Image: A person diving in deep water. Photo by unsplash via pixabay.com.
Two Days of Atonement I shall never forget.
One was my first Yom Kippur after ordination. I officiated at my first funeral about 1pm in the afternoon before Kol Nidre*. The deceased woman’s name was Ruth. Although I did my best to focus on her and her family, I could not shake the feeling that I was officiating at my own funeral, reciting the prayers in my own name. That feeling clung to me that evening and all the next day.
The second memorable Yom Kippur was in 2015. The morning before Kol Nidre I suddenly felt desperate for air. The feeling worsened, and I lay across my kitchen table gasping for breath. It crossed my mind that I might be dying, and as we sped towards the hospital all I could think was that I was definitely not ready to die. The ER staff ascertained that my lungs were riddled with blood clots; they administered medicine and treated my family gently. Later I learned that the survival rate for pulmonary embolisms is low; I am fortunate to be alive.
Every Yom Kippur we rehearse for our own deaths, eschewing physical pleasures to focus on the meaning of our mortality. The prayer Unetaneh Tokef reminds us that life is terrifyingly unpredictable. Those two Days of Atonement drove these messages home in a way even prayer and fasting cannot. I felt heaven saying, “Pay attention!” Perhaps it takes a brush with mortality to help us fully appreciate the time we have and value life’s potential. May we each rise from prayer after the holy day with a renewed sense of the urgency of life, the preciousness of every moment.
*Kol Nidre is the name of a recitation in the evening service that begins Yom Kippur. It has also come to refer to the whole service, and the evening it is recited.