Yom Kippur Morning Sermon 5770/2009

Averting the Severe Decree?
On the face of it, unetaneh tokef is a pretty fatalistic prayer.  Listen:

“As a shepherd herds his flock, and causes them to pass beneath his staff. So YOU pass us before you, and count and number and record every living soul You define the limits of every creature’s life and decree its destiny. On RH the decree is inscribed, and on YK it is sealed … who shall live, and who shall die”, etc. But the prayer does not end on this fatalistic note.  Rather, it continues: But Teshuvah, repentence Tefillah, prayer, and, and Tsedaka, charity, Annul the severe decree! I have a problem with this idea, especially this year. Not that we pass beneath G-d’s staff and he decrees for us whether we will live or die. No, I have a problem with the concluding verses – that prayer and repentance and tsedaka annul the severe decree. You see, in September of 2006, my brother in law, Glen Yanco, began to experience some trouble with his eyesight. He was 49 years old, and thought that he needed to get his eyes checked. He was also having some tingling in his fingers. So, he consulted his doctor, who suggested he see a specialist.  He saw the specialist, who suggested an MRI. The MRI came back showing he had some kind of brain tumor. I’ll never forget the day my sister called me to tell me. They had been married 23 years. They had two beautiful children – a son and a daughter.  Glen was a successful businessman. He had always been active in the synagogue, in town government, and was currently serving as President of the Jewish Federation of the North Shore.  He had to have a biopsy to see how serious this was. Perhaps it was benign. But it wasn’t. In fact, it was an aggressive and incurable type of brain cancer called glioblastoma.  The same kind of cancer that Ted Kennedy would be diagnosed with the following year. But Kennedy was 76, and had lived out the fullness of his years. Glen was in the middle of his life. He had just received a death sentence. Glen faced his illness with courage.  He was convinced that he could survive this illness. New treatments were available, he told us.  He would enroll in experimental treatments. He would go on to take bagfuls of medications.  In addition to the conventional treatments provided by the doctors at Mass General, he pursued alternative treatments with the blessing of his physicians. He attended support groups for cancer patients. He was in touch with people around the country who had survived this illness – one man for ten years.  But Glen did not survive. He passed away on February 27th of this year. May his memory be a blessing. Why?  He was in synagogue more often than most!  Why didn’t his teshuvah, his tefillah and his tsedakah avert the severe decree that was handed him?  Wasn’t it good enough for G-d? In fact, the first year after he was diagnosed, his daughter Esty put together a team that raised $25,000 in a Walk for Cancer. Wasn’t that more than enough Tsedaka for at least a small miracle? Were his sins so great that Glen was punished so severely?  I assure you, he was a good man. A good husband to my sister. A good father to their children. A good citizen. A good Jew.   So how are we to understand this concluding verse: Repentance, Prayer and Tsedaka annul the severe decree.  The key is the Hebrew word that is translated as “annul” – in some prayer books “avert”. The word is “ma-avir”.  We find it fairly often in our prayers. I am going to give you a short lesson in translation, and I hope you will stay with me. Again, the word is ma’avir. It is the present tense of what is called in Hebrew grammar the “Hifil” form. “Hifil” verbs are all “causative”.  The three letter root means – to pass. We find the word maavir in our morning prayer: Ma’avir shena me’ainay, utemunah meafapay.  We bless G-d for causing sleep to pass from our eyes and slumber from our eyelids. Ma’avir yom umevee layla – in our evening prayers – G-d causes the day to pass into night Just before Me-chamocha – ma’avir banav ben gizrei yam suf – G-d cause his children to pass through the divide of the Red Sea Le’ha’avir gilulim min ha-aretz – In the Alenu we hope that G-d will someday “cause idolatry to pass from the world.” Of course, it would be clumsy to translate these verses in exactly this way. So, in translation, we bless G-d for “wiping” sleep from our eyes, for “changing” the day into night, for “bringing” his children through the Red Sea, and for “banishing” idolatry from the world. But all these words in English – wiping, changing, bringing, and banishing – are all interpretations of one Hebrew word – ma’avir – which literally means “cause to pass”.   What if WE translate ma’avir not as “annul” or “avert” – causing to pass over – but as “transform.”  Repentance, Prayer and Tsedaka transform the severe decree. Repentance, Prayer and Tsedaka transform the meaning and experience of the severe decree.     For Glen, repentance, prayer and tsedaka could not change the final outcome of his illness.  But Glen’s deep involvement in Jewish life certainly transformed the experience he had during his illness. There was tremendous community support for him and his family throughout the two years of his illness. His funeral, held in the large social hall of the synagogue, was standing room only.  And although Glen was devastated to receive this diagnosis, he never seemed angry. He seemed to accept it – “it is what it is” seemed to be his favorite saying during these years – at the same time that he was determined to fight it. The time that he had with his family was more precious now that he knew it might be limited.  Family relationships strengthened, friendships deepened, and his illness gave him increased clarity into the priorities of life. He would not live to see his children get jobs, marry, and have children of their own. We all dream of teaching and guiding and supporting our children as they grow and mature. He would have to transform that dream. He would now have to teach them how to love when you were sick, how to have courage in the face of suffering, how to live when you are dying, how to hope when the odds are against you. That was the inner transformation that occurred, inextricably linked, I believe, to the central place that his Jewish community held throughout his life.   In drawing from the wellsprings of Teshuva, tefilla and tsedaka we gain the power to transform our experiences and our inner lives. We can transform our lives from the feelings of despair and dread and depression to tap the curative aspects of hope and faith and love.  The Midrash reminds us that when Jacob was fleeing from his brother Esav, he stopped for the night at Haran. He took stones for a pillow and dreamed of a ladder that reached to heaven.  Sometimes the stones of adversity may enable a person to create ladders that can reach up to heaven. A sustaining religious faith can help a person transform their adversity into a triumph of the spirit.