Tag Archives: Yom Kippur

Overcoming Fear – Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

Yom Kippur Morning 5775 – Saturday, October 4, 2014
Temple Beth El, Charlotte, North Carolina
Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

Ted called the rabbi about his wife Doris, who was dying in the hospital. Ted wasn’t a Temple member and was concerned about whether or not the rabbi could do Doris’ funeral.

“How is Doris?” the rabbi asked.

“Doris is dying. They say a day or two. Do I call over to the funeral home and make preparations now? We have cemetery plots but no funeral plans.”

“Is Doris in any pain? Is she awake and aware? Is she frightened?”

Ted still had more questions about the funeral. “Ted, Doris isn’t dead yet. The funeral director will be available later. What can we do for Doris now? Would you like me to visit her?”

Ted thought that a visit would be nice, but the rabbi shouldn’t make a special trip.

The rabbi found Doris alone in a room with two beds. “Hi Doris, I was in the hospital and heard you were here, so I thought I would come by and say hello. We met once before. Do you remember me?”

Doris opened her eyes fully. “Rabbi,” she managed to say.

“Yes.” He slid a chair close enough to the bed so he could sit and hold her hand. “How are you doing?” She didn’t answer, but she looked at him steadily. “Are you in pain?” Her eyes rolled up to the IV drip. The medication was adequate. “You don’t have to say anything. If it’s alright with you, I’ll sit here for a while. Is that all right?” She nodded.

Her eyes were open to him. Some of her history stared back at him. She knew why Ted had called the rabbi. It wasn’t the first time he had buried her.

There was no denial, but no acceptance either. Only resignation.

His eyes were open to her. She saw in them a reflection of her situation. She saw his concern and compassion. She knew he had made a special trip to see her.

“Would you like me to pray for you?” he asked her, still holding her hand.

Her surprise was evident. She had never prayed before. She had no notion that someone else could pray for her. To her surprise, she wanted him to say a prayer. She sincerely wanted it. Her desire struggled with her notion of hypocrisy. All her life she had never seen the point of prayer. Now that she was dying, she welcomed prayer. For the moment, she was stuck between her desire and her disbelief. Her desire won out. More than anything else in the world, at that moment, she wanted a prayer. “Yes, I would like that.”

“What do you want me to pray for?” the rabbi asked, knowing how crucial that decision would be.

He felt her shock through her hand. It flashed across her face. She knew for a certainty that the gates of prayer were open. She had two choices. She could pray to die.

She could pray to live. She had known she could die. She had not known she could live.

The rabbi read the argument in her eyes. She had a good reason to die. Could she find a good reason to live? He saw and felt the shift in her when she found it. He didn’t know what her reason was, but she had found it.

“I want to live,” she said.

“Can you say that again, please?”

“I want to live.”

In that instant her prayer broke through. The rabbi sealed it with a quick prayer of healing. The rabbi’s words were unimportant. The real prayer had burst from Doris’ heart. The rabbi had been there as witness, and nothing more.

He squeezed her hand. “I’m going to leave now. I hope to see you again soon.” She smiled in response.

Doris recovered. The doctors called it a remarkable spontaneous remission. She lived another six months during which she healed a rift with a son from whom she had been estranged for years. The next time she came to die, the son was present to hold her hand.

In this story originally told by one of my teachers, Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz, in his novel, The Seventh Telling, Doris rediscovered her ability to choose. Choice is a fundamental aspect of our humanity, and our Judaism, and may be the most frightening thing we need to reclaim on this day.

We are about to talk about the “Power of this Day”, how it causes us to stand in awe, and full of dread. This is one of the culminations of the Days of Awe, and Un’taneh Tokef, one of the central prayers of these days, stands before us as a declaration of a great decree upon the year to come. Have we done what we needed to do in order to end up on the correct side of the statement, “Who shall live and who shall die”?

Have I done what I needed to do?

Can I face the year to come feeling like God will decree for me a good year?


You may not believe that a rabbi feels this way, but I do not actually believe this. In no way do I feel that there is a supreme personality weighing my year to come and deciding my fate for it and that if I do or don’t do something in particular at this moment, on this day, then my fate will be changed my some supernatural force.

Because, if I believed in such an idea, that God made a decree on October 4, 2014, on the basis of my level of sincere repentance, which would impact whether or not earthquake or plague struck my neighborhood in Charlotte sometime before the next year’s Yom Kippur, on September 23, 2015, (God forbid – I am both a rationalist AND STILL superstitious!), then my whole way of thinking the rest of the year wouldn’t work.

If my prayer or repentance could alter weather patterns, stock markets, or whether or not my family would suffer from hunger, then why would I do anything but pray?

What use would any of my actions be if I believed in the supernatural impact of prayer?

We know that this is not a choice for some being in the sky to make for us – it is ours to make – I must be the one to choose life. We must be the ones figure out how to navigate the twists of fate that will come our way, for better or for worse. And the prayer before us reminds us of that too – it concludes emphatically:

“But REPENTANCE, PRAYER, and RIGHTEOUS DEEDS, temper judgment’s severe decree.”

These words, sung out every year at the end of our worrying litany of potential fates remind us that when all is said and done, our fate is in our hands.

Maybe this is the problem.

While it may feel great to know that it is all up to us, I am frightened about it.

A day “full of dread” indeed – Yom Kippur, when we remind ourselves that the entirety of our year is in fact on us to improve or ruin.

On top of all of that, like Doris in the story, we must accept that this choice before us is real and that choosing makes a difference. Our prayers reflect our willingness to open ourselves to possibilities – to go beyond the fear of the worst-case scenario and accept that we can choose something else. We must make a choice even though we fear to do so.

There are so many fears out there – the notion that we might be less responsible for some of the things going on around us would be a comfort. Taking all that on is just one more thing to be anxious about.

The future often holds the worst of our fears.

The future leads to death. I fight that all the time, and I hope mostly in a healthy fashion. I even joke that the reason I am so serious about running is that I am fleeing from death. I want to live long to see our kids grow up and live as adults.

After all, I am a forty-four-year-old with a seven-year-old and a ten-month-old!

Is that a positive desire, or just another expression of our fear of everything going wrong? I am not sure.

I do know that when I face up to my fears, I accomplish things that are truly important.

I fear that my struggle with the memory of my father, with my anger and resentment towards him, gets in the way of me being a better person, a better husband, father, and rabbi.

On Sunday I ran twenty miles, yes, all at once, and so had a lot of time to listen to podcasts. One of them, an interview between “On Being”’s Krista Tippett and yoga instructor Seane Corn, who talks about taking yoga “Off the Mat and into the World”, highlighted Ms. Corn’s experience of coping with great difficulties. Her experiences reminded me that I needed to choose to forgive my father. I needed to choose transform whatever injury I felt I received from him into a gift, and even to be grateful for the things that I once thought were hurtful. I need to choose to live my life, and let his life, now over for seven years, be an asset for me. After all, I am the only one in the relationship now, I had better figure out a way to make it work to my advantage.

When I hear “Who shall live and who shall die” I can take it as an inspirational statement to choose a better life in the year to come.

The rest of this frightening prayer goes beyond life and death and into quality of life:

“Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.”

This gets deep into the heart of our difficulties – every single one of us wants to come out on the right side of these. And we want these things answered for our families and friends too.

It would be terrifying to think that our demeanor and seriousness on this day, on the days leading up to this day over the last month of our repenting, would actually result in harmony or suffering for us for the next year.

We want to accomplish the thing that would make this all work out – it would be so great if there were ONE thing we could do today to accomplish this.

Not so simple though.

Think about the consequences of a wrong action.

This summer we watched an Israeli documentary, “The Gatekeepers” – interviews with former directors of the Shin Bet – the general security agency tasked with Israel intelligence and counter-terrorism in the occupied territories since 1967.

In one of the opening scenes, as a surveillance camera tracks a van, one of the Shin Bet directors talks about the decision to take action. He says:

“Acting out of fear means killing people who shouldn’t be killed.

“People expect a decision, and by decision they usually mean ‘to act’. That’s a decision. ‘Don’t do it’ seems easier, but it’s often harder.”

Our responsibility for others’ lives isn’t usually so self-evident. Others’ lives are not directly in our hands. We are not pushing any buttons that can end someone else’s life at any moment.

Still, everyone’s lives are in our hands, every moment, every action, every inaction – each of these makes a huge difference, even when we don’t notice it.

Fear leads us to not merely make the tough decision to not act, or to act rashly, fear leads is to turn away and wash our hands of the whole thing.

To see ourselves in this prayer, to see ourselves as responsible at all times – this is what we are asking of ourselves on this day. We feel dread, because we can make a difference. We ease our fears, as individuals and as a community, when we realize we are not alone. We are in it together.

This is one of my definitions of God.

Instead of imagining that God will suspend the rules of the world for us – change the course of the reality on which we depend – merely on the strength of our prayers today, let us use these moments to connect with each other, and remind one another that these connections are the point of Un’taneh Tokef.

God is in what we create when we connect.

“Who shall live and who shall die…” – who among us will remember the value of our lives, and the lives of those around us, and use every day to make those lives worth living.

“Who will be degraded and who exalted…” – who among us will reach past our fears of connecting to a person in need. Who among us will reach past our fears of asking for help, and bravely turn to someone when we are in need. We are truly here for each other – we must ask and we must answer.

This moment is not about how we pray but how we live.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson says:
“We are most God-like when we open ourselves up to the vulnerability of real relationships.”

When we open ourselves up to the choices and choose to connect with each other, with the world, with the sources of our fears and our hopes, then we can accomplish miracles, just like Doris did. We can choose life.

Feel our fear, because on this day we remind ourselves about the choices that lay in front of us every day of the year.

“But REPENTANCE, PRAYER, and RIGHTEOUS DEEDS, temper judgment’s severe decree.”

And we have the power to overcome this when we are open, when we find openings, when we offer openings – to our selves and to one another.

Image source:


Writing Our Books of Life

Writing Our Books of Life
Yom Kippur Morning 5774
Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

Shlomo Carlebach used to tell a version of this story:

Imagine, you’re on the light rail in Uptown Charlotte, and you realize that your soul-mate, your “beshert”, the one intended for you, and you for them, is standing right next to you.

You are stunned, overcome with both love and disbelief. Suddenly the doors open, and your beloved is walking off the train car, into the world without you, and all you can manage to ask is, “What’s your phone number?”

You hear an area code and a few digits, and then the doors close.

As the train slides onward to the next stop, you madly dial every combination that completes the phone number, with no success. You run to the parking lot and get in your car, race back to the last station and begin driving around, searching, frantic. You get more and more desperate, fearing that you have lost this person forever, and begin driving recklessly, starting and stopping, running red lights, hoping to catch a glimpse of your beloved anywhere.

Before you know it, you get arrested, held overnight in jail, alone, and await your hearing.
You prepare for the moment of judgment, terrified. You know you have done wrong, and have no real defense for it except that you were chasing after your dearest love, from whom you had only received a few digits.
You enter the courtroom and look up to see that the judge is in fact your soul mate, the one you had been chasing, the one whose absence made you stray so far. Your soul mate says the words that change your life, “I know that you’ve made mistakes. That doesn’t matter now. Right now, I just want to be near you.”

[Thanks to Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herman for leading me to that story.]

On Yom Kippur we imagine that we stand to be judged – before our consciences, and before God. There is the great and awesome view – we hold our selves up to high standards, and below a judge on very high. On the other hand, God is also our nearest companion, our dearest love, our consciences reside in the closest places of our minds and souls.

And even on this day – perhaps especially on this day – we imagine that God wants us to draw near. We approach God so that we can be understood by someone who knows who we truly are. We stand in front of a judge who has total understanding of our inner spirits, knowing that we are always doing our best, even when we fall short.

We must closely examine our deepest and most hidden places. We must look at the stories of our lives.

The stories that we tell about God help us tell our own stories. When we talk about God, whom we can’t really know, we really talk about our deepest senses of who we are at our cores, and how we are connected to the world.

When we write a story about God, we begin to write our own stories.

We get to edit these stories, update them, add new chapters to them, and even rewrite them. The story about God and us helps us tell a better story about us, and helps us write our own Books of Life.

There once were two brothers – Adam and David. Their parents loved them very much and wanted them to succeed in all that they did. Adam was the oldest, and his parents fell in love with him right away. Adam’s mother saw in him amazing physical skills. Adam climbed out of his crib on his own, he walked earlier than all the other kids, he was fast on his feet, quick with his hands, and strong. As he grew his mother always said, “Adam, you are a great athlete.”

When David was born his parents also fell in love with him right away. They noticed that he looked around differently than Adam, and seemed interested in investigating things more than moving them. They challenged him with infant and toddler puzzles and introduced him to reading early on. He showed a great love for taking things apart, and eventually for putting them back together. David was handy with devices and a self-learner. As he grew his parents would always say, “David, you are a great scientist.”

When we define others, we change them. Even in the smallest of ways. A recent study tested third graders of about the same level. After being given an easy test, half were told that they did well because they worked hard, and half were told that they did well because they were smart. The students received a second more difficult test, and the differences were amazing. The students who were told they worked hard significantly out-performed the ones who were told they were smart. When given a third even more difficult test, the hard worker crowd did even better. When we think we are smart, we are more likely to believe that we can do well easily, because it comes naturally, without effort, and so we give up more quickly. When we think we are hard workers, we will work harder believing that our efforts will pay off.

We don’t want to be defined by others’ definitions no matter how lovingly they give them. We want to hear them, be grateful for their advice and their compliments, and then use those words as opportunities to write our own stories. We can rework those defining words. David and Adam are great at different things, and they can be great at other things too. We can hear “you are a great scientist” and still go and do well in sales or as an accountant. We can hear “you are a great athlete” and still go and do well as a poet.

The heroes of our stories redefined themselves all the time. Jacob started as a man of the tents, a bookish person, and when he wanted to impress Rachel, he went and moved a stone that normally took a whole group of shepherds to move. Joseph started out as an obnoxious brat, flaunting his dreams about the future to his brothers, and became a humble interpreter of dreams to Pharaoh, and then saved all of Egypt, and his family, from famine. David started as a shepherd, became a warrior who killed Goliath, and then a king.

We rewrite our stories all the time. We will not be defined by others’ ideas. We are the people who persist even when no one believes that we can.

We are the authors of our own books of life.

As authors of our books, we have help with the words – the words of this season offer us writing tools.
We say: “L’shanah tovah” – for a good year.
We say: “G’mar chatimah tovah!” May we be finished for a good inscription in the Book of Life
And in our prayer book we ask: “Kotveinu b’sefer chayim tovim” – write us in the book of good life.

Isn’t this odd?

We could say: have a great year! May you be written for an excellent life! May you be awesomely inscribed!
Instead, we aim for good.

In this, we take the hint from the original author, from God.
Looking at creation over and over, we hear: “God saw that it was good.” When God finished, and felt that all was thoroughly done well, the last verse of Genesis, Chapter 1 (Gen. 1:31) says:
Now God saw all that God had made, and here: it was very good!
“Tov me’od” – very good is as good as it gets for God.

Yet we are so hard on ourselves.

Good is never good enough for us. Our standards are so high.

We want perfect.

My wife Ginny used to listen to me compare myself to professional cyclists and runners – “I’m not really doing well in this marathon, after all, the ‘real’ runners beat me by almost two hours. I’m not even half the runner that they are!” She reminded me that I’m a rabbi, who occasionally runs marathons, not a marathon runner.

I’m sure that we all can think of times when we have held our selves up to unfairly high standards.

Rabbi Zusya was one of our greatest rabbis, and he was upset. His students gathered around him, concerned about his obvious anxiety and said, “Rabbi Zusya, what troubles you?”
Rabbi Zusya eyed his students sadly and said, “I worry about how God will judge me”.
His students were shocked. “Master, how could you possibly be concerned? You are as great a teacher as Moses!”
Rabbi Zusya answered, “That may be. Still, when I go before the Judge of judges, at my final reckoning, the question asked will not be, ‘Were you as good as Moses?’ But, ‘Were you a good Zusya?’”

The goal is to be good. We must aim to be a good representation of our inner self, not some external standard, not some comparison to others.

Why should we aim for good and not perfect? Perfection is a trap – it is beyond us, and unreasonable to even reach for. The world is filled with opportunities for improvement, for doing better. Perfection is not of this world. Those closest to it in our tradition, angels, don’t get the same privileges as we do. Our place in this world is to aim for good, our weaknesses, are our assets.

The Talmud tells a story (BT Shabbat 88a):
At the time that Moses went up to Heaven, the angels said to God:
“Master of the Universe, what is that son of a woman doing among us?”
God told them, “He has come to receive the Torah.”
The angels said to God, “The Torah, the most desired one, the one with whom you created the world – now you are going to give her to flesh and blood? What are humans that you should be mindful of them, and this child of Adam that you should listen to him?”
God told Moses, “Answer them!”
Moses said to God, “O Ruler of the Universe, I am afraid that they will burn me with their breath!”
God told Moses, “Hold on to my Glorious Throne and respond to them!”
Moses said, “Ruler of the Universe – the Torah that you are giving me, what is written in it?”
“I am Adonai your God, Who took you out of Egypt…”
Moses said to the angels, “Did you go down to Egypt? Were you slaves to Pharaoh? Why do you need the Torah? What else is written in it?”
God: “You shall not have any other gods before me!”
Moses: “Are you living among the heathen nations? What else is written in it?”
God: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy!”
Moses: “Do you work that you have to cease? What else is written in it?”
God: “Do not take…”
Moses: “Do you give and take? What else is written in it?”
God: “Do not murder! Do not commit adultery! Do not steal!”
Moses: “Do you have envy? … Do you have an evil impulse?”
They immediately thanked God…right then every one became a fan of Moses and gave him a gift.

One of my teachers, Ari Elon, taught:

“The angels finally accept that the Torah was not for them but for human beings in the real world, who have fathers and mothers, who work and envy, and who struggle with evil impulses.

“The Torah is for humanity, for human beings are the ones who can accept their weaknesses. Those who see themselves as perfect and cannot accept their weaknesses are angels who are not suited or able to fulfill the commandments of the Torah.”

Let us work to improve because we accept with love our imperfections. Let us embrace them as the reason we are here. Only because we not perfect can we relate to the real world and work together to make the world and us better.

We teach practices of prayer and thought to help us review and revisit. The entire idea of t’shuvah – returning to our deeds to make amends, with others, with ourselves, and with God – asks us to engage in thoughtful and compassionate reflection on our stories so that we can rewrite them for a better new year.

Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman describes the process of t’shuvah:

“T’shuvah ought to transcend the motivation of fear and instead be motivated by an inner vision of our selves and who we believe we ought to be. This is the idea of t’shuvah out of love. In this t’shuvah, memory still plays an essential role but it ‘s no longer God’s memory, it’s our memories. Rosh Hashana as [a day of remembrance] is not the day in which God remembers but the day in which we are challenged to remember.

“The ability to change requires a leap of faith, a faith in our selves, that we can begin anew, that who we were need not determine who we will be. We need to free ourselves from our past, to delete it, so that a new story, a new journey and a new person can emerge. To learn from the past often entails getting stuck there. A healthy revolution needs to be gradual but it also needs a moment of radical departure, a break, and t’shuvah is nothing less than a personal revolution.”

A personal revolution – a return to the past to edit our stories and write new ones for the future – let us enter this new year as writers, let us move from asking God to write us into the Book of Life, and instead write our own books of life. And so we go from the passive object of “kotveinu” – please God write us! – to the active “nichtov” – we will write!

We are the people of books – many books, not just one. And these books are the ones we write about the People Israel, the ones we carry on our backs, and they are the books we write about ourselves, the libraries in our hearts.
Every year we come with here with our books. As we seek to be written for the next year, so we seek to rewrite. We come here as authors and editors, with laptops and red pens. We reflect on what worked and what didn’t and we embrace the mistakes, the imperfections, the weaknesses, as the gifts of a creation that is good, that allows us the chance to improve and fulfill our roles as works in progress.

As works in progress let us be compassionate to each other and our fragile souls.

As authors of our Books of Life, let us write good stories for the year to come.

Let us be our own creators, let us look at our work and say, this is very good.

Let us take this pause on Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, to accept our imperfections, and so make the improvements we need to make this year a better year for us all.

We start these holy days here:
Kotveinu b’sefer chayim tovim – Please write us in the book of good life!

Let us finish them here:
Nichtov atzmeinu b’sefer chayim tovim – We will write ourselves in the book of good life!

Source of image:



Aim for holiness in the New Year

Torah-Inspired, Days of Awe Reflection of The Day…

Today we look at K’doshim, Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27 – the holiness code, a list of behaviors that Jews identify as fulfilling the verse that appears early in this reading:

Lev. 19:2 Speak to the entire community of the Israelites, and say to them: Holy are you to be, for holy am I, Adonai your God!

Jews tend to read this section as describing how God intends us to be holy – namely by adhering to these standards. The verse serves as an introduction to the behaviors and rituals that follow.

This says that holiness is not other-worldly, not some distant divine essence. Rather, to be holy is to be distinct – to separate ourselves by following paths of good actions. To be holy is to distinguish our behavior, just like creating holiness for a time or space is about setting aside that time and space as special and different from other events and locations.

On this Day of Repentance, that starts this evening, let us all try and find some way to distinguish ourselves. May we make this year one where our actions bring holiness into the world.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah – may we all be well-inscribed for the New Year.