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 

but love. 

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?


I wonder 

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, 

polluting activity, 

all of our elaborate busyness, 

is in a great striving to prove ourselves, 

to make our mark, 

to succeed. 

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 

awaiting execution 

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): 

“Chaviv Adam, 

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, 




interdependent ecosystem 

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 

desired behaviors. 

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. 


As Jews 

we also know 

what an act of restoration with ourselves looks like. 

Every seven days Torah tells us 

to allow ourselves to rest, 

on Shabbat. 

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.