One night, while flipping channels, I discovered a particularly disturbing show called Doomsday Preppers. According to National Geographic, whose television channel airs the show, “Doomsday Preppers explores the lives of otherwise ordinary Americans who are preparing for the end of the world as we know it. Unique in their beliefs, motivations, and strategies, preppers will go to whatever lengths they can to make sure they are prepared for any of life’s uncertainties.”
In the one episode I watched, I learned about a girl in her mid-twenties who goes on daily runs with a backpack full of food and supplies so that when the energy apocalypse comes she can get out of the city, on foot, in under an hour, with all of the possible routes out of the city memorized and all of the items she needs to survive on her person.
Another segment of the show introduced me to a family who stockpile canned food and guns in a homemade, fortified, stronghold in the middle of their farm. And yet another prepper spends all his time studying zombies and how to kill them so he’ll be prepared for the inevitable zombie apocalypse.
We laugh, but what we’re doing today is not so different. Our High Holiday liturgy is full of doom and gloom as it urges us to prep our souls for Divine judgment. We may not be focused on a particular impending apocalyptic event involving aliens, zombies, title waves and flocks of black birds, but in its own way, Yom Kippur each year, is a mini spiritual apocalypse.
We bare our souls and plead for forgiveness as if this was our last day on earth.
The custom of wearing white on Yom Kippur even encourages us to dress as if we about to be buried – in white clothing that mirrors the white shrouds of Jewish tradition.
And yet, during the rest of the year, Judaism is not a religion of doom and gloom. In fact, compared to many other religions, Judaism is much more focused on this life, the one we are living right now, than it is on ideas relating to what happens after we die.
Judaism is a “live for today” religion. Everything we do has value in the moment, not just because we’re hoping to be redeemed in some other world or other life. Although Judaism affirms a World to Come and even reincarnation, the emphasis is on how we cultivate our soul in this world through good deeds.
The Talmudic sage, Rabbi Yaakov, who described this world as only a passageway into the next also said, “Better is one hour of bliss in the world to come than the whole life of this world; (but!)
better is one hour of repentance and good works in this world than the whole life of the world to come.”
Similarly, the Ba’al Shem Tov taught, “A soul may wait for a millennium to descend to earth, and then live a whole lifetime for the one moment when he will be able to do another a favor.”
Contemporary rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitzer writes, “We live this life with an opportunity to grow our soul
so that we will be ready to respond when needed. We are responsible for how we behave in this world and can use our free will to shape our soul for good.”
This is the message of Judaism and of Torah:
we are responsible for our behavior.
We have the ability to shape our souls for good.
And how do we do that?
Well, for starters, we need to have something we believe in;
something we care about;
something we are passionate enough about that we are willing to stand up and fight for it.
We need to stand for something.
In many temples and synagogues, there is a powerful statement displayed on or above the doors of the sanctuary or Aron HaKodesh (the holy ark). It says: Da lifnei mi ata omed – know before whom you stand.
This is not a direct quote from Torah, but the idea comes from a Talmudic discussion and is often linked to the narrative of Moses and the burning bush, where God reminds him to remove his sandals, for the ground he is standing upon is holy.
In a synagogue setting, as the Talmud emphasizes, da lifnei mi ata omed reminds us to have a reverent and focused attitude during prayer. We should be filled with respectful awe when in the presence of God.
But wait a minute Rabbi, you might be thinking.
Aren’t we ALWAYS in the presence of God?
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that, “to know that we stand before God wherever we may be is to rise to a higher level of living.”
And so knowing before whom we stand is actually something we should be thinking about at all times. We are always standing before God. It’s not really something we can or should check in and out of when it is convenient or desirable – like an atheist who suddenly finds they are praying in a moment of extreme duress.
God isn’t just there when we are in need.
We must always know before whom we stand.
In the same way, the chosen causes of our heart are not something we can set aside when they are no longer easy or convenient or inexpensive. Knowing what you stand for should be as eternal as knowing whom you stand before.
Many of you know that during this past summer, I lost my Great-Aunt Bryna. My Aunt Bryna was someone who really knew what she stood for. During her funeral, my father shared the following words about her:
“We are told that difficult situations make us strong, and Bryna’s life is the proof text. She emerged from the experiences of her childhood and first marriage as the strong, independent and determined woman that we all came to know and to admire…Bryna’s divorce from (her first husband) gave her an awareness, borne of her own experience, of women’s economic and social vulnerability, and…
ever since then she became a strong advocate for women and women’s rights.”
Not only was my Aunt Bryna committed to women’s equality, But her dedication to social justice also extended to supporting the underprivileged and in particular, those who struggled with addiction. Before retirement, she was the director of the Easton Neighborhood Center, the Drug Treatment Program, and New Directions in Pennsylvania, and during her retirement years she continued her commitment to social justice by directing Sun Cities Charities.
Bryna’s commitment to women was felt strongly by those she worked for and with, but also by the women in her family and her extensive group of female friends. In her final days, Bryna was determined to plan her funeral and as a final tribute to women, she asked to have 12 women pallbearers.
As I reflected on this in the final days of her life and in the days after her death, listening to her husband, sons, sister-in-law and niece (my mom), reflect on the life she lived, both before and after I was born, I was struck by the level of commitment my Aunt Bryna demonstrated to the causes she believed in. Bryna didn’t just fundraise and donate to causes, she devoted her life to them. They were her livelihood – she was bound to them every working day of her life.
And when she couldn’t work anymore she volunteered.
And when she couldn’t volunteer anymore, she sent donations.
And she ensured that her message of support for women outlasted her, so that even when she was no longer living, no one could doubt that women were important to her.
This is true commitment.
In Hebrew, the word for commitment is hit-ha-ye-vut. It is linguistically connected to the idea of obligation. When we commit to something fully, we obligate ourselves to it – body and soul.
The Chinese Philosopher, Confucius said: “Where you go, go with all your heart.”
The dictionary gives two different definitions of commitment but all too often, we think of commitment as “an engagement or obligation that restricts freedom of action” – the 2nd definition –
rather than its first definition, simply, “the state or quality of being dedicated to a cause, activity, etc.”
Judaism’s take on commitment can be summed up by a passage from Pirkei Avot: Lo Alecha Ham’lacha Ligmor v’lo atah ben chorin l’hivatel mimena, which means, “It is not upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to abstain from it.”
In other words, it is not up to you to take on the full weight of what you are committing to, but you also cannot abstain from commitment altogether.
Apathy and inaction are not options from a Jewish perspective.
A year or so ago, a popular musical group called FUN wrote a song called Some Nights, about a man who is wrestling with the choices he has made in his life. The chorus repeats the line:“What do I stand for? What do I stand for?” and concludes, “most nights I don’t know, anymore.”
The song has a catchy tune, but I often wonder if it was so popular, not because of its melody, but because of its message.I think all too many people today do not know what they stand for.
It’s incredibly sad to think about.
While writing this sermon, I googled the phrase, “Why is commitment so important?” I was directed to prismltd.com, where I found the following statement:
“The most important single factor in individual success is commitment. Commitment ignites action. To commit is to pledge yourself to a certain purpose or line of conduct. It also means practicing your beliefs consistently. There are, therefore, two fundamental conditions for commitment.The first is having a sound set of beliefs. There is an old saying that goes, “Stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.” The second is faithful adherence to those beliefs with your behavior. Possibly the best description of commitment is “persistence with a purpose.”
I have no idea what prismltd.com is or who wrote that text, but I couldn’t agree more.
Whether or not we think the folks on Doomsday Preppers are a little crazy (or a lot crazy), we might want to consider taking a page out of their book – not the part about Doomsday perhaps, but the part about being a prepper. Doomsday Preppers know what they stand for, and they commit to it wholeheartedly.
My Aunt Bryna also committed her life to the chosen causes of her heart. I believe that Bryna’s choice to have 12 women accompany her to her resting place was also her way of telling us that she was at peace,that she was proud of the work she did in the name of women, and that she felt satisfied, knowing she had made the world a better place for women, and that she was leaving a world that was safer for women than it was when she was born into it.
If Yom Kippur is a mini-appocalypse – if we heed Judaism’s teaching to live each day as if it may be our last – then taking the next 10 days to really consider what it is that we stand for, and committing ourselves to that cause, fully and completely, is the way we can prep ourselves and our souls – not for the World to Come, but for the days to come;
For however many days we have left;
So that we can leave this world satisfied that we contributed to making it a better place than we found it.
This is the message of Judaism.
This is the message of Torah.
In the name and for the sake of the memory of my Aunt Bryna.
In the name of the Holy Blessed One and for the sake of us all…
Kein Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s will.