Rabbi Deborah J. Brin • Jewish Ceremonies, Rituals & Pastoral Counseling
©2021 Rabbi Deborah J. Brin — Member: Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association
Rabbi Deborah J. Brin
Albuquerque, New Mexico • Jewish Ceremonies, Rituals & Pastoral Counseling
Say “I love you” — Kol Nidre 2014
Friday, 16 January 2015
Rabbi Deborah J. Brin
There is an app for just about everything. Have you sinned lately?
There is a virtual, animated goat that is roaming the Internet
collecting sins to be sent off to Azazel. A Jewish media company
called G-dcast created the ‘eScapegoat’ last year. Not familiar
with the Biblical story of the priest taking two goats, sacrificing
one and putting the sins of the community onto the other before
sending it off into the wilderness? That’s ok, the website recaps it
in a cartoon format and then gives visitors to the site the
opportunity to write their sins into a blank window, in a Twitter
friendly 120 characters, and then place them on the scapegoat.
Just “Google” eScapegoat and you will find it.
Wouldn’t it be great if it really were that easy? All we would have
to do is type our sins, mistakes and errors in judgment into a box
on our screens and hit ‘enter’. And they would be gone. Sent into
Real t’shuvah, real repentance, turning ourselves around, fixing
the messes we’ve made, repairing the damage to relationships
and cleaning up our act is much more difficult. Reorienting
ourselves internally, so that we “change, grow, soften… forgive”
others and achieve forgiveness ourselves takes practice. [Rabbi
Neal Joseph Loevinger, “T’shuvah, Hope & the Struggle for
Justice”. Torah from T’ruah. 9/14]
It takes so much practice that we are encouraged to do it
everyday. In Pirkei Avot, a collection of wise aphorisms from the
Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer tells his students to repent one day before
your death. The Talmud expands on it. After he tells his students
to ‘do t’shuvah’ one day before your death, they question him
about it. Does that mean we will know when we are going to die?
Rabbi Eliezer replied that since we don’t know when we will die,
we should ‘do t’shuvah’ today and every day because perhaps we
will die tomorrow. [BT Shabbat 153a].
Wisdom comes in many forms. There is a poster on the bulletin
board at my physical therapist’s office. It has a picture of a person
slouching in a chair in front of her computer. The caption reads,
“sitting kills”. The fine print explains that the forces of gravity are
always at work on our bodies and when we sit for long periods of
time we age more rapidly and among other things, lose muscle
and bone mass. When we move around we resist the force of
gravity and in so doing, increase our chances for health. It is a
good idea to take regular breaks when working at our desks and
stand up, stretch, and move around a little. As the Talmudists say,
‘kal v’homer’. If it is true in such an easy example, it is also true
for a harder example.
24-7 the news media stream alarming information, never letting
us forget that we cannot control the complex forces that affect
our lives. Gravity is one force that we take for granted and don’t
even notice. Daily we are becoming more and more aware of the
increasing severity of the devastation caused by climate change –
droughts, wildfires, floods, and crop failure, are just some of
them. We are all vulnerable to disruptions caused by electrical
outages. Our North American lifestyle, for rich and poor alike, is
dependent upon an uninterrupted supply of electricity.
We are all vulnerable to the perambulations of local and
international politics, local and international economics, and wars
all around the globe. Our bodies are susceptible to viruses, like
Ebola, from foreign countries; and our computers and our bank
accounts, are susceptible to viruses and attacks from malevolent
We try valiantly to counteract the awareness of the uncertainty,
vulnerability and fragility of our lives by cultivating the idea that
we are in control and in charge of our lives. Our North American
culture has in some way sold us a bill of goods by getting us to
believe that if we are smart enough, good enough, clever enough
or wealthy enough, we can control the circumstances of our lives.
Our world can be unpredictable and frightening. Very few of us
can maintain awareness of all the dangers lurking in our world
and still get out of bed in the morning. On most days we wrap
ourselves in a cognitive cocoon that keeps the awareness of our
vulnerability and fragility at bay. We allow the frenetic pace of our
lives to carry us along without much thought about the ultimate
truths and meanings of our lives.
On Yom Kippur we purposely crack open our cocoon and look
squarely at the unavoidable aspects of human life and seek out
that meaning and those truths. We enact a mythic drama. We
mimic our own deaths. The modest white clothes that we wear
are reminiscent of burial shrouds. We refrain from eating and
drinking. For one long day, we drop our routines, our busyness
and our pretense that life is predictable, controllable and secure.
Yom Kippur has the power to grab us by the proverbial shoulder
and shake us up a bit. It is on Yom Kippur while sitting in
community, with the traditional melodies washing over us, that
we can think deeply about who we are, examine our motives, and
ask ourselves if the path we are walking is the right path. The tag
line to Mary Oliver’s poem, “who made the world?” says, “tell me,
what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Our lives are precious. Time is moving along. Each day is a gift
and it comes with no guarantees. What are we doing with our wild
and precious lives?
The title of Harold Kushner’s book, When Bad Things Happen to Good
People, is telling. Stuff happens. Things happen to us and around
us. Some are bad, and some are good. We all have stories to tell of
relatives, co-workers, neighbors or friends who died suddenly and
unexpectedly from a heart attack, stroke or accident.
We all have stories to tell of our own or others’ near misses:
mistakes, mishaps or illnesses that could have been fatal but
The theology of our ancestors teaches us that when bad things
happen they are punishments for our sins, and when good things
happen we are being rewarded. Kushner soundly refutes those
ideas in his book. God does not have daily disaster quotas to fill.
We live in a random universe and accidents, illness, mistakes,
human error, metal fatigue, and hurricanes are all a part of it.
Facing our vulnerability can lead us to new insights and
transformation. Yom Kippur may not give us access to the raw
emotional quality that will allow us to truly resolve to live each
day as fully as possible. What other situations are capable of
shaking us up and getting our attention? For those of us who are
not in them every day, hospitals can be places where we come
face to face with our frailty, vulnerability and helplessness.
Visiting someone we know or love who is lying between life and
death in a hospital bed can be a terribly unsettling experience.
Just before Pesach/Passover last year a member of our
community, Juanita Sanchez, may her memory be a blessing, had
a sudden and massive cerebral hemorrhage. Immediately after
surgery she was responsive to those in the room with her and
then she lapsed into an unconscious state from which she never
re-emerged. I was very moved by the care and attention she
received from her medical team, from her family and friends, and
the support that our community gave to her sister and brother-
After one of my visits I came home from the hospital and had an
overwhelming urge to call my three siblings and tell them, while I
was still alive and conscious, that I love them. I spoke with each of
them and in the process it dawned on me that Rabbi Eliezer only
had part of the story right. Yes, we should ‘do t’shuvah’ every day,
clean up our act, or apologize as soon as we realize that we have
done something inappropriate or hurtful.
There is more to this then just making t’shuvah. One day before
we die, we should tell our friends and family that we love them.
We should say ‘thank you’ for everything that they are doing or
have done for us. We should notice who they really are, not just
look at them through the lens of who we want or need them to
be, and we should let them know that we appreciate them. Words
really do matter.
If someday we have a version of wise aphorisms from our
contemporary period, perhaps one of them might go something
like this: The rabbi was teaching her students and said to them, it
is very important to remember this: one day before we die we
need to ‘do t’shuvah’, and one day before we die we need to tell
our friends and family that we love them. One of the rabbis’
students spoke up and challenged her. Does that mean that we
are going to know when we are going to die? The rabbi smiled at
her student and said, no, and that is exactly the point. Since we
never know what will happen when we leave our houses in the
morning, we need to remember to be actively loving, kind and
generous with everyone we know and with everyone we meet
during our day. We need to take advantage of every opportunity
we have to be a mensch. We never know when it will be the last
time for such an opportunity.
Many of the rabbis of my generation are thinking about and
dealing in new and deeper ways with the impact of death and
grief on their own lives and the lives of the members of their
communities. A saying of Hillel’s moved us and it has informed
our political activism and our communal lives. Hillel said:
“If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself
what am I? And if not now, when?
"When” is now. This is the time. We have arrived at this moment.
Now is all we’ve got. Let us not squander it.
Wisdom comes in many
forms. There is a poster on
the bulletin board at my
physical therapist’s office.
It has a picture of a person
slouching in a chair in
front of her computer.
The caption reads,
On Yom Kippur we
purposely crack open our
cocoon and look squarely
at the unavoidable
aspects of human life and
seek out that meaning
and those truths.
After one of my visits I
came home from the
hospital and had an
overwhelming urge to
call my three siblings and
tell them, while I was still
alive and conscious,
that I love them.