Ever since I was ordained as a rabbi,
my father insisted–
despite my reluctance–
that when the time came
I would conduct his funeral.
He died on March 3rd of this year.
“My rabbi has come,” he said,
when I arrived at his bedside
days before he died.
I asked if he wanted to pray Viddui,
the prayer said on Yom Kippur
and just before we die,
in which we release our guilt and shame,
confess our wrongdoing,
name our regrets,
and ask for forgiveness
so we can leave the world lighter.
My father said yes, he would like to say Viddui.
He wanted me to guide him
through his deathbed confession
as his rabbi.
The day before he died,
I sat by my father’s side as he lay with his eyes closed,
remembering his failures, his mistakes,
his sins, his shame.
He recounted with pain
the time after his stroke at age 52,
after he suddenly lost his health, his mobility,
and his position as the CEO and Chairman of the Board of an airline,
after he lost all of his wealth and all of his savings.
He could not pay the bills
and he was desperate.
He went begging for loans
to the banks who’d funded his businesses
and to former associates.
He remembered in particular
a man who had co-chaired a Jewish Federation appeal with him,
a multi-millionaire as my father had just been.
He asked this man for a small amount,
an amount that he was embarrassed to need.
the man denied even his small request.
“I went to him like a dog,”
he said with bitterness in his voice.
“And he sent me away like a dog.”
So did the banks.
“They judge you by your net worth,” he said. “I had none.”
My father, stripped of all status and dignity,
felt a shame so deep and all-encompassing,
he came to believe that he had no worth.
“I have felt this shame for 40 years,” he said.
“I believed that I was worthless.”
This was the sin he most needed to confess before he died.
My father’s confession, his realization,
was that he had measured his life wrong all along.
Not only in the second half of his life, when he “failed;”
but also in the first half of his life, when he succeeded
as a CEO, as an employer, as a business and community leader.
He thought his value was based on what he did in the world.
He thought his worth was earned by his success,
his ability to pay for the needs of his family,
his productivity, his contributions to the economy,
his status in society.
In the last two weeks of his life, however,
he could finally begin to see how loved he was
despite all of his perceived failures,
and how much his love had shaped the lives of the people around him. (And wow, did he love in abundance. His was a beautiful love.)
But only in his last two weeks,
only really in his last two days,
did he understand that the measure of his life was not net worth
That he was worthy just by being who he was.
Perhaps you might think,
“I’m not like that, I don’t have that problem.
I know that my worth is not attached to my job.”
Do you really know?
What if you became disabled tomorrow
and could not do any of the things
that make you feel accomplished,
that make others look up to you,
that give you a sense of purpose and pride and status,
productivity and belonging.
What if you lost your wealth and all of your property?
What if you lost your job and there was no job on the horizon?
What if you started losing trials or campaigns
or clients or customers?
What if your teaching reviews were unfavorable,
your articles weren’t picked up,
your book wasn’t published,
your film wasn’t made,
your building wasn’t built,
your project wasn’t funded?
What if your scholarship wasn’t cited,
you didn’t get any awards or accolades,
prizes, honors, promotions, or recognitions.
How then would you feel about your worth?
Aren’t we, most of us, chasing some next achievement,
some next badge to prove our value to ourselves,
to our loved ones,
to whom, exactly?
I suspect that the older people here,
and those retired, and those disabled,
and those long unemployed,
and those full-time parenting,
are the only ones who might be able to say, not me.
I know my worth is far beyond what I do in the world.
Jews say the Viddui repeatedly on Yom Kippur.
We said it once tonight
and will say it two more times tomorrow.
We say that we have lied, that we have deceived,
that we have mocked, that we have scorned,
that we have slandered, that we have stolen,
that we have cheated, that we have lusted,
that we have been arrogant, that we have been corrupt.
Perhaps we feel that this is true about us as individuals
and perhaps we do not.
But it certainly is true about humanity.
Why do people lie and cheat and deceive and slander and mock?
Isn’t it because we think we’re unworthy?
Isn’t it because of our insecurity
that we strive to make ourselves seem bigger,
in comparison to others?
Don’t we lie because we think our truth is shameful or inadequate,
or because we’re trying to deceive to gain the upper hand?
What is beneath that drive if not a fear of our worthlessness,
an idea that our only worth would be in besting another?
Why would we steal except because we think
our worth is defined by what we possess?
Why would we cheat except
if we can only know our worth by winning?
Why would we slander if not
for a belief
that we benefit from the degradation of others?
What is arrogance
but a puffing up
to hide our self-perceived worthlessness?
whether this core misapprehension isn’t
behind all of our wrongdoing.
how this false understanding of our lives
causes us to destroy our ecosystem.
Think of how much of our carbon-burning,
all of our elaborate busyness,
is in a great striving to prove ourselves,
to make our mark,
Think of how much marketing and consumption
aims to fill our shaky sense of worth;
think of how much our identity
is based on our ranking
in comparison to others.
We’re often so caught in our own insecurity,
we cannot even see outside of ourselves.
How can we respect the earth
if we are so filled with a desperate need
to prove our worth?
Nemonte Nenquimo is an indigenous activist
and member of the Waorani nation
from the Amazonian region of Ecuador.
She and other members of the Waorani people
took the government of Ecuador to court
over its plans to put their territory up for sale.
Their 2019 court victory
set a legal precedent for indigenous rights
and protected 500,000 acres of rainforest
from oil extraction.
She said this:
“This is my message to the Western world–
your civilization is killing life on earth.
I say to all of you:
the Earth does not expect you to save her,
she expects you to respect her.
And we, as indigenous peoples,
expect the same.
This forest taught us how to walk lightly,
and because we have listened,
learned and defended her,
she has given us everything.
And you are taking all this away,
not just from us,
but from everyone on the planet,
and from future generations.
In all these years of
taking, taking, taking
from our lands,
you have not had the courage,
or the curiosity,
or the respect
to get to know us.
To understand how we see, and think, and feel,
about what we know about life on Earth.
You forced your civilization upon us and now look where we are:
global pandemic, climate crisis, species extinction,
and driving it all, widespread spiritual poverty.
It took us thousands of years to get to know the Amazon rainforest.
To understand her ways, her secrets,
to learn how to survive and thrive with her.
When you say that you are urgently looking for climate solutions,
yet continue to build a world economy based on extraction and pollution, we know you are lying
because we are the closest to the land,
and the first to hear her cries.”
In Judaism we say that to destroy a life is to destroy an entire world
and to save a life is to save an entire world.
We quote it but we haven’t internalized it.
That line comes from Mishna Sanhedrin,
in which the Rabbis are instructing witnesses in a capital crime.
They are warning that if the witnesses give false testimony
they will destroy not just this one life but an entire world.
Because even the life of a person
is worth an entire world.
I have taught this text many times, most rabbis have.
It is almost a Judaic cliche.
But we still don’t understand it,
because if we did
our lives would look very different than they do.
Our societies would look very different than they do.
Our earth would look very different than it does.
If every life is worth a whole world,
that means me and it means you,
and it means every person in a jail cell
and every person in a corner office.
The text goes on to say
that we were all created from a single ancestor
so that no one can ever say
“My parent was greater than yours.”
And that the glory of Gd
is demonstrated by our multitudinous diversity,
our infinite uniqueness.
Therefore, the Rabbis conclude,
“Each of us must say:
for my sake was the world created.”
We each have worth beyond all measure.
Rabbi Shai Held jokes
that if you walk into a room of Jews and say
“God loves you”
they will think you became a Jew for Jesus.
Held argues that we’ve got it all wrong
about our religion.
We’ve accepted the idea,
in fact often teach the idea,
that Christianity cares about how you feel and what you believe,
but Judaism only cares about what you do.
Christianity is about love; Judaism is about law.
The Gd of the Old Testament is angry, vindictive, bloodthirsty;
the Gd of the New Testament is loving.
In fact, Gd is just as angry in the New Testament
as in the Hebrew Bible, and just as loving in the Hebrew Bible
as in the New Testament.
In his book, Anti-Judaism,
David Nirenberg demonstrates that the theological discourse
about a loveless Judaism
and a loving Christianity
was an active campaign by the Christian church
to denigrate and supersede Judaism.
We have absorbed these lies;
even we Jews believe them.
Rabbi Held showers us
with texts demonstrating Gd’s love.
Here’s what’s important:
Gd does not love us because of anything we do to earn love.
Gd does not love us only because we do mitzvot
or because we are chosen or because we are good.
Gd does not love us because we have proven ourselves worthy.
Gd loves us from birth,
Gd loves us from before we were born.
Rabbi Akiva says in Pirkei Avot (3:14):
beloved/cherished is the human being
for they were created in the image of Gd.”
The Psalms marvel at Gd’s love for us,
as small as we are.
“Adonai, what are human beings that you care about us,
mortals that you think about us?
Our lives are like mist, our days like passing shadows.”(144)
We are so small and here so briefly,
yet we are unfathomably loved.
Rabbi Held says, “What is true about being loved
is true about having worth.
We have worth from birth
before we do anything to prove it.
We only have to try to live up to the love
and the worth we already have.”
He teaches: “Gd loves human beings
so we are to love our neighbor.
Gd loves the stranger
so we are to love the stranger.
Gd loves the widow and the orphan, the defenseless and hurting,
so we are to love the defenseless and the hurting.”
Rashi says that when Moses tells us
to cleave to Gd’s ways (Deuteronomy 13:5),
it means “do acts of love…as did the Holy Blessed One.”
Human beings are not the only objects of Gd’s love.
Chapter One of Genesis is a love story
of Gd’s utter delight in creation,
in sea and earth and sky and stars,
in seed bearing plants and fruit trees of every kind,
myriad sea creatures and winged birds of every kind,
and all of the animals on the earth;
we see Gd’s pleasure in biodiversity,
as Gd again and again says that “It is good.”
Psalm 104 describes a flourishing,
nurtured by an attentive, responsive Gd.
Psalm 95 describes a mutual love
between Gd and creation,
“the sky rejoices, the earth exults,
the sea and all that’s in it thunders,
the fields and everything in them sing,
the forests and everything in them shout for joy.”
In Perek Shira, the rivers, the mountains, the dew,
the rain, the dove, wolf, lion, bear, elephant,
snake, scorpion, snail
all sing out in joy, gratitude, and love.
As Rabbi Held says,
“The whole point of creation is love.
We are created with love for love.”
As long as we believe
that our worth must be proven,
that love must be earned,
that we must be productive to be valued,
we will continue to destroy the world around us.
Until we believe in our worth,
until we know our worth,
we are unable to fulfill our true mission on earth,
which is to love.
A wise friend challenged me this summer
with a critique of Yom Kippur, specifically the Viddui.
“No offense,” he said,
“but I think we do Yom Kippur all wrong.
The point of Yom Kippur is to get us to change,
Well, we know from psychology
that criticism does not facilitate change.
A criticized child feels worse about themselves,
may even feel ashamed,
and that bad feeling is actually an obstacle to change.
Instead, the way to get a child to change is to positively reinforce
If we were really committed to changing ourselves on Yom Kippur
we would identify all that we did right in the last year
and praise ourselves for those things;
we would look at what enabled us to make good choices
and reinforce those
for the coming year.”
My friend is not entirely outside of the tradition.
Mussar master Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe said, “The beginning
of all individual work
is specifically the experience of our exaltedness
from our very creation.
A person who doesn’t know the preciousness of their own soul,
it is forbidden
for them to search their faults
and to make themselves suffer
over their bad qualities.”
The starting place for change
is knowledge of our own worth.
We must know the exaltedness of our being
and the preciousness of our soul
in order to change.
Life on earth depends
on our ability to change.
If we are serious about change,
we will identify what conditions
and ways of being
bring out the best in us.
We will quickly find
that it involves doing less
and doing it more slowly.
Moving at the speed of wisdom.
Robin Wall Kimmerer says: “We need acts of restoration,
not only for polluted waters and degraded lands,
but also for our relationship to the world.
We need to restore honor to the way we live,
so that when we walk through the world
we don’t have to avert our eyes in shame,
so we can hold our heads up high and
receive the respectful acknowledgement of the rest of the earth’s beings.” (195)
As Jews we know what an act of restoration with the world looks like.
Every seven years
Torah tells us to allow the land to rest
for an entire year.
It’s called the shmita year, a sabbatical for the earth,
and this year is a shmita year.
This is the year for acts of restoration.
This is the year for collective divestment
from the path that leads to death and
collective investment in the path that leads to life.
This is the year in which we resensitize ourselves
to the earth in its beauty,
not as a producer
but as a partner in the majesty of creation.
we also know
what an act of restoration with ourselves looks like.
Every seven days Torah tells us
to allow ourselves to rest,
This is a declaration
that we are worthy
not because we produce.
We are worthy
just because we are.
In the last two weeks of his life,
as my dad said goodbye over Zoom to all of the people he loved,
he was showered with gratitude, appreciation, and so much love.
He saw that he made a difference in their lives.
He saw how loved he was.
It’s not that we didn’t tell him before,
he just couldn’t take it in
until he believed it himself.
On the last night of his life,
his kids and grandkids and my mom sat around his bed
and we all saw the change in him,
that he was starting to believe that he was worthy.
Just in time,
he started to understand
that the true worth of his life
was measured in love.
And by that measure,
he had wildly succeeded.
We do not have to wait
until the last night of our lives
to know that we are already loved and worthy of it.
We do not have to wait until
the last day
to measure our lives by love.
Today, Yom Kippur
is meant to simulate the last day of our lives.
What if we begin right now? What if we begin today?
Ken Yehi Ratzon.