Sometime in the Fall of 2009 I changed my last diaper. You’ll have to trust me since I didn’t save it. I didn’t even note the date in the baby book. Because I didn’t know it would be the last diaper I would change. I could tell you when I changed my first diaper. That’s often the case. We can easily recognize firsts but lasts are not usually known until afterwards.
Rarely, we do know the last time we do something. On Wednesday April 8, 2009 we participated in a once every 28 years Jewish ritual called birkat ha chamah, the blessing of the sun, when we see the sun in its original place in orbit. It was the day of first Seder and we prayed the morning service in the chapel before going outside to bless the sun. In my remarks beforehand I said, with all the arrogance and ignorance of youth, “And who knows where we may find ourselves in another 28 years when it is time to once again bless the sun.” Afterwards Eddie Attman came up to me and drawled, “Dear, I know where I’ll be in 28 years.” I think I turned red and stammered. Eddie knew he was blessing the sun for the last time, most of us however are not aware the last time we do something.
We don’t know until afterwards the last time we get to embrace our parents. The last time we hold a sleeping child. The last time we are intimate with a partner. The last time we visit a place we love. The last Passover Seder we celebrate with grandparents. The last time we laugh with a friend. The last time we drive a car. The last time we say I love you. The lasts are as precious as the firsts, maybe even more so, and yet they catch us unaware.
What if we knew it was the last time we were going to do something? I’ve been thinking a lot about these last times since March. In the waning days of February and the early days of March we had no idea we were accumulating “lasts”. The last time we would eat out in a restaurant. The last time we would hug a parent or a friend. The last time we would share a prayer service in our sanctuary, or offer a Shabbbat Shalom with a handshake. The last time to dance the hora at a Bar Mitzvah. And God willing and science willing, these will only be lasts for a little while longer and soon we will joyfully replace our lasts with firsts.
But these past seven months, as we thought back on our lasts and imagined what we might have done differently, have been the perfect preparation for Yom Kippur.
Rabbi Eliezer taught “Repent, do teshuva, one day before your death.(Pirkei Avot 2:15) His students asked him: Does a person know the day of his death? Rabbi Eliezer replied: All the more so should he repent today, lest he die tomorrow. The result is that all of his days are spent in the process of repentance.”(Shabbat 153a)
Judaism has blessings for just about every occasion in life – eating a banana, seeing the ocean, smelling a lemon on Yom Kippur, standing up straight, going to the bathroom, and for doing something for the first time. But there is no blessing for a last. Rabbi Eliezer understood the reason for that. He might say that in every blessing is already present a blessing for a last. Part of what we do when we make a blessing is savor a moment or an experience in case we don’t have it again. Our charge is to elevate our moments so we experience them with the preciousness, with the precariousness, of knowing that they may be our last.
On Yom Kippur night, we conclude our recitation of Kol Nidrei with shehechiyanu. It is perhaps the most poignant moment of all the High Holy Days. A blessing of Thanksgiving, a plea for more time, and an acknowledgement of both a beginning and an ending, all rolled into one perfect prayer.
German-Jewish Philosopher Franz Rosenszweig began his central work The Star of Redemption with the assertion that all knowledge of God begins with death. Even more powerfully he wrote these words originally in a trench fighting in World War I. After returning to Germany he decided to convert to Christianity. He gave himself one last opportunity to experience what he would be leaving behind by attending Kol Nidrei services. At that moment everything fell into place and he understood how his insight in the trenches connected to the deepest truth of Judaism. The experience of life, knowing that we are mortal, propels us into the embrace of every moment. . (Rabbi Michael Bernstein)
Human beings, and most especially Americans, do not usually spend very much time contemplating our own deaths. However, in our current reality, many of us are living in constant awareness of our mortality and the mortality of those we love. That is both a fearsome burden and a gift. But because it is seen as a burden, we have been distracting ourselves from that fear in any number of ways (some more and some less helpful) –netflix, zoom-socializing, isolating, drinking, eating, exercising – a whole host of distractions since March.
Yom Kippur offers an opportunity to intentionally enter into and explore our awareness of our own mortality and of those we love –our fear of it, AND the heightened sense of holiness and life’s meaning that can emerge from it .
Focusing on what’s “last” makes the firsts all the more precious, as well as all the in betweens.
The last holiday that we celebrated together in person was Purim. Arguably the strangest Jewish holiday, but now we can see how it foretold our future. Purim is a holiday where we wear masks, hiding our faces and our identity. A holiday where we commemorate the mortal danger to our bodies that was narrowly averted. A holiday which relies on luck and good or bad fortune. A holiday whose tag line is ve nahafokh hu, and everything was turned upside down. When we last gathered in this sanctuary, we had no idea it would be the last holiday we would celebrate together in person in 5780.
Rabbinic tradition says that the festival most closely related to Purim is Yom Kippur whose traditional name is Yom Ha Kippurim, the day of atonements. But the Rabbis say really its name is Yom Ki Purim, a day like Purim. The primary reason for this is that they both involve chance and casting lots.(Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik) We live our lives with tumult, confusion, uncertainty, even danger. That is true every year, not just now. We read about it in March on Purim, and we are living it now in September.
The theme of Kol Nidrei’s words is nullification – a reminder that all things end. (“The Days of Awe”, Hugh Nissenson p.242) Tonight we reflect on the lasts; we think about all the lasts we didn’t realize would be the lasts. They are as precious to us as the firsts and perhaps more poignant. Tonight we immerse ourselves in the endings because we know that all things must end. And we hope and pray and labor so that they might inspire us to live more fully, to live with meaning, to live with appreciation and with joy.