The New Shul

Rabbi Kanter’s Message on Erev Yom Kippur

[This drashah was given on September 24, 2023]

The poet Meredith Kesner Lewis wrote the following, titled

A Yom Kippur Poem (

You are asked to stand and bow your head,
consider the harm you’ve caused,
the respect you’ve withheld,
the anger misspent, the fear spread,
the earnestness displayed
in the service of prestige and sensibility,
all the callous, cruel, stubborn, joyless sins
in your alphabet of woe
so that you might be forgiven.
You are asked to believe in the spark
of your divinity, in the purity
of the words of your mouth
and the memories of your heart.
You are asked for this one day and one night
to starve your body so your soul can feast
on faith and adoration.
You are asked to forgive the past
and remember the dead, to gaze
across the desert in your heart
toward Jerusalem. To separate
the sacred from the profane
and be as numerous as the sands
and the stars of heaven.
To believe that no matter what
you have done to yourself and others
morning will come and the mountain
of night will fade. To believe,
for these few precious moments,
in the utter sweetness of your life.
You are asked to bow your head
and remain standing,
and say Amen.

The poem is a beautiful description and interpretation of Yom Kippur.  But what I wanted to bring your attention to most was the beginning of the poem: 

You are asked to stand and bow your head,
consider the harm you’ve caused,
the respect you’ve withheld,
the anger misspent, the fear spread,
the earnestness displayed
in the service of prestige and sensibility,
all the callous, cruel, stubborn, joyless sins
in your alphabet of woe
so that you might be forgiven.

The poet personalizes Yom Kippur.  We need to contemplate our actions, but to make that contemplation powerfully relevant by looking at our own personal Ashamnu or as she says, “Alphabet of Woe,” so we might see where we need to change and how. 

And how does our tradition motivate us to sense the urgency of this?

By fashioning this day as a yearly meeting with our mortality.  As you know, we do various things to remind us of our finitude.  We wear simple white garments, symbolic of the shrouds we will be buried in.  We don’t engage in the needs of our body, we don’t eat, we don’t drink, we don’t wash, we don’t have sex, all activities of the living.  And our prayers focus on the fragility and brevity of life.

As Rabbi Jack Riemer wrote(1):  “This is not a morbid way to live.  In Jewish thought, death is not only the inevitable end of life; it is a constant companion and possibility within life…, No one owns tomorrow…the fact that each new day is a gift and not an entitlement makes it even more precious, more to be appreciated, more to be savored.”

Rabbi Sharon Brous, the Senior Rabbi of Ikar in Los Angeles, recently lost her father, and she spoke about what she and her family had learned through his last chapter, when her father was dying (2).  Rabbi Brous had been influenced by Dr. Atul Gawande and his gently given but urgent plea to American society to help those at the end of their lives die with autonomy and dignity.  Part of what got in the way of making that possible was the way our society denied and denies death.  Many decades after Elizabeth Kubler Ross opened our eyes to the process of dying, as a society, we still fear talking about death, and often – still – avoid talking about it.

And this is a problem, because in order to have half a chance of giving our loved ones a last chapter that minimizes suffering and maximizes dignity, we have to know what matters to them.  We need to know, when facing their last days, what will make life worth living for them, what will be most meaningful and valuable, so we can help them fill their last days with those things. 

Sometimes those choices are snatched away from us.  People can die very suddenly, sometimes too soon, or sometimes, blessedly in their sleep.  But for many of us, we or our loved ones will contend with illness before death, and the challenging consequences of the slow breakdown of our bodies as we age.  In those cases, when choices need to be made, opportunities to lessen discomfort and distress, and maintain as much of the person’s dignity as possible, it behooves us to have information in advance, to help us.    

In order for our loved ones to make choices that we can facilitate, or if we need to make those choices on their behalf, we need guidance from them, and that requires conversation: conversation about what would matter to them, about what would make their last days’ worth living.

Because in her life, she had seen the cost of not having these conversations, Rabbi Brous had begun to ask her father about what mattered most to him years before his death.  And those conversations gave the Brous family some guidance for those last days, when decisions had to made as to whether to continue treatment, or to stop fighting, and focus on filling his days with things that would be as meaningful and as pleasurable as possible.

It takes courage to have those conversations with our loved ones, whether we will be a caregiver or the one who needs care.  But if we do, it can give us some clarity on what our loved ones truly value, which we think we know but often don’t.  If we have the courage to open the topic, that conversation can give us some direction in decision-making, guidance in how we might minimize suffering and maximize living, for as long they are alive.

There is another way that, in requiring us to think about death, Yom Kippur can help us with life. Sometimes we so want to hold on to those we love, that not only won’t we talk about death, but we give the message to the one dying that they absolutely must continue battling illness because we need them in this world.

Rabbi Brous reminds us of an incredible example of that from the Talmud, in the circumstances surrounding the death of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi.  We’ve studied this story before, but it will enlighten us differently this time.

The story goes that Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi was dying, and his loyal and loving students were praying on his behalf.  And their passionate prayer was keeping him alive.  But what his maidservant noticed is that Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi was suffering.  It was difficult for him to go to the bathroom.  His distress was heart-breaking.  But the students, the rabbis did not want to lose their beloved teacher and the tremendous spiritual effort that they were putting forth was indeed keeping Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi alive.

The maidservant understood why the rabbis were continuing.  But at a certain point, the maidservant sensed that the suffering of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi was so great, that she had to do something.   She went up on the roof of the dwelling and she took a clay jug and threw it off the roof, shattering it on the ground with a great noise.  Surprised by the sudden loud sound, the students stopped their davening for a moment.  And in that moment, the soul of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi was able to depart from this world.

The rabbis were understandably preoccupied by their own sense of impending loss, and yet as understandable as that is, they ended up making the wrong choice for him, and the maidservant had to find a way to release him, to let him go.

By having us encounter our mortality each year, Yom Kippur reminds us that at some point, we will each have to let go of our lives.  And as we know, learning how to let go is a life skill needed in many other contexts as well.  Parents have to learn that skill in raising children.  As they become more independent, if we try to hold them too close, we can hold back their growth.  When we do that, we are allowing our own needs to displace the needs of our children; we have to let go, so they can grow and flourish independent of us.  

Like the rabbis in the story of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, however, I hate to let go.  I resonate deeply with those words of the famous Jackson Browne song, when he says, “oh won’t you stay, just a little bit longer.”  I don’t like when people move away from our community, let alone more acute partings.  But as my colleague Dr. Janice Johnson, zichrona livracha (of blessed memory) would say, part of the art of living is knowing when to “bless and release.”  

About one third of the sins we will list in our vidui, our confessions over this day, are related to speech.  We list ways in which we say wrong, hurtful things – misspeaking in many different forms.  But there can also be sins of omission when it comes to speech, missed opportunities for conversations we wish we had had, words that we wish we had shared.

Yom Kippur cautions us to live our lives in such a way as to prevent feeling overwhelming regrets for what we did do that we shouldn’t have, and for what we didn’t do that we should have done.  And it forces us to see that learning how to let go in life is a necessary skill for all human beings.

My hope for us this Yom Kippur is that we will gather courage, and seriously consider opening conversations we need to have, and asking questions that need to be asked, so that we don’t miss important and precious opportunities.  I pray also that we will learn the wisdom that letting go is part of life, so that we can minimize our own and others’ suffering.  And with that courage and with that wisdom, may we be able to shape the best lives we possibly can, for ourselves and for the people we love. So may it be.

  • 1. Rabbi Jack Riemer, “Wrestling with the Angel,” Introduction.
  • 2. Rabbi Sharon Brous, “What Matters Most,” Rosh Hashana 5784,