Drop the Banana!
Gut Yontif! You know the Pontif is visiting Washington DC today and NY tomorrow. Which reminds me of that joke someone inevitably pulls me aside and tells me every year on this day.
Q: What did the rabbi say to the pope on Yom Kippur?
A: “Gut Yontif pontiff!”
But seriously, I hope the Pope has a good yontif because he is expected to address a joint session of congress and then the UN about the most important atonement in the history of the human race. As Pope Francis put it, “we are dust of the earth (cf. Gen. 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air, and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.” We owe the earth—and God—responsible stewardship of the gifts entrusted to us. This desecration of the earth’s climate is the result of our lack of atone ment or At-One-ment – our separation from all life -- from the living Earth of which we are in truth an interwoven thread.
I want to talk about this issue today not just because it is an important one, but because I believe it sheds light on the general process of teshuvah – repentance. Despite the overwhelming evidence that our greenhouse gases have increased Global temperatures, that climate change is already happening, that fresh-water sources are drying up and causing food and water insecurity that stokes the fires of war and exacerbates the refugee crisis, despite that our coastal cities are increasingly vulnerable to hurricanes and floods, that the polar ice caps are melting, there are still some who refuse to accept that our species is in need of atonement.
We turn away because the task just seems too daunting: knowing how hard it is to change individual lives and relationships, can we really expect world leaders who rarely agree on anything to come together, lead their people in changing ingrained habits of consumption, and cut back dramatically on carbon emissions and use of fossil fuels? Perhaps the only force powerful enough to trigger an entire species to do teshuvah is the fear of death. We all want to be written in the Book of Life, but how scary does it have to get? And at what point is it too late? Are we waiting for God to save us from our selves?
Which reminds me of a story… There once was a devout man, his entire life he believed that if he was honest and good and kind to others, God would always protect him. That’s why he wasn’t worried when a great storm struck his home town and all the residents were being ordered to evacuate. “I’m not going anywhere. Don’t worry about me. God will save me.” As the flood waters rose, he climbed to the second floor of his house when some police in a boat rowed by and shouted for him to climb into the boat. “Thank you very much,” he said, “But I’m okay – God will save me.” Finally as the whole house was nearly submerged in water a rescue helicopter flew by overhead and shouted to the man, now perched on the roof, “Jump on the rope ladder – we can help you!”
“That’s quite alright,” he replied. “I’m waiting here for God to save me.” In the next scene the man appears before the Throne of Judgement and challenges God: “I had perfect faith! How could you abandon me!’ “Are you out of your mind?” God asks. “I sent you evacuation orders, I sent you a police boat, I sent you rescue workers in a helicopter. What more did you expect?”
That poor man died waiting. Waiting for a sign. Waiting for salvation. Waiting for God to manifest in precisely the way he imagined. What are we waiting for? Can we really afford to keep waiting another year to grab that rope ladder? Given life’s unpredictability, given cancer, random car accidents, terrorists, the climate crisis and the fragility of it all, what are we waiting for? As Rabbi Sharon Braus put it, “We dwell on the cusp of death today not because we are death obsessed but because we are life obsessed.
Generally, in our society, when faced with the fleetingness of life, with its unpredictability, we hear people say, “Carpe Diem – seize the day.” Or, “YOLO” – you only live once. We are so confused and misled by our consumerist society that the fear of death leads us to the Buzzfeed bucket list – a list of fun tchotchkes and experiences to have in the world. The recent Ashley Madison website hack revealed that an alarming number of Americans are going online to have extra-marital affairs. Their company’s slogan is, “Life is short, have an affair.” By this logic one could say, “Life is short, and you get bored driving around in your car, so why not hit someone with your car and drive away, hey life is short right, YOLO!” How about “Life is short” why waste it chasing after empty pleasures that destroy your short life? The Days of Awe remind us that “life is short” so heal your relationships, talk to God, and do tzedaka acts of righteous giving now while you still can.
You might have heard about the unusual way that they sometimes catch monkeys for the zoo? Apparently they take a small cage out into the jungle. Inside the cage they place a bunch of bananas and then they close it, locking the bananas inside. Now a monkey coming along and spotting the bananas, will reach through the narrow rungs of the cage and grab a banana. But he can't get it out. And no matter how hard he tries – twisting his hand back and forth – he can't pull his hand through the rungs while still hanging on to the banana. And even with the approaching trappers he won't let go of the banana. For the trappers, it's simply a matter then, of coming up and grabbing the monkey. Now if you were standing there in the jungle, watching all of this happen, and wanted to save the monkey, you might yell in exasperation, [pause] "Drop the Banana!" In the same way, we sometimes hang on to our stuff – and we won't let go and drop the banana even when it would be in our best interest to do so.
The mishna teaches, “For one who says, ‘I will sin, and then repent, I will sin [again], and then repent,’ he will not receive an opportunity to repent.” And when we have a compulsion this is exactly what we do. We sin and then we try to turn away from it, We come back to it, and then we try to turn away from it. For those of us who are wrestling with compulsions that make us do things we don’t want to be doing. It is in those moments precisely we are told that we are not able to do teshuvah. Yet we are told over and over in Jewish teachings that repentance and forgiveness are always available to us. So what is the difference between the general knowledge that we are bound to mess up somehow this year and that other instance where I say “I will do this sin and then repent.”
There’s something about anticipating in advance that we are going to be back in the same place that can take away any real desire to transform ourselves. To go beyond the compulsion, to drop the banana and break through to a new level of change, we need to imagine that we don’t have another chance to repair the damage done
Today we remind ourselves that this could, God forbid, be our last Yom Kippur on earth
So on the one hand we need to know that when turn we will be embraced, and that’s absolute. And on the other hand we have to be sure that we don’t get so comfortable with our compulsions, that we will refuse to dig deep into that place where change is possible and give up on the real possibility of change.
So, for one day, we confront the abyss. We starve our bodies. We recite Yizkor for our departed, and chant the Vidui, the confession of sins, just as we are commanded to do when we prepare to die. It is traditional to wear a white robe today- a kittel, to remind us of the shroud in which we will be buried. Many people don’t wear leather, although, the original practice was to go barefoot as we will all go someday. We are prohibited from hiding the funky smell of our bodies. No bathing or perfuming is permitted. We abstain from life affirming activities like eating and sex. We recite the words of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, as we did on Rosh Hashannah: Who shall live, and who shall die. But today, the words seem even more frightening then they did last week, because today is Yom Kippur. And yet, here we are. We choose to be here because we believe that Yom Kippur, this rehearsal of death, atones; that it actually prepares us to live better, more thoughtful lives. That there are things we need to learn about ourselves,
and that death itself is our teacher.
Bronnie Ware began a career in palliative care at a hospice center several years ago, working with patients in the final stages (usually the last 3-12 weeks) of their lives.
Over the course of her time with these patients, she began to note trends in the ways that the dying spoke about and reflected upon their lives, and she compiled a list of the top five regrets people in hospice express on their deathbeds.
This is what we will all be thinking about someday on our deathbeds, but since today is a sort dress rehearsal, here’s what people say…
I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. Bronnie Ware says that this is the most common regret of all. On the cusp of death, people see their lives with a kind of clarity that generally otherwise eludes them. And what do they see…? Unfulfilled dreams. Unnecessary sacrifices. Time wasted, as we undermine ourselves trying to please others.
I wish I hadn't worked so hard. Someone once told me that he realized when his daughter left for college that he could count on one hand the number of times he had made it home for family dinner. Many of Ware’s patients spoke about work as a treadmill that they just couldn’t step off.
I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings. The dying speak of having lived in fear – of working to suppress their instincts and feelings in order to appease others and not stir the pot. “As a result,” Ware says, “they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming..."
I wish I had stayed in touch with loved ones. On their deathbed, people talk about the one who got away – and the ones who got away. The relationships that we devoted heart and soul to over many years, which faded into obscurity when life just got too busy. Ware says that: “Everyone misses their friends when they are dying."
I wish that I had let myself be happier. All of these regrets are really about being stuck. Stuck in a broken relationship, stuck in a destructive pattern. Imprisoned by habits that we might have been left behind years ago.
Stuck in a script and suppressing, for a lifetime, our real longing. After years of working with the dying, Ware’s research indicates that – without some dramatic intervention - most of us will die with regret – personal, relational, spiritual regret. I doubt that any of this is surprising to you. But here’s what might surprise you: We all know that ruptures in our lives – big, dramatic moments of struggle: losing a loved one, suffering from an illness, getting in an accident, living through an earthquake or a terrorist attack – all have the potential to wake us and shake us and change our lives.
Over the past few years, a number of psychologists have been developing theories around a psycho-spiritual phenomenon called Post Traumatic Growth.
Post Traumatic Growth is when the change after an extremely challenging experience is ultimately POSITIVE rather than negative. It’s when a person is able not only to survive and overcome a traumatic experience, but to actually emerge strengthened.
And even though it’s not experienced by everyone who suffers from trauma, it happens more often than you might think. This doesn’t mean that the trauma doesn’t hurt, but rather that the pain is ultimately fortifying and can lead to deeper wisdom and growth. In the way that a knife is used to carve out the inside of a wooden bowl. The deeper the cuts, the more capacity the bowl has to hold nourishment. Our sages teach that the ba’al teshuvah – one who has caused hurt, to himself or someone else, but then returned/ reconciled/ brought about healing – lives on a higher spiritual plane than a tzadik – one who never errs and is completely righteous. Why? Because the baal teshuvah has plunged to depths – seen what is possible, and made it back. That’s what Post Traumatic Growth is all about: because of what you have experienced, you are able to come back with a deeper appreciation, with broader perspective, with a stronger will to live meaningfully
But in order to do this we must learn to forgive ourselves and forgive others – we must let go of our hope for a better past.
70 years ago, following the liberation of Nazi concentration camps in Europe, there were masses refugees, and the world was coming to grips with the scale of the holocaust, and how to deal with crimes so horrendous, they're almost incomprehensible. That process is still ongoing. Just months ago in Germany, a 93-year-old former Nazi who served at Auschwitz was on trial Holocaust survivor Eva Kor flew to Germany to testify about her experience in the camp. "If there would be hell on Earth, Auschwitz looked to me like that and in some way it was,” she said, “Within 30 minutes, my whole family was gone. ... I was left orphaned not knowing really what will become of us."
she was "between life and death" and used in brutal nazi medical experiments.
Now 70 years later she speaks across the country about her experience and the power of forgiveness and how you don’t need to wait for the other person to ask. "My forgiveness ... has nothing to do with the perpetrator,” she says. “It has nothing to do with any religion, it is my act of self-healing, self-liberation and self-empowerment. I had no power over my life up to the time that I discovered that I could forgive, and I still do not understand why people think it's wrong." Kor says that when a victim chooses to forgive, they take the power back from their tormentors. But that it is their choice to make. We will never stop mourning the loss of 6 million Jews, we will never get them back, but we do have the power to heal and forgive, we can take that power back if we choose.
Mindful of its shameful conduct during that war, when the Nazis tried to exterminate whole classes of people they deemed undesirable,
Germany is taking the opposite tack now by opening its arms to more refugees than any other country in Europe. In recent weeks Germany has brought in over 800,000 Syrian refugees. Many Germans feel an obligation to welcome the new arrivals.
A large number have taken refugee families into their homes. Collection centers overflow with donations of food and clothes. A conservative/masorti shul in Berlin is partnering with an adjacent Catholic Hospital housing refugee families. Just as a side note: That hospital housing the refugees was once used by the Nazis as a collecting point before deportation to the camps. But today everyone is cooperating to help the new refugees.
Last year the Berlin synagogue invited Syrian refugees as guests for their Chanukah party. One of the guests asked our Muslim friend: “Is such a relationship as we see here normal between Muslims and Jews in Germany?” and she answered with a smile, “Yes, that’s normal.” This is the normalcy we want to create – and it would be great if you become part of it! There is always the possibility for hope even in the darkest places. As Pope Francis wrote in his encyclical on climate change, “[A]ll is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.”
At the very end of Yom kippur just before we blow the great tekiyah gedolah and break the fast. There is this incredibly dramatic moment when we stand together triumphantly and proclaim Shema Yisrael and other words that are normally chanted in an undertone on one’s deathbed, but we shout them together with great joy. And we chant the deathbed confession in reverse order. As if we have died and been through to the other side and come back again wiser and more full of life than ever before. Through all the fasting and praying we leave the old dead parts of ourselves back in the previous year.
We ascend up to the heavens to be cleansed and purified. Then at neilah our souls make it out of heaven just before the gates clang shut, and the shofar blasts the last great tekiyah gedolah and our souls return to our bodies renewed, re-Jewed and ready for food,
Ready to appreciate and more fully love the people in our lives, Grateful for the simple gift of being alive and able to fully participate in life. Yom Kippur teaches that we can’t wait around for what we think the right opportunity in life is supposed to look like.
In the sometimes calm but often turbulent ocean of our lives, Yom Kippur is like our rescue boat or our helicopter, imploring us: wherever you are and wherever you’ve been, reach out, now!
Take hold of Life, take a leap of faith onto the boat and reach out to grab the dangling rope ladder! Don’t let another year, another day, even another moment slip away without taking the time to reflect, refine, retool and renew your commitment to life.
Rabbi Aaron Philmus
Rabbi Aaron brings a traditional style and approach of prayer to the conservative synagogue. He has a background in ecology and Jewish education and teaches Torah through agriculture and wilderness skills, and plays guitar as a way to bring music to the synagogue. He’s a naturalist who believes that everything stems from nature, and he understands the plight of others who are less fortunate, and how to use the land to enrich ourselves.