This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2016/5777 as part of a series entitled “This We Believe.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.
No one ever said that being a believer was easy.
Facing the limitations of this world, the distance between its harsh reality and our idealistic visions, is hard. Choosing what to do with our limited time on earth, how to live this life the best we can, and how to enable others to have secure lives of dignity and fulfillment, is hard. Accepting our own personal limitations, and finding motivation to continue is hard. We have the advantage of believing realistically, reasonably, flexibly, believing without perfect faith but with confidence. The lives we lead according to those beliefs – “this world, this life, these hands…and you” – may still be very difficult.
We know that we are not alone in our beliefs, or in our lives. We have a community of ideas and shared Jewish culture, both here at Kol Hadash and in the wider movement of Secular Humanistic Judaism. And we have communities of love, our closer and wider circles of shared experience and emotional connection. The “…and you” of what we believe is not simply collaboration to understand and affect this world or this life using these hands. “And you” means we believe it is important to have other people in our lives.
Jewish civilization has very few examples of the isolated mystic, the monk on a mountain alone. 10 people were required for a prayer quorum, or minyan (originally men, now anyone for most Jews). There was a tradition of studying the Talmud in partnership, or hevruta, because we can learn from each other and from sharpening our argument against another’s . In the first myth in our literature, God says that it is not good for humanity to be alone and he creates for the original Adam an ezer k’negdo – a helper fit for him. The friendship of David and Jonathan, the loving of family beyond blood of mother and daughter in law Ruth and Naomi, the beautiful partnership of the Song of Songs which exclaims “love is as strong as death.” “And You” is not a uniquely Humanistic belief, or a uniquely Jewish belief. Just as all of what we believe does not have to be unique to us to still be what we believe. Other people, other Jews, other Judaisms believe in aspects of “this world, this life, these hands…and you.” Our challenge is to face our challenging answers to the big questions in life with courage, and together.
Now relating to other people is also not easy – “and you” can be very hard. As we saw throughout this High Holiday series, creating community out of independent thinkers, getting secular thinkers – and secular Jews no less – on the same page is a real challenge. BELIEVE me. Learning from other people’s experience, especially people who are different from us, can be hard. Agreeing to disagree on certain issues so we can collaborate on what is important, finding common ground after divisive arguments, or a divisive election, that’s all very difficult. In this season of atonement, apology and forgiveness, we remember anew that repairing relationships, apologizing, forgiving can be very hard. And it’s hard enough when the other person is still around to talk to.
In Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie, he writes that, “death ends a life, not a relationship.” And as much as we might want to resolve all of our outstanding conflicts with our loved ones before they are gone, there probably are not enough minutes in the day even if we started trying the minute this service is over. Let alone when the person is gone, or given a limited time left, or is taken from us too suddenly, or drifts away into an unknowing haze of forgetfulness. We have things we need to say, words we want to hear, that they may not have the opportunity or the ability to say. I once did a funeral for a couple whose wedding I had performed a few months before – the male partner has been diagnosed with brain cancer, so even though they had been together for over a decade, they decided to get married before he died. A few months later, I got the call that he had died, and we held a beautiful memorial service for him at the Newberry Library in Chicago on New Year’s Day. After the service, I suggested to his widow that perhaps in those last few months they had had the chance to say to each other what they wanted to say before the end. She looked at me, sad but not angry, and she said, “I had a lifetimes of things I wanted to say.” They were planning to be together for decades; anything less than that was much too short.
There are many reasons for “…and you.” Yes, it can make our work more effective, we can work better as two together than we could as individuals. We learn from new experiences and new perspectives. But emotionally, personally, for our own growth, being responsible to someone beyond ourselves, loving and caring and being generous for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, deepens and enriches our lives. The pain we feel when they are gone is a sign of how deeply we loved them. And that doesn’t mean that our relationship was perfect – we do not need perfection to love, to remember, to stay connected. But we do need to take seriously what we believe. If this world is the world we know, if this life is the life we know, if these hands are the way to connect to each other, then we need to take advantage of every opportunity as if it were the last time.
For The Last Time by Robin Fox
(full poem in A Women’s Torah Commentary, excerpted here for copyright reasons)
How do you know
when it’s the last time?
The last time to ask
“How are you?
How was your day?”
The last time to say
“I love you.
Good night…sweet dreams.”
. . . .
The only thing certain
is that you’re not truly alone
because of those who do love you
and for that be thankful
and feel blessed
that you were able to say
“Good night…I love you”
one last time.