Erev Yom Kippur Sermon
October 7, 2011-10 Tishri, 5772
Four days before my sixtieth birthday in June, I received a call that shook me to my very core. I was already having a difficult time with becoming sixty. When I reached the age of 50, I could rationalize that I might live to be 100 and still had half my life ahead of me. At sixty, that would be impossible. I was no Moses who would live to be 120. Even if I lived to be 90, two-thirds of my life was behind me. The specter of my own mortality clung to me like a shadow. Then came the phone call from my doctor.
My doctor always makes me laugh. Even when he delivers bad news, I laugh with him. I did not laugh when he explained the results of my blood tests. “Your blood is fakakte,” he said. For those of you who do not understand Yiddish slang, fakakte loosely translates to “very bad.” He explained to me that my blood glucose levels were sky high, that I was lucky not to have suffered a stroke, and that I needed to start taking medication immediately. I broke into a cold sweat. Just when I was starting to figure out how to be a decent human being and good rabbi, my life was going to be cut short. I was now a full blown diabetic, one of millions in this country who live with this fast spreading disease.
My stomach sank, my heart started racing, and I became very afraid. I was losing my health. My body, which had never before seriously failed me, was deteriorating. It was out of control- and I had no idea how to control it. Fear permeated my very being. I was paralyzed with anxiety and could not move forward. Would this disable me? Would I stop being a productive and capable person? Would I still be able to serve this congregation? How could I stick myself with needles several times a day? The idea itself was repulsive to me. What would I do?
I was in shock the first couple of days. Sally and my family rallied around me. The officers of this congregation were very supportive. I still, however, was fearful. I prayed for strength and courage to deal with my affliction. A few days later a thought came to me completely out of the blue. I can only attribute its origin to God. Resounding in my ears was a saying by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the Bratslaver Rebbe: Kol Haolam Kulo, Gesher Tsar Me’od; V’ha-ikar Lo L’fached K’lal. The entire world is a narrow bridge; the most important thing is not to be afraid.
This insight saved me. I realized that fear was my biggest enemy. If I could work through it, I would be able to take the actions necessary to deal with diabetes. After all, I thought, I wasn’t terminal. People live with diabetes for years and years. The doctor said it was not too hard to manage. My late father was a diabetic and my mother and sister, both of whom have diabetes, live relatively normal lives. If they could do it, so could I, and I am healthier and a lot more compulsive than either of them. So we had family meetings with a nutritionist and endocrinologist. I started taking medication and testing my blood at least twice a day. Sally became my partner and cheerleader in dealing with this. I started to exercise, began watching my diet, and took my medication. Three months later I am proud to report that I am the star pupil in the diabetes class. My blood glucose levels are completely normal and I feel better than I have in years. It might be possible to reach the point where I no longer need medication. With Sally’s help and the support of a community of medical professionals and friends, I am learning to live with this disease.
I realized, however, how fear can affect us. I learned that it can prevent us from taking action, paralyze us from moving forward, and stop us from making important changes in our lives. I meet with people every day who are afraid. They are afraid of growing old, of losing their attractiveness, their health, their jobs, and their loved ones. They are afraid of being alone, of being abandoned by family and friends in their time of need. They are fearful of losing their money; of having their nest eggs so reduced they cannot maintain their life styles. They are anxious for their children and grandchildren. The worst part of this fear is that it stops them from dealing with the inevitable changes that take place every day in their lives. As Victor Frankel once wrote, “We cannot always control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond to what happens to us.”
Change occurs so rapidly today that it seems we are out of control. Things are changing too quickly for us to catch up. Change, however, happens whether we want it or not. One of the reasons that Evangelical Christianity and Orthodox Judaism are thriving is because they are unchanging. Religion and its rituals are anchors of stability in an ever changing world. That, however, is not a solution for us. We should not fear change but embrace it. We can only respond to change in a positive manner so as not to be paralyzed by it. Several times in the Book of Genesis, God said to Abraham and Jacob, “Do not fear for I will be with you. Your life will be a blessed one.” God stands with us to help us deal with dramatic changes in our lives. God ensures that we will never be alone and afraid. Kol Haolam Kulo, Gesher Tsar Me’od; V’ha-ikar Lo L’fached K’lal. The entire world is a narrow bridge; the most important thing is not to be afraid.
I speak now of three fears, examples of the worries that can permeate our lives and paralyze our actions. The first is the fear of growing older. We live in a youth oriented society, where youth and attractiveness are most highly valued. Wrinkles are detested. We fear the loss of physical attractiveness, of vitality. We are plagued by fears of bodily degradation and vulnerability to disease. Even though we may feel young inside, we look old outside. We become upset when the cruel looking glass reflects signs of age.[i] The root of our worry is that we will no longer be valued or loved by others. In a world obsessed by youth, we will be shunted aside and pushed into the margins by those younger and more attractive than us. What we must realize is that true beauty comes from the inside of us, not our external appearance. Outward beauty is always scarred by negativity, bitterness, hubris and ignorance. Grace, intelligence, humor, dignity, self-confidence and competence will never fade as will physical beauty. There will be plenty of the real us left as we get older. We will just have to learn to like ourselves, our true inner selves.[ii] We need not be afraid of growing older. We need to embrace it with the enthusiasm of youth: Kol Haolam Kulo, Gesher Tsar Me’od; V’ha-ikar Lo L’fached K’lal. The entire world is a narrow bridge; the most important thing is not to be afraid.
The next fear is one I call the loss of identity. There are so many of us who lose our jobs not through any fault of our own. Companies large and small are downsizing in this uncertain economy. Even governmental entities, once a haven of security, are not immune from layoffs. Many in our congregation and community have been forcibly retired. They, too, must adjust to having a much lower income and a complete change in their lives. When we lose our jobs we realize that we work for more than the income. Work helps us feel valued and important. Some of us keep working even if we do not need the income, just for the satisfaction and recognition it brings us. Love and work are our two primary sources of emotional nourishment. The prospect of losing our job and feeling unloved and unappreciated is one of our huge fears. Bennett Cerf once wrote, “What I fear most is that I am not loved.” Living without love is unbearable. We need to be cherished, to know that someone thinks we are special. Losing one’s job leads to feelings of pain, loss, rejection, and anger. We feel like we are no longer needed. When we meet someone new, we immediately identify ourselves by what we do. “I am a computer programmer, a lawyer, an administrator, or a teacher.” What happens when we are out of work and our days are not spent practicing law or teaching but looking for a job? We have lost one of our main sources of love, recognition, and identity. Who are we now? How do we cope with this loss of identity? Fear of the unknown can paralyze us from taking action and moving forward. We must apply for new jobs and sometimes reinvent ourselves by changing professions and developing new skill sets. Most of all, we need courage, for “Courage is the ability to look fear in the face and not be intimidated.”[iii] From whence does this courage come if we cannot find it within? The psalmist wrote (Psalm 27), “The Lord is my light and my help; whom should I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, whom should I dread? Look to the Lord; be strong and of good courage! O look to the Lord.” When we cannot find courage within we ask God for help. God will give us the ability and desire to go on, to be strong enough to withstand rejection, misfortune, and failure. We are more than our jobs and greater than our roles. We will not allow others to define us. We are human beings with abilities and interests that are more significant and important than the titles that others give us. The spark of God burns brightly within us. God will help us deal with the challenges in lives which seem to be insurmountable. God will give us the confidence we need to recognize that we are loved and important even without a job. God will help us deal with our fears. Kol Haolam Kulo, Gesher Tsar Me’od; V’ha-ikar Lo L’fached K’lal. The entire world is a narrow bridge; the most important thing is not to be afraid.
Our third fear is that of death. From an early age we are haunted by our own mortality. The inevitability of death casts a shadow over all our days. We are afraid of contracting a debilitating disease. We worry that when that happens we will lose the ability to do what we enjoy and the things that define us- our work, our volunteer activities and our intimate moments with loved ones. What we can do is not allow our disease or disability to define us. I am not a diabetic. I am a person who lives with diabetes. I am not a cancer victim. I am a person dealing with cancer. If we cannot be who or what we were, we can still inspire others through our example.[iv]
I have been with many of our congregants when they have died. Death itself is not frightening. Death, for most of us is peaceful, painless, and dignified. What scares us more than dying is the fear of losing our sense of selves, the spark that makes each one of us unique. We are concerned that our minds will deteriorate to the point we will no longer recognize our loved ones and we do not know who we are. No matter what we do, we realize that our physical bodies will eventually give out. Not too long ago, we were most afraid of having cancer. Today, fear of cancer takes second place to fear of Alzheimer’s disease. We cannot change our genetic structure, but we can exercise, eat healthfully and engage in stimulating activities, all of which will help us live better and longer. We are less afraid of dying than we are of not being remembered. We are also afraid of not leaving a mark on this world. There is so much we can do to enable our names to live on. Yet we should not concentrate as much on death as we do on life. “Life is the story; death is only a punctuation. We sin against life and against everything that is holy when we let the fears of death prevent us from enjoying as much of life as we are granted.”[v] It is not death, but the fear of death, that will rob our lives of meaning. The most important thing is not to be afraid of truly living in the face of imminent death. Kol Haolam Kulo, Gesher Tsar Me’od; V’ha-ikar Lo L’fached K’lal. The entire world is a narrow bridge; the most important thing is not to be afraid.
Dear friends, on this holiest night of the year, let us turn to God for the strength we need to confront the things that frighten us. Tonight we are just human beings, with without titles, jobs, roles and pretenses. We stand solitary before the Holy One. Tonight God calls out to us saying, “You are not alone; I am always with you. I will help you make a fresh start. I will provide you with the hope and courage you need. I will help you look fear in the face and not be intimidated. The most important thing is not to be afraid. Kol Haolam Kulo, Gesher Tsar Me’od; V’ha-ikar Lo L’fached K’lal. The entire world is a narrow bridge; the most important thing is not to be afraid.
Amen and Shana Tova Tikateivu v’Teichateimu
[i] Rabbi Harold Kushner, Conquering Fear, 1535
[ii] Ibid, 1592
[iii] Kushner, 2241
[iv] Kushner, 1671
[v] Kushner, 2101.