Saturday, October 4, 2014

Cherishing the Struggles: Living Each Day to the Fullest - Yom Kippur Morning 2014

The High Holidays are a time when we take the measure of our lives. What have we done well? At what have we missed the mark? What must we do to make up for our failings and improve our life and our world? It is also a time when we notice what is missing from our lives as well as what we have: health, happiness, love, financial security, friendship. Most of all, we note the absence of those who once were here alongside us. There have been separations and divorces. Children have gone away to college or for work. Some have returned home for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. There may be friends with whom we’re no longer close. Most painful of all is the absence of loved ones who have passed away, whose very presence enriched our lives; whose glance was reassuring, whose smile lit up our world, whose touch warmed our hearts. Our thoughts may be of them today.

Many of us will attend the healing service this afternoon and the Yizkor service that follows it, seeking healing as we remember. The services are both filled with prayers and readings of comfort. One particular reading, written by Herbert Louis Samuel, challenges us to consider the benefits of death and new birth:

“If some messenger were to come to us with the offer that death should be overthrown, but with the one inseparable condition that birth should also cease; if the existing generation were given the chance to live forever, but on the clear understanding that never again would there be a child, or a youth, or first love, never again new persons with new hopes, new ideas, new achievements; ourselves for always and never any others—could the answer be in doubt?”

The expected answer is “No.” Our minds tells us “No.” Of course, those new things are some of the best things in life, some of the most joyful. Yet, for some of us, if not for all of us in some way, our hearts say, “Wait a minute!” If we could live in health, if we could be young always, in love always, if we could sit here today and close our eyes and know that, if we put out our hand, it would be grasped by someone who loves and cherishes us… Could the answer be in doubt? “Yes.” Our minds understand that we must let go. Our hearts may never agree.

The rabbis tell us that Yom Kippur is the day when to an extent we rehearse our own death, the white of our robes and our kittels, connecting to our desire to humble ourselves on this day. On Yom Kippur, we are especially aware that we are mortal and we ponder life’s big questions: How good do I have to be? Why do bad things happen to good people? What is the purpose of my life? Why must we die?

Today, I am going to speak about the last of these, about death. However, I am not going to talk about what happens to us after death. Instead, I am going to talk about what the fact that we are mortal should mean to us in relation to three other questions:

What would we do if we knew how much time we had to live?
What would we do if we had no idea at all, that it would simply happen?
What lessons may we learn from reflecting and considering our mortality?

First, what would we do, if we could, to use the terminology of our tradition, number our days?

To an extent, over the past two years, I along with my family, many colleagues and friends, and untold others lived vicariously through the writings of Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer, friends of our family, from rabbinical school days. Their son, “Superman Sam,” was diagnosed with Myeloid Leukemia in 2012 and died in December 2014. They came to call his illness, “Ninja Leukemia,” because it kept evading treatments. Their campaign to raise money to combat childhood cancer is the reason that my hair is this short. I shaved my head in March as one of over 70 rabbis who responded to a call for #36Rabbis to do so. Working with St. Baldrick’s, we raised well over $600,000 for Childhood Cancer research and raised awareness about the need for research. My wife and children have also been running races in honor of Sam.

Over the course of the past two years, we learned many things from the Sommer family as they faced the challenges brought by Sam’s illness. Phyllis Sommer wrote in January after Sam died:

Throughout the last two years, Sammy used to say to me often: "I miss my old life." I feel that way all the time now. I miss my old life. I miss my family of six. Desperately.

Do I want to turn the clocks back to May of 2012 and be in our "normal" life? Oh yes, I miss the oblivion of a "charmed" and "perfect" life with four healthy children whose biggest problems involved birthday parties and math problems and potty training.

Oh the pain and guilt of telling you that I don't know that I would want to give up some of the last two years. We made friends -- real, beautiful, powerful friendships -- with families in crisis, people who helped us, doctors, nurses, staff and volunteers at so many organizations....all of the people [who] touched our lives and became our community. How could I beg to erase that even as much as I wish I could turn back the clock? 

It’s this idea that led to me entitle my sermon today, “Cherishing the Struggles.” It is the understanding that for Phyllis and for many others, there are meaningful things that can be cherished even from times of deep struggle. Time and again, I have heard from families about the people who helped to care for their loved one during their illnesses. In some cases, they became like family members. Those relationships were born of the struggle. In the case of Superman Sam Sommer’s struggle, there was the addition of not only raising money and awareness but of educating hundreds of thousands of people about childhood cancer.

Those of us who have followed the Sommers’ blog, as they chronicled their son’s battle, saw this in every posting. On November 13, 2013 Phyllis Sommer told the world that the cancer had returned, even after the bone marrow transplant, and that there were no more options left. I can’t read much of that posting without tearing up, but these words are important for us to hear on this day when we think of what is most important in life. She wrote:

He still feels well. We don't know how long that will last. We're going to "suck the marrow out of life" as long as we can.
Quite literally and figuratively. Capitalize on his good days. Fill them with joy and blessing and delight. Stick his feet in the ocean and his head in the clouds. Fill his days with wonder and love.

When I look around this room, I see people with whom I know those words resonate because they have experienced similar feelings with their own family members and friends. In this room are wives and husbands, children, parents and others who have similar experiences. As you and your loved one faced illness, there were good days and there were bad days. Like the Sommer family, you did your best to capitalize on the good days, often altering plans to seize the day.

Knowing that time may be limited, we make different choices because our priorities change. Make a Wish Foundation is an organization that helps families “suck the marrow out of life” and work to accommodate that changed set of priorities. They helped to bring Sam and his family to Disney World, in August of last year, four months before he died. Make a Wish, along with help from the Sommers’ rabbi and congregational community, sent a special plane to bring Sam and his family to Florida so that he would not have to face all of the viruses that are found in the air of commercial planes. Then at Disney World, they provided a special suite at a hotel, a guide for the family, and a permanent-Fast Pass, enabling the family to skip all the lines. Phyllis wrote:

From 9am-3pm, we rode over 11 rides (and had lunch and met Mickey!) and some of them twice. It was awesome. Sam kept repeating over and over, "this is the best day ever!"
Gratitude? It doesn't even begin to describe it. We are bursting with it. It was the most amazing gift our family has ever received. It was an experience that will hold its magic for us for a long time to come. 

When Disney wants to do magic for an eight-year-old, very sick child and his family, they’re stellar at it. For kids like Sam, families may not have lots of opportunities to achieve “Best Day Ever!” Disney is exceptionally good at delivering that. And with the help of Make a Wish Foundation, children like Sam are enabled to have experiences in life that they would otherwise miss.

Regarding priorities, as we approached Rosh Hashanah this year, Phyllis remembered the conversation that she had with Sam’s doctor last year.

Sam was 8 days post-transplant. His immune system was incredibly compromised.
Solly [Sam’s younger brother] had just begun a new preschool. Germs....everywhere. (no matter how much hand sanitizer we used!)
I posed the question [to the doctor]: Tomorrow is Rosh HaShanah, I said, and it's Day 8. I really want to know if I can bring Solly over here. Sam hasn't seen him in over a week, and I just think it is important to have them all together. But if you think this is a bad idea, I will get over it. 

That’s the “time isn’t limited” mindset. It’s the “maybe next time” or the “I’ll get to it later, when it will be better” mindset. It’s the mindset through which most of us interact with our world most of the time, especially as parents: relatively cautious, prioritizing health and safety. It isn’t the “time is limited, there may not be a next time, just do it” mindset. Phyllis described the doctor's response:

Dr. M cleared his throat, and I could tell he was going to say something that I knew already. "He has a bad leukemia," he said. "That's the biggest threat to his life."
I remember taking a very big deep breath.
"Are you saying that I may never have all of my children together again on a Rosh HaShanah? That this could be our last one together?" The words came out all in a rush, almost defiantly. 
"Yes," he said. "That's what I'm saying."
Fine. Decision made. Solly will come. We all will be there. Together.
So I brought Solly on Erev Rosh HaShanah.
I imagined that every day was his last.
Just in case.
Today, I'm glad I did that.

At the end of her blog posting from November, when she announced that the cancer had returned and that time was limited, Phyllis wrote:

From now on, we will hold on tightly to each moment, we will celebrate and we will play and we will laugh and we will create a lifetime's worth of memories and moments in the time that we have left.
We have no other choice.

We understand that. When we know how much time we have, we maximize it. More magical moments: more hugs, more kisses, more time spent together. We call the family together because we know we won’t have many more, if any, opportunities to do that.

What about when we don’t know how much time we have?
Our priorities are different. We are very willing to wait for the next opportunity. We might say, “We’re too busy to go to Disney World this year.” “Next time around, we’ll see if we can go to Israel.” “I know that concert is happening next month and you’re really excited to go, but I have to work that night.” “I’m on a diet.” “I’ll try it next time.” “I’ll travel when I retire.” We postpone.

Then, often we never get the chance to do what we hoped to do. Physical limitations may make it difficult for us to travel: our knees, our back, perhaps the onset of a disease. Sometimes, we are not afforded the opportunity to live with the slow onset of age related limitations. We suddenly find ourselves limited or infirm. Sometimes, death comes with no notice at all. “If only we had… gone on that trip that we kept putting off.” “If only we had gotten that convertible this past year.” We’re left with “If only.”

In either case, there are regrets. We will always have regrets that we misspent our time together and that we did not have more time with our loved ones when things were good. That is not affected by whether or not we were given notice that the end was near. What we miss are the highlights, the magic that we could have created, the joys we could have experienced, had we seized the day.

What lessons do we learn from considering our mortality?

We are reminded again and again today that life is fleeting. No matter how much we think we are in control, we’re really not able to say, “I’m going to have 95 years and from 65-85 I’m going to travel the world.” We really cannot look at the calendar and plan that African safari for January 2020 with a degree of certainty. Neither can we wait to change the way we live our lives if we need to do so.

God may be endlessly patient with us, but God is endless, eternal. We are not. We are a people who believes in righting our path every year. We are the people who know that Unetaneh Tokef with its “Who shall live and who shall die” is the nature of life, even if we do not believe that God is somewhere writing names down on a ledger or, for some of us, even believe that there is a God. If I asked those in this room to stand if a loved one or a friend died too soon, there would be few who would remain seated and more than likely all of them would be young. The Yiddish proverb is “Der Mesche Trakht un Got Lakht.” “People plan and God laughs.” Often, our plans fail.

Our tradition sounds the Shofar. Not just for us to atone. We sound the Shofar to wake us up and to pay attention to our lives. We sound the shofar to get us to remove our faces from our cell phones and see the world that is more than two feet from our eyes and more than an instant into the future.

The words of this morning’s Torah portion include a stark choice: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.” Let us consider today that this choice is not one facing us only on Yom Kippur, but is instead always before us. We always have the choice to act or ignore, to seize the day or postpone. We always have a choice whether or not to take advantage of the good days and “suck the marrow out of life.”

The Torah gives us, in this context, the best advice I can offer:

“Choose life, therefore, that you and your descendants may live.”

Choose life: go on that magical family vacation, play that round of golf, go to see that concert with your kids. When it’s all said and done, it is better that more was done than said.

When it comes to the end, you’re not going to want your epitaph to read, “Always had time for work,” “There’s always next time,” or “Never Really Lived.”

So how about on this Yom Kippur Day, we all take the advice that Phyllis and Michael Sommer decided was best for Sam:

[Let’s stick our] feet in the ocean and our heads in the clouds. Fill our days with wonder and love.

Let’s choose life.

L’shanah tovah u’metukah tikateivu u’t’chateimu. May we be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet year!

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