Rabbi Jordana Chernow-Reader’s Yom Kippur Sermon: Choose Life

As I begin my sermon this afternoon, I invite you to close your eyes and take a deep breath.

Now I have a question for you: do you know anyone who is living or has lived a meaningful life?  What is it about their lives that makes it so fulfilling?

Take a moment, really think about this person.

Imagine that they are with you now.

Ask yourself what do they have in their hands that symbolized their approach to life?  Is it Shabbat candles, a book, an apron, a baseball glove, a soccer ball, something else?  What did you learn about life from them?

I invite you to open up your eyes again, but keep that person in your mind.  In the Torah portion that was just read so beautifully, we find one my favorite phrases in the whole Torah.  The words are:  U’Vacharta B Chayim – choose life.  In these words, we are being encouraged not only to choose life over death, but to live a meaningful and well lived life.

The person who modeled this for me is my grandfather, Joseph.  He was my mother’s father and he died when I was only two years old.   Although I was never able to have an adult conversation with him, he helped shape the person I am today and I strive to emulate his approach to choosing life.  He was such a big influence on how I walk in the world, that we named our son Julian after him.  My husband Luke and I wanted to honor his memory and his approach to living life.

I want to tell you a little bit about my grandpa Joe now.

My grandpa Joe was an optimistic and upbeat person.  He always saw the best in everyone and found hope even in dark times.  He remained full of life until his very last days on earth.   Grandpa Joe was so vivacious that a few months before he died, when he was already sick from cancer, he bought himself a new gold watch.  Although he was ailing at the time, there were still tasks he wanted to accomplish and places he wanted to go.  He wanted to do these things on time and this new watch was going to help him do it.  My mother says this summed up his attitude towards life and how he lived it. He had a quiet, thoughtful demeanor with a witty sense of humor.  He was creative, kind and intellectual.

Based on his approach to life, it would have been easy to miss all of his struggles and heartache.

My grandpa Joe was born in England.  He was from a big, close family as one of ten siblings.  When he came to America as a young man, he knew it would be years, if ever, before he would see his family again.  This separation from his family was a big sacrifice for him and he missed them terribly.   Letters were the only way to stay in touch at the time; they did the best they could, but he missed them.  He was reunited with some of them many years later.

As an artist, employment was hard to come by for him, but he worked hard to make ends meet.  In the US he met my grandmother, an immigrant from Germany, and late in life for both of them, they had my mother.  He loved being a father to my mother, embracing the joys that parenthood can bring.

Besides his family, the thing my grandfather loved most in this world was reading.  A love of reading is always admirable, but it was even more impressive for my grandfather because he was completely blind in one eye and almost blind in the other.  Can you imagine how difficult that was? He loved to read, but his failing eyesight made this love difficult for him to do.

But if my grandfather held his book in a specific way, despite his vision difficulties, he could read.  My mother tells stories of my grandfather sitting in his chair, holding his book, reading for hours and hours on end.  Even with 10% vision he still found a way to do what he loved.

I was only two when Grandpa Joe died, but he found ways to do the things that he loved.  He remained upbeat and optimistic his whole life despite the challenges he faced.  He chose to live a rewarding and well lived life until his last days.  I strive to take this approach to life and to pass along to my children.

U’Vacharta B chayim

Choose to live a meaningful life despite the obstacles in your way.   At every opportunity choose life.

U’Vacharta B Chayim

These two words seem simple and perhaps a little obvious in their message – but, if it was so easy, why would we need to be commanded to choose life? Why do we need to be reminded of these each and every Yom Kippur?  Why today, on our holiest day of the year?

These lines inspire us to ask ourselves: are we really choosing life?  Are we living a well-lived life? What do we need to change about our lives to truly choose life in the year ahead?

U’Vacharta B Chayim 

These lines are instructing us to not only choose life over death, but to choose a meaningful life.  Throughout the High Holy Days, we petition God in the prayer Avinu Malkeinu. We say Avinu Malkeinu- sh’ma koleinu, hear our prayer, Avinu Malkeinu have compassion on us and our families, Avinu Malkeinu make an end to sickness, war and famine.

We also ask Avinu Malkeinu kotveinu b’sefer chayim tovim.  This is usually translated as “inscribe us for a blessing in the book of life”.  But I prefer the translation in Mishkan HaNefesh, our prayerbook, Avinu Malkeinu “enter our names in the Book of Lives Well Lived.”

Avinu Malkeinu kotveinu b’sefer chayim tovim.

This is the heart of what the High Holy Days are about.  Like my grandfather found a way to hold up the book just right so he could read.  The High Holy Days help us do the same with our lives.   If we hold our prayer book, our daily activities, our passions, our loved ones, our community in a certain way, we can examine our lives to ensure that not only do we choose life, but we are writing ourselves into the book of the Life Well Lived.  How we do this is different for each of us, but we are all urged to find our path to living a meaningful life.

Rabbi Edward Feinstein said “if you do not live on purpose, you are living accidentally.”  Rabbi Feinstein was noticing that much of our lives are shaped by our routines – routines that develop based on the demands, needs and necessities of life.  He was not being disparaging in his comments, but reflecting on how most of us spend our time.   To illustrate his point, Rabbi Feinstein used the example of fish; he said that fish are not aware of the water around them because they are surrounded by it all the time.  His point is that we are not like fish.  We do not need to spend our time without realizing that we are metaphorically surrounded by water.  Instead, the words U’Vacharta B Chayim urge us to be aware of the water of our lives and to use it to live in meaningful ways.

He continues with a parable.  It is said that when a soul goes up the gates of heaven, the angels say: “What did you do in the world?”  If the person answers with their profession the angels are not impressed.  The angels were not interested in only hearing about a person’s job.  But if the soul answers saying something about their life – I loved, I found my mission in life, I smiled every day, I took care of others, I was happy, I made a difference in the world- the gates of heaven opened.  While I do not believe this literally, I do agree with the message of the parable.

Avinu Malkeinu kotveinu b’sefer chayim tovim

Inscribe our names in the Book of Lives Well Lived.

A few years ago, I heard about someone who chooses life in a unique way.  Roy Lester, who was the subject of a story on NPR’s “This American Life” podcast.  He was a 66 year-old lifeguard at the time of the recording –perhaps some of you have heard this story as well.  If we think about it, being a 66 years old lifeguard is pretty impressive.  Roy found  his work so rewarding that, even thought he was a married lawyer, he loved spending his weekends lifeguarding.   Roy was so passionate about being a lifeguard that he did not understand the question of why he would still be a lifeguard at the age of 66.   Roy’s age became an issue when the state of New York tried to make Roy wear a speedo to take the annual fitness test. He was still physically fit enough to pass the test and able to fulfill the role as lifeguard, b he did not want to wear this particular required bathing suit. He responded by suing the State of NY for age discrimination.   He had been a lifeguard at Jones Beach on Long Island for 40 years and had rescued over 1,000 people.  When describing rescues, he said: “A good rescue is unlike anything else you have ever accomplished.  The rest of the world is behind you.  The rescue is the only thing there is.  It is a great feeling.”

To me Roy stands out not only for rescuing lives, but also for rescuing Yom Kippur, our day of judgment and atonement.  At 66 and still fighting for what he loves, and for living a life that is enriching to him.

Avinu Malkeinu kotveinu b’sefer chayim tovim. Inscribe our names in the Book of Lives Well Lived.

My kids and I love to watch the TV program American Ninja Warrior together.   We sit on our couch, snuggled-up, rooting for our favorite Ninjas as they make their way through the assigned obstacle course.  In the interviews with the Ninjas almost all of them say they are Ninjas because it is meaningful for them.  It enhances their lives and gives them purpose.  I love to watch this program; I would never want to participate in it, but I have to admire the people who do.  It is clear how much this competition means to them and how this is their way of choosing a well lived life.

I know that now, in the middle of the pandemic, many of the things that we love to do are closed to us, and we can’t spend time with the people we long to be with.  All of this can make living the life we want to difficult, but hopefully this pandemic has also brought us gifts and blessings that we did not have before.  Hopefully it has enabled us to connect with people and activities in ways that we find meaningful, helping us to focus on what is most important to us.  As it seems like the pandemic is going to continue to stretch on, it is all the more important for us to find ways to make our days fulfilling.  More than ever, these words are urging us to find creative ways to choose life.  Despite the physical distance, we can help each other to live meaningful and well lives.  Together we can get through this and help each other choose life.

U’Vacharta B Chayim – choose life.

For the Ninja in your lives.

U’Vacharta B Chayim

To help us get through our challenging times together.

U’Vacharta B Chayim

Do it for Roy and his fight to keep his life meaningful through lifeguarding.

U’Vacharta B Chayim

Do it for Grandpa Joe, his love of life and his passion for reading.  

U’Vacharta B Chayim

Do it for the person you thought of at the beginning of the sermon.

U’Vacharta B Chayim

Do it for your loved ones.

U’Vacharta B Chayim 

Do it for you – U’Vacharta B Chayim –Choose a meaningful and well-lived life.