Jeremy Olsan Yom Kippur 5771
Gut Yuntiff. It is an honor to be standing here today, at the beginning of this new year 5771, so full of possibility.
Mark Twain said: “Be good and you will be lonesome”. We’re not lonesome here today, though. I’m seeing a lot of you sitting out there, and I’m hoping that the spike in attendance at High Holy Days services is not proportionally related to how poorly we’ve all behaved during the past year. I choose to believe that rather than making up for the deficits of the past year, most of us are here because we are looking forward. Even with such good company, these “Days of Awe” can be a challenge for each of us if we are to make ourselves and our world better in the year 5771.
At sundown today, we will mark the end of the Yamim Noraim, the 10 day period beginning with Rosh Hashanah during which we are taught to take stock of ourselves through introspection, and to consider and choose what we can do to be better, individually and for our world, in the coming year. Symbolically and metaphorically, for me anyway as I cannot take it literally, at sundown the “gates of repentance” will close and God will have written our names in the Book of Life for another year, or maybe not, but the choice as to how the next year will go is to a very large degree up to us. You’ll hear this in a few minutes in a translation of the Torah portion we read this morning.
The “gates of repentance” metaphor is powerful, and even though it is criticized as judgmental and paternalistic, it somehow works for me because even though my choices are what seem to guide my destiny, I know that I’m not in complete control of what I care about the most: my life, my health, my family, and my community. You’re not in complete control either.
Although we cannot totally control our destinies as individuals, we know that our lives, our health, our relationships, our jobs, and our world really do depend on the choices we make, both individually and collectively, like when we vote. The Yamim Noraim is a time of choices, and many of us are going to sit here today thinking about what we are going to do or what we can change about ourselves to make ourselves better, and at some point today many of us will take our own private vows, make our own quiet promises to ourselves that this year, we’re really going to “just do it”, whatever “it” is for you. Many of us make the same promises every year. I sure do. It doesn’t mean I failed, it just means I’m not done yet. There’s no shame in recommitting one’s self to the same goals every year, but it’s really amazing to learn, as Laura Gittleman so courageously demonstrated in her compelling personal story on Rosh Hashanah, that some of us take on huge commitments at the High Holy Days. Laura took on a very serious demon, and she deliberately and methodically worked and worked and worked, and finally, she put it to rest. In Laura’s case, that demon was a haunting and traumatic memory of being a victim of a violent crime that profoundly affected her for decades. If you weren’t here for it, go to www.shomreitorah.org , look under “worship” and “sermons,” and listen to the recording of her sermon at Rosh Hashanah, called “The Story of Issac Revisited”. You will not forget it.
Choice, and more specifically the notion of “choosing life” is what the Torah portion we read every Yom Kippur morning, is all about. The title of this parsha, Nitzavim, is Hebrew for “people who are standing.” It begins with Moses. An old man now, he is giving his last, impassioned speech to the Israelites before he leaves the Torah’s narrative. The people are standing as one might expect them to do when listening to their leader. Soon they will cross the Jordan River, to take possession of the Promised Land, but only if they make the right choice. Before they are allowed to enter the Promised Land, Moses explains the situation and tells them: “You stand this day, all of you, before your Eternal God…to enter into the sworn covenant which your Eternal God makes with you this day.”
We are talking here of course about THE covenant between God and the people Israel, that if our people will recognize and worship the Eternal God and only the Eternal God, receive the Torah and follow God’s commandments, Israel will be God’s people, inherit the Promised Land, and there they will flourish and multiply.
At this point in the narrative, the Children of Israel are at the most profound time of choice and change in their history. Moses encourages them by telling them that “this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, nor is it too remote. It is not in heaven…nor is it beyond the sea…. No, it is very near to you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, and YOU… CAN… DO IT.” He’s saying, “you can practically taste the milk and honey, so just make the choice to heed my commandment to honor the covenant with God!”
The language of the parsha here is contradictory, because while Moses admits that he is “commanding” the Israelites to observe and keep the covenant with God, he is at the same time exhorting them to choose to keep the covenant because it is only through the Israelites exercise of their own free will and choice, as individuals and as a community, that they will be able to honor the covenant and inherit the future that God has promised.
The parsha then continues with the words we have read for millennia and yet yield new meaning for me almost every year:
“Re’eh natati lefanechah hayom et hachayim v’et ha-tov; v’et ha-mavet v’et ha-ra”
“See, I have set before you this day life and good, or death and evil.”
“Ha-odoti bachem hayom et hashamayim v’et ha-aretz hachayim v’ha’mavet natati lefanecha, habrachah v’ha’klallah; uvacharta bachayim l’ma’an tichyeh atah uvanechah.”
“I call heaven and earth to witness this day that I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse; choose life, therefore, that you and your children may live—by loving your God, listening to God’s voice, and holding fast to the One who is your life and the length of your days. Then you shall endure in the land which the Eternal One promised to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
“Uvacharta bachayim”. “Choose life, therefore, that you and your children may live.”
So what does it mean to “choose life”? Different things to all of us, to be sure. I’d like to talk about what it means to me.
We are reminded every year at Rosh Hashanah that we can change ourselves and our destiny through teshuva (meaning to “turn” or as I prefer, to “return”), through tefilah (meaning “prayer”), and through tzedakah (meaning “good deeds”, usually charity such as our Yom Kippur food drive).
“Choosing life” for me is at least partly the returning of teshuva. Every year I find teshuva to be a difficult task, not so much once I’ve decided how to return, and what concrete steps I’m going to try (again this year) to follow, but in the “taking stock” and introspection part of the process that leads to my choices for change. There are of course the practical difficulties: Let’s face it, as we get older we all start to have a harder time remembering things, and depending on my mood during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, my memory lapses can be really good (as in “well, I can’t remember anything I messed up on this year, so I guess I’m done now”), or they can be really bad, (as in “I can’t even remember now what I said that hurt your feelings, and I really need to remember so I can properly apologize”). For better or worse I’m now having a harder and harder time remembering just how I’ve screwed up this past year, and how badly.
While that memory problem is a mixed blessing, the most significant problem for my teshuva, my returning, is that as I’ve gotten older my view of the world is now predictably less black and white than it used to be. I see lots of shades of gray. I used to be able to almost instantaneously come to those youthful conclusions about what is right and wrong, of what is just and unjust, equitable and inequitable, and I never really had to think about it. My gut said it all. These days I’m likely to fret about it so much that I give myself a headache trying to figure it out. Those little mental labels of “right” and “wrong” that we so easily slap on other people’s statements and actions, but so rarely on our own, aren’t easy labels to apply anymore, but in truth I don’t think they ever really were easy to apply when looking at one’s self.
As we get older, learn more about the world, and about ourselves, life can continue to become more beautiful, but it also gets more complicated. While some choices become easier because of experience (I know which of the 400 available flavors of nonfat yogurt I like) other decisions get harder to make. Do I buy the locally-grown organic lettuce that costs $2 a head more than the lettuce that’s been trucked in from somewhere else? My young self didn’t buy grapes for 20 years because of the farmworkers strike, My older self understands that while local is generally better, the head of lettuce grown in Salinas is helping support a family somewhere, too . And by spending that extra $2 on lettuce, I make a choice not to spend $2 on something else that I need or whose purchase may benefit another more local business.
Let’s talk more about complicated choices, and let me give you another all-too-familiar contemporary example: We know it is wrong to break one’s promise. We know it is wrong not to pay one’s debts. When you borrow money to buy a house, you sign a promissory note, which is a contract to pay back your lender for the money you borrowed. Simple deal, right? But is it always so clearly wrong to choose to walk away from your obligation to make payments on that promissory note you signed on your house? What if your house is now worth only 50 to 70 percent of what you owe on the mortgage, as so many are in the western United States? What if you just lost your job and the only thing you know how to do is construction work? What if your spouse got cancer and couldn’t work, and you don’t have medical insurance? Is it okay to choose to break your promise then? I submit to you that it all really depends on the circumstances.
What do I know about this? I’m a real estate and business attorney. I help people in this situation all the time, and not one of them takes this decision lightly and without checking with their conscience. Some are commercial property owners, real estate investors whose tenants have gone out of business and they no longer are getting the rental income they needed, and that the lender relied on, to pay their mortgages. Some are homeowners who have been in their homes for 10 or 20 years. Others bought at the top of the market using 100% financing and those “stated income” loans that have come to be known as “liar loans,” but I have yet to have one of those clients tell me that they lied on their loan application about how much their income was. And really, why would they lie to me? I wouldn’t and couldn’t tell a soul because of confidentiality rules and the attorney-client privilege. They did take risks (whether their lenders or mortgage brokers properly informed them of the risks is the topic for another day), but the lenders took risks, too, as did Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the house of cards fell in on them and on all of us, too.
At least 90% of my clients who come in to talk about their residential mortgage problems, short sales, and foreclosures, have stellar credit and have never missed a payment on anything in their lives, yet they are seriously considering intentionally going into default on their mortgages because they cannot afford them. Most can’t afford them because they or their spouse or partner lost a job, or became ill and consequently lost a portion of their income, or went into debt to pay uninsured medical bills, or because they were put on furlough a few days a month. Most of them are losing their houses, and there’s not much so far that can be done about it. Despite some very strong efforts by the White House over the past 2 years, lenders in August foreclosed on 95,000 homes in this country. That’s right, 95,000 homes. These statistics are not just numbers, they are people being made homeless, and choosing life for me means trying to support political efforts end the housing foreclosure and housing affordability crises.
The families in those homes had friends in their neighborhood, kids who went to neighborhood schools, and incomes, dwindling though they are, that helped support neighborhood businesses. Most of these homeowners put a lot of their own savings into their homes, along with a good measure of sweat equity. It is gut-wrenching to know that all they want is to stay in their home, and to see them come to the realization through our discussions about foreclosure law that they often have just two bad choices: either try to find a buyer and get the lender’s approval for a short sale (assuming they can get the lender to agree not to sue them after the close of escrow for the difference between the loan balance and the sale price of the house), or their other choice: let the property go to foreclosure and hope that their loan is the type that, under California law, if they default, the lender can only take the house and cannot sue them for a deficiency judgment.
I hand out a lot of Kleenex in my conference rooms at the office.
So is it right or is it wrong for someone to walk from their promise to pay a loan back? It depends. Lately, I’ve seen a lot of cases where it’s pretty black and white to me that walking away on a mortgage loan is completely okay. The hopes and expectations of many people, reasonable though they may have been in 2006, seem almost childish to us in retrospect, but let’s not forget that just because we have freedom to choose, including the freedom to “choose life” by, among other things buying a new home for a growing family, or in the hopes that it will appreciate and help us to invest for our futures, doesn’t mean that we are in control.
More statistics from the recession? How about this: The Census Bureau announced two days ago that our poverty rate in the US in 2009 soared to 14.3 percent, the highest level in 15 years. That is 46.3 million people, the most in the 51 years that poverty statistics have been kept. Keep in mind that the federal poverty rate for a family of 5 is a meager annual income of $25,790. Among various racial groups, the report shows, the poverty rate for whites increased to 9.4 percent in 2009 for whites, to 25.8 percent for African Americans, and to 25.3 percent for Hispanics. The rate of children younger than 18 living in poverty increased from 19.0 percent to 20.7 percent – a jump of 1.4 million to a total of 15.5 million children.
“When we look to the future, said analyst David Seith of the Center for Law and Social Policy, “we must worry about three things: food, shelter, and health care.”
And our calling on Yom Kippur is to “choose life?” How exactly do we do that in the face of this kind of economic and social tragedy? What are the right choices societally? For me? How do I choose life this year? How do I turn to God, or the better question for me: how do I turn back to my true nature?
Two concepts core to Yom Kippur help us get there: teshuva and Tikkun Olam. Turning or returning, and healing the world. We are called to both these goals as Jews, and the change and healing begins with each of us. That is why we’re here today.
While we are being called to return to God through teshuva, I mentioned before what is, at least for me, an easier way for those of us who struggle with who or what God is, to think of teshuva as the opportunity to consciously make a choice, at least this time every year, to do things to return to our true nature as being created in the image of God, or we can choose to do things to better ourselves, perhaps by focusing on our relationships with our spouses, partners, kids, parents, friends or co-workers. We can also choose to dedicate some portion of every week, month, or year to a Tikkun Olam project.
This past weekend, Ann and I drove to Santa Barbara to meet a bunch of friends and many of my co-workers, including my law partner and temple member Larry Moskowitz, for the 39.3 mile, 2-day Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. Breast cancer complications killed my mother in law at age 56, and my sister in law had breast cancer related surgeries and chemotherapy just last year. Their first cousin died at age 39 of a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer, and Ann is positive for BRCA-1, the breast cancer gene. Without the preventative surgery Ann had last year, being BRCA-1-positive would have left her with up to an 87% chance of having breast cancer.
Breast cancer has not just “touched” many of us here, it has beaten up and clobbered us or people we love, and in the case of my mother-in-law, Bette DuBay, it has stolen them from us. Like the recession, diseases like cancer are very hard to control and like foreclosure, it can steal your way of life, or even your very life, right out from under you. Rather than letting it bring us down or giving up, however, many of us “choose life” by doing things like the Avon Walk. Our Avon Walk team, named “Leave it to Cleavage” raised over $28,000 that will go toward providing women and men the breast cancer screening, support and treatment they need regardless of their ability to pay, and so that leading-edge research teams across the country can be powered by the funds they need to fuel their quest for a cure.
Choosing life means being involved in your life and in the life of the community. I suggest that you try the congregation first. We have such a wide range of opportunities to meet people, make friends, learn, raise consciousness about issues in our community, and have fun all at the same time. Just call Membership Committee Chair Cynthia Nestle or our Executive Director Fran Brumlik and they can help you find some activities that you can try. You can also get involved in a Community in Conversation event. There are neighborhood Community in Conversation gatherings being planned, and there are two joint house meetings with other religious and social action groups around the county who are working with us toward an agenda for social change projects. Those meetings are coming up on Sept. 27 and on Oct. 4. Check the CST Voice, and our calendar, both available on our website, for details.
I’m going to finish now by choosing life in another way. Valerie Cotler has been one of my dearest friends for the past 20 years. We met while working at the same law firm right after we got out of law school. Valerie and her partner Belinda live with their two sons, Jonathan and Daniel, just outside New York City, in the same small town where Valerie grew up. 5 out of 6 of her nuclear family still lives in town, including her parents and two of her three brothers. Ann, Jake and I were at her son Jonathan’s bar mitzvah a few months ago, and also shared Pesach with Valerie’s entire family. A few weeks ago I got an upsetting phone call from Val, followed by an urgent email that I will now read to you:
“‘Philadelphia chromosome positive acute lymphoblastic leukemia.’ Not words you want to hear about anyone, especially not about your brother. But, a few weeks ago, we heard them about our brother, Mike. “Ok, we’ll rally around him; support him through his chemo and all the hospitalizations. His brother, Don, or his brother, Lindsey, or his sister, Valerie, will give him a life-saving bone marrow transplant. Except for one thing: Don, you don’t match, Lindsey, you don’t match, and Valerie, you don’t, either. More words we didn’t want to hear.
“Since our parents didn’t have the foresight to have 7 kids, we’re out of siblings. But Mike still needs a bone marrow transplant to save his life. That’s where you come in.
“A simple cheek swab that you do at home and send in the mail is all that’s needed to put you in the National Marrow Donor Program. Just go to www.marrow.org or easier yet, just Google “marrow” and the first result will be the National Marrow Donor Program. It takes just a few seconds to register. You could match Valerie’s brother Mike, or some other patient who needs the gift only you can give. The actual donation process is quick and you’ll barely miss a beat in your life. But you will have saved someone else’s. “We would give anything we have to save our brother, but we don’t have what he needs. You might. So we are asking you to do 2 simple things: spread the word, and register as a donor.
“DON’T say, “hey, that’s easy, I’ll get to it.” Register now and tell your friends. You never know when YOU might need the donor pool to be as wide as possible. The brother you save might be your own.”
That’s my friend Valerie, trying desperately to literally “choose life” for her brother. “Choosing life” means registering for the National Bone Marrow Network. Ann and I have. Please join us in giving all of us, including Mike Cotler, a better chance against bone marrow-related diseases such as leukemia, lymphoma, and anemia.
Choosing life means consciously choosing, every day, to really live this life we have been given. It is being right there, instead of thinking about what I have coming up at work, so I can experience the feeling of life: the joy I feel when my 17 year old son decides, seemingly out of nowhere, that today would be a great day to go mountain biking with me, the fun of an unplanned and spontaneous visit with my parents over a glass of wine, the excitement of hooking that nice big trout on the Yuba River a couple weeks ago. To live in the moments of my days, not in thinking so much about what I could’ve done differently yesterday or about what is going to happen tomorrow; that’s my goal for this year. It was one of my attempts at teshuva last year too.
I’m not very good at it yet. I second guess myself and spend a lot of time in my head sometimes, worrying about things I cannot control, things like the state of our economy, health care policy, the State of Israel, terrorism. I’m sure that next Yom Kippur, living in the moment will still be near the top of my teshuva list, but I’m getting better at it, I’m keeping the faith, and I’m choosing life in as many ways as I can.
May the rest of your fast not be too difficult, and may your year be full of life, love, friendship, peace, and happiness. L’shana tovah.