The opening of this week’s double Torah portion, Leviticus 16, presents us with the ancient rituals for Yom Kippur. We will read this chapter again toward the end of September, on Yom Kippur itself.
Let’s think about the contemporary observance of Yom Kippur. We abstain from solid food and liquids, we wear white shrouds suitable for burial, we confess our sins in many different ways using an extensive liturgy. And as we did on Rosh Hashanah, we recite Un’taneh tokef, part of which tells that our fates are sealed on Yom Kippur, “who will live and who will die.” We recite the Yizkor service in memory of our beloved dead. No nutrition, confession, clothing for death — Yom Kippur has been compared to a near-death experience. No wonder that the goal is to feel reborn, restored to the possibility of a better life.
Parshat Achrei Mot-Kedoshim comes to us this year in the midst of another kind of near-death experience. COVID-19 is sickening many daily, and all too many are dying from it. Do you, like me, check the statistics every day, to learn how many have been diagnosed or died in our county, state, country and around the world? I know that I may be infected unawares, and that my body’s response may range from being asymptomatic through all the gradations of illness to death itself. What is my fate? What is yours? What effect will you have on me, or I on you?
All of this is very scary. It’s depressing. It’s conducive to loneliness, even if you are sheltering with others. How can we remain hopeful and find courage and strength? Can the experience of Yom Kippur guide us in this crisis?
Rabbi Eliezer said, “Repent one day before your death” (Pirkei Avot 2). The obvious question has already occurred to you, and so has the answer: Since we do not know the day of our death, we must repent our sins every day, not just on Yom Kippur or the preceding nine or 39 days. This is a classic instance of deciding whether the glass is half empty or half full. If the glass is half empty, we make ourselves miserable (afflict our souls) because of our sins. If it is half full, we get a fresh start in life every day.
None but the most pious who happens to be super secure financially and to have no other commitments will be able to faithfully follow Rabbi Eliezer’s dictum. So let’s look at the glass as half full.
I know this is a cliché, but I think it’s useful here: Today is the first day of the rest of your life. Try thinking of it as Rabbi Eliezer with a smile.
You are surely aware that many, many people are finding creative ways to be compassionate, kind and nurturing during this pandemic. And you are aware that many more are doing their utmost to keep us safe, healthy and adequately fed. They are strong and courageous. They give us hope. They inspire us to follow their example. Like Yom Kippur, in a grim season they point us toward brighter days.
Near death, but far from dead, and looking forward to living fully again: that is our situation. God has given us strength and skill; it is for us to offer thanks and praise by using them to shape a life better than what we lived before COVID-19.
Hazak v’amatz/be strong and courageous! Shabbat shalom! PJC
Rabbi Paul Tuchman is the rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel in White Oak. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.