the symphonic work with just three rather than four strings. As the piece concluded, the passionate standing ovation said it all. Wiping the sweat from his brow and taking a bow, Itzhak Perlman said in a quiet and pensive tone, “You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.”[5]

Perlman drew on the talent and the skills he had built up all his life (including his resolve to overcome disability), and when the moment called for it, he was ready. Return again…and return to what you know, and to what remains in you and to what you have learned. Return to the unexpectedness of life, and to your ability to survive what you thought would pull you down. Return to the redemptive moment when you were able to pull it all together because of what you have learned along the way.

Did that experience imbue you with more empathy or compassion?

Did it draw you closer to loved ones?

Did it help you learn whom you can count on?

Did you realize that you are someone on whom others can depend?

Did you learn something about yourself that you can draw on when the next challenge presents itself?

It is the lessons that we learn from the past that inform how we confront the present, and welcome the future.

As Rabbi Rachel Cowan recently shared, as she reached a major transition in her life:

But we must learn to take the grief with the great goodness of having achieved a long life…our insight. Living with a deeper understanding of the complexity and paradox inherent in our life can be a source of great joy. Having close relationships, finding meaning in each day, giving to others, cultivating our capacity for gratitude, patience and curiosity, and appreciating the richness of our life to date all help us wake up to the new day with anticipation.[6]

A great motif of these High Holy Days is return, returning to past deeds to repent and to repair our relationships. Let us also return to our past experiences to explore them for what can be learned–about life, about ourselves, and about how to face our futures strengthened with the wisdom of a life well-lived.

Hashivenu…Hashivenu…Adonai elecha…V’ nashuvah…Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul.



[1] Psalms 71:9

[2] Being Mortal, Atul Gawande, P. 17-18


[4] Night, Elie Wiesel, P. 83

[5] Our Annual Midlife Crisis, Rabbi Judth Schindler, Temple Beth El, Yom Kippur 5767