Yom Kippur Morning 2018/5779 – Tearing out a Page from the Book of Life
Rabbi Cy Stanway
Temple Beth Miriam
When I was a young rabbinic student and had just come back from my first year in Israel, I arrived in Cincinnati for a crash course in leading High Holiday services. I wasn’t worried about my Hebrew. That was fine. I was worried about writing sermons, something I had never done before and was worried about not sounding like a fool. I was worried about how to lead a service. That was terrifying enough for me. And then the teacher told us something to look out for: the Unatane Tokef. We were puzzled.
The Unatante Tokef is that prayer in the Yom Kippur liturgy that you all know, even though you may not know it by its name. It is the ‘who shall live and who shall die’ prayer. It imagines God writing in the Book of Life, the Sefer Hayyim, and recording who shall live and who shall die in the coming year. Though I have major trouble with the theology of the original prayer – no, I don’t think God writes in the book of life in such a fashion – that was not the fear our teacher warned us about. He warned us that it often happens in congregations that when we get to that prayer, people have been known to pass out of fear! Great, now I have to worry about resuscitating someone on top of walking into a strange place already trembling with real fear.
The point is that for everyone who takes Yom Kippur seriously, there is an element of fear. Fear of the unknown future. Fear for our family, ourselves, our future. And that fear makes us uncomfortable to the core.
In fact, Yom Kippur is so uncomfortable that it leads me to wonder why so many people come out on Yom Kippur to these very well-attended services. Consider just how uncomfortable Yom Kippur really is. We speak about the tenuous nature of life and its uncertainties and tzoris. It sounds better in Yiddish: “Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht” – man plans, God laughs. And the images of sin and its destructive power upon us all often cuts to our very souls. And, most graphically, the 25 hour fast itself makes us so uncomfortable and can really hurt. So, it’s puzzling that, since people don’t generally like to be uncomfortable, Yom Kippur sure seems an odd holy day to be so popular.
And yet we are here and we have a day of discomfort and share in the fast, in the hunger, in the spiritual search for forgiveness and, very often, in real pain.
And that is why it is only on this day of pain that I want share with you the pain that I have shared with only a few. I believe it is pain that many of you have dealt with – sometimes successfully and sometimes less so. But it is a pain that we must talk about and as uncomfortable as it makes me, and might make you, it is a pain that accompanies us every hour of the day and cannot be pushed away. But it is a pain that can be soothed using the same prayer-work that makes us so uncomfortable.
And what is this pain? It is the pain of suicide. And though I have officiated at many suicides, I had never, until this year, felt a suicide. And the questions that have grown inside my soul have taken me on a journey of self-doubt, self-reflection, intense guilt, and deep introspection. I have no choice but to speak about it and maybe we can share the journey to healing together, hand in hand.
This beautiful congregation was deeply touched by a suicide this year. Alan Bonnar, a man many of you knew, took his own life. His sudden and unexpected death threw my world and out of balance. I had seen him on Friday, taught him on Saturday in Torah class, shared Talmud lessons with him on Sunday, and on Monday he took his own life. I simply could not comprehend the truth. As our former administrative assistant shared with me after her son’s suicide, ‘it is the beginning of a journey that never ends. It is the path of why, when and how we come and what could we have done that would have prevented, fixed or changed the path.’
It is a difficult subject to talk about and, looking back, my internal struggle about whether or not to approach the subject was, in a sense, my preparation for these Days of Awe. I may emerge from the other side alive and intact, but, like Jacob, the limp will be forever. Indeed, in my struggle in dealing with this sermon, I felt compelled to speak to those closest with the darkness. I spoke to Alan’s mother and asked for her permission – more like a blessing – to write these words. With not a moment’s hesitation she offered it knowing how much pain it would bring her and her family who are sitting among us this morning but how much healing it could also bring. I spoke to a dear friend of his asking the same thing. She, too, wanted it brought into the light. I sought out people who have experienced suicide including, as you heard, our own Jeannette who was our administrative assistant whose son took his own life several years ago. I sought out a psychologist on information about suicide and little did I know that it would be the most eye-opening therapy session I have ever had. And I discovered something along the way and it is the only statistic that I will tell you: 85% of Americans know someone who has taken their own life. 85%.
In the past, suicide was very ‘hush-hush.’ There was the stigma of suicide that attached itself to the family. There was judgement from the neighbours and self-judgement. And, to add to the pain, it sometimes happened that a suicide could not be buried in a Jewish cemetery or else they were buried by the fence at the perimeter. Thankfully, that practice is rarely held to anymore.
I don’t need to tell anyone here that suicide throws our whole world upside down. It is the very antithesis of our concept of the Book of Life. We imagine the metaphor of God writing down our deeds and even our future in the Book of Life but we can scarcely imagine someone intentionally ripping out the remaining pages of their own book of life. The book remains utterly incomplete and leaves on the question for its readers, ‘why?’ There will never be a follow-up book and there will never be an answer. And that is what eats at our souls.
We live in an assumptive world. We assume that that which lives, strives to live. Suicide tells us that our assumptions are not always right. And to add to the pain, in our assumptive world, we rely on the constructs and expectations of our relationships. Said plainly, how often we think to ourselves about our friend, our family, our acquaintance, ‘I knew him’ only to find out that, no, we didn’t know him. And the truth is that we cannot know someone fully because it is impossible for someone to be able to share all that they are with another.
But after the suicide, the ‘I knew him’ often turns to anger. We may have had an inaccurate vision of someone else – all of us do – but we have a good idea of who we are. And when grief turns to anger it is the most corrosive thing in universe. We end up saying, ‘I should have been someone they could trust. This person has betrayed me.’ Indeed, after a suicide, our sense of betrayal becomes nothing short of a referendum on our own self-esteem. As Jeannete shared with me in her deeply-moving and personal note, “For almost a year and even sometimes now I wake up and yell to God, ‘I want my son back.’ The anger never goes away, it is only managed. We carry it with us always.
In these words are the words that we can all relate to if we have been touched by suicide. There is inexpressible pain. There is anger. There is self-doubt. There is eternal questioning of why, what could I have done, is there any way out of this darkness?
In the past and maybe even for many people today, suicide is a thing that must not be named. But more and more, and thankfully, we are talking openly about suicide. Maybe it’s because well-known people have taken their own lives and their deaths have given us a doorway to speak about that which was unspeakable. Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade all opened the door for us to talk about it. It is affecting so many of us, even our children. Last year my Teen Academy students were affected by a teen suicide of a young man in their school. They wanted to talk and share and looked to me and each other for a way to shepherd them through the anger and pain and come up with a constructive response.
These events, these terrible events, allowed to finally hear what those who study suicide have been telling us for decades. Suicide is an expression of mental illness. It is not a commentary on our trustworthiness as parents or our ability as caregivers or friends. It is not something that we can control in ourselves, let alone in another person. It is, at the moment of the suicide, what researchers now call ‘frantic hopelessness.’
Think about that term: frantic hopelessness. There is nothing I know of in the Yom Kippur liturgy that brings comfort to people who feel it. And how can there be, in any case?
Yet, in that frantic hopelessness brings to us the presage of how we can cope with a suicide and how we can find comfort and bring it to those who also suffer. Once again, we find the seeds of comfort in the Untante Tokef.
When we read the words, “Who will be tormented?” there is an instant recognition of something that torments us. There is a memory of when we were tormented or even if we are still tormented. With rare exception, each of us knows torment. And because each of us knows torment, each of us has within the compassion, the rachamim – the rachomones, if you will – to understand – on some level – the torment of one who kills herself.
We all have moments of helplessness and hopelessness. When John McCain revealed that he had stopped treatments for his brain cancer last month the expressions of his bravery and courage abounded as it should. And there were also expressions of real sympathy. I saw political adversaries tear up as they were being interviewed.
Why was it so easy to relate to Senator McCain and his family? Probably because we have all experienced real pain of illness and have lost someone to a terrible disease. In fact, I would be that if I asked for a show of hands of those who have lost someone to such a disease, everyone in this sanctuary would raise their hands.
These are the kinds of moments of helplessness and hopelessness we can relate to. The difference between us and those that attempt suicide or actually take their own life is that our moment of hopelessness and helplessness are transitory. We are on what my psychologist friend said is a ‘continuum of emotions.’ We don’t often remain in one emotion for long. And it is our ability to continue living and seeking out new emotions and being able to live with new emotions that allow us to live fully and richly.
But Untante Tokef is beseeching us in the language of fear and trembling to search deeply in our own experience as we try to deal with the questions and pain of suicide. We know what it means to feel hopeless and helpless. We know what panic is like. True, most of us do not dwell on it but we have felt it. And in these moments of our own panic and fear we can discover something else that often remains hidden especially when it comes to suicide. That thing is the gift of compassion and compassion always lead to love in spite of the anger that dwells right beside it.
We know what the panic is like and when we have those moments we seek out people who try to understand where we are and where we are coming from. People suffering addictions go to meetings because there are people there who understand the struggle for sobriety. Grief groups give strength to people who feel the same way we do. There is something spiritual, something inexplicable in finding compassion. But one thing is always true: compassion is the gift we give the living and the dead. It is, in some respects, the only thing we can give them. We cannot heal their pain or heartbreak but we can say to the living, ‘I glimpse your pain. Here is my shoulder for there was a shoulder when I needed it.’ And we must say to the dead, ‘I may never know fully why you did this, but I offer compassion for your pain for I, too, have felt hopeless and helpless.’ In that compassion – and only in that compassion – will find a measure of comfort. We won’t find it in anger. We won’t find it in stigma. We won’t find it by not speaking about it. We will find it only in our shared pain and our shared pain is the well of compassion we all draw from and hope others draw from in our helpless and hopeless moments.
My friend Alan took out the remaining pages of his book of life and never gave me the chance to add color and Jewish footnotes to it. I am pained at what I am unable to add anymore. I still have anger both at what he did and my own perceived blindness. Still, I reach deeply inward to the truth that where anger and guilt lies, there too lies rachamim – compassion.
Truly, in his death, he opened for me a real door to compassion and not simply a theoretical door although it is a door I wish he had never shown me. Yes, I know that I am compassionate as you know that you are. But knowing and feeling compassion and living it openly and lovingly are two different things. My friend Alan made me feel it profoundly with the help of those who listened, cried and shared with me. To them, I am profoundly grateful. And to my friend Alan, I owe a special part of soul.
This is Yom Kippur and someone once pointed out that though it is called the ‘Day of Atonement’ – that phrase can be broken down into the ‘Day of At-One-Ment.’ I love that idea. When we dig deep into our wells of compassion and not judgement we become at one with those whose pain we feel. When we dig deep into our wells of compassion we soothe the anger, the guilt and the sense of betrayal for those who have taken their own lives. In that compassion is understanding and in understanding there is healing. Yom Kippur is a day for discomfort but it is primarily a day for healing.
This sermon may have unsettled you. But this is our day of being unsettled and of awakening to what is real. I pray that I awoke in you the courage to compassion and the ability to forgive, truly forgive those who took their lives from us and deprived us of the remaining pages in their Book of Life. I wish for them only peace. I wish for you, for all of us, only peace. It is a peace found in those wells of compassion and I pray that such wells never run dry.
Let us have a year of nechama and rachamim – of compassion. And let us hope that the Ancient of Days judges us only with His compassion and love and not strict justice. We may sin, but may we never sin by forgetting the gift we pray for from the Holy One – the gift of understanding that leads to forgiveness. May we embrace such a gift for the rest of our days.