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Rabbi Marc E. Berkson - Shabbat Shuva - 2013/5774

Stayin Alive
Shabbat Shuva—5774

Some five years ago, inspired and urged on by our member Randy Miller, I wrote a grant request to the Bader Foundation on behalf on a number of synagogues and other Jewish institutions to provide funding for the purchase of Automated External Defibrillators.  Citing both Jewish sources and contemporary medical opinion, the Bader Foundation graciously granted the request and, thus, provided AEDs to a dozen congregations and other Jewish institutions.  Yes, that is how we got our AED which sits in the cloak room. 

Truth be told, I never want to have to use it.  But, every two years, I must engage in a serious day of training and retraining.  A member of the North Shore Fire Department comes here to the synagogue to work with us on staff and some lay members of the congregation so we know what to do in case of cardiac arrest, in those situations where the heart stops contracting properly.  And the most important part of that training is CPR, cardiopulmonary resuscitation.  The heart may have stopped and the goal is restore oxygenated blood flow to the brain and the heart.  And it is all done manually, initially with the use of chest compressions.  We practice it on dummies, fortunately—I never want to have to do it on a real person.  But I have learned how to do so—one hundred heart compressions to the minute, sort of like this, to the center of the person’s chest kind of between the nipples, perhaps to the rhythm of the Bee Gee’s Stayin Alive.  If need be, that can be followed by the use of the AED to shock the heart back into a rhythmic pumping.  The practice, then, every two years, prepares me for that moment when I may need to use that experience on a real person. 

Which brings me back to some of my comments on Rosh Hashanah eve Wednesday and on Rosh Hashanah three years ago.  Why would the rabbis have come to see Rosh Hashanah as a birthday celebration?  What would have led them to connect such an important Jewish day to such an insignificant or even nonexistent observance?  The answer is, of course, Yom Kippur.  And I have, many times, shared with you how Yom Kippur is our haunting dress rehearsal for death.  The titles we use, the words we speak, the actions we take, the actors we encounter, the settings we utilize, even the clothes we wear tell us so.  The unetane tokef we recite, the words acknowledging the sacred power of the day—“Who shall live and who shall die.”  One more year of our lives has disappeared and we are now one year closer to our end.  We are born to die.  Think of the actions we take.  We fast.  We abstain from those physical activities such as eating and drinking which keep us alive.  Think of the actors we encounter–a bet din, a Jewish court, God.  Before them, at Kol Nidre, we are judged.  Think of the settings utilized.  The Bet Din takes out the Torah scrolls and we rise in its presence.  As one who is accused rises for the verdict, so, too, do we rise for judgment.  In fact, in those congregations where all the Torah scrolls are taken out of the ark during Kol Nidre, we gaze into what is no longer an aron ha-kodesh, a holy ark.  We stare, rather, into an aron whose kedusha, whose holiness, has been removed; we stare into an aron, a casket, the box that will someday hold our physical remains.  And, yes, think even of the costumes worn.  For the traditional garb for Yom Kippur, for the rehearsal, is not a suit, is not a dress, is not even the white robe I wear.  It is, rather, the kittel, that plain, pocketless white shroud in which one is buried.  Tradition says we must dress the part.  This day reaches its saddest point in the afternoon—at yizkor—when we encounter our loved ones, those who have preceded us in death.  And we say kaddish.  Dressed for death, depriving ourselves of all activities which would keep us alive, offering our confessions, standing at the edge of our graves, we are forced to think of our lives in terms of our deaths.

So if Yom Kippur reflects our virtual deaths, if you will, then Rosh Hashanah reflects our virtual births.  Think about it in terms of our birth date, the first of Tishri, aleph b’Tishri.  Take the Hebrew letters which comprise the date and move a couple of them around and you get Bereshit, in the beginning.  We find it in the stories we read—traditionally on the first day, the birth story of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah in the Torah and of Samuel to Hannah and Elkanah as the haftarah.  We find it in the sounds we hear.  We heard that shofar this morning and yesterday morning.  The Midrash (Tanchuma) says they are the sounds of a woman while in labor.  And that final sound–the tekiah gedolah–the final cry of the mother as her baby is born. 

Born today, we will die next week.  And if we take aseret yemai teshuva, the Ten Days of Repentance, and subtract these first two days of Rosh Hashanah and the last day of Yom Kippur, we are left with seven, that magic number which reflects a wholeness, a completeness, perhaps a full life.  Traditionally, the sense of loss in our lives is already reflected in the stories that are read today—the akedah, the binding of Isaac (which we read yesterday) and in Rachel’s tears in the haftarah.  We visit the graves of those who came before us—at the Kever Avot and Imahot service—copies that are available for you in the cardo and in the foyer—knowing that we, too, will soon be joining them.  From virtual birthday to virtual death day in the virtual life span of seven days.  

So what does all this have to do with AEDs and CPR?  Think—what is at the heart (yes, pun fully intended) of our services on Yom Kippur?  The viddui—the confession of sins, both the long confession and the short confession—many of the same words we say when we are actually on our deathbeds.  You may recognize it in the words with which we begin a long series of sins—al het she-hatanu—for the sin we have committed against You….  And you will recognize it by the melody so plaintively sung—yah lei lei-lei-lei ya-la-la-lei lei lei, ya-la lah lei lei lei—ashammnu, baggadnu,gazalnu—an alphabet of our sins.  No, the melody is not Stayin Alive but—what do we do with each word, what do we do on every al het?  [let them answer]  Yes, we beat our hearts.  Like this—it is the right hand striking right on the heart.  Our tradition says that this action is based on a verse from Ecclesiastes (7:2):  “v’ha-chay yiten el libo—a living one should lay it, give it,” or according to the new JPS translation, “take it…to heart.”  Asked one of the ancient sages, Rabbi Meir, “Why do people beat their hearts in remorse for their sins?  Came the answer, “Because the heart is the seat and source of sin.”  (Ecclesiastes Rabba)

But I would take it one step further.  The beating of the heart is our virtual CPR.  In so many ways, our spirits have died over the year—and we must revive them.  We must once again feel the pain we caused ourselves and others and God.  If not, our hearts will remain dead.  Think about it–a lifespan in seven days, a week of rehearsal for real life from birthday to day of death.  Our whole life flashes before our eyes.  On Yom Kippur, we will beat our hearts—bringing ourselves back to life.  And then, as we conclude with Neilah on Yom Kippur, what is the last sound we will hear?  Tekiah gedolah—that final cry as we emerge reborn, inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.

As has become our custom here at Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun, sometimes on Shabbat Shuva and then after Yom Kippur, you get to talk back to us.  We have done a lot of talking over Rosh Hashanah.  On Rosh Hashanah eve, I took the notion of Rosh Hashanah as the birthday of the world to talk about the pursuit of happiness.  Using Positive Psychology, I suggested the Judaism is really the pursuit of holiness and that happiness and joy will follow.  That is why we say shana tova instead of shana semeicha.  Yesterday morning, Rabbi Schaalman, in some ways, contradicted me.  Noting the amazing survival of the Jewish people over the centuries, he said that we Jews must celebrate—this day in particular.  And, this morning—and please correct me if I do not do this fully, Rabbi Barolsky talked about names—the names we are given, the names we earn, and the names by which we are remembered. See, you did not have to sit through three hours of sermons.  You got the Readers’ Digest Condensed version this morning.  But now it is your turn–to respond to what we have said–to agree or to disagree–to share your own thoughts, to ask us questions, to put us on the spot if you wish. 

Thu, May 30 2024 22 Iyar 5784