September 21, 2015: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Yom Kippur

As Rosh Hashanah approached, I was nervous.

All I could think about were the holidays 2 years previously.

Back then, when we reached Unatane Tokef, I practically ripped myself in two. After all, the prayer is quite clear — between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, our fate is sealed. Whether we live or die is set based on our actions. If we are set to die, we can avert this through prayer, teshuva, and charity. I took the words at face value and accepted them and poured my heart and soul into the formula to change our fate and escape death.

I demanded, begged, pleaded with G-d that Stella not die. I felt I left no stone unturned. Medicine had failed her by this point, but prayer can work miracles, right? Between my prayers and those of so many others for her, there was no way she could die, right?

But I was wrong. Stella passed away about 6 weeks after Yom Kippur. Six weeks after the combined teshuva, tzedakah, and tefillah should have changed her fate.

How could this be?

Last year, I muddled through the holidays, searching for answers and finding none. My prayer felt meaningless. I said the words of the prayer but believed none of them. I read them with no more Kavanah than I would have reciting a recipe.

This year, I continued my quest for answers. I decided that I could not accept the literal meaning of the prayer. There is no way I could accept that Stella — my Stella — had not done enough good to merit additional life. There is no way I could accept that if I could have prayed harder, done better teshuva, given more to charity then she would still be alive.

The prayer must contain a different meaning then what I had always believed.

And I admit I am biased (although I think that everyone who knew Stella would agree that she was indeed one of the people most worthy of life that they had ever met.) But there is no example of a person who used the formula to skip death. We don’t have a single person walking around that is a few hundred or a few thousand years old. When people die who are 100 years old, are we to believe that they did something so bad after they turned 99 that they were crossed out of the book of life?

And the source of the prayer also screams “Don’t take me literally!” The author was tortured to death. Supposedly, he appeared in a dream and told the words of this prayer to escape death to one of his students. In the dream he insisted that all Jews say this prayer on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But he is hardly the model spokesman for a prayer that reveals the secret of how to escape death — he died!

So if we are not to take the prayer literally, what could it mean?

As I stood there at Rosh Hashanah, the answer seemed obvious. “Life” is not physical life at all. “Life” has to mean a connection to G-d. To live is to understand that everything and everyone has a purpose. And that even if we can’t understand it, there is ultimate justice in the world.

To not understand this is to be spiritually not alive. But anyone can simply pray, do teshuva, or give charity. And through these actions one forms a connection to G-d. These actions indeed can reverse the fate of being spiritually dead.

And so I realized. Stella may not be physically alive. But she is definitely still spiritually alive. If anything, the connection she had with G-d could only be deeper now. Our prayers — my prayers — were not in vain. Just by thinking about her and what she accomplished, we keep her alive.

My eyes were opened and I now recited Unatane Tokef, with all my heart again. And when I did, I felt Stella’s neshama embracing me.

The only thing more wonderful was that after davening, Gilly told me how she was thinking along these lines and wondering if anyone else was thinking the same way.

And so I am not fearful of Yom Kippur like I was 2 years ago. I am not ambivalent as I was last year. I am looking forward to it the same way someone looks forward to spending time with a loved one who has been away.

To all our friends, Gilly and I wish you a beautiful year, a year of connection to G-d, and an appreciation of every minute that we are able to live and breathe and love.

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