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Life Choices: How To Make the Most of Your Mortality

Rabbi Laura Abrasley

Yom Kippur Morning 5783 - October 5, 2022

Please click here to watch Rabbi Abrasley's sermon from Yom Kippur Morning.

I have a confession.  And it’s a doozy.  But today is Yom Kippur.  The day we confess our sins.
No better time than the present.  Time to get this off my chest.  So, here goes …

I am a mess when it comes to time management.

My email inbox is usually full to overflowing.  My calendar is often over scheduled. And I
probably work too many hours.

So many things to do.  And never enough time to do them. Raise your hand if you ever feel
like me.

Here’s the problem with time management tasks.  We tend to bargain with ourselves.  That
voice in our head says: When all the homework and work projects and volunteer
commitments and household chores and kid schlepping and parent helping and email
responding is done, then I will FINALLY enjoy my life.  Do the things I want to do, the things
I love to do, the things that are most meaningful to me.

But what happens if we run out of time before we get to do the things we want to do once
the things we are supposed to do are done?

Because let’s face it.  We are all going to run out of time one day.

Today on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, our finitude is front and center.

This holiest of holidays, with its dramatic liturgy of reckoning and accountability, of
prayers that demand introspection, forgiveness and return, dares us to embrace this
ultimate time challenge head on.  The words of our prayers pull us back again and again.
They ask us to immerse ourselves in the ultimate truth that life is limited.

Now if you listen closely today, if you open your heart, you might receive a gift you never
expected.  One that may make you happier, help you live the life you truly want to live.
It is a remarkable gift.  Knowing I will one day die can make my life more precious, more
meaningful.

Now, if I could only find the time to open this gift.

I’m just too busy to die.  Deny.  Deny.  Deny.  Like most of us, I simply don’t have time to look
closely at my life.

On my better days, I put this work on my to do list.  I bet many of you do as well.  Otherwise
you would not be here with us on this most holy of days.

But we never somehow seem to get around to these important items.  We humans are quite
skilled at avoiding the big questions of life.

Luckily, Yom Kippur’s liturgy makes these questions hard to avoid, especially Unetaneh
Tokef, a religious poem from the Byzantine period with vivid, stark, ‘tell it like it is’
language.

This prayer is definitely not shy. It is loud, a wakeup call that our lives are short.

בְּראֹשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן
B’Rosh HaShanah yikateivun uvYom Tzom Kippur yeichateimun:
On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed

It asks the questions we dare not.

How many shall pass away AND how many shall be born, who shall live AND who shall die
1

The prayer begs us with beautiful, poetic language to stay for just a moment and consider
our lives. And our choices.

Every choice we make creates the life we lead. And the truth is we can make different
choices.

When we are paying attention, the liturgy of the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, places
the truth of our choice right before our eyes.  It sounds out loud and clear in multiple
languages that our choices are right before us.  We can see it clearly in verses of this
morning’s Torah portion (Deut 30:15, 19): 2

רְאֵ֨ה נָתַ֤תִּי לְפָנֶ֙יךָ֙ הַיּ֔וֹם אֶת־הַֽחַיִּ֖ים וְאֶת־הַטּ֑וֹב וְאֶת־הַמָּ֖וֶת וְאֶת־הָרָֽע
See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity.

הַעִדֹ֨תִי בָכֶ֣ם הַיּוֹם֮ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָ֒רֶץ֒
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day:

הַחַיִּ֤ים וְהַמָּ֙וֶת֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לְפָנֶ֔יךָ הַבְּרָכָ֖ה וְהַקְּלָלָ֑ה
I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse.

וּבָֽחַרְתָּ֙ בַּחַיִּ֔ים לְמַ֥עַן תִּֽחְיֶ֖ה אַתָּ֥ה וְזַרְעֶֽךָ
Choose life – so you and your offspring should live

Here in these poignant verses, our tradition is trying to tell us something. There is a
difference between living and being alive.

We know what it means to be alive – when all your synapses are firing.  When you’re
making conscious choices and not going through the motions.  The portion makes it so
clear: choose life!  Choose to be awake, alive and in the moment.

Sometimes the choice is to do less.  We can give up being responsible for everything.  We do
not always need to simply go along, making the choices we think others want or expect us
to make.  What would happen if we made different choices?  Conscious choices, choices that
embrace the knowledge that we are only human and cannot do the impossible, even if we
had more hours in the day or worked twice as much or slept only a few hours every night.

Because as much as we would like our finitude to be otherwise, if we can accept this
inevitably, we actually could end up living a better life.  A full life.  A life that is grounded in
reality and perhaps not balanced but at least less lopsided.

Who knew accepting your finitude and fragility could be so empowering?

I found some of this empowerment in a clever book I read this summer, Four Thousand
Weeks: Time Management for Mortals.  The author Oliver Burkeman, a recovering
productivity geek (his words, not mine) encapsulates the essential human predicament on
the first page.  He does not even bother to soften the message. “The average human lifespan
is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short. … Assuming you live to be eighty, you’ll have
about four thousand weeks.” 3

Quite an opening sentence.  And for those of you now calculating how many weeks you have
left since you plan to live to at least eighty, hang on, you’re gonna want to hear what
Burkeman has to say next.

He tells us what we already know but refuse to accept – basically that managing time is
impossible.

There is no system, no app, no book that will teach you how to add more hours to a day and
get you through your “to do” list so that you can start living your life.  So stop trying!
This is the secret, says Burkeman. Stop trying to do everything.  Decide what you are
going to do.  Decide what you are NOT going to do.  And then get comfortable with knowing that doing more will not lead to a fuller life, and you will never complete all the things in life you hope to do.

Burkeman teaches: “Any degree to which you can see the truth that our time is limited, that
we can’t do everything, that you can imagine far more goals than you could ever achieve
but be OK with it, that is another degree you know you have taken ownership over your life
and started to build a meaningful one.” 4

A similar message as our complicated prayer Unetaneh Tokef but with perhaps a little
more levity and some practical advice mixed in.

I find this message from Burkeman together with our Yom Kippur liturgy so compelling.
And so real.

When we measure our days, we make better choices.  It is not just about getting everything
done.  Instead it is about making space for our choices, all of them, even the little ones, to
have meaning.

Some of these are easy choices.  

Having dinner with your family instead of answering your inbox.

Setting boundaries that create space for you to be someone other than your job or classes.

Saying yes when someone offers to help.

And some of these are harder choices. For those, Burkeman suggests that one way forward
is to re-evaluate our relationship with time.

Instead of agreeing to do everything and punishing ourselves when we fail to complete our
list of impossible tasks, Burkeman encourages us to look at questions that deserve our
attention. 5

  • In what ways have you yet to accept the fact that you are who you are and not the person  you think you ought to be?
  • In which areas of your life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you    are doing?
  • How would you spend your days differently if you didn’t care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition?

In the spirit of the season, I decided to try to answer some of Burkeman’s questions.  I suppose it is only fair that I follow my own advice.

First things first. I’m finally old enough that most days being me is the only choice I really
have.  I really like the me who is creative, approachable and occasionally sidetracked by an
excellent idea I had not yet considered.

The choice to give up trying to be someone I am not frees me up to be a more authentic
version of myself.  I get to lean into my star-gazing tendencies as an inspirational gift
instead of seeing them as an obstacle to a person I was never meant to be.

The next question, this stunning idea of holding back until I am certain I know something
inside and out has plagued me for decades.  Why is it we humans forget to embrace that we
are lifelong learners?  Why do we think our mistakes make us less than?  And why do we
refuse to be our full authentic selves every moment of every day?

I want to live my life out loud, be authentically me.  I am not perfect and I never will be.  I
feel fairly certain that most of you are also not perfect.  So, start choosing to be you.  Take up
the hobby you have always wanted.  Be a beginner at something and revel in the learning.
Prioritize yourself – at least once a day – in whatever way makes you feel alive and worthy
of love.

This last question almost makes me want to weep.  What would we do if we could linger in
the actions that give us the most pleasure, the most fulfillment, the most authenticity?  If we
stopped seeing our productivity as the only measure of our worth.

I know what I would do.  I would double down on people and my relationships with them.  I
would talk to someone just for the blissful experience of being in their orbit.  I would linger
over coffee with a new friend and talk about how we cannot believe we did not meet years
ago.

I would do a delicious deep dive into the ancient teachings of Judaism and share my
newfound geeky knowledge with unabashed enthusiasm.  I would move my body each and
every day and fill it with good food and the company of friends.  I would laugh at my
family’s corny jokes (and hope they laugh at mine) and stay just a little bit longer at the
dinner table.

And I might call you instead of answering your email.  Because it’s so much better when our
connections are panim al panim, face to face.

Today on Yom Kippur, we gather to take stock of our lives. Our rituals are an ancient
version of Burkeman’s questions.

We abstain from eating and drinking and intimate contact.  We recite vidui, our confessional
prayer, the same one we will recite on our deathbed.  Many of us wear white, like the
shrouds we will wear when they lay us to rest.
 
These practices are not designed to freak us out.  Or maybe they are.  Just a little bit.
Confronting our mortality can help us feel the intensity of life more fully.  It reminds us to
pay attention to what matters.

Are you doing work that you love to do?

Are you taking care, good care, of your body, your soul, your mind?

Are you paying attention to the relationships with those who are most precious to you?  

Jewish tradition offers a possible path forward when we find ourselves paralyzed by these
questions, both Burkeman’s and ours.  Found at the end of Unetaneh Tokef is the Jewish
way to move from time management to time meaning-ment.

ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רע הגזרה
Utshuvah, utfilah, utzdakah ma’avirin et roa hag’zeirah.
But through return to the right path, through prayer and righteous giving, we can
transcend the harshness of the decree. 6

Not eliminate death.  But transcend it.  To not be paralyzed by the notion of death.  But
inspired to live our life to the fullest because we know one day we will die.

In the opening pages of his beautiful book about Hasidic teachings The Way of Man, Martin
Buber offers a story:

Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the Rabbi of Belarus, was put in jail in Petersburg, because his
enemies had denounced his principles and his way of living to the government.  He was
awaiting trial when the chief of the police entered his cell.

The chief began to converse with his prisoner and brought up a number of questions which
had occurred to him in reading the Bible.

Finally the chief asked the rabbi: ‘How are we to understand that God, the all-knowing, said
to Adam, the first human as he hid in the garden of Eden: Ayekah – “Where are you?”’

‘Do you believe,’ answered the rabbi, ‘that the Bible stories are eternal and that in every
era, every generation and every person is included in them?’

‘I believe this,’ said the chief.

‘Well then,’ said the righteous rabbi, ‘in every era, God calls to every person: “Where are
you in your world?  So many years and days of those allotted to you have passed, and how
far have you gotten in your world?  You have lived forty-six years, chief.  How far along are
you?”’

When the chief of the police heard his age mentioned, he pulled himself together, laid his
hand on the rabbi’s shoulder, and cried: ‘Bravo!’  But his heart trembled. 7

These are the Days of Awe.  Like the chief in our story, the words of our prayers today can
make our hearts tremble.  We dare to quiet our minds and let our hearts listen as God asks
us Ayekah, Where are you?  What conscious choices are you making that fill you with
purpose and meaning?  How are you spending your precious days in this wonderful, limited
life?

The fear is real.  And the choice is ours.  We may not know how many years or weeks or days
or hours we are meant to be here on this earth.  But we can choose to measure our days in
love and family and justice.  We can make space, claim time, choose life.  If we do, when we
do, that simple choice can free us, infuse our life with meaning. and allow our spirits to
soar.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah! May you be sealed for blessing in the book of life!

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________

  1. Untaneh Tokef prayer translation adapted from the CCAR’s Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe, Yom Kippur 1, page 212
  2. Deuteronomy 30:15, 19 – translation adapted from Plaut Torah Commentary
  3. Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, page 3
  4. Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. I heard Burkeman teach this idea in multiple interviews, including NPR and a TedTalk.
  5. Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. Towards the end of the book (Chapter 14), Burkeman asks 5 essential questions. These are questions 3, 4 and 5.
  6. Untaneh Tokef prayer translation adapted from the CCAR’s Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe, Yom Kippur 1, page 214
  7. A big thank you to Rabbi Les Bronstein for teaching this story during a T’ruah Board Meeting right before Rosh HaShanah 5783. It was exactly the ending this sermon needed. I have adapted the language of the original story so that it reads better for the purposes of this sermon.
Sat, June 22 2024 16 Sivan 5784