To Life, To Life, L’chaim!
Yom Kippur 5771
Rabbi Hal Rudin-Luria
B’nai Jeshurun Congregation
To Life, To Life, L’chaim,
L’Chaim, L’Chaim, to life,
Life has a way of confusing us, Blessing and bruising us,
Drink L’chaim, to life!
I would like you all to join me in making a toast to the year 5771- and of course- when we make a toast- we all say L’chaim- we raise our imaginary glasses of manishevitz, scotch, chardonnay, vodka, grape juice or diet coke- and we shout out “L’Chaim- To life.” I hope I haven’t made you too thirsty. Today is the one day of the year that we are Biblically instructed to afflict ourselves- and we observe this by fasting, refraining from bathing, not wearing leather shoes, perfume or cologne. Sitting in shul for long hours is actually not an affliction though some have wanted to add it to the list. We afflict ourselves and fast so that we can thirst for something more in our lives- but what is it?
The toast “L’chaim” has become so famous that it is part of the hit song from the Black Eyed Peas, “I got a feeling tonight’s gonna be a good night.” L’Chaim is currently the most popular YouTube video with a groom and bridal party serenading a bride with that famous song from Fiddler and of course Tevye’s rendition brought the house down here during its Cleveland run this summer.
So what’s in a toast? There are those who toast to the word “Cheers”- which means to happiness, others say “Salud”- to good health. When we toast “L’chaim, To Life”- this is the ultimate Jewish expression. Judaism is not solely about what we believe but how we live.
Rabbi Harold Kushner writes in his book entitled, of course, To Life, “This toast conveys an optimistic attitude toward life, investing our energy into living rather than worrying, asking us to enjoy the pleasures of this life rather than noticing all the things wrong with it, emphasizing life in this world.”
Yom Kippur itself is about life- being inscribed and sealed b’sefer chayim, in the Book of Life, and pledging to make our lives better. Today we do not seek the answer to the meaning of life. We seek to re-engage in the quest to find what gives meaning to our life. It is also about recalling those whose lives inspire us and make us who we are.
The proper greetings during Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are “shana tova” and “g’mar chatima tova”- both are focused on the quality of “tov”- greetings for a good year and to be inscribed and sealed in the book of life not for a happy year but a year filled with goodness- good deeds, good thoughts, good words, good study, good family time, good memories and good shul time. L’chaim is actually an abbreviated form of the full toast which is “L’chaim tovim u’l’shalom- To a life of goodness and peace!” So raise your imaginary glass to a life of goodness and peace. If we do that, then happiness will surely follow.
This summer, I read A.J. Jacobs’ book, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. Jacobs is a journalist and editor at Esquire Magazine. A descendent of the great 18th century Lithuanian rabbi known as the Vilna Gaon, Jacobs describes himself as an agnostic, secular Jewish New Yorker who grew up putting a star of David on top of a Christmas Tree and his observance of Yom Kippur involved eating only a light lunch. We first meet him as his life has changed dramatically with the birth of his first child. He questions whether he wants to pass religion and in particular Judaism down to his son? In pondering this question, Jacobs decides not to study religion but to live it.
He fully immerses himself in the Bible and during the course of one full year- he herds sheep in Israel, learns to play a harp like King David, grows out his beard like Moses, builds a sukkah inside his tiny Manhattan apartment, builds a practice of daily prayer, stones an adulterer in Central Park with tiny pebbles and finds refuge and joy in the Bible. He reads the Bible carefully and types every rule, every bit of advice and suggestion into his computer and finishes with a very long list- 72 pages, more than 700 rules covering all aspects of life, and pledges to follow these to the letter of the Biblical word for one full year on a solo quest to find the meaning of living a Biblical life. Of course, we traditionally count 613 commandments in the Torah- the 5 books of Moses- but Jacobs’ 700 includes the advice and rules found throughout the prophets, proverbs, psalms and the rest of the Tanakh.
Why do we have these rules? Why live an active, engaged Jewish life? Leo Baeck, the classic Jewish historian, wrote, “The Jew knows that the great commandment is to live.” The Torah teaches, “You shall keep my statutes and laws “v’chai bahem”- “and you shall live through them.” (Lev. 18:5) What does this verse mean, “that you shall live through the commandments”? Commentators present many explanations- some suggest it is living with intentionality, in other words, living a good and meaningful life,
while other rabbis understand it as a way of leaving a lasting legacy for the next generation. The Talmud (Sanhedrin) teaches a practical meaning, “v’chai bahem ve’lo she’yamut bahem”- that you shall live following the commandments and not die because of them. This is the source for the concept pikuach nefesh- that saving a life trumps all the other commandments. For example, one can violate Shabbat to save a life; and a sick person should not fast on Yom Kippur in order to prevent any further illness.
God gave us the laws in order to live, so that our lives may be enhanced and strengthened. However, the laws must be put aside in order to maintain and continue life, to preserve life.
Often funny and painfully honest, in his book Jacobs shares his year-long solo experiment trying to carefully follow all the laws of the Bible, his own literal interpretation of “v’chai bahem.” For example, to avoid transgressing the commandment not to covet, Jacobs makes his wife look through every newspaper and magazine and rip out all the advertisements so he will not see and be led to desire the newest IPhone, Mercedes or cruise line vacation. Instead of affixing a mezuzah, he writes the Ten Commandments on his apartment’s door frame with a number 2 pencil and instead of tefillin, he straps on photocopies of the Ten Commandments to his forehead and hands. He worries if he is stealing when he uses the bathroom at McDonald’s without ordering anything or using the unsecure wifi signal of his unsuspecting neighbor? For years, he kept a secret file on his smart phone named “stuff” where he listed all the mistakes his wife had made to show her that when she says he was wrong, he could prove that in fact she had been wrong so many times. When he came to fulfilling the commandment to be forgiving, he confessed to her that he had been keeping the secret list and erased it, cleaning the slate with his wife- thereby doing his repentance, his teshuvah.
The Torah reminds us with the phrase v’chai bahem- just like l’chaim tovim- that our goal is to live a life of purpose and intention. The commandments, like keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, praying in a minyan, giving tzedaka, honoring our parents, teaching Torah to our children are the pathways to finding meaning in our lives and to building connections to God, the land of Israel, the Jewish people, our community and the world. The commandments are more than a listing of proper behavior and actions, they are the means to, in Tevye’s words, becoming a rich man, living a rich and full life centered around a loving community and tradition. Living an active Jewish life gives us inspiration and order, a purpose-driven life.
There is a Chasidic story about Rebbe Yechiel Michal who was alone in the prayer room when he heard a man slowly reciting each of the six hundred thirteen commandments aloud. The rabbi asked this man, “Why are you reciting the mitzvot? They were given to us to do and make our lives better, not simply to recite them.” The man replied, “For every rule, we should try to discover how it can truly be performed. Let us take a look at the first commandment, be fruitful and multiply. Why are two verbs used here instead of one?” Rashi teaches the traditional understanding that a person should have more than one child- not simply be fruitful but multiply. The man continued, “I understand it differently. To me, it means that we can bring fruits to this world, performing acts of kindness, and multiply means to do more, to continue to multiply our powers for good.”
The results of A.J. Jacob’s year-long experiment in immersion journalism were clear, the Bible, the commandments and Jewish traditions cast a new light on life for him, changing his life for the better. He found Judaism presented a life filled with compassion, generosity and deep meaning, and that he needed to be open to change. He started to look at life differently; he was reminded that life is both fleeting and precious. He gained a sense of gratitude for life and learned to live in the moment.
It was the observance of Shabbat that had the deepest effect on the author. He writes, “I couldn’t type this on Shabbat itself because the Bible tells me not to work. Before my biblical year, I was among the biggest Sabbath violators, a workaholic. Is there really a boundary between the weekday and the weekend, between work hours and overtime? Today, we put in more hours than God did. My first week of observing Shabbat, I told myself- no checking email- and I made it an hour. For that hour, it was a wave of relief and freedom, no matter how much I wanted to, I couldn’t work- I had no choice. That is what Shabbat should feel like.”
So I ask you: How difficult is it to put away the blackberry and cell phone on Shabbat, to get the whole family dressed and out the door for Saturday morning services, to invite a new member over for a meal, to clear your Thursday nights to study Torah with us, or to make your kitchen kosher? Our challenge this year is to create more l’chaim tovim moments. How will we “v’chai bahem”- infuse our lives with greater meaning? What mitzvot, what experiences, what actions will we take to make this Jewish year a good year?
In the end, Jacobs realized that he could not complete his experiment alone, he actually found meaning in connections to community, in learning the rabbinic and modern traditions of Judaism. Daily prayer helped him be less self-centered and more mindful of living in the present. And finally, he decided the best answer for how to raise his son was to join a synagogue and send him to Hebrew school. And I raise my imaginary glass to his conclusions- L’chaim Tovim- to a life of goodness.
Rashi teaches “v’chai bahem” means “chayei alma”- that you shall live through the commandments into the world to come. Another meaning of the phrase “v’chai bahem” means that we can create an eternal life for ourselves by living a meaningful life today. We say in the blessing for an aliyah to the Torah reading- “v’chayei olam nata b’tocheinu”- “You have planted with us eternal life.” The legacy we leave is the way we live each day as our deeds are the memories that remain in this world. Our words of loving encouragement can inspire and have lasting impressions even after our time on earth has passed. In his yeshiva, the Vilna Gaon, the ancestor of A.J. Jacobs, used to repeat one phrase over and over with great fervor to his students- “manichin chayei olam v’oskin b’chayei sha’ah”- “There are those that wrongly leave the quest for an eternal life only to involve themselves in the mundane temporary life.” Living hour by hour should not be the focus of our lives, we need a deeper meaning- to live a life worth living.
By enhancing our lives with Jewish learning and involvement, by paying more attention to the relationships with our family and friends and by performing more deeds of lovingkindness for our community this year, we may surrender some control, give up some free time and even reveal some of our vulnerabilities, but it will make us better people. In turn, it will leave a lasting legacy of goodness for our name with a life well-lived. We all have the power to join the ranks of the Chasidic rabbis named Ba’al Shem Tov- for that name means- the owner of a good name- when we do good- we create a good name for ourselves that can last an eternity.
In just a few moments, we will recite the Yizkor prayers recalling the memories of deceased family members and friends. We often say that the deceased are “no longer with us.” For our loved ones, that is furthest from the truth. The words “v’chai bahem” can also be translated as “and you shall live bahem- you shall live with them- through the people that have passed on.” How do we live with them even after they are gone? You may be wearing your father’s tallit, lighting your mother’s candlesticks on Shabbat, baking your bubbe’s mandel bread recipe for break fast or sitting at your great-grandparents’ dining room table to celebrate family meals. We literally carry the lives of those now gone in our hearts and minds. To live a life of true fulfillment, we must recall and use those family treasures, recipes, words of advice and inspiration that our deceased parents, grandparents, siblings, spouses, children and friends gave to us. And so to all those who are no longer physically with us, but remain in our hearts especially today- we say “l’chaim tovim” in tribute and memory of their lives that continue to motivate us to be menschen- better Jews and better people.
And so I pray this Yom Kippur day, may your thirst be quenched this year by living a Jewish life of goodness. May your hunger be nourished by the treasures left by those no longer with us but whose lives are a lasting inspiration. And this year, may you join me every Shabbos morning for a toast at the Kiddush table with grape juice, wine or schnapps and say l’chaim tovim- to our good lives.
Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Chatima Tova- May we all be inscribed and sealed in the book of life for a year of goodness.
Yom Kippur 5771
To Life, To Life, L’chaim!