Erev Yom Kippur Sermon
10 Tishri, 5771- September 17, 2010
Shooting at Hopkins
This is not the sermon that I wrote for tonight. I will deliver that sermon at another time for its message is timeless. I feel compelled to deliver a different message to you now. The events of yesterday at Johns Hopkins Hospital touched home in a way that few other things have. Many of you work at Johns Hopkins Hospital and were directly impacted by yesterday’s shooting. All of us were affected in other ways. We did not know how directly this congregation would be touched by these events until we learned the name of the doctor who was shot. Dr. David B. Cohen, the doctor who was shot by his patient’s son, is a member of Temple Oheb Shalom. He and his wife, Cynthia, who is a transplant nurse at Hopkins Hospital, bring their two children to religious school and attend Beit Midrash regularly. Doctor Cohen was in surgery last night when I saw Cynthia at the hospital. I visited him in the ICU this afternoon. While he is in great discomfort, he is expected to fully recover from the shooting. Our sympathies go out to him and his family. We will give them all the support and love we have within us during the trying weeks and months ahead.
Dr. Cohen is in the prime of his life. He is a talented and compassionate surgeon, a loving husband and father, and a kind man. Yet despite all his gifts, a terrible thing happened to him, something that was totally outside of his control. Everything he is, everything he has, might have been taken from him in an instant. How do we live with that? The truth is- with much difficulty.
We hear about random shootings all the time. “Going Postal” has become a coming phrase in the English language, reflecting the twisted and sick rage that pushes some over the edge and causes them to do terrible things. Including the shooter at Johns Hopkins Hospital who killed himself and his mother, there have already been eight people killed in hospital shootings this year in the United States. Shootings like this will likely continue. Understandably, hospitals are unwilling to become armed fortresses that are intimidating to patients and staff alike. In times past, other members of our congregation have suffered grievous losses because of random violence. It is unlikely that gun control laws will become more restrictive in the near future. So we go to work everyday and try to live as best we can, facing the possibility of random violence. We never know what will happen to us when we leave our homes in the morning. It is conceivable that we will be in an automobile accident or be blown up in a natural gas explosion. We could be driving across a bridge when it collapses into a river. We might step on the ice and hit our head on the sidewalk. Despite our society’s attempts to reduce risk and injury, random accidents have always occurred and will always occur. We cannot live in a bubble. How many of us have had our lives ineluctably changed because of an accident? How often have we simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time? There is no way to completely eliminate the possibility of being involved in a random act of violence or an accident. That is why we have insurance, to protect us and our families from such things. Insurance can protect us from financial loss. It does not restore our lives. It cannot make us whole.
I imagine that Dr. Cohen will return to the hospital after a long recuperation. How difficult, though, will it be for him to go back to work? Won’t he always be concerned that this could happen again? Will he ever be able to look at a patient in the same way again? Instead of devoting himself fully to a patient’s care, won’t he be wondering if this patient’s son, husband, or brother will take a shot at him? His life as a doctor, husband, and father has been irreparably changed. Our prayers go out to him and his family.
Given the possibility of something like this happening to each one of us, how do we go on living? What do we do to make our lives bearable? I offer some practical advice, such as always kissing your loved ones before you leave home, hugging your children before they go to school, and not leaving home angry with one another. When something like this happens, we realize that what is most important to us are the relationships we have. On this Erev Yom Kippur, this holiest night of the year, we cherish ever more the love we have with our family and friends. We strive to end the estrangement with those for whom we care. Life is too short and too unpredictable for us to hold grudges and remain angry.
This has been a very hard year for our family. My two brothers-in-law, Sally’s sister’s husband and Sally’s brother, aged 61 and 62, died within five months of one another. Doug had cancer and lived for eight months after the diagnosis. Michael died suddenly from unknown causes. Their deaths leave us reeling and in great emotional pain. We had time to speak to Doug and prepare, as best as anyone can, for his death. He had time to speak to his wife, daughters, and friends. He died with dignity with his entire family surrounding him. Michael died unexpectedly. While everyone in his large family knew he loved us, he did not have the opportunity to say it. We wish we could have more time with him, for him to tell us he loved us and for us to be able to repeat those words back to him. If this year has taught us anything, it is to treasure the time we have and to celebrate each and every day simply because we are alive. We never know when our lives will end. Let us not leave home angry, let us try not to yell or utter harsh words, let us cherish the time we have with those whom we love. Let us repair our relationships with one another, for that is what brings us happiness and meaning in life.
This brings us back to the meaning of Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur creates the opportunity for us to repair the hurts we have caused and to forgive the hurts we have endured. Yom Kippur is a God given opportunity to say “I am sorry” and make amends to those whom we have wronged. Each of us has uttered stupid, careless, and hurtful words. Each of us has inflicted pain on others. Knowing or even unwittingly, we have wounded our friends and loved ones. This is the day to say, “I am sorry.” This is the day to try our very best to heal those wounds and repair the damage we have caused. Sometimes the one we have hurt is not emotionally ready to forgive us. If we sincerely approach that person three times and they still have not forgiven us, leave it alone and try again next year. Our task, however, is to try.
I conclude with the following prayer:
We open our hearts to You on this Day of Atonement
O God, teach us to cherish the time we have
We know our lives can end in an instant
We understand that randomness is all around us
With that in mind, we want to heal the hurts we can
Help us speak the words we cannot utter,
Give us, Adonai, the ability to gather the courage we need
To speak tenderly and sincerely to those whom we have hurt
Open our lips to them
Speed the forgiveness of their hearts
Give us the ability to say “I am sorry.”
Grant us the humility and grace to forgive those who have harmed us.
Cause us to make our relationships with those we love our greatest priority.
Then shall we be blessed with happiness, contentment, and peace.
Kein Y’hi Ratson– may it be Your will.