Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Shofar from Auschwitz

This is a link to my article in the Washington Post. A longer piece is in the works.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Developmental Disabilities: We’ve Come a Long Way on a Longer Road

Each year, our congregation hosts a Shabbaton for Yachad,The National Jewish Council for Disabilities[1]. Over 60 students with developmental disabilities come to KJ, and one of the students gives a short sermon from the pulpit on Shabbat morning. It is a highlight of the KJ year.

This yearly sermon represents a revolution. Fifty years ago, a developmentally disabled man would not have spoken from the pulpit, and no congregation would have welcomed a Yachad Shabbaton. The developmentally disabled were invisible, hidden away in attics and institutions. For the most part attitudes have changed in recent years. But one lingering question remains: why was there such discomfort with developmental disabilities in the first place? Why would people discriminate against the children of their friends and family? Thinking seriously about this question will force us to confront our own instinctive biases.

In 2014, a controversy erupted over a comment on Twitter by the famed biologist Richard Dawkins. When asked by a follower about the ethical dilemma of aborting a Down’s syndrome pregnancy, Dawkins wrote: “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”

Undoubtedly, such a pregnancy presents a serious ethical dilemma, and even in the Jewish tradition,  halachic opinions on this subject are not monolithic. But Dawkins’ blithe response shocked many. How could he coldly pronounce “abort it”, as if the life of a disabled person is worthless?

But Dawkins’ point of view is not new or unique. It is tempting to compare his cold attitude towards developmental disabilities with the Nazi T-4 program, which murdered over 70,000 Germans with disabilities and psychiatric disorders. However, this analogy is deceptive; the exceptional evil of the Nazi regime would leave the impression that any policy they adopted is an outlier, the handiwork of immoral barbarians. But in actuality, the idea of murdering the disabled is quite old, and not at all uncommon. In Sparta, babies deemed “deformed” were tossed into a place called “the apothetae”, a chasm near Mount Taygetus[2]. In ancient Rome, it was not uncommon to abandon disabled children.  Martin Luther believed children with severe disabilities were actually “changelings”, demonic beings that took on the form of a human child, and that they should be killed. He is quoted as saying: “I said to the Princes of Anhalt: "If I were the prince or the ruler here, I would throw this child into the water--into the Molda that flows by Dessau. I would dare commit homicidium on him!”[3]

This cold view of disabilities has always found followers because it is not unreasonable. In fact, it can be seen as the practical way of dealing with a difficult situation.  When Dawkins’ defended himself, he wrote that “if your morality is based, as mine is, on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down baby, when you have the choice to abort it early in the pregnancy, might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child’s own welfare.”

This view may seem cold, but it is logical. Tragically, this vision is not at all foreign to us. All too often, in the most observant segments of the Orthodox world, a Down’s Syndrome child is hidden away, because people are concerned that the developmentally disabled child will affect the shidduch possibilities of the siblings.

These attitudes are sometimes stated in a heartless and vulgar fashion. Rav Shlomo Aviner, a leader of the Dati Leumi community in Israel ruled that you make the blessing of Baruch Dayan Haemet, (a blessing generally said when informed of tragic news like the death of a relative) on the birth of a Down’s Syndrome child[4].

Like Dawkins, Aviner sees the developmentally disabled as a liability, people who undermine the happiness of those around them. They recognize that capabilities matter;  intellectual, physical, financial. In every sphere of life, there is constant competition for greatness and achievement; and these disabled children will achieve less and require much more from their families and their community. Dawkins and Aviner approach disabilities from a utilitarian perspective, and see disabled children as a tragedy.

In the language of Rav Soloveitchik’s Lonely Man of Faith, utilitarians believe that the majestic nature of humans is all that matters. Soloveitchik writes that humanity instinctively strives to achieve majesty by controlling and subduing the world around him. And it is through this triumph that man achieves dignity and honor.

When majesty is the only parameter by which life is judged, anyone with diminished capabilities is less worthy, and the utilitarian ethic of Aviner and Dawkins seems justifiable. Instead of wondering why the developmentally disabled were once marginalized in the past, it is critical to recognize that this discrimination is not the foolishness of an earlier, benighted age, but the cold calculations of the pragmatic mind. And because it is a reasonable perspective, this utilitarian view of life can always find advocates throughout history, can always find a followers in our community, and many times, can find a place in our hearts.

But what is wrong with this perspective is that it misses the most critical dimension of life.

Rav Soloveitchik explains that humanity has a dual nature. Beyond the majestic, humanity strives for the covenantal; we create community simply because that is what the soul thirsts for. To Soloveitchik, man instinctively pursues accomplishment and greatness, but also embarks on a more important quest, for inspiration and insight. On this spiritual journey, we gain an appreciation for the miracle of life, and a different moral vision emerges:

Life is sacred.

Community is inclusive.

Love is redemptive.

Jews believe that man is created in the image of God, we believe that Kol Yisrael Ereivim zeh lazeh, that we are all responsible for and intertwined with each other, and maintain that the most important rule in the Torah is to love your neighbor as yourself.

Through the ages it is this moral vision that has challenged the utilitarian view. It refuses to reduce human existence into metrics and numbers, and sees life as a gift and privilege. And it follows that the developmentally disabled, like everyone else, have lives of infinite value.

But the utilitarian thesis fails in another way. Joy is not just measured in achievements and pleasures, and happiness is not directly related to pleasure and convenience. Indeed, the greatest joys often come from the devotion and difficulty.

In my previous synagogue, there was a young woman named Pamela who had Pervasive Developmental Disorder. Pamela’s parents are both accomplished professionals, who worked diligently to help in her development. As a child, Pamela learned how to write most of the letters in the alphabet, but the letter “e” eluded her. For years Pamela tried; and finally one day she brought home her schoolwork, with her name spelled in full, including the letter “e”. That evening, the entire family danced around the house overjoyed over Pamela’s letter “e”. Of course, her two highly educated parents were not celebrating the writing of the letter “e”; they were celebrating a triumph of love and nurturing.

The utilitarian argument assumes that happiness follows ease and comfort, while in actuality the opposite is often true. Take love for example. We all want to be loved. Yet the experience of love is not at all a passive one, of being a lucky recipient. Rav Eliyahu Dessler[5] points out that with love, the more you give, the more love you experience. It is through the act of sacrifice that one feels love most profoundly[6]. This insight challenges the utilitarian calculation that one is happier without the difficulty and burden of a developmentally delayed child. And this has been confirmed by studies, cited by Jamie Edgin in the New York Times, that siblings growing up with a Down’s Syndrome sibling felt it made them into better people, and that the parents experienced few regrets[7]. Rather than being an empty burden, selfless devotion can bring one a great deal of happiness.

Of course, however rewarding the experience, there are enormous struggles. Pamela’s mother Marcy once wrote me a short note about her experience. She was critiquing a sermon I had given about Moshe’s last moments, on a mountain overlooking Israel. Marcy felt I was mistaken to portray Moshe as disappointed over the fact he could not get into the Holy Land, and sent me the following e-mail about Pamela’s graduation from her school for the developmentally diasbled:

“This past June, our family was incredibly privileged to attend a very special graduation from Summit School. To be entirely honest with you, I thought that I was going to sit through it in anger.  I thought that all I would be able to think of was: "Why could it not be Herzliah, Marianopolis or McGill?"  In a sense, I guess I thought that I would be like your Moshe on the mountain. I thought that all I would be able to focus on what was the unfilled: my unfulfilled hopes and dreams and all of the doors that Lawrence and I have so quietly closed over the years.  Instead, the most amazing thing happened.  Pamela walked in in her cap and gown with a smile on her face that could have lit the room and I immediately started to cry. I cried through the entire ceremony.  I can tell you that not one of those tears was about what was not, but instead what was and how far Pamela has come in the 17 years since her diagnosis. Lawrence and I have been very fortunate, we rarely think of what could have been.  We never compare Pamela to others, we are content to move with her on her road and to watch her grow and change. Her smile is a sign to us from God that we are indeed on the right track and fulfilling our all important mission of nurturing our very special neshama.”

This letter reminds us that there are joys that have nothing to do with conventional achievements. Happiness is not always about having a child graduate Harvard, and sometimes, even writing the letter “e” is a moment of intense joy.

The world has changed in the last 50 years. It was considered dramatic when Vice President Hubert Humphrey spoke about his granddaughter having Down’s syndrome in the 1960’s, and many look back at that as a turning point in American attitudes towards the developmentally disabled. Since then, there has been greater sensitivity and greater inclusion, and at KJ  we can be proud of 30 years of Yachad shabbatonim. But we still have a long way to go. Someone once remarked to me: “Yachad Shabbat cannot be just one day a year”, and she is absolutely right. Parents cry when their children have no one to play with on Shabbat, week after week, and they cry when there is no good Jewish education for their children. Inclusion needs to be a daily exercise, and there is a long way to go. We must do more in our community, in our synagogues, and in our schools.

But even so, we must remember Marcy’s point. We may not be where would like to be, but like Moshe on the mountain, we can take satisfaction in how far have come, and know that the progress will continue in the future.

[1] The Shabbaton has been sponsored since its initiation by Karin and Joel Katz
[2] Aristotle accepts this idea as well in Politics 7:17 “Deformed offspring should not be reared.”
[3] Martin Luther, "Historia von einem Wechselkinde zu Dessau," Sämmtliche Werke, vol. 60 (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag von Heyder & Zimmer, 1854), pp. 39-40. Translation at

[5] Michtav M’Eliyahu, Kuntres HaChesed
[6] Rav Dessler argues this is why the love of a parent for a child is the most profound type of love.
[7] “The Truth About Down Syndrome” By Jamie Edgin and Fabian Fernandez, Aug. 28, 2014

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Children, Dear Children

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau tells about a speech he heard as a 10 year old child, in a displaced children’s center in Ecoius, France. A group of local politicians came to visit the center, filled with the youngest survivors of the Holocaust. The children did not want to listen to the politicians, and sat stone silent, ignoring the speakers. But then the final speaker got up. As Rabbi Lau describes him, the man “was a Jew who had survived Auschwitz, where he had lost his wife and children.  Since the liberation, he had dedicated all his time, energy, and resources to war orphans.” 

Rabbi Lau describes what happened next:

“At that moment, without any advance planning, five hundred pairs of eyes lifted in a look of solidarity toward the Jew standing on the stage.  He was one of us.  We looked at him, and he saw hundreds of pairs of eyes fixed on him in a powerful gesture of empathy.  Tears choked his throat.  He gripped the microphone, and for several long seconds, the microphone broadcast only the sounds of his hands shaking.  He tried to control himself, but managed to say only three words in Yiddish:  “Kinder, taiyereh kinder” (“Children, dear children”). Then he burst into tears.…...We all considered it unmanly to cry, since, after all, we had survived the concentration camps.  Yet each boy sitting on the grassy plaza stealthily wiped his eyes with his sleeve….then the dam broke.  All at once, the lawn of [the orphanage] was transformed into a literal vale of tears.” 

This Holocaust survivor, alone in the world, has devoted himself to the remaining Jewish children in Europe. In three tear choked words, he can summarize his mission: “Kinder, taiyereh kinder”.

This mission is the theme of Rosh Hashanah. The Torah Reading and Haftorah of  Rosh Hashanah are unlike that of any other holiday; they are not about the rituals and sacrifices of the day, nor are they about the essence of the day, such at creation or judgement. Instead, these two readings are about two infertile women, Sarah and Hannah, struggling to conceive. The lesson is simple; on the one day when we focus on our dreams for the future, we need to remember that the way we get there is by the love we give our children, our dear children.

This lesson may seem simple, but it is not.

The first part of this lesson begins in the text; building a child centered community only magnifies the pain of those who struggle with infertility. Sarah and Hannah are role models, and lead successful lives. Yet nothing quite stings like their inability to conceive, and the insensitive attempts by others to offer them “perspective” makes their pain worse. I hesitated more than once before writing this for the bulletin, worried that it might be misunderstood and cause pain to some of the people reading it. The Torah and Haftorah readings have a clear message: we cannot talk about our dreams for family without praying for, and embracing, those who struggle to build families of their own; and I hope this sermon is understood in a similar fashion.

The second lesson is that our children are a sacred trust. The text makes it clear that the babies born to Sarah and Hannah are a divine gift; and so is every baby.  Therefore, we must cherish them, protect them and love them unconditionally. They are our “tayereh kinder”, our  dear, dear children.

This love might seem universal, but it is not; children were not loved in every culture and era. At times, entire societies showed marked indifference to children. Phillipe Aries[1]  has argued that deep bonds of love between parent and child were uncommon in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. While his point of view has many detractors, Aries has some significant evidence. In one example, a woman in the 17th century gives comfort to her neighbor who had just had her fifth child by saying: “before they are old enough to bother you, you will have lost half of them, or perhaps all of them”[2].   Aries’ insight is that parental instinct alone isn’t enough to ensure that parents love their children; the culture of the community plays a significant role as well.

Jewish culture was very different. Ephraim Kanarfogel[3] points to multiple sources, both Jewish and Christian, that portray a different picture of the Jewish home.  One is a comment of Rabbeinu Asher[4], (1259 – 1327) the 13th century German Rabbi, who comments on the common phrase “the pain of raising children” (tzaar giddul banim) by saying that “children do not bring one pain, only joy”. Even when children are a challenge for us, we must see them as a joy.

The next lesson of holding children dear is we need to cherish them for who they are. This too might seem obvious, but it is not.

Kanarfogel notes that one of the greatest contrasts between medieval Jews and Christians is in the area of education. In the early 12th century, a student of Peter Abelard writes[5] that unlike Christians, “a Jew, however poor, would put even ten sons to letters, not for gain, as Christians do, but for the understanding of God’s Law, and not only his sons but also his daughters.” (Even Jewish daughters are being taught in the 1100’s in France, and that is notable.)

This intense emphasis on education is rooted in the commandment to study Torah. From it, a powerful culture of educational excellence grew. Yet at the same time, a strong awareness arose that not every child is the same, and that excellence in education means educating each child differently. The 12th century Sefer Chasidim[6] offers the following educational directives. First, you can’t have students of different abilities in the same class. And if a student is not adept at Talmud, have him study Bible, or basic laws instead. Every student deserves an education on their own level.

But this is not easy to do, because we want naches.

There is a Jewish joke about a birth announcement in the newspaper that reads: "Mr. and Mrs. Marvin Rosenberg are pleased to announce the birth of their son, Dr. Jonathan Rosenberg." Unfortunately, too often the education of children is more about the parent than the child. What the child learns becomes part of “achievement by proxy syndrome”, where the parent lives in the child’s reflected glory. And too often, naches becomes oversized expectations. To this point, the comedian David Bader wrote a haiku entitled the “Jewish Mother’s Lament”:

Is one Nobel Prize
so much to ask from a child
after all I've done?
But what about the children who won't win Nobel Prizes, and do not fit the standard definition of naches? And what about the boy who doesn’t belong in an elite educational program? Samson Raphael Hirsch[7] raises this point in an essay about Esau and Jacob. He faults their parents, Isaac and Rebecca, for assuming that they both could be educated in the same intellectual Yeshiva style. He argues that Esau lost his way because his parents didn’t appreciate that he was not the same as his brother:

“Had Isaac and Rebecca studied Esau's nature and character early enough, and asked themselves, how can even an Esau, how can all the strength and energy, agility and courage that lies slumbering in this child be won over to be used in the service of God … then Jacob and Esau, with their totally different natures could still have remained twin­ brothers in spirit and life; quite early in life Esau's "sword" and Jacob's "spirit" could have worked hand in hand...”

Not every child is meant to be a Talmud prodigy, and there isn’t just one path for them. And whatever career they choose, they still are our dear, dear children.

One final lesson must be mentioned.  We might think that a desire for children is obvious. But it is not. Many people don’t want to have more children.

These words are not intended to preach. Every parent thinks twice before deciding to have another child, and spouses often argue about family size. But it is often the best and brightest who decide against having more children, and those who opt to have more children are seen as strange. Mark Oppenheimer[8], writes about having a fifth child that “among people we know, this makes us a bit odd.” When friends would ask him why he was having another child, and his pithy answer was “we think five will be better than four.” He elaborated on his answer with a beautiful essay about the joy of parenting. One point in his essay caught my eye, a reminder that for Jews having a child is much more than just having a child:

“Because I want there to be more Jews in the world. My people suffered a huge demographic catastrophe within my parents’ lifetime, and I like the idea of doing my small part to repair that damage.”

With these words, Oppenheimer is echoing what the tear choked Holocaust survivor said 70 years before: they are our “kinder, tayereh kinder”. Nothing is more dear than another link in the chain of tradition, nothing is more dear than a gift from God.

Yes, they are our dear children. They are our future. Please cherish them.

 (Delivered - Rosh Hashanah 2018)

[1] Philippe Aries, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life, Penguin, 1962
[2] Aries, page 37.
[3] Ephraim Kanarfogel, Jewish Education and Society in the High Middle Ages, Wayne University Press, pages 34-40
[4] Tosafot HaRosh Sanhedrin 19b, s.v.”shepadau”
[5] Kanarfogel, page 16
[6] Parma edition, 823-825
[7] Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Volume 7, Feldheim, 1997 pages 319–32
[8] “Yes, We Really Do Want to Have a Fifth Child” by Mark Oppenheimer, Wall Street Journal, Aug. 24, 2018

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Loving Israel Isn't Dual Loyalty

An op-ed on the dual loyalty libel and Zionism, in today's Daily News.

".....I also celebrate Israel as a proud American, because the values of the United States are the values of Israel. It is an outpost of democracy in the Middle East, where Jews, Muslims and Christians are elected to Parliament in free and fair elections. It is the only country in the region with a Supreme Court that enforces the rule of law, and where the rights of women, minorities and the LGBTQ community are respected. Israel is a loyal ally to the United States; intelligence sharing between the United States and Israel has helped strengthen our country, and Israeli military innovation has saved the lives of American soldiers. To love Israel is to embrace an ally that shares our values..."

Monday, April 29, 2019

How to Say Never Again, Again

"......It is agonizing to have say never again, again and again. Whenever an anti-Semitic attack occurs around the world, Jewish communal institutions scramble to put out statements.  Unfortunately, with no shortage of attacks, statements have become a ritual, each with their own vocabulary and style. The organization starts out by declaring that it is “devastated,” “horrified,” and “shocked” by the attack........" for more, click here

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Siyum to Chullin 2019

Tractate Chullin ends with the following words:
אמר רב יוסף אלמלא דרשיה אחר להאי קרא כרבי יעקב בר ברתיה לא חטא מאי חזא איכא דאמרי כי האי מעשה חזא ואיכא דאמרי לישנא דרבי חוצפית המתורגמן חזא דהוה מוטלת באשפה אמר פה שהפיק מרגליות ילחוך עפר והוא לא ידע למען ייטב לך בעולם שכלו טוב ולמען יאריכון ימיך בעולם שכולו ארוך:
Rav Yosef said: Had Aḥer, literally Other, the appellation of the former Sage Elisha ben Avuya, interpreted homiletically this aforementioned verse: “That it may go well with you” (Deuteronomy 5:16), as referring to the World-to-Come, as did Rabbi Ya’akov, the son of his daughter, he would not have sinned. The Gemara asks: What did Aḥer see that led him to heresy? Some say that he saw an incident like this one witnessed by Rabbi Ya’akov, and some say that he saw the tongue of Rabbi Ḥutzpit the disseminator, which was cast in a garbage dump after he was executed by the government. Aḥer said: Will a mouth that produced pearls of wisdom lick the dust? But he did not know that the phrase “that it may be well with you” means in the world where all is well, and that the phrase “that your days may be long” is referring to the world that is entirely long.
As I have mentioned in previous siyumim, the end of the Mesechet is often a reflection on everything before it. So how does this final piece reflect back on Tractate Chullin?

The entirety of Chullin is focused on proper slaughter, on how to take the life of an animal in an ethical, spiritual, dignified way.

The last words of Chullin wonder if those very rules apply to God and celestial retinue when they take the lives of mankind. Elisha ben Avuyah, the famed Rabbi, is turned to heresy because of two tragic incidents.

One is the tongue of Huzpit the interpreter, which is found in the garbage dump. This of course is itself impossible to comprehend; the very interpreter, who can explicate so much to so many, suffers a demise that is inexplicable. Yet this indignity signals something larger: the Talmud (12a) says only a non-kosher animal would be tossed into the garbage dump. In metaphorical sense, it tells us the death of Hutzpit was not done in a kosher manner. (the other version of this story, in Kiddushin, has a pig dragging the tongue; again, only a non-kosher carcass was tossed to the animals, and here, to make the association stronger, it is specifically  the ultimate non-kosher animal carrying Hutzpit’s tongue)

The other case mentioned is found earlier in the passage:

“there was one whose father said to him: Climb to the top of the building and bring me fledglings; and he climbed to the top of the building and sent away the mother bird and took the offspring,thereby simultaneously fulfilling the mitzva to send away the mother bird from the nest and the mitzva to honor one’s parents, but as he returned he fell and died.”

Here too, the rules of Halacha are not observed by the Angel of Death. The mother bird must be sent before taking the child; but here, just within his father’s reach, the son’s life is taken away.

Clearly, the Talmud ends with the discomfiting reminder that the laws of ethical slaughter aren’t observed by the Angel of Death. And this puzzle has led Acher to leave the fold.

Despite this puzzle, the Talmud ends on a positive note: in the future, there will be a reckoning, and the accounts will be properly balanced. And to do this, they offer a powerful exhibit: Acher’s own grandson. Acher saw no future for a Jewish people that was pulverized by the brutal tortures of the Romans; yet his own grandson, Acher's very future, can explain the inexplicable, and maintain a sense of optimism about the future. But this salvation has nothing to do with death, ethical or otherwise, but rather comes from those who courageously hold on to life and faith.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

What Happened to Dov? Yom Kippur Sermon 2018

“The one thing I was certain of was that the world would never be the same”. Twenty one year old Haim Sabato goes to the battlefront in the Yom Kippur War, brimming with confidence. Israel had defeated the Syrian army in just six days a few years earlier, he had gotten a blessing the previous night from an elderly Chassidic Rebbe, and he was traveling together with his childhood best friend and study partner, Dov Indig. Haim expects everything will follow according to plan; the good guys will win, the righteous will be protected, and he and Dov will continue to study Talmud and Bible together. In “Adjusting Sights”, published in 1999, Sabato relates what happens next.

As Dov and Haim arrive in the Golan, panic and disorder meet them at the door of their bus. Even though they had always been in the same tank, desperate commanders were grabbing soldiers right off the buses adding them to makeshift crews. Haim goes with one crew, Dov with another, and enter into one of the most violent tank battles in the history of warfare. Haim’s crew is saved from certain death at the last moment; but Dov never returns from battle.

The rest of the book is filled with Haim’s singular quest to find out “what happened to Dov?”. Haim has lost his best friend, and in his grief, searches for a way to reconcile his own optimistic faith with an ugly, ungodly world that can instantly claim the life of a righteous man like Dov.

I read Adjusting Sights during a painful period in my own rabbinate. In the course of 18 months, I had officiated at 6 tragic funerals: A 9 year old who died of an aneurysm, a 27 year old newlywed who died after routine surgery, and four young people in the thirties with cancer. The pain that these families endured was indescribable.  As a Rabbi and a friend, I felt like I had nothing at all to offer the mourners. Answers? There is no such thing. Optimism? It is deeply insensitive to offer positive thinking to the victims of tragedy. As a Rabbi I felt like a fraud; as a human being, I felt insecure.

I was lost. 

As I sought to regain my bearings, I was pulled in two directions: towards life and towards death. Yes, they are opposite directions; but in many ways, they actually complement each other.

The Jewish instinct, honed through generations of persecution, is to immediately grab hold of life. Even the first shiva meal is a reminder to look for life. The tradition is that this meal is brought to the mourner by their neighbors. A 16th century Rabbi, Yehoshua Falk, writes[1]  that the reason we bring the mourners this first meal is because “the mourner is in grief and torment over their deceased, and doesn’t think about eating…..therefore we command him to eat the meal brought to him by others”.

One of the most painful things a mourner has to reconcile with is that life in the future is now a life without. Swallowed up in grief, eating seems pointless, a waystation to futility. Then neighbors arrive with plates of food, a gentle reminder that even in grief you cannot escape friendship. The community does its best to support the heartbroken until they are ready to turn to, and return to, life.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik sees this idea as central to the theology of Judaism.  In 1944, Rav Soloveitchik, who was then 41, published Halakhic Man, where he emphasizes the Jewish focus on life. He writes “Judaism abhors bids one to choose life and sanctify it. Authentic Judaism...sees death a terrifying contradiction to the whole of religious life[2].”. Rabbi Soloveitchik adds that his father, grandfather and great grandfather, all prominent Rabbis, never visited cemeteries because it would have distracted them from their mission to pursue life.

During the dark years of exile, while struggling against the forces of hatred, Jewish communities always turned to life; when struggling for survival, a community doesn’t have the luxury of self pity. Israel’s response to the intifada is a powerful example of this. Greg Myre and Jennifer Griffin, two journalists who wrote about their years in Israel between 2000-2007 explain that: "We were consistently amazed at how quickly Israelis returned to places that had been bombed. The police, the rescue teams and the cleanup crews restored a bomb site to an outward semblance of normality within hours of an attack. Debris was swept out. Hoses washed away blood from the sidewalk. Shattered windows were replaced. The yellow police tape came down.…. For Israelis, combating terror is not just a security question. It's a social, cultural and psychological issue and the whole country is required to play its role. It's often measured in small deeds, like going back to a favorite cafe after an attack[3].”

This communal resilience has allowed  Israel to survive through an unending barrage of attacks. Prof. Dov Waxman has said that: “Despite experiencing numerous traumatic events during the second Intifada, which should logically cause progressively more psychological damage, the rate of PTSD symptoms among the Israeli population remained at a fairly low level…..The concept of social resilience, therefore, helps explains why Israeli society was not demoralized by repeated terrorist attacks, despite the serious effects these attacks had on Israelis….”[4]

Jews throughout history have coped by turning to life. But there is one problem; it simply doesn’t work when staring into the face of the Angel of Death.

Fifteen years after writing Halakhic Man, Rav Soloveitchik faced colon cancer. (He was diagnosed just a few weeks  before his daughter’s wedding).  In a later essay[5], he describes his emotions:

The night preceding my operation I prayed to God and beseeched Him to spare me, I did not ask for too much. All I wanted was that He should make it possible for me to attend my daughter's wedding, which was postponed on account of my illness—a very modest wish in comparison with my insane claims to life prior my sickness. The fantastic flights of human foolishness and egocentrism was distant from me that night…..

This frightening diagnosis changed everything for Rav Soloveitchik. Desperately bargaining for a chance to go to his daughter’s wedding, he learns that the most profound lessons about life are learnt in death’s shadow. He writes that:

“When one's perspective is shifted from the illusion of eternity to the reality of temporality, one finds peace of mind and relief from other worries, from his petty fears and from absurd stresses and nonsensical nightmares. ... At the root of our restlessness lies a distorted conception of ourselves as immortal beings. ... Man sees himself in the mirror of immortality. Hence his desires, dreams, ambitions and visions assume absolute significance, and any frustrating experience may break man. When one frees himself from this obsession, his perspective becomes coherent and his suffering bearable.”

While battling cancer, Rav Soloveitchik is not given the option of “abhorring death”; instead he finds a way to live in the valley of the shadow of death, and finds renewed inspiration to live from death itself.

Yom Kippur is when Jews visit with the Angel of Death. As we look forward to the coming year, we are uncertain what our fate will be; to emphasize this, we read the words of the “unetaneh tokeph” prayer: “who will live and who will die... who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst…” And at that very moment, we turn to death. Franz Rosenzweig[6] notes the kittel, the white coat worn on Yom Kippur is intended to be an imitation burial shroud, because the purpose of Yom Kippur is to have everyone roleplay their death[7]. There are times when you must turn to death before turning back to life.

When the book of death is open, one immediately understands what a privilege it is to be inscribed in the book of life.  Even so, to pursue life after reading from the book of death takes courage. There were Holocaust survivors who refused to have children in a world that could be filled with bitterness. (I knew one such person). Rashi says that the Biblical matriarch Sarah died from heartbreak after her son Isaac was nearly sacrificed at the Akeidah.

Abraham, Isaac’s father, is determined to take a different approach. Death prods him find greater fulfilment in life. He says to himself: “If my son had actually been slain, he would have died without children! I must marry him off….”[8].  And this is the lesson of the death theme of Yom Kippur: remember the inevitability of death, and grab hold of what you have left to do in life[9].

I must make it clear that this is very different than having a “bucket list”, where you write up a list of 101 things to do before you die, and try to experience them all. Most of these lists include activities like bungee jumping, visiting the Galapagos, and drinking a rare vintage wine; these are what you must do “before you die”. Like many pop culture ideas, a serious existential insight is transformed into an instagrammable vacation.

An authentic confrontation with death is different. When people learn that they are going to die, they think of the people they love, and try to find ways to protect them and embrace them. I remember a man of 60 who received a negative prognosis telling me: “I don’t worry about my death for myself; I worry how it will affect my children”. People with a grim prognosis don’t run away on vacation, they go home to embrace their loved ones.  Turning to death changes your priorities.

The story of 21 year old Haim Sabato is very much a Yom Kippur story. After the war, he continues to hold on to his faith, and becomes one of Israel’s leading Rabbis and authors. Adjusting Sights has brought enormous comfort to many other soldiers who left beloved friends behind on the battlefield. And that is the point of Yom Kippur; it teaches all of us that we must muster up Abraham’s courage and push on when facing our mortality. It teaches the broken hearted to have the courage to marry, to have babies, and build communities, even after they have read too many chapters in the book of death. Yes, we must find a way to savor life, to turn to life, to love life, and then to love it even more because we know how short it is.

May we all be inscribed in the book of life, and may we all love it even more this year.

[1] Prisha, Yoreh Deah 378 והטעם כי האבל דואג ונאנח על מתו ואינו חושש לאכול……. על כן צוהו לאכול משל אחרים
[2] Halakhic Man, pages 30-39
[3] Boston, Bombs And Lessons From Israel: NPR,April 21, 2013
[4] Living with Terror, not Living in Terror: The Impact of Chronic Terrorism on Israeli Society, by Dov Waxman, Perspectives on Terror 5:5, 2011
[5] Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Out of the Whirlwind, page 131ff
[6] The Star of Redemption, Franz Rosenzweig, University of Wisconsin, 345ff. A similar argument, to justify eulogies during Kol Nidrei, is made R. Yitzchak Weiss in Responsa Siach Yitzchak 305.
[7] Fasting and the other abstentions could also be seen as part of this theme as well.
[8] Rashi, Genesis 22:20
[9] Much like the Rashi about Abraham, Yom Kippur was traditionally a day of matchmaking. Facing death is a reminder to embrace life more firmly.