Yom Kippur: Life, Death, and Teshuvah


Our tradition teaches that on Rosh Hashanah we relive our birth and on Yom Kippur we rehearse our death. We highlight the dichotomy between life and death in the special liturgy and ritual of this season. Rabbi Alan Lew describes how focusing on our mortality is meant to lead us towards atonement:

[On Yom Yippur] for twenty-four hours you rehearse your own death. You wear a shroud [we’re supposed to wear white, to conjure the burial garment] and, like a dead person, you neither eat nor drink nor fornicate. You summon the desperate strength of life’s last moments…. A fist beats against the wall of your heart relentlessly, until you are brokenhearted and confess to your great crime. You are a human being, guilty of every crime imaginable…. Then a chill grips you. The gate between heaven and earth has suddenly begun to close…. This is your last chance”[i]

In addition to the physical discomfort we may be experiencing from the fasting aspect of our ‘death rehearsal’ there is a discomfort in our Reform Jewish tradition on this Jewish ‘day of the dead.’ For when we contemplate mortality, our minds naturally turn to the afterlife: ‘What is next for us when we die?’

Since the early 19th century, our Reform movement has downplayed discussion of afterlife and a world-to-come. Rabbi Paul Golomb, in his essay on after-life in contemporary Reform belief points out that before the emergence of Progressive Judaism, Moses Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish philosopher, medical doctor, and Jewish community leader asserts similar distaste to discussing an afterlife: 

Visions of a world-to-come are considerably less important than the way one acts in this world. Both medieval sage and the late 19th-century Reformers quoted [our Rabbinic Sages wisdom] in a passage in Pirkei Avot: Do not be like those who would serve a master on the condition that they would receive a reward (Pirkei Avot 1:3). What is truly important…is one’s conduct in this life.[ii]

A theology that focuses on this life as opposed to what is after life is in sync with the Days of Awe. We focus on our mortality to urge us towards our best behavior because we only have this one life to live. But perhaps a discussion of the afterlife can lead us to repentance too. Just as Yom Kippur suggests, you can learn a lot about life when looking to death. This Yom Kippur morning, my first with our Beth Or community, I want to share a bit about myself. I’ll share two learnings about life and death taught to me by my parents. And I will share a third learning that was taught to me by you, my Beth Or community. 

When I was in the 6th grade, my best friend’s younger sister died of leukemia. My friend’s family was Filipino Catholic and it was their custom to have an open casket viewing for several days leading up to the funeral. My mom brought me to the viewing. I don’t remember having a choice about going. My mom explained, ‘it is good to support your friend and her family.’ I was incredibly nervous before entering the funeral home. The viewing room felt a lot like a family room. There were comfy couches and a big table where my friend was doing her homework. My friend was happy to put her books down when I arrived. People mingled and talked, all with May’s body present in the room. Yes, it seemed sad. But, at the same time, it felt fairly normal. 

What impacted me most about visiting the funeral home was how disinterested the family seemed in the body of their lost daughter. They were not focused on May’s body or her death, but rather on her life. The family had filled the space with May’s balloons and May’s drawings. As new visitors made their way into the space, new stories were shared. Aunts and uncles shared stories. May’s favorite teacher from school shared stories. 

What I experienced at the viewing that afternoon as a 6th grader is similar to what I am now asked to facilitate as a rabbi at funerals and Shiva. Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand teaches that these rituals just after a loss are meant to “create a precious imprint…of the person who has died as a treasure to hang onto. We listen to eulogies at a funeral; then, during the Shiva, we share stories and share pictures to help create a composite of the person who has recently disappeared from our midst.”[iii]

While my mom exposed me to the importance of actively remembering a loved one’s life in the context of family and community just after a death, my dad taught me the importance of ongoing personal remembrance. Later this afternoon, during the Yizkor Service, our Beth Or community will create a space for each of us as individuals to remember loved ones lost.

I grew up as that kid who was in shul all day on Yom Kippur. By the time we reached the Yizkor service in the late afternoon, I had long lost interest in books I had brought to read. I have memories of resting my head on my dad’s shoulder, sitting and taking in the service. My dad would ‘ugly cry’ through most of Yizkor. When we reached the end, my dad would compose himself, take out his handkerchief, wipe his eyes and nose and say loud enough for the entire sanctuary to hear: “I love a good Yizkor service.” As I prepared to lead Yizkor for the first time as a rabbi, I asked my dad to describe ‘what makes a good Yizkor service?’ He shared: I appreciate when the rabbi creates a space for me to remember the people I need to remember. 

As Rabbi Shoshana Boyd explains: “Yizkor provides us our own private ongoing relationship with a loved one. It encourages an evolution of that relationship as opposed to allowing it to be frozen in time. Remembering someone over and over again enhances the parts of that relationship that prove sustaining but allows us [the individual space] to forget those characteristics that are not.” 

Now to what I have learned from you. Beth Or as a community takes on the traditional practice doing cemetery clean-up and  holding a service to honor our deceased community members between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. While my father died over four years ago, I had never taken the time to visit his grave for myself until a few weeks ago. Inspired by my Beth Or family, just before Rosh Hashanah, I went to visit my father’s grave to do my own, ‘cemetery cleanup.’ I don’t know that I felt a greater sense of connectedness to my dad at his grave, but the headstone did need some cleaning and he was a little bit vain, so it felt nice to ‘spruce up’ his memorial marker. 

My dad had a giant sense of humor and I felt a closeness to this aspect of his personality while placing a stone on his grave. The tradition is a word play, a pun. The word for ‘eternal’ in Hebrew, tzrur, sounds nearly identical to word in Hebrew for ‘stone,’ tzur. The stones are meant to say to our loved one that we will remember them forever and always. While our bodies may be impermanent, memories are ‘as strong as stone.’

After I left my dad’s grave, I wanted to find the graves and leave stones for others I had known. At first, I wandered around looking for these graves, but I soon got wise and realized that the cemetery was small enough for me to walk all the rows. As I walked I also learned about people I hadn’t known through the inscriptions and pictures on the headstones. I spent a long time at the grave of a child, moved by the quote left by his surviving family: “It is now upon us to live the good in this world you could not.”

We visit the cemetery before Yom Kippur to bring us closer to our own mortality. I wholeheartedly agree with the early Reform Movement and Moses Maimonides that a focus on reward in the world-to-come downplays the importance of our actions in this world. But during the season of repentance, as I spent time focused on death, I came to understand that focusing on the eternality of our loved one’s memories or the eternality of our own legacy can also move us towards teshuvah

Frank Rosenzweig, an influential early 20th century Jewish thinker taught that we human beings are quite aware of our own mortality. “Even if we are privileged to live past one hundred, it is only a small sliver in a span of human existence that reaches both backward and forward for millennia. What gives such inconsequential span of years any meaningfulness? It is, Rosenzweig reminds us, the possibility that our lives have transcendence. [That our lives] make a difference, not only during the span of life itself, but for eternity.”[iv]

It is not enough for us to remember our loved one’s fondly. When we attend a Shiva and help create a composite memory of a loved one lost, we help ensure their eternal transcendence. When we remember loved one’s lost in private moments during our Yizkor Service, we help ensure our ongoing relationship with those whose bodies are gone from this world. When we visit the graves, not only of our own friends and relatives, but of those gone in our communities too, we help ensure the enduring impact of their legacies. And when we embrace the responsibility of the epithet “it is now upon us to live the good in this world you could not” we are moved towards personal teshuvah.  

I want to thank our community for being my teacher this season. I also want to recognize all those in our temple family who helped with our cemetery clean-up and service this year. Amy Paquette and Sheryl Shapiro, thank you for your leadership. If you haven’t done so before, I want to nudge you to explore this practice. I also hope that you will join our community for our Yizkor Service that will take place during our Afternoon Yom Kippur Service beginning at 4:15 pm. 

I want to end with a poem often read during Yizkor by Selvan Kamens: 

In the rising of the sun, and in it’s going down, 

    We remember them. 

In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter,

    We remember them. 

In the opening of buds and in the rebirth of spring,

We remember them. 

In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of the sun, 

    We remember them. 

In the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of autumn,

    We remember them. 

In the beginning of the year and when it ends,

    We remember them. 

When we are weary and in need of strength,

We remember them. 

When we are lost and sick at heart,

    We remember them. 

When we have joys we yearn to share,

    We remember them. 

So long as we live, they too shall live, 

For they are now a part of us, 

As we remember them. 

Rabbi Rachel Kort
Temple Beth Or, Everett
Yom Kippur 5779

[i] Rabbi Alan Lew, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, 2003.

[ii] Rabbi Paul Golomb, “The Persistence of Life After Death,” A Life of Meaning: Embracing Reform Judaism’s Sacred Path, pg. 54, 2018.

[iii]Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand, “Remembering through Forgetting,” May God Remember: Memory and Memorializing in Judaism, pgs. 149-150, 2013.

[iv] Rabbi Paul Golomb, “The Persistence of Life After Death,” A Life of Meaning: Embracing Reform Judaism’s Sacred Path, pg. 54, 2018.