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Yom Kippur 5777: The last day of our lives

In Yom Kippur we have many mitzvot and customs a little… peculiar. We fast, meaning, no food and no drink. We take food away from Jews! We dress in white, some of us with these funny robes called kittel. We don’t have sexual intercourse with our partner and we don’t wash ourselves. What is all this about? In order to understand it better I have a question for you. A tough one, so wake up, come on. What would you do if today was the last day of your lives? Take a few seconds and think about it. There is a story often told in Yom Kippur, about a person that lived the last day of his life in a special way: Rabbi Amnon of Mainz or Mayence. Rabbi Amnon lived in the city of Mainz, today Germany, in the 11th Century. According to the legend, he was a friend of the Archbishop of Mainz who tried several times to convince him to convert to Christianity. On one occasion Amnon evasively asked to be given three days’ time for consideration, but when he left the Archbishop’s palace he immediately regretted even appearing to hesitate in his Jewish faith. When he failed to appear on the appointed day, the Archbishop had him brought guarded into his presence. Amnon, rebuked for his failure to keep his promise, pleaded guilty, and said that his tongue should be amputated, because it had expressed a doubt as to the truth of Judaism. The Archbishop, however, pronounced the sentence that Amnon’s feet, which had refused to come, and his hands should be cut off. This was accordingly done. Amnon gave orders that he be carried into the synagogue, where Rosh Hashanah was being celebrated. The reader was about to begin the Kedushah, when he was asked by Amnon to wait. Rabbi Amnon of Mainz then recited a prayer praising God in his words, he described the Majesty and importance of the High Holidays for all the Creation. These eternal words were called, from its initial words, “Unetanneh Tokef,” (“Let us tell how overwhelming

[is the holiness of this day]”). No sooner had he finished the prayer than he expired. On the last day of his life, Rabbi Amnon went to Shul and painted a wonderful picture of the Heavenly Court. Until this very day, our mental images and ideas regarding the High Holidays are influenced by the “Unetane Tokef” prayer, when we imagine God sitting on a throne and passing judgment on each person. Be Rosh Hashanah Ikatebun, uBe Yom Tzom Kippur Ichatemun, “In Rosh Hashanah will be written and in the fast day of Kippur will be signed”. What is a little strange are the words just before that famous sentence: Vechotem Yad Kol Adam Bo, “And every person’s hand signs it”. So who signs our decree? God signs? We do? And if we do sign the book together with God, then we are much less passive than we thought. We must then accept the judgment and be aware of it of its consequences. I do not believe that Rabbi Amnon, or whoever wrote the Unetane Tokef, wanted us to hear the prayer and feel that we stand in front of a Court where we don’t have a say or influence, but he wanted to inspire us, to teach us how important is to be aware of who we are, of the good and bad inside us, of the potential that we have and who can we be. Maybe he wanted us to feel indeed that this is the last day of our lives, so we feel like he did the pain and finality of death and maybe that feeling will help us to do a more honest reflection and take responsibility in writing our destiny in the Book of Life. In the High Holidays, and especially in Yom Kippur, we must deal with our mortality, with the fact that we won’t live forever, that even the youngest between us don’t know how much time they have left in this World. And then stand in front of God with humbleness and honesty and confess to Him and especially to ourselves who we really are, which questions do we have about our life and find the answers inside us. To pray that we can change and improve, to pray for another year of life, because we are not done, we still have things to do, people to love, places to see. We want to stay around. But still, if this day would be the last day of our lives. What would you think about your life? Would you be satisfied of the way you lived? Did you do good in the World? What are you sorry for? Did you love enough and do the people you love know it? When was the last time you said “I love you” to your partner? To your children? To your parents? To your best friend?

In Yom Kippur we are dressed in white or a kittel as we dress our dead in white shrouds. We don’t eat or satisfy any of our physical needs, because dead people don’t need to do that anymore. In Yom Kippur we behave as if we were not connected anymore to our physical bodies. Today. Today is the last day of your lives, how are you going to spend it?

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