This spring, I was telling everyone that my Yom Kippur sermon had already written itself. As most of you know, in May my life, and my husband’s life, took a sudden swerve off the planned path. I was in the midst of final planning for my graduation. I was very busy, and very full of plans, and very sure of what was going to happen next. But — but, as most of you know, my husband fell, broke his hip, had hip replacement surgery, and went into kidney failure. Within two days of his surgery the doctors were adamant that he was going to die. They called me to his bedside at five AM – “We think you better come now.” Then, he rallied, but they were still sure he was going in a matter of days. So, as I sat at his bedside, I let go of everything I had thought was going to happen. Instead, I watched my Yom Kippur sermon unfolding.
When death is near – ours or another’s — everything changes. We all know this, but most of the time we ignore it. The purpose of what we’re doing here tonight and tomorrow is to prod us out of our willful stupor. We’re simulating our own deaths, in an attempt to wake ourselves up to what’s really important in our lives. We fast, we wear white – maybe even the kittel we’ll be buried in – we abstain from worldly and physical pleasures of all kinds. We try to produce in ourselves that sense of immediacy, that “nothing else matters except what’s happening this instant”, that I was having while I was sitting at my husband’s beside over at the hospital. Because as awful as that was –and it was awful, please don’t get me wrong here, it was heart-wrenching, it was world-overturning, I was socked with grief beyond what I ever imagined I could feel –but, it was real.
You know how at this time of year I incessantly mention Rabbi Alan Lew’s book, This is real and you are completely unprepared? Well, there’s nothing like someone you love dying to cause you to realize how real everything is, and how totally unprepared you are for it to happen. Rabbi Lew actually taught his students this most powerfully when he himself suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack in the midst of teaching a meditation retreat. “We were in complete and utter shock,” a participant at the training institute said. “We were all walking around with blank looks and tears in our eyes.” It was real. No one was prepared. They were grateful for all of his teachings—and, as he could have told them, in the event those teachings didn’t matter for much. They were too busy experiencing the reality.
So Bob was dying. After a few days I got my mind around this, sort of, and I called all his family and said, “Come.” And they came. First, at two in the morning, came his daughter from New York City and his Israeli grand-daughter now from Florida. Next, arriving late Friday night, the younger of the two grandsons from Israel. Then the boyfriend of the grand-daughter from Florida – the doctor, twice her age, not Jewish, and yes some members of the family have feelings about this, but honestly, he’s a well-to-do doctor, what’s to complain? The sister from Kalamazoo came – after she’d been reassured that he really would like to have her there. And after Shabbat, after Shavuot, the Orthodox son from Israel arrived. Bob was holding on, waiting for each arrival. Meantime friends were making pilgrimages up to the hospital and sharing a lot of love. It was all going the way you’d want it to go, if you had to go.
Most of the family was there. There were a few of the Israeli grandkids who weren’t going to make it, but otherwise – Well. Otherwise, there was the son in Montreal who had stopped communicating with us eighteen years ago. For eighteen years, he and Bob had both said, “It’s his job to fix it. Let him call me.” I’m not asking how many of you have stories like this in your family – I’m afraid they are pretty common. Anyway, Bob’s sister and Bob’s son from Israel and Bob’s daughter all started to campaign to persuade David that he should come. But he had a million reasons why he couldn’t. There wasn’t a cheap enough flight. The only available flights made to many stops and took too long. By the time he got here, his father would be too out of it for it to matter. And so on. And so on.
Bob had decided that he would come home on Hospice and die, if not in his own bed, at least in his own living room. He said yes, he would like very much to see David, if David would come. In fact, he was of a mind that anyone he knew who wanted to come should come – even people that annoyed him, people he was on the outs with – he was in a peace-making frame of mind, I guess. Because, you know – death is real, and it makes you think differently. And then, Hagai, the grandson from Israel – who by the way gets the menschlichkeit prize out of a pretty generally menschy family — said, “Why don’t I take Abba’s rental car and drive to Montreal and get David and bring him back? I can stay over night, I can see Montreal, I can get to know my uncle – it’ll be great!” And everyone went , “That’s crazy! But, you know –it’s also a really good idea.”
I’d signed all the paperwork. Bob had been off the IV for twenty-four hours, and the story was, he’s going to die in less than a week. I was at the hospital where I’d been kind of living with Bob for a couple of weeks. But Bob’s younger son was back at our house doing a carpentry project. Our house has two “front” doors, but we only use the one on the porch. When Bob and I moved into our house we decided to seal up the formal front door. We didn’t really want people entering straight into the living room, and we didn’t want the cold wind blowing around that door in the winter, so Bob got some caulking and sealed it up. Tight. Un-openable. And that’s how it had been for twenty-four years. Now a hospital bed needed to come in that door, to take up residence in our living room. Bob needed to come through that door on a stretcher. So, Yoni from Israel was busy prying that door open so that Bob could come through the flowerbed and under the arbor and up the front steps and back into our home.
You know what I thought? I thought, Pitchu li sha’arei tzedek, avo vam odeh Yah! I thought, P’tach lanu sh’aar, b’eit ne’ilat sh’aar, ki fanah hayom. I did – honest. I have the kind of mind that thinks by association and symbolism, even in extremis. “Open for me the gates of righteousness, that I can come in and praise God. Open for us the gate, at the time of the closing of gates, for the day is waning.” The symbolism was hard to miss. I thought about hearts being opened. On the very day that Bob came in that door that had been pried open — pried open, I have to say, with remarkably little damage – on that day, Hagai arrived back from Montreal with David.
David arrived and in rather short order was cooking spaghetti with one of his nieces in the kitchen he had not set foot in for eighteen years. And the next night, we all sat down – except Bob was who lying in the living room being given water from a teaspoon – and we had Shabbat dinner together, partly cooked by David and partly cooked by Robin Patch for the Meal Train. It was the most moving Shabbat of my life. Even though Bob was in the next room, we felt his presence. The next day David’s wife Clara arrived from Montreal, and we sat down to another beautiful dinner. Clara got out her tablet and Skyped David’s and daughter , Sarah, and Sarah’s daughter, Hannah – Bob’s great grand daughter, already five and we had never seen her before! And the day after that, David and his wife went in to talk to Bob, who was taking a lot less medication by then, and there was a beautiful scene of forgiveness and reconciliation. For real. I didn’t see it all, but I saw and heard David and Clara and Bob afterward. Everyone’s face was open – the gates that had closed off their feelings had swung open, and light was shining through. It was everything you would hope for. It was teshuva on all parts. Clara gave me a hug, and I thought, well, Bob’s dying has turned everything. We’ve all turned and returned.
This is where I thought I’d be ending my davar. It’s about the right length, and it comes out in the right place. The only trouble is, that’s not how the story ends. See, for starters, Bob didn’t die. Which is great, obviously. But it turns out it’s a lot easier to do teshuva when someone is dying than when they’re not. The gates may be open at Ne’ilah, but after Ne’ilah, they clang shut again, and what are you going to do? Bob’s son has emailed us some lovely photos of his daughter and her daughter – the great-granddaughter we’d never seen. He’s called once or twice. But whatever it was that got opened in his heart has closed back up again. The hurt –whatever the hurt is – has over-ridden any desire for healing. Bob calls him, and David chats about the weather. And Bob is starting to feel discouraged, and angry, and to forget the importance of what happened, because of what hasn’t happened afterward. He doesn’t know how to keep his own gates open, or to invite David to keep his open either.
So my message for you is different than I thought it would be back in May. It’s a painful, but more important message: doing teshuva is really, really hard work. Today, maybe, driven by the sense that death is close, we’ll try to work things out with the people we’re estranged from or fighting with or angry at. Family, friends, co-workers, fellow-Board members – tonight, tomorrow, fasting, repentant, feeling guilty and sorry and mortal, we’ll go and try to make up. And we probably will do a lot of good repairs. But – but. After Ne’ilah, after breaking the fast, after we remember that we are not dead, and not, G-d willing, dying this minute – after all that, we are likely to fall right back into our old ways of being. We are likely to go back to nursing our hurts, avoiding our responsibilities, allowing our fear of rejection, our resentment, our justified anger at the rotten things people have done to us, to over-ride any sparks of forgiveness or connection or love or compassion that were starting to burn in our hearts.
You know, it’s been nice to be able to open the front door and look out at the garden while the sun shines in. But winter is coming. The wind is going to blow around that door again. And heaven knows, we don’t want people with muddy boots trampling all over our good living room rug. So chances are good that we will caulk that door shut again. Which, as far as the door goes, is fine. But when it comes to the metaphor it represents – it’s not so good. Don’t do it! Don’t re-caulk your hearts. Don’t close the gates. Zeh haSha’ar l’Adonai; Tzaddikim yavo’u vo. It’s the gate of Adonai: the righteous will come and enter it. Don’t close your heart. Don’t stop your teshuva just because Ne’ilah is over for another year. Tomorrow we’ll read the great passage from D’varim: “See, this day I am setting before you blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day…” (Deut. 11:26-28) Notice it’s in the present tense: not “I have set”, but “I am setting”. The Vilna Gaon said, “This is to teach us that each day human beings have the choice between choosing good or choosing evil. Each day we have the opportunity to do teshuva and begin life anew.” It’s not easy. None of us enjoys the process of admitting our faults, or of hearing how we have hurt people. But let’s try. Let’s choose life, and keep the gates open all year. Because this is real – and fleeting enough. Let’s not waste any time. Amen.