Yom Kippur 5784
Laura Goldman

Exactly one month ago yesterday my daughter gave birth at 26 ½ weeks gestation to little tiny Eva. The scene in the Labor and Delivery room was as dramatic as any hospital soap opera, and Thank God, baby Eva is doing well. She has to spend 3 months in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, until approximately her original due date, and her parents get to hold her and love her and get acquainted with her in a small quiet room with a lot of machines and wires and tubes and the tiniest diapers you’ve ever seen. It is miraculous that she is alive and growing, and all the advances in neonatal medical care are wondrous and profoundly life- saving.

And as I grow a relationship with my granddaughter, she reaches out from that small
plastic Isolate within which she has lived for the past month, and she requires of me a particular position vis-a-vis the matter of life and death. If I am to be present with her, invite her fully into my heart, I have to find a way to live with the reality of Vulnerability and Uncertainty. Her vulnerability, mine, my daughter and her husband’s, everyone’s. I have to resist the impulse to protect myself from possible pain by creating distance. I have to decline the urge to consult Dr Google on every development, every bit of progress and every unsettling piece of news. I know that this is the price we all pay for love, to forge bonds without guarantees, to live on the edge of an emotional precipice and to build a home there. There is no bulletproofing the heart, not if we want real connection. And when I gaze at tiny Eva with her mind-scrambling combination of fragility and strength, the question of “Who shall live and who shall die” becomes very personal.

But one needn’t have a 3-month premature grandchild to enter the territory of Vulnerability and Uncertainty that is the invitation of Yom Kippur. Our liturgy doesn’t ask us to contemplate our mortality and that of our loved ones just to make us
feel bad or scare us. Rather it offers us an invitation,
an exhortation to wake up to, to embrace, to

inhabit that state where we truly do not know what
the future holds, where we do know how little
control we have over most things, and where we
have all kinds of feelings about this very human
predicament. And this day affords us the
opportunity to be with those truths and those
feelings, held in the safe container of community
and tradition.

There is no formula for how to live in that breach
between the safety of certainty that we imagine
and long for, and the reality of the earthquake-land
that it is to be human, but it strikes me this year
that there are 3 middot, 3 qualities that we can
bring into this day (or really any day) in order
navigate the rocky waters of Vulnerability and
Uncertainty. The first quality is Truth: coming right
up flush with our life just as it is right now, turning
an unflinching eye toward the way things really are.
Foregoing the sugar-coating, the evasions, the
defensive redirects, the denials. But in order for
that interaction with Truth to not turn into a pile-on
of self-recrimination, we must bring in the second
quality: Tenderness, Compassion. Toward ourselves,

toward the others in our lives, toward all our
fellows. This is about the real, felt recognition of our
shared plight as humans: the loves, the struggles,
the traumas, the joys, the brokenness, the acts of
great generosity and kindness. Tenderness for all
the myriad experiences that make up a life. And
underneath it all, the blessing and the curse of an
inherent survival instinct married to an underlying
awareness of our mortality. And perhaps, as we
stand undefended before those realities, as we
open our hearts to Yom Kippur’s invitation, we may
be graced with the third quality: Awe. Awe for the
enormity that is this project of Life. Awe for our
commonality and our exquisite uniqueness. And
awe for the glorious light and devastating darkness
that accompany us as we make our way. Awe for
the sacred embedded in every breath.

We want to afford you every opportunity to
experience Truth and Tenderness and Awe on this
Yom Kippur. And any other part of you that
facilitates your path toward wholeness. We want to
create space for Vulnerability and Uncertainty,
understanding them as keys to open and soften our hearts. For this reason, we want to create a bit
more Contemplative Space in this Contemplative
Service today. A little more silence, a little more
room to let the music and the words enter you and
open you. A little more emphasis on Intention, on
Kavannah. A little more opportunity to do the very
personal work of this day, surrounded by others
doing the same. All held in the ancient and
endlessly renewed wisdom of our tradition.

So I want to invite you, when there is silence today,
and maybe even tomorrow, to perhaps make room
for that place in you where love and uncertainty
and the transient nature of all life can coexist in the
expansiveness of your open heart. This strikes me
as the wisest, fiercest, most counter-cultural
approach to being human that one might take.
Knowing this is a lifetime practice. Knowing change
and growth are rarely linear.
And perhaps this is another reason why we go
over the same liturgical territory each year on
Yom Kippur, because the wisdom of our
tradition knows we are climbing the steepest of mountains to attain this perspective. We need
to go slow, to build our emotional muscles, to
be reliably reminded of the truth of our condition
and enjoined to recognize the holiness therein.
This is the practice of transformation into which
our Holy Days leads us. We can hold each
other up, we can accompany each other on this
treacherous, glorious path. I’ll be there with you
as I hold Baby Eva in the delicate strength of
Uncertainty and Love.

I want to close by reading you something that I
came upon in an online column by the writer,
Haley Nahman. I think she captures that
experience of living with Vulnerability and
Uncertainty, and I love where she lands as she
struggles to make her way in the territory of
love and loss. She’s talking about her cat dying
and all the ways she tried to prepare and
protect herself from the pending loss and the
unknown. I have always invested a lot in preparation.
More than preparation can return. When we first
found out Bug was terminally ill, I grieved him
then and there. When he didn’t die right away, I
tried to consider the grief logged, reinforcing it
whenever I could. I’d rest my hands on his back
and try to memorize the feeling of life flowing
through him. I’d verbally accept his death. I’d
press my cheek to his fur and thank him for
being my pet. As if I could use it all later to
mitigate the loss. When he eventually did die, in
a wicker basket on my lap, his little chin resting
in my palm, there was no accounting for the
sadness. My efforts had been in vain. If it were
possible to prepare for the unknown, we’d
probably call it something different.
One of the last things I did for Bug was clean
his ears and muzzle with cotton rounds and
soap. I knelt in front of where he sat breathing
heavily on the couch, gently separating his
infected whiskers and opening his tiny ears. He
sat still as I did it, like he always did for me, and
this occurs to me, now, as the more appropriate
way to greet the edge: not to fortify myself against the sharpness of his death, but to tend softly to his life until the very end.

Shana Tova.


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