A Chance Worth Taking: Yom Kippur Sermon, 5780

Vigil for Parkland. Photo by Jonathan Drake (Reuters).

I can see them, huddling together behind bookshelves or under the desks. I can hear their thoughts, their heart beats. Is this it? Am I going to die? What will my mom say at my funeral? Will the police come in time to save me? Will anyone save me?

I can see them, huddling together over cups of coffee in a campus coffee shop. I can hear their thoughts, their heart beats. Will I pass my chem final? What should I do when I graduate? What if I don’t want to go home? Where is home anyway? 

It was cold, the first real rain California had seen in a long time. My university campus was relatively quiet and sleepy. There were only a couple of days left before Thanksgiving, and people were mostly inside, studying for finals, buying plane tickets for winter break. Meanwhile, at another university, the students were wondering why it happened. A school shooting. It’s always another campus. It never happens here. Until it does.

I remember when it happened at Columbine. I remember how I suddenly felt cold in the middle of April, the kind of cold that makes you think you’ll never be warm again. When it happened at Virginia Tech, I kept refreshing the news websites, unable to look away from the rising body count. I thought about my friend who had died, young and unexpectedly, just two years earlier. The loss had shaken me to the core. When the death of one person can turn your world upside down, what does it mean to lose so many? What does it mean when 11 are killed in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, or 20 in an El Paso Walmart? How many worlds are destroyed when 49 people are murdered in an Orlando nightclub?

On the High Holidays, we pray Unetanetokef: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who will live and who will die, who when their time comes and who before or after their time, who by fire and who by water.” Who will die in a shooting this year? Who will take their own lives? Next time, will it happen here?  Even if we don’t believe that our fate is sealed in the book of life and death on Yom Kippur, this holy day still forces us to confront the reality that we just don’t know. What are we supposed to do with this uncertainty? Yom Kippur has a few suggestions about how to respond (Existential fear has been around for a long time, and for better or worse, Jews are really good at it).

First, Yom Kippur teaches us that we can’t hide from mortality. Yom Kippur is transgressive – we live a grief and death-phobic society, and the Jewish calendar gives us a day when we rehearse for our own deaths. On Yom Kippur, and in the days leading up to our own deaths, we make a confession, and we don’t eat, work, or have sex. Some people choose to wear white on Yom Kippur because Jews are traditionally buried in white shrouds. On Yom Kippur, we look directly at the thing that scares us the most, and we do it together. 

That’s the second suggestion Yom Kippur has to offer: Togetherness. When we pray al chet, we atone for sins committed by others in our community, even if we did not commit these sins ourselves. We don’t call out individuals – instead, we reduce shame by confessing together. We face the fierce uncertainty of life by supporting each other in atonement. 

According to Yom Kippur, liturgy, Teshuva, Tefilah, and Tzedakah lessen the severity of Unetanetokef. For some, this means that if you do these three things, you’re off the hook, and you’ll survive another year. For those who read Unetanetokef as an expression of uncertainty, these words deliver a different message. We don’t know if Teshuva (atonement), Tefilah (prayer, meditation, mindfulness), and Tzedakah (righteous giving), will save our lives this year. But we do know they make our lives better. And that’s what Unetanetokef actually says: “Teshuvah, Tefila, and Tzedakah transform this harsh decree.” We don’t know what’s coming next, but this will help in the meantime. 

There’s one more thing we can learn from this season. It’s a lesson from Sukkot, which thankfully arrives only five days after Yom Kippur. On Sukkot, we build, decorate, and live in unstable shelters that we tear down one week later. Five days after confronting mortality on Yom Kippur, the Sukkah is a powerful reminder to find beauty and meaning in the temporary. 

Gun violence has become an epidemic and our sense of safety has been shaken to the core. With every school shooting, I can see them, huddling together behind bookshelves or under the desks. Is this it? Am I going to die? Will the police come in time to save me? Will anyone save me?

We don’t know. We don’t know who is going to die this year. So we are going to face our fears, and we are going to face them together. We will make life better through teshuva, tefilah, and tzedakah. We will find beauty in the world around us, no matter how fleeting. We will march, we will vote, and we will organize. We will love harder and breathe deeper. We don’t know who will live and who will die, and we don’t know if any of our efforts will make an impact. But giving up is not an option, and we are going to try everything we can. Because we are a chance worth taking. 

Please rise for a Mourners Kaddish for those killed by gun violence this year. 

Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba
Life is a volley of bullets
b’alma di v’ra hirutei, v’yamlikh malkhutei,
Time is a bleeding wound
b’hayyeikhon uv’yomeikhon uv’hayyei d’khol beit Yisrael,
in houses of worship, schools, shopping malls
ba’agala uviz’man kariv,
It seems that no one is safe.
v’imru: Amen.

God, these words tumble from my tongue
Y’hei sh’mei raba m’varakh l’alam ul’almei almaya.
marbles in a bowl overturned
Yitbarakh v’yishtabakh v’yitpa’ar v’yitromam v’yitnasei,
I don’t want to praise, I
v’yit’hadar v’yitaleh v’yit’halal sh’mei d’kud’sha
just want it to stop. Words, bullets, headlines,
faster and faster, they run
b’rikh hu
and I am out of breath. 

L’eila min kol birkhata v’shirata,
God, I am voting, marching, organizing,
tushb’khata v’nekhemata,
I don’t know if anyone is listening, but God,
da’amiran b’alma,
We are a chance worth taking.
v’imru: Amen.

Time, blood, thoughts and prayers
Y’hei sh’lama raba min sh’maya,
are never enough, but I can’t seem to stop praying
v’hayyim aleinu v’al kol Yisrael,
even though I’m not sure
v’imru: Amen.
You are listening.

Oseh shalom bimromav,
May the One Who Makes Peace in Heaven
Hu ya’aseh shalom
Make Peace
aleinu, v’al kol Yisrael
Over us and over all Israel
v’al kol yoshvey tevel
and for all who dwell on earth.
We are a chance worth taking
v’imru: Amen.

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