Yom Kippur Sermon: Lovingkindness of the Dead by Rabbi Daniel Chorny
There are few people in our world that we can comment upon without evoking some political disagreement. Whose names can be uttered without triggering the fight-flight-freeze response, without closing the ears of at least a third of the audience. Frankly, it is sad. Even for honoring the memory of a respected trailblazer and champion of equality, one of the Nine who intentionally neither stand nor clap during the annual State of the Union address, a proud Jewish individual and beloved Mensch like Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cannot be done without multiple disclaimers like the one I’m making right now. Please, I do not wish to divide us, but only to reflect upon the legacy of a judicial giant and how we can grow from her example. Please, bear with me.
Justice Ginsburg tried to live every moment, on and off the bench, following her mother’s advice: “Be independent, and be a lady”. In an interview with Jeffrey Rosen of the Atlantic, the justice explained this seemingly contradictory message: “don’t lose time on useless emotions like anger, resentment, remorse, envy. Those […] will just sap time; they don’t get you where you want to be.” What excellent advice for living in a moment when everything, from cable news to social media, is designed to keep us in a constant state of anger, resentment, envy and shock; to steal our precious attention and quite literally waste our time. On this most different of Yom Kippurs, we are collectively mourning a true Chachamah, a beloved sage of our nation, along with nearly one million Covid19 dead and those who loved them worldwide.
I almost feel like we don’t need Yom Kippur this year. As we’ve spent well over half of 2020 in physical isolation of one sort or another, it is challenging to think about where we individually went wrong. There simply isn’t that much to meditate upon besides how we dealt with our loneliness and grew from our solitude. We are unintentional monks, trying to reach distant places and hidden dimensions without leaving our cloisters. What do we have to atone for? Dear God, haven’t we been through enough?
Perhaps we should take this moment of “karmic stasis” to consider the negative. In rabbinic jurisprudence this is called “מכלל לאו אתה שומע הן”, or “from what is missing you can perceive what is there”. Think of it like trying to draw a shape by tracing the space around it. Like a cartoon sawing a circle in the floor and, unexpectedly, everything falls away except that circle. Inaction can highlight unrealized needs, desires and obligations. What is left unsaid sometimes communicates more than what is said.
To say we are blameless when we have done nothing would be a denial of responsibility. It is not enough to abstain. Jewishly, a person’s freedom does not end where their fist meets my nose. Yes, we have a whopping 613 commandments, but only 365 of them are prohibitions! Citizenship, both Jewish and American, requires not only observing the speed limits and keeping my hands to myself, but also paying taxes, apply for permits and build to code, register my vehicle, and vote!
What did we fail to do this year? What opportunities presented themselves that we didn’t take? What balance of circumstance and choice held us back from making an impact?
In our tradition we talk about חסד של אמת, “Lovingkindness of Truth”. Bereishit Rabbah Asks: Is there “a lovingkindness of Truth” and a “lovingkindness of Falsehood”? and concludes that “the lovingkindness of truth” is the burial of the dead, since this kindness is done without expectation or possibility of repayment and gratitude. When you participate in a funeral, you are engaged in this kind of true lovingkindness.
But what is often overlooked when teaching this important precept is the “negative space” surround it. When we engage in חסד של אמת, we are also the beneficiaries of חסד של המת, “The lovingkindness of the dead”.
How might the dead perform lovingkindness for the living? When my father would come home from performing funerals, I would ask him how it went and his answer was always the same: “The ‘client’ didn’t complain”. The dead do not complain. They do not perform mitzvot, so we have the custom to tuck our tzitzit fringes into our pants when we enter a cemetery in order, paradoxically, to avoid embarrassing the dead for their inability to participate along with the living. And yet, there is one חסד they give. So what is חסד של המת?
When I was in rabbinical school, I spent a summer working as a chaplain in a hospice. I spent much of the time terrified that I would find one of our patiences actively dying. Every time I went to work, I thought about how fragile some of my patients were the previous day, and wondered if this was going to be the morning I found them gone. Ultimately, I never witnessed a patient die, thank God. To ease my discomfort, I developed a ritual for when I learned that they had died.
First, I would say the blessing for hearing bad news: “Blessed are you, Sovereign God, who is the true Justice.” And then I would amble into their now vacant room and quietly sit for a few minutes contemplating how brief our time together had ultimately been, and with tears in my eyes whisper: “I’m so sorry. I should have been here sooner. I’m sorry, I hope you weren’t alone in your last moments. I’m so sorry. I’m going to show my other patience the kindness and care I should have shown you. Goodbye.”
And in those experiences I learned that it was a huge חסד afforded me to have the chance to acknowledge the missed opportunities to relieve their suffering and re-affirm their unique and irreplaceable humanity. חסד של המת, the kindness of the dead is the reminder to appreciate and take care of the living. It is a chance to do teshuva, to lament our inaction and self-absorption, a gentle corrective for having failed to show kindness while a person could have appreciated it. The dead cannot thank us for our kindness, they can only remind us not to miss our chance to be kind to those who are still with us.
In Pirkei Avot, we are taught:
שוב יום אחד לפני מתתך
“Repent one day before you die”. Classically, this is understood to mean “repent every day, since you cannot know when you’ll die.” But in light of חסד של המת, I wish to suggest that we can also understand this teaching as “שוב יום אחד לפני מתת חברך”, “repent one day before your fellow’s death.” Since you do not know when that will be, every time you encounter another human engenders an opportunity and a duty to make their life just a little bit better with a small gesture of kindness: an unearned smile, a sincere offer of aid, or a simple thank you for spending some of their brief journey on this earth in your presence.
Do this before you lose them. Return to them before it’s too late. Surround yourself with and build Hevra Kaddishah, “sacred community” for the living. Live each interaction like it might be your last with that particular person. To paraphrase comedian Aziz Ansari: If you only see a parent once or twice a year, then realistically a person in their 30s can expect to have about 20 more opportunities to be with them. Spend those moments intentionally; they go fast.
I’d like to offer two more creative reading of Scripture: One that we say everyday and one that we recall in this season.
Famously it has been asked how we can be commanded to love God.
ואהבת את ה׳ אלקיך בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך ובכל מאודך
“And you shall Love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your possessions.”
How can we be commanded to experience an emotion? The answer may be found in the little oft-overlooked word את. It is not-so-common knowledge that את has two meanings. The first usage of the word is untranslatable to English as a definite direct object marker, and this has been the bane of countless Hebrew school students’ existence for centuries.
אני אוהב שקולד
I love chocolate
אני אוהב את הילדה
I love THE girl
The other, less common definition of the word את connotes participation in an action with someone or something else.
In light of this, we can read the veahavta anew:
ואהבת את ה אלוקיך…
“And you shall love WITH Adonai your God.” God is the doer of true lovingkindness, because God loves all of the created world and provides for our sustenance even though we can never fully reciprocate, as we describe God as:
ה׳ ה׳ קל רחום וחנון ארך אפיים ורב חסד ואמת…
God is abundant in lovingkindness and truth. If we seek to love with God, to give our love and kindness to the living, expecting nothing in return, then can we truly express our love for God.
May we learn to love each other as the Holy Blessed One loves us. May the memories of those we remember on this Yom Kippur transform every one of us into blessings. And may we all be sealed in the book of life and peace.
G’mar chatimah tovah.